Nier: Automata is one of the best games you’ll ever play, combining PlatinumGames action expertise with the mad genius of Yoko Taro.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is one of the best, most important books ever written. Not just because it gave birth to the science fiction and horror genres, but because it’s such a complex, thought-provoking look at humanity, personhood, religion, and authority, among many other things. Though it narrowly predates existentialism as a defined philosophical movement, it’s nonetheless one of the most insightful explorations of those core tenets of existentialism.
It’s also a book with a lot of personal meaning for me, because it’s what made me begin to make sense of literary and art criticism. We studied it in my sixth form English class; it was far from my first “book study”, but it was the one that clicked everything into place. It’s the book that helped me wrap my head around things like text, subtext, and context. It’s the book that taught me to appreciate the value of fiction as more than mere entertainment, but as a way of reflecting, analyzing, and understanding the world. It’s the book that set me on the path to becoming a critic. (In the unlikely event that you’re reading this, Mrs Botha, thank you for everything.)
I’m telling this story because I want you to understand my full meaning when I say that NieR: Automata is the video game equivalent of Frankenstein. It’s a game blends fun and entertainment with one of the deepest, most insightful explorations – not just in video games, but in any medium – of that age-old philosophical question: what makes us human?
I am, therefore I think
Set in the distant future, NieR: Automata presents a vision of Earth that’s long been abandoned by humans. An alien invasion forced them to flee to the moon, leaving androids to fight in their stead. For their part, the invaders were also reluctant to do their own fighting, so they mass-produced destructive machines capable of self-replicating, set them loose, and went into hibernation. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the only signs of organic life in Earth are animals; meanwhile, androids and machines are locked in an endless war for control of the planet. As 2B, an elite android soldier, this is where you come in – and no, the Hamlet reference is no coincidence.
Androids are almost indistinguishable from humans. They’re modelled after humans, and despite their robotic design, they hurt, bleed, and can die. They’re sentient, capable of emotion and independent thought. In contrast, the machines are mindless killing machines, doing what they’re programmed to do. Many take a humanoid shape, but they’re crude and primitive, prioritising function. Note the difference in language here: they’re all robots, but androids are the peak of sophistication, and machines are the antithesis of that.
Only, they’re not these mindless killers driven only by programming. It becomes apparent early on that they can talk; not long after that, we learn that they feel emotion – or at least, they act like they do. This sets off an exploration of the concept of being human. At what point do these machines stop being objects and start being people? Are they just imitating human behaviour, or have they become sentient? Is there a difference? What about androids, with all their intelligence and emotion – are they human? Can you call artificial intelligence “alive”, and can it die?
As it moves along, NieR: Automata goes deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole, picking apart ideas of consciousness, religion, and the meaning of life. Androids are driven by a religious sense of servitude to their god, the remains of humanity – who exist, quite literally, in the heavens. Most androids can’t talk with them directly, but humans’ will is passed down through operators led by a commander, in a not-so-subtle reference to organised religion. With that in mind, can these androids really be described as having free will? They’re created for a specific purpose, and spend their lives trying to fulfill that even though they have the sentience to just abandon that life if they so choose. But that purpose is also what gives their lives meaning; take that away, and what’s left?
For their part, the machines are similarly driven by a religious conviction of their own. They’re also built for a purpose, but they – allegedly – don’t have the free will to abandon that. Their lives’ meaning is programmed into them. How is that different to androids, if it’s any different at all?
And what of an android’s body? They’re mass produced vessels that can have a unit’s consciousness transferred between them more or less at will. The data that makes up an android’s personality, identity, and soul can be backed up, and implanted into a new body should one be destroyed. In narrative terms, that’s what you’re doing when you save the game – backing up your character’s soul, so that, should you fall in combat, you can respawn in a new, identical body. When you fast-travel around the world, you don’t do so in a physical sense, but your consciousness gets sent over the airwaves to another pod, where a dormant bodies waits for its host.
You only play a few characters in NieR: Automata, but you’ll occupy hundreds of different bodies. Are you the same person through all this? Is your “self” purely the data being transferred, or is there a physical component as well? When an android’s body is destroyed, do they die and get resurrected? Is the android restored from a backed-up soul the same person as the one who expired? What happens to those moments between back-up and death, that are forever lost because the restored android has no memory of them – did they happen? Do they exist?
Doing gender, doing race
As it asks those big questions about what it means to be human, NieR: Automata also explores components of that identity: specifically, gender and race.
There’s a clear deconstruction of colonialism and racism in the machines vs. androids conflict at the heart of the game. Androids are presented as the zenith of sophisticated, and machines are primitive savages. Though the world is populated almost entirely by machines, androids see it as their God-given right – they are, after all, fighting to restore humanity to its rightful place. The game even goes as far as making most androids light-skinned and fair-haired, a stark contrast to the muddy hues of rusted iron that define the look of most machines.
But are androids really as sophisticated as they believe themselves to be, and are machines as savage? Are these peoples really all that different, given that, beneath it all, they’re all robots? The lines between these groups quickly blur, throwing into conflict the whole idea that they’re fundamentally different. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to see the parallels to phrenology, white supremacism, and other cornerstones of racist ideology.
Similarly, it picks apart the very idea of gender. You will never see a biological human as you play through NieR: Automata, and yet all these characters – who have no physical sex, what with being robots and all – are gendered. There are female androids and male androids, despite having identical robotics underneath the surface. In her visual design, 2B is a picture of feminine sexuality, even though such a concept is moot in an android, and there’s nothing sexual or gendered about her character. It’s a pointless side-effect of being built in the image of humans, and this pointlessness shines a spotlight on the construction of gender as a social concept.
Machines take that further: not only do they have no sex, but they’re not physically gendered in their design the way androids are. They’re just crude humanoid shapes, and yet, in imitating human life, they’ve formed family units and taken on gender roles, with some even going as far as wearing make-up. Again, it serves no purpose, and is purely a social construct, but it’s nonetheless come to be part and parcel of machines’ social structures and hierarchies.
But is it a game though?
Not content to simply pick apart the entire concept of existence, NieR: Automata also sets about to throw the entire concept of genre under a bus. It’s fundamentally an action RPG, complete with all the expected systems that such a descriptor calls to mind – levelling, equipment, skill management, frenetic combat, and the like. But it also frequently switches up the way you play, with simple mechanical shifts that nonetheless bend genre.
For much of the game, NieR: Automata plays like your standard third-person action game, with the usual over-the-shoulder camera. But in certain parts, that camera perspective shifts, and the whole genre identity of the game changes. Switch to a side-view camera, and suddenly it’s a platformer; depending on the specific section of the game, that might be a Super Mario-style game of reflexive jumping puzzles, a Contra-like run and gun shooter, or a non-linear exploration game with more than a little hint of Castlevania. Elsewhere, the camera will move overhead, turning the game into a scrolling shoot ‘em up, twin-stick shooter, or a block-based puzzle game.
When simply changing the camera perspective is enough to change the genre of the game, it puts a spotlight on how arbitrary and even pointless genre is. As a shorthand for talking about games that share a certain style, it’s a useful concept, but there’s nothing scientific or immutable about genre, and NieR: Automata shows how vague and easily obfuscated such categorisations can be. It also helps keep things interesting, because you never know what the game’s going to throw at you.
(And on that note, I’d strongly urge everyone to (a) buy NieR: Automata digitally, and (b) be sure to play to the end of the prologue before it’s finished downloading. I won’t say, but I will say that it’s worthwhile.)
NieR: Automata is also fully aware that it’s a video game, and it frequently breaks the fourth wall for the purposes of narrative, comedy, or both. An early scene takes something as purely functional as adjusting system settings and builds that into the story, helping reinforce the existentialist questioning at the heart of the game. I’ve already talked about how it turns save points and fast-travel into points of philosophical discussion, and the absurd concept of player freedom in a medium that’s inherently authorial fits neatly into the exploration of free will and authority. Even something as simple as 2B’s reaction to players trying to look up her skirt by tilting the camera just right – a fact that’s already inspired the clutching of pearls – ties in to the way the game explores gender.
Finding the fun in an existential crisis
The point I was trying to make with the past couple of thousand words is that NieR: Automata is a deep, dense game – and that’s just the stuff I can talk about without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a game with layer upon layer of meaning, and one that can be read in so many different ways through so many different philosophical lenses
One of the most brilliant things about it, though, is that it manages to do all of this without alienating an audience looking for frivolous entertainment. Ignore all that philosophical nonsense, and you’re still left with a game that’s fun and exciting, and that tells a captivating and moving story.
The credit for the excitement goes almost entirely to PlatinumGames. They’re unmatched when it comes to action game prowess, and they’ve managed to build a vessel for Yoko Taro’s mad genius that’s eminently playable – something that I understand was an issue with the first NieR, though I haven’t played it. Nobody makes character action games better than the studio behind the likes of Bayonetta and MadWorld, and this might be Platinum’s most accomplished game yet.
Right from the start, combat is frantic, but with the careful attention to detail that makes it engrossing where it could easily be a chaotic mess. It’s not just tight controls and over-the-top attacks; every button press evokes emotion, be that satisfaction of landing a hit, the thrill of a well-timed dodge, or a sense of failure that lasts just long enough to inspire you to keep trying. As you encounter new enemies and new concepts get introduced, the complexity ramps up, but the game always gives you the tools to meet its challenges and there’s always that undercurrent of accomplishment. As with Platinum’s other games, and Bayonetta in particular, NieR: Automata isn’t so much a game about bludgeoning you with insurmountable challenges, but with giving you stage on which to express yourself through rhythmic combat.
That said, if you are interested in challenge, there are higher difficulties to cater to that need – including one where a single hit is all it takes to kill you. Conversely, the Easy difficulty makes the game very, very easy, and even lets you automate combat to the point that failure is nigh impossible.
There’s also a wry, self-aware humour throughout the game. The best example of this is a quest chain for a character called Jean-Paul, a philosopher who’s the bane of his peers because of his inability to just talk without waffling on about existentialism. There are plenty of quirky, endearing characters to give the game a sense of life and fun, despite the nihilistic premise and bleak state of the world. I think I burst out laughing just as often as I had to put the controller down to parse some sort of mindfuck of a revelation, which is truly a remarkable achievement. Few games can even get one of those things right, let alone both at the same time.
To top all of this off, it’s an absolutely gorgeous game. Rather than the vista-obsessed photorealism of so many modern games, NieR: Automata makes careful use of muted colours to give its world a painterly feeling. There’s a lot of running around through familiar areas across the span of the game, but it never grows tired; the same sights inspire awe time and again, and that’s entirely to the credit of the art team. Rounding it all out is a score that comprises some of the best music you’ll ever hear. There’s a decent chunk of my playtime dedicated to just idling on the spot, letting the beauty of the world and the soundtrack wash over me.
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Basically, what I’m saying is that NieR: Automata is one of the best games you’ll ever play – and I say that without the slightest hint of hyperbole. Like Frankenstein did 200 years ago, it manages to take some of the biggest philosophical questions and parse them through a thoroughly entertaining experience. It’s a game that invites you to have fun, then delivers that in spades, all while challenging what the medium can do and the types of stories it can tell.
I have no doubt that NieR: Automata will be a game that changes someone’s life in the same way that Frankenstein changed mine, and that’s a special thing indeed.
Nier: Automata is developed by PlatinumGames and published by Square Enix. It launches on 10 March for PlayStation 4.
A press copy was supplied by Square Enix for this review.