Appearances deceive. And even though I consider myself a person that respects that trap, I never expected that beneath the surface of a videogame with high-heels and samurai swords I would come across a narrative built on robust philosophical arguments about consciousness, self-discovery, life and History. This is what happened to me in NieR Automata, the new videogame from Yoko Taro, in collaboration with Platinum Studios: after a few hours, and some plot points revealed, I started to question if I had just witnessed a very well-written conversation about some mainstays of the work of the philosopher Georg Hegel. Couldn’t be; I certainly was mistaken. I could not remember the last time I had experienced a movie or a non-academic book that tackled such subject matters. A few more hours in, I find myself facing a gigantic machine with a centipede-like design with interconnected cores. Its name: Hegel.
NieR Automata’s story and subject matters are not hidden in some kind of esoteric narrative. Yoko Taro and his team have the rare courage to be very direct and descriptive about the topics they want to address. But man, doesn’t this game illustrate its message in an incredibly stylish canvas! In the first 15 minutes, you know what type of a ride this is going to be. The Music (from composer Keiichi Okabe) is immediately front and center. And deservedly so; as past works of the composer, not only it’s filled with substance and variety but also knows how to naturally transition from moment to moment. I really can’t make any justice to this phenomenal soundtrack with words: it’s not just an addition to the experience, it has its own driving power, a great force but very eloquent with amazing intuition. One aspect that caught my ear was how a different track remained “on air” after a big moment, before transitioning to another. That perfectly resonates with players’ mood after experiencing some big revelation.
Then, you start to notice the level of detail of the character models and the machinery that are part of the story. All the world building feels very truthful because of this design work. Even background choices like the color palette are very well implemented, as the focus on a fewer amount of tonalities than the typical Japanese game gives Automata a distinct look, that is in line with the context the characters find themselves in. Yet, this is a deceptive minimalism. They still manage to introduce a lot of contrasts and saturated scenarios. NieR proves that beige and brown can also have style. On a different note, it should be mentioned that the game has some frame-pacing issues on a Standard PS4, but it never compromises the flow of battle encounters and it’s only prevalent in parts of the open-world with more geometry to drawn in.
Speaking of flow, the battle encounters feel impeccably smooth. But you don’t even need to reach your first confrontation to notice how properly weighted the controls are. People who have experience with previous character-action titles from Platinum know what I am talking about. And I would argue that the level of 1-to-1 feedback between motor input on the controller and actions on the screen is so responsive and beautifully choreographed that newcomers to the genre will hardly find a better Platinum game in this regard. The combat is not as varied and challenging as some other games in the portfolio of these developers, but as new weapons and special attacks are discovered through open exploration or story directed roaming, the player finds himself with a significant amount of tools to introduce creativity on how to tackle different characteristics of the enemies. In the end, the combination of beautifully complex animations, the properly weighted pace and the on-screen coolness makes this game one of the best Platinum has ever done and I have to tip my hat to the collaboration between the martial-arts team, the motion-capture team and the animation team.
So, how did they implement all that amazing art into the world and moment to moment progression you find yourself in? I stand by the following answer: NieR Automata is one of the best directed stories I have experienced in all of entertainment.
Once again, first impressions are deceiving. The game starts of by stating a very simple conflict: you are in the far future, and mankind has been pushed out from Earth by machines built by aliens. The only force fighting back is a group of elite androids commissioned by humans – YoRHa. You, the player, control one of these androids: 2B is a cold, efficient and job-first soldier that is tasked to join the frontlines on Earth and to find out the reason for the recent surge in machine activity. She is equipped with two swords and a robot pod that gives advice and some suppressive firepower.
Soon enough, 2B finds herself accompanied by a fellow android named 9S. This boy is quite different from 2B, not only because he asks a lot more questions before acting and also because he is more suited for long-range combat than martial-arts combos. He hacks enemy machines.
What starts of as a very archetypal Anime structuring, with some occasional comments on “feelings vs machines”, gradually becomes a very fulfilling story, centered on meticulously built arguments about the meaning of History, about life not being just a chain of events but a process of self-discovery, what is consciousness and, more importantly, where does it stem from. All these might read has very vague and quasi pseudo-intellectual premises that tons of other entertainment products have built their messages on, but I have read my fair share of Hegel, Nietzsche and Sartre to, at least, be comfortable saying that Yoko Taro and his team did their homework and managed to land very difficult and complex rationales into this game with incredible grace.
The game is divided into 3 playthroughs. You can finish the first one and be perfectly happy with the arch you have just witnessed. And that’s part of the geniality of Automata. The first playthrough would be very strong and meaningful on its own, and it’s amazing how the second one turns the sensations you felt, by the end of the first, against you. What you felt was the result of expectations about traditional storytelling and not what this story is truly bringing to the table. After you finish the 2nd playthrough you know why you have to continue to the 3rd. It won’t disappoint.
I spent around 50 hours with Automata, and they felt like a breeze. The highs and lows of the main missions are so perfectly spaced that you always know that something important is being built up and, most importantly, that it will deliver either in terms of mysteries’ revelation or on the fantastic variety in gameplay direction you are about to experience. And even many of the smaller side-missions I tackled did not feel like a chore. Many of those ended up rewarding the player with items or pieces of information that flushed-out the lore. The world is so grounded in studied ideas that you always want to know more. Oh! Have I mentioned that the combat and general movement of your character is so cool that turns the most boring mission into a super-hero journey?
Another example of well thought implementation is the leveling system. Yes, I’ve mentioned that the gameplay loop is not as deep as other Platinum games, but I found that the way they chose to structure the typical skill unlocking was very conducive to experimentation and build-diversity, either within the same playthrough or for role-playing during the 3 different playthroughs. The designers decided to limit the amount of abilities you can have equipped at the same time. But with an important caveat: you can always pause the game and customize. You have a fixed number of slots for abilities’ assignment and, moreover, the stronger the ability becomes the more slots it occupies. You have 3 of these “profiles” to work with, and you can choose if you want to have 3 different strategies (built from different combinations of abilities) and change between them mid-battle, or if you want to stick with one for that playthrough and then experiment with a completely different focus (attack, defense, etc.) during the other 2 playthroughs. [MILD SPOILER!!]: Leveling and profiles carry on between playthroughs.
By now, you know: I am ecstatic for having had the privilege of experiencing this amazing art work. This analysis would, probably, had been better served with an essay-like format where plot points and premises would be more thoroughly described and challenged, such is the strength this videogame shows on those departments. But the game has not been on the market for a reasonable amount of time and I wanted to write something that everybody could read without spoilers. I really wanted to express a lot of thoughts after finishing Automata because this game made me think a lot about ontology and other realisms. This game is really special and I am still astonished by how it manages to deal with complex philosophical inquiries and maintain a striking sense of style. More! The style is in complete coherence with the transcendental arguments being made. Sci-fi, more often than not, can’t beat that trade-off: it’s either edginess and immense sense of wonder or using machines as metaphors for humanity’s evolution, having the latter serious epistemological problems masked by big concepts filled with rhetoric.
NieR Automata shows us that you don’t have to deal with the trade-off if you suggest a new, well-articulated, paradigm. If “The Matrix” was praised for teaching Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with a lot of style, Automata should be lauded for threading in much more complex ideas.