Few games have inspired as much online speculation and analysis as Nier Automata. It’s widely praised as one of the most unique, most thought-provoking video games out there, which also manages to provide stellar action-based gameplay as the cherry on top. This reputation is not unearned. My own story with Nier Automata actually spans a couple of years, starting with when I first bought the game in 2018. It had been on my radar as a game I wanted to play ever since it came out, but I just hadn’t been able to buy it until then. I eventually pulled the trigger with my friend – we ordered two copies of Nier Automata to his house, both of us excited to play. For me, this in itself was also part of the experience – while I had always been into games, for a long time I hadn’t really had a friend who was as into them as I was. Finally having somebody to talk to about the hobby I loved so much was freeing. With Nier Automata, I wasn’t just excited to play the game, as I normally was, but also to discuss it with my friend – to find out how far he’d got, what scenes he’d seen, whether he’d beaten that boss yet?
When I finally booted up the game, I was overwhelmed by the slickness of the gameplay as I ran through the abandoned factory on my way to dispatch a machine threat. That first level was so action-packed, so exhilarating. A classic case of ‘oh, and one more thing’. First you fight what feels like a pretty intense boss battle, before it’s revealed that this was actually a different machine, and the one you’ve been sent to deal with is somewhere else nearby. Then, you find it, and it’s gargantuan, the size of a factory itself. After finally defeating it with its own dismembered arm, a more of them appear in the ocean around you and the two characters, 2B and 9S are forced to use their black boxes to create a massive explosion, killing everything and destroying their own bodies in the process.
It’s here that you first experience Nier Automata’s cyclical story, as your character, 2B, wakes up back in their home base, her consciousness having been restored to a backup body. Here, Nier Automata says, lies life after death. For androids at least. Then you go outside your room and into the station, which is, somewhat fittingly, a giant circle. The story really kicks off here, as 2B and 9S return to Earth in a continued effort to defeat the machines there and retake the planet for the androids’ human masters. The story raises a variety of issues throughout the game – what is consciousness, what makes us human, how far can we go to defeat our enemies? Early on in the game, we spend our time killing the machines that attack us. Then, when we get to the amusement park, the machines are relatively pacifist. Many of them are just there to enjoy themselves, dancing in the streets and parading around. You can still fight them though. But is that the right thing to do? You find yourself wanting to battle them because of how addictive the battle system is, and the experience points that they give you, but you have this slight guilty feeling inside the whole time.
The game confronts you with questions like this the whole time you play. If you’ve read my post about Bioshock, you’ll remember me talking about how that game makes you analyse your place in its world, and your views on Ryan’s philosophy. In Nier Automata, similar themes raise their heads, this time about what it really means to be alive, and, quite famously, about our moral obligations to each other. Once you’ve finished the A-E endings of the game, you’re confronted with the true end credits. Names fly down across the screen and begin firing energy blasts at your ship. You start destroying them, but eventually the names are coming to thick and fast, their attacks become to plentiful to dodge. You succumb to them, and you have to reload. This happens a few more times and you start to feel like you’re never going to get to the end. Then, the game offers you help. If you’re like me, you’ll choose ‘no’ at first. But then you’ll die again and you’ll change your mind. Other ships join you, forming a shield around your own, and they begin firing in time with you. It took me a long time to realise that these were the ships of other players from around the world. Messages float across the back of the screen, cheering you on. Eventually, you reach the end, and you are given a choice – erase your save data and contribute your character to help somebody else, or keep it and don’t help anyone. This is the clearest and most direct instance of the game asking you what we, as humans, really owe to each other. I chose to help, and I watched as my game data was erased piece by piece. I felt a little teary eyed. Nier Automata no longer lives in the hard drive of my console, but it will live on in my mind for a long time.