NieR: Automata (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

NieR: Automata (2017)

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"When we're down to eating our ancestors," she asked, "what is left?"
-The World Without Us, Alan Weisman-

Playing NieR: Automata (Automata after this point), a question kept popping into my head.  Since manic depression is a condition we deal with, can a lesser variation - a sort of joyful melancholy - exist as well?  I ask because Automata has no shortage of gaming pleasures, while the plot takes all sorts of detours that left me reflecting on the fragile beauty of the landscape in-between spots of robot-busting swordplay.  No matter how many shoot-em-up segments I completed, I'd be back to side-quests of community building where I watched and listened to survivors struggling to make a life for themselves.

I was shocked that Automata had such a deep affect on me considering the level of polish courtesy of Platinum Games.  The original NieR, directed by Yoko Taro, was an ugly duckling of a game.  There were traditional third-person action fighting scenes interspersed with top-down segments more akin to Smash TV before jettisoning most graphic assets to turn into a pure text adventure.  NieR wasn't smooth, but by going from one gameplay extreme to the other it fostered a sense of lonely identity between the different communities.  Even when the world is down to a handful of survivors, everyone's trying to find a way to isolate themselves from the other.

Automata, by contrast, is baby oil smooth.  Save for a couple of short excursions into text adventure, Platinum Games goes full-throttle incorporating the many masks of NieR.  The introduction, featuring the initial player character 2B, switches from top-down shooting to twin-stick to a rear perspective run and gun à la Space Harrier in just a few minutes.  When 2B's violently jettisoned from her gunning gear Automata becomes a fast-paced third-person sword game, jumps back into top-down for a few fights, and locks the perspective in for a traditional platformer look.  Different styles of gameplay no longer signal isolated communities, they communicate the scrambled sense of identity the few survivors left have to cling to.

The shift in perspective has long been a calling card for games involving Yoko Taro.  It just hasn't been embraced as drastically in the gameplay before.  Controlling 2B, later 9S and A2, is like a dervish of destructive fun.  This worried me a bit in my first play through Automata.  I was having a ton of fun and that was an odd sensation compared to the meat grinder repetition of Drakengard or the multiplay tedium of NieR.  The lack of "fun" made those experiences unique, be it the logical culmination of massacres resulting in the apocalypse of the former or the seemingly tiny decisions of the latter leading to the slow decline of civilization.

There's a major Automata turning point in the desert where plot-wise things get into gear.  What I liked, and hinted at the imperfect philosophy behind it all, was the little wetland right outside the Resistance Camp.  Robots congregate there throughout the entire game so the option to kill or move right on by is consistently available.  Start fighting, and your footwork may get tripped up on some unseen branch beneath the water.  Dodge around, and one of your perfect movements may run into the innocuous tree in the middle.  Load up a combo, and some puny-looking robotic interloper will flail its tiny fists at you to break it up.  I love the wetland because it's Automata in miniature - without the influence of humans this would be a peaceful little spot.  It's only because humanity's constructs get involved that we see the clumsy destructive potential of both.

Be they friend or foe, the wetlands clash is a reminder that the conflict only exists because of the last ideological orders of both humans and the aliens.  The planet can't end the process of reclaiming the soil from human influence unless the robots and androids start thinking for themselves.  Some of the horror in Automata comes from rejecting or embracing the idea.  9S, who seems friendly enough until he drops casually genocidal comments into the dialogue, becomes a violent shell of his once-determined self because he's incapable of searching for meaning outside humanity's last orders.  The robots, in a scene that is weirdly reassuring though bordering on body horror, mindlessly bang into one another in a crude approximation of sex while muttering "Child, child, child," and "Love, love, love."  It's rough, but at least they're trying to figure out their own way.

What meaning I can bring to the "real" world from Automata is in-between these two extremes.  Both the robots and the androids cannibalize the past, the former more knowingly and literally than the latter.  The androids, our primary eyes through all of Automata, are numb to the cannibalization.  2B wanders by bodies of androids that have previously fallen in battle.  When given the option to consume the past, or resurrect it in some ghoulish approximation of an approximation of an idea of humanity, I opted for consumption instead of having an uncontrollable ghost at my side.  The large-scale horror of Automata comes from the android's realization that all they've done is consume the past for a future that can't happen instead of following the robot's example of clumsy change.  But there is the possibility of redemption.

It all comes down to a final choice, staked against the uncertain resurrection of that first pair of androids, and a chorus of voices joining to help me pull through.  In those final moments the cannibalization of the androids takes on a new meaning.  By playing and trying their best, people I'll never meet helped me through Automata.  I'm not cannibalizing the past but respecting those who came before me by challenging the false hopes for a long dead God.  I will die, this will end, and the thought makes me melancholy.  But I can help someone see their joy in playing Automata through to the end.  All I need to do is accept, as a player and a human, that I am going to die.

I thought I could ignore the choice but I couldn't.  So what was my legacy?

A little melancholy in the limits of my voice, resolution to go on regardless, and joy in the shared sacrifice.  Touched, with more tears pouring down my face in another disgusting spectacle, I exit and uninstall Automata.

It's time to accept my time is over and hope the best for what comes next.

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Posted by Andrew

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  1. Excellent analisis! You give a new meaning to the androids corpses that can be absorbed and prove that the game is not nihilist like some people say. Your death is not in vain because it helps others players during all the playthroughs not only in final E, you even can leave a message too. For me the game got too repetitive in playthrough b but despite its flaws this game is full of meaning.

    • Thank you for your kind comment Adrián and I’m glad you liked my analysis. I agree with you that the B line is the roughest to get through with all the hacking, but still appreciate the risks Automata took.

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