As I’ve gotten older (I’m not a wise elder, I’m only 20 but go with me on this lmao) and my taste in video games have evolved, I’ve found myself valuing media that provides a unique experience over that which refines a pre-existing formula most of the time. It can easily be argued that Dark Souls 3 is the best Souls game on a purely mechanical and design level, but as far as capturing that sensation of experiencing something truly, breathtakingly original, it could never topple the original Dark Souls for me. I’m the kind of asshole who likes Arkham Asylum over all the other Rocksteady Batman games because, despite it being inferior in its combat and exploration, arguably two of the core aspects of these games, the particular atmosphere of dread and insanity that exists purely within that original game can’t be matched by its more tonally generic successors (although, Arkham Knight does get pretty close at times). When I say that I like my games unique over being measurably great, I hope it makes at least a bit of sense. Or at least, it might explain why NieR Automata might already be one of my favourite games of all time.
Of course, it’s not like NieR Automata is lacking in overwhelming praise. I’m far from the first person to point out how fucking ridiculously exceptional this game is, so perhaps that initial preamble loses a lot of its momentum now that I’ve shown my hand. Regardless, Automata still initially appears to have many aspects that the passive observer might be quick to call problems. The open world is almost entirely comprised of empty space in between points of interest, which is a common point of criticism for a lot of others in its subgenre. Ubisoft games are commonly guilty of this, since it’s usually an excuse to artificially extend the play time.
Automata even extends its play time in more egregious ways, by forcing the player to replay the entirety of the first ten hours or so, just as a different character with minor alterations to story events for the most part. On paper, making that the impassible blockade before you get to see the entire second half of the story is insanity. Who on Earth has the time or patience to sit through that all over again for an ending that probably won’t even be worth the trouble (spoilers though: it was). Indeed, if I wasn’t made fully aware of just how good this game really is, I doubt I would have stuck with it as long as I did.
This is not the end of Automata’s “problems” either. Side quest design is generally pretty generic, mostly consisting of such thrilling endeavours as going to a place, picking up a thing, then bringing it back. There are also escort missions, one of the most commonly hated of video game mission designs, made all the more frustrating by the fact that escortees move too slowly to keep up with your standard jogging speed, but *just* fast enough to outpace your walking. These missions are a constant battle to maintain your willpower, and in any other game I could easily call it a flaw. And yet, NieR Automata is probably one of my favourite games now.
So what’s up with that? Well, in case I wasn’t being blatantly obvious enough, the point I’m making here is that a thing existing does not automatically make that thing bad, if it serves the work as a whole. In isolation, these escort missions are horrible, but acting in service of the game’s themes and messaging, it’s a wee bit genius. By making a lot of side missions actively unfun to play through, it really tests the limits of your ability to act in the goodness of your heart. This is a challenge made even more daunting as every selfless act you try to take often seems to lead to misery, or ruin, or just plain bad vibes.
Oh, you wanna help out these resistance deserters who just want to live free of burden and settle down? Cool, go to this place, pick up the thing, come back, and oh, now it would seem the couple need 50,000G (side note: that is a fuckload of money) to afford safe passage out of the area. Okay fine, you begrudgingly pay the fee, but uh oh, it turns out the guy they were going to pay ended up double crossing them and almost leaves them both for death. It’s all good though because you’ve managed to save and reunite the two of them and if you just reset their memories they’ll be able to return to the resistance trouble-free. No worries, you just wipe this guy’s memories and lo and behold, it turns out the woman he’s with simply wanted to wipe his memory so he could serve as a soulless bodyguard to survive the treacherous wilderness AND it’s revealed that she’s reset him like this several times in the past, so all you’ve done is perpetuate this horrific cycle of forced servitude and there’s nothing you can do to fix it now.
NieR Automata is not a game about the inherent goodness within us triumphing over evil. Rather, it makes it abundantly clear that any efforts to be wholly good in this world are met with painful disappointment. The missions, in both their tedium and their unsatisfying conclusions, appear factory designed to fuck with the player, and make them question their worth in all this. After all what is the point of doing good deeds in a video game if not to receive a reward at the end of it all. And you get a reward of some variety, but it’s all material, and it certainly won’t wash away the guilt of your actions. Even the empty world around you where all you really do is run around from place to place offers minutes of quiet time to ponder the implications of your actions, and this design decision is only reinforced by the repeat playthroughs.
It would be easy to simply construct the game like this and finish it there; an interesting experiment in utilising game mechanics and the subversion of the medium’s tropes to deliver a feeling of true nihilism. However, what makes Automata so much more than that is it shoots even higher. It’s a game about maintaining that inherent goodness in your heart no matter what, even if everything in the world around you pushes against that belief. It’s a game that embraces existentialism through the lens of unwavering idealism, as evidenced by the multiple endings and how your choices prove this perfectly. However, if you’ve read this far and still haven’t played the game, I’ll refrain from spoilers here because reaching the True Credits ending might well be one of the most euphoric experiences I’ve ever had with a game in my life.
Ultimately, what makes NieR Automata so special is how it fits in amongst all the other blockbuster game releases of its time. Many triple AAA games these days are heavily influenced by cinema, in obvious ways like with much of PlayStation’s first party output, but also in a subtler sense elsewhere. Even in games that aren’t so cutscene heavy and are themselves quite game-y, the strength of those games as pieces of art often come from the language of film before that of video games. An example that comes to mind of Gears 5, which, sure, makes shooting the big boys with even bigger guns fun and enjoyable, but that’s all the purpose it really serves ultimately. The story of Gears 5 is not really enhanced in any meaningful way by its gameplay; it simply exists alongside it as a bonus feature. The term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ is probably appropriate for this description. It’s a fit for games that want to create a base level of enjoyment, but are afraid to try anything more than that.
Automata, on the other hand, revels in its position as a video game. It never feels the need to prove itself to anyone. It knows full well that if you’re the kind of idiot to play through the first ten hours of the game twice, then they’ve done something right. It’s a bold move, but one that really pays off as the story continues. The true credits (again, being as vague and non-spoilery) make the players themselves a character in the story. It demolishes the fourth wall to make it abundantly clear that you, the player, are the main character in this story, not the ensemble of sexy anime robots you’ve been controlling for forty or so hours. It taps into this inescapable truth as games, as an art form, have the unique potential to act as incredibly personal examinations of the self, but rather than simply allowing the player to make straightforward A or B choices, lets them figure it out themselves, with an ending that pushes your capacity to persevere against impossible odds to the absolute limit.
Everything about NieR Automata just feels so sincere; so unapologetically human. It isn’t perfect or polished to a mirror shine by any means, but it is well and truly itself, through thick and thin. It doesn’t try to appeal to anyone; it simply allows itself to exist, and then asks you, the player, how you feel about that. Apologies if this post was a little rambly (it’s midnight here and I’ve just come off a multi-hour anime binge, gimme a break), but if you still haven’t played NieR Automata, I am begging you to give it a go. Bear in mind, I didn’t realise this game’s true brilliance until literally the last ten minutes, but the road to get there is still thoroughly engaging most of the time, so please don’t let me dissuade you from what will undoubtedly be remembered as a cornerstone of the medium for decades to come.