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The Virtual Life – Carrying The Weight Of The World In Nier: Automata

by Javy Gwaltney on Apr 05, 2017 at 06:00 PM

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I’m talking all about Nier: Automata’s grim future and the hope within. That means there’s gonna be spoilers, fair warning.

There’s this sentence by novelist Margaret Atwood I love. It hangs in the back of my mind like a coat on a rack. I turn to it during bad times and take comfort in it:

“It’s old light, and there’s not much of it, but it’s enough to see by.”

I like it so much because it’s the punchiest, most succinct and honest expression of hope I’ve ever heard. You can feel the pain in the words, the weariness of someone dragging their broken body to the finish line in the distance. But the hope’s there, somewhere. It exists. You can feel it, maybe even see the pinprick of light in the dark.

Nier: Automata is a game about hope. It’s a game about a lot of things: the futility of existence, how people are fundamentally awful creatures, the loops we trap ourselves in – but it’s ultimately about hope. Taking place in a world where a proxy war is being fought between androids and robots, Automata follows two androids, 2B and 9S, as they help the android resistance fight against the machines that have taken over the planet. 2B and 9S soon encounter two advanced humanoid creatures birthed by the machines; these creatures dub themselves Adam and Eve. From there, Nier gets weirder and more depressing.

Within hours, despite the blockbuster-action introduction, you realize that you are not the hero of this story. Both the humans and aliens that started the conflict are long dead, with the robots (created by the aliens) and androids (created by mankind) essentially weapons doomed to fight forever, with no purpose outside of sustaining the war. However, during the course of the game, something happens with the robots. They start acting like humans. Early on, you come across two robots mimicking sexual intercourse, screaming “Love…My Love….” It’s a sad display, and Automata is constantly reinforcing how pathetic this supposedly evil force of machines are. Another scene has a group of robots trying to raise a child robot to take over a kingdom only for the group to realize, centuries later, that the child can’t age and will never be able to take the throne. That might sound like a gag, but the scene plays out in somber fashion, with the robots standing silently as the realization hits them. They will never feel human no matter how hard they try.

However, the robots in Automata exude humanity more than most human characters in games. The most devastating moment is wrapped up in this thread and centers around a character named Pascal, the leader of a small group of pacifist robots keeping to themselves. However, violent and crazed machines eventually find the village and slaughter the majority of robots there. The rest of Pascal’s villagers later commit suicide when the army of crazed robots attacks again. The player is then given a choice: reset Pascal’s memory so he forgets everything that happened, or kill him. I elected to erase his memory, seeing that as one of the few merciful options available in the game. Later, I found him in his village, selling the dismembered parts of his robot villagers, exclaiming he wasn’t quite sure what the parts were for as the protagonist looks on in silence. There are no clear cut sections. Sometimes, no matter what we do, we make things worse – Automata is an effective and interactive lesson in that. It’s a bleak, bold game that doesn’t look away from despair, and yet it also a deeply depressing game that makes room for hope.

Players who stick with Automata until the very end, playing on past false endings and dealing with the thematic repetition, are greeted with a familiar sci-fi trope: Our protagonists are caught in a loop, seemingly doomed to live out the same cycles over and over. This is a drum that Automata bangs on throughout the entire story. This is, after all, a game that refuses to give you a save point for your first hour and forces you to replay the beginning if you die, as the opening monologue talks about the tragedy of repeating ourselves. You also find yourself traveling through many of the same environments, experiencing the same fights and story beats, but as different characters with little to differentiate from the former experience except a few cutscenes are thrown in to establish tragic backstories for the bosses you fight. This is understandably aggravating for people who dislike repetition. However, I interpret this as Nier: Automata going all in on its themes of cycles and fate and what it means to be human; Automata makes common sci-fi tropes interesting by using interactivity to make those tropes seem new and really drive home the weariness of repeating yourself. It’s a risky creative move and one that I adore and respect deeply, especially given how the game rewards you for your efforts.

When you finally unlock the last main ending, you’re thrown into the credits, which is a neat little twist turn on Automata’s own bullet hell minigame. Every name fires off orbs you have to avoid while you shoot out the names. This goes on for a long time and it gets more and more intense until Automata gives you the option to call in help from other players, Dark Souls-style. I’m pretty convinced it’s impossible to beat the sequence on your own, and that makes sense because it is clearly a pretty powerful statement about how we need each other to overcome obstacles, that it’s ok to depend on other people. It’s not a sign of weakness.

When the credits end, we’re treated to a quiet and thoughtful ending where our protagonists’ support drones are uploading the androids’ back up memories into vacant bodies. The support drones muse on whether or not the androids are doomed to repeat the cycle. They both admit that it’s possible the androids will continue the cycle, but also that “the possibility of another future exists” and that “A future is not given to you. It is something you must make for yourself.”

Nier: Automata is not a perfect game, but it’s bold in ways that are constantly surprising, just as much a manifesto on what it is to be alive as it is a game. It is, to me, one of the most honest and beautiful depictions of the struggle between despair and hope I’ve seen play out, and I don’t think there’ll ever be another game like it.

For more on Nier: Automata, you can read our review of the game here.