In a medium as populated as that of video games, NIER: AUTOMATA stands as one of the medium’s shining pinnacles. This is because director Yoko Taro’s latest opus is an unabashed love letter to the medium. Within it, he and developer Platinum Games have fashioned a narrative that is both enthralling as a story unto itself and completely in service to its medium of choice. It is this drive to mesh story with medium that has truly made the game a standout.
Its narrative premise is deceptively simple, focusing on a post-apocalyptic far future war between android armies created by mankind and robot armies developed by an invading alien force. To say more would necessitate a comprehensive summary of the game’s vast and highly ambiguous plot, which we will have to make do without.
A Game With A Story To Tell
The player controls three androids from the human army, given simple names like 2B, 9S, and A2. Initially, the player is granted no agency in their ability to choose a character as the narrative begins. This is a very deliberate choice by the developer to push the player in a particular direction. We are introduced to the planet Earth, circa 11945 AD. The main playable over-world is the ruin of a great human city, the game keeping the identity of the city purposefully vague.
Already this detail stood out to me, especially once I started roaming its empty streets and abandoned infrastructure. The music that plays during this initial sojourn, coupled with the images of such an empty place, created an atmosphere seldom seen or felt in my years playing video games.
While most games set in post-apocalyptic times would play up isolation and emptiness as a source of terror, NIER stands out by creating a pensive, introspective mood that never actually ceases to permeate the experience. This is befitting of its player characters, the androids 2B and 9S. Players participate and witness the interactions between 2B and 9S, a female and male android respectively.
While this alone is hardly revolutionary, exchanges between both characters denounce their reflections (and Taro’s) over the nature of humanity and their own purpose as war machines. As androids, they are capable of emotions and free thoughts but are encouraged by their superiors never truly to indulge in them.
The story would challenge this notion for them as characters and us as players. While androids can feel but are forbidden to do so, their robot enemies are allegedly incapable of such an act until, of course, we are shown a peaceful village full of robots who have abandoned their mission of human eradication and favored peace above all else. Again, the notion of humanity’s aspects, including its most noble ones, is reflected in things that should, by definition, be incapable of doing so.
The game circumvents expectations set forth by its premise in ways that are endearing and emotionally unexpected. While the game lacks any actual humans, there is a striking presence of humanity throughout the proceedings. The great irony is how the androids and the machines in their great war to protect and destroy mankind respectively, become more human than human. The characterization and story reflect a simultaneously detached yet involving evaluation of humanity at its best and worse from both sides of the conflict.
A Story With A Game To Play
A video game might have a great story, but if the game plays in a subpar manner, it will always be remembered as a bad game with a great story trapped under the weight of its mediocrity. Fortunately, that is not the case with NIER: AUTOMATA. Taro recognized that the preceding game, simply titled NIER, required a vast upgrade in the gameplay department and he found the masters of Platinum Games to bring his vision properly to the gamer.
An RPG with the mechanical and aesthetic sensibilities of a hack-n-slash — the signature genre of Platinum Games — the game plays out in an open world with a vast variety of areas, which I will address momentarily. These areas can feature small groups of enemies to outright armies, depending on the story progression. Combat is quick and stylish, resembling Platinum’s previous outings like BAYONETTA 2 but without the library’s worth of combat variety.
The game’s camera and perspective are also worth noting in combat. The game occasionally drops its 3D player controlled camera and makes use of fixed side-scroller perspectives. This evokes old beat-em-up games from decades past while intelligently hiding some pretty obvious budget constraints.
Another aspect that stands out is the actual gameplay variety within the game. For once, two of the three playable characters (2B and A2) play exactly alike. As they are combat models, the attack buttons are naturally light and heavy, harkening to the aforementioned BAYONETTA 2 or even the GOD OF WAR series.
The true idiosyncrasies of the game design begin to shine through while playing 9S. Instead of a heavy attack, he possesses the ability to hack an enemy robot, which triggers a small, visually simplistic shooter. The music is also of note during these hacking mini-games since it takes the piece playing at that moment and suddenly renders it in 8-bit, in the style of old Nintendo games.
Another of the game’s stylistic quirks is manifested in its on-rails shooter sequences included sporadically throughout the game. The player controls a transforming fighter-mecha for certain sequences that would evoke the likes of GRADIUS and any other number of shooters from decades past.
Perhaps the most innovative feature to me as a player was how the game actively encourages many play-throughs to achieve the full story. Most games theses days present their story in linear ways, and that is certainly not a sin. That being said, it’s rare for a story to be so in service of its medium of choice. After all, there are no stories in cinema that enable the selection of our character anchor. In this aspect, NIER: AUTOMATA stands out.
All these elements blend to create an experience that is both unique and evocative of the charms of video games past that truly make the game stand out from its competitors. However, what truly ties the story and gameplay together is the atmosphere throughout.
The player meets sympathetic and monstrous characters throughout the narrative. Many places are journeyed to, from a massive abandoned factory on Earth to the Android Bunker orbiting the planet to a rustic village populated solely by pacifist robots. There is no shortage of variety of places to roam and explore or characters to meet and each working overtime to evoke a very precise atmosphere. Music is essential to the creation of this atmosphere.
While it is certainly too early to state definitively, the game features easily the best or one of the best soundtracks in a video game this year. Pieces like “Amusement Park” contain a sense of forwarding motion with a hint of melancholy while a piece like “Fortress of Lies” aims to highlight the meaning of isolation whilst possessing a hint of ethereal beauty. Almost every musical composition is at emotional odds with itself, creating a constant contrast that serves to keep players in one emotional state and immediately circumvent that state with another.
One could dissect each area and its accompanying piece, but by now the point should be clear. Music was an essential part of the blueprint for this game, and the game would not be able to achieve such an evocative atmosphere without its presence. In days where having the largest orchestra or symphony seems to be the measuring stick by which video game music is deemed impressive, the musical score of NIER: AUTOMATA is a breath of fresh air.
Pinnacle of Form
In describing NIER: AUTOMATA as the apex of the video game form, it’s difficult to point to a single aspect. This is very much a case of a product being worth more than the sum of its parts. And parts it has to spare throughout. The game is full of little details that mesh narrative with gameplay. For instance, the reason for the map being so low-tech is because the in-game narrative says satellite quality has been on the decline and no new satellites have been installed, hence the rudimentary visual nature of the map.
Another little touch that impressed me was the visual deterioration of the game when enemies would hack the playable androids. The game would take on an optical filter akin to old TVs or even VHS recordings. Tying into the narrative/game binary was the RPG system of chips. The chips were obtained via exploration and combat and when activated in the options menu, could provide stat increases and new abilities. Despite being a little detail, it helps to immerse the player into the world and still function as a cornerstone in RPG gameplay.
The budgetary constraints also necessitate the implementation of rigid side-scrolling sequences that call back simpler times, and the game is all too aware of this and revels in such chances. The seamless gaming genre shifts demonstrate a rare ambition and one could say a mastery of them. Yoko Taro is a gifted scenario and story writer, showing his affinity for RPGs in his ambitious script.
His selection of Platinum Games demonstrates his desire to mesh story with gameplay that deserves commendation. As I played the game, I realized that the story present in this video game could only truly be told via a video game. Cinema and television only allow for passive reception of its narrative content. As an audience, we do not get to choose our heroes or the manner in which they go about their journey. It’s rare for a video game to create a story that so readily embraces its medium and uses it to capitalize in ways that could not be emulated in other mediums.