Hope and hopelessness are oft displayed in caricature form in media, interactive and otherwise. The sense of true loss is not something that you’ll find in the mainstream circuit breakers of the respective industries any more than the feeling of a single warming, hopeful ember is ever handled with anything more than broad strokes. How can you replicate either of those extremes? How can you make a player or viewer feel the weight of loss or blind hope to the level that the character does?
The short answer is empathy and creating an environment for such absorptions to happen is the make-or-break design choice for worlds hoping to cultivate connection and, ultimately, feelings.
Nier: Automata, without mincing words, fucking nails this in at an angle no other game I’ve played has. The level of empathy I felt rivals that of Metal Gear Solid 4’s last few hours for me, bringing out subtle unease that eventually blossoms into a full range of painful emotions at the climax. And Nier did it without the decade of lore-building the Metal Gear series enjoyed.
No, this action-RPG erected its castle from the tutorial, quickly giving a sense that this wouldn’t be a game to take lightly on a tonal level. You enter the world as 2B with companion 9S along for the ride, both androids fighting to take back the world from aliens and machines in the name of the human race. The story’s road is full of twists and a fair amount of bumps, but is so neatly interwoven with the world’s design and the character’s arcs that it becomes a wonder to see the consequences: actual consequences that are brave in both theory and execution.
There are spoilers everywhere so I won’t go into detailed examples. Imagine instead, if you will, a massive stone set of dominoes standing in a line amongst a grassy field in a field. The largest – about the size of a skyscraper – comes tumbling down, it’s stretching shadow flattening as it shakes the entire land with collision. The other, smaller dominos come tumbling down as well, gradually creating less and less of a shockwave until the last one – about the size of a USB drive – falls at your feet.
Nier: Automata is like that in perpetuity, putting at stake everything the player is fighting for without fear of avatar rebellion. You can feel the loss like the controller in your hand and grip tighter at how little you have left to keep fighting for. That’s how you create empathy. That’s how you make a game memorable.
The main enemies are equal parts adorable, fascinating, and distressing. I don’t recall ever wanting to know more about an enemy force in a video game, each genus complete with percolating characterizations that echo the world and humanity as a whole. The usual questions that blur lines between man and machine radiate into fascinating directions with full credit going to these foes as each evolves that main inquisition beautifully as the game progresses. That high emotional tax comes due anytime they dare to cross you and yours, giving a sort of inverted anxiety to combat wherein I was, on more than one occasion, searching for a third option of compromise. Why can’t we all just get along?!
Nier: Automata very rarely sticks to a combat style for too long, swinging from bullet hell to side-scrolling to traditional action with the camera as the pendulum. From what I understand, the other entries in this series (and Drakengard by extension) were similar in their shifts, keeping the players focused and pleasantly off-balance throughout. I took to seeing combative avenues such as hacking (ugh) and the flying sections as the far-more-engaging uncles of lock picking and palate cleansers. These are sewn seamlessly and hardly ever feel like forced time sinks whereas the balanced need between reflexes knowledge almost never tips to one side.
The meat and potatoes fighting is acrobatic slicing across desolate scenes with the Platinum Games flavor dripping from the bone. 2B and company have arsenals, Pods, and Chips that serve as the trinity of upgrade sections, each opting for a level-loaded approach of offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous possibilities. The arsenal and Pod upgrades came less often than Chips for me but I never suffered for it. You’ll gather enough Chips through even a straight-line playthrough to make up for any discrepancies in skill or collectables you may feel. I will admit that I stopped appreciating the “you have to collect your chips at your dead shell’s location after you die” when it became clear that the game was done softballing levels my way. Still, there’s no denying the urgency that adds to encounters when you’re down to the last handful of chips to fill your sockets.
At one point in the story, you’ll come across the ability to hack your enemies for various miscreant activities including just destroying them on the spot. This was another feature that seemed well intentioned at first but is used farrrrr too often. Batmobile often. The game becomes unbalanced for an entire campaign’s worth of time wherein you are angled towards hacking and winning fights that way versus just slashing. The basic, instinctual issue with that approach is that hacking is too slow to ever be as fun as your white-hot sword carving a robo-roast for Thanksgiving dinner. Hours and hours of time will potentially have been poured into hacking to where the clever uses for the mechanic have less impact because we’ve driven by this house several hundreds times before.
For all the enthused praise I have for Nier: Automata, I’m not sure if it’s a game I will ever go back to play again. I’ve seen the credits, I’ve experienced emotions that encourage “games-as-art” arguments in my head, and I’m already having this bold experiment of a game break bread with legendary series in my head. For all the white noise that I feel games tend towards, the stream of consciousness belched onto any awaiting, blank page, this is punctuation in the most powerful sense. I sincerely hope that many others will come to this oasis after I’ve left with memories and emotional souvenirs, but I’ll be content to simply remember what’s been gained and lost. Someone has to.
Nier: Automata Score: