“Nier: Automata” follows the story of two sword-wielding, ship-flying androids: 2B and 9S. The androids work for the YoRHa corporation which is tasked by a human colony, exiled on the moon, with repelling the “machine life forms” that conquered Earth at the behest of their alien creators, or at least that’s the cover story.
What’s apparent from the game’s opening hour is its encyclopedic — one might even say nostalgic — embrace of different conventions. It shifts from a vertical space ship shooter, to a twin-stick mech shooter, to a 3D third-person brawler, to a 2D sidescroller, and an overhead combat game. Also noticeable in the first hour is how the designers like to toy with the player, e.g. it’s possible to flub the intro near the end and be forced to play the whole thing over. Such needling is but a prelude to the more interesting mind games that “Nier: Automata” dishes out down the line. In an interesting twist, it keeps its most remarkable moments a secret until players have completed their first playthrough. (New gameplay systems and crucial narrative elements are reserved for later playthroughs.)
Although “Nier: Automata ” is an action game to its core, a line of philosophical reflection runs through it. Yoko Taro, the game’s director (who also worked on “Drakengard 3” which led to the original “Nier”) is known for seeding his games with philosophical questions. Why do people kill each other and why do they make the same mistakes time and again are questions that arise at dramatic moments in the game. Philosophers, too, are name-checked. I don’t know why a boss is named Hegel but I found it amusing to encounter, in a village of pacifists, a robot named Jean-Paul who’s fond of spouting the existentialist credo that existence precedes essence (in other words, one’s material conditions affect one first and foremost as opposed to, say, one’s talents).
For 9S, the reconnaissance unit assigned to help the fighting unit 2B, the issue that vexes him the most is how machine life-forms like Jean-Paul — the historical enemies of androids – are capable of higher-order thinking. He is sometimes bemused and sometimes amazed that machines can do things like form familial attachments or engage in acts of vengeance. That an android should look down on a machine life form is of course, ironic. 9S’s high-handedness draws attention to the relative values we apply in our assessment of others. His mistake is to view his perspective as the most natural, and his story is one of several the game uses to invite players to consider problems of consciousness.
What truly makes “Nier: Automata” a fascinating title is that its narrative delivery is as restless as the gameplay. As Yoko Taro said during a 2014 GDC talk, “The number of well-made games has increased but at the same time the number of games that make my heart beat and give the feeling that I have no idea what to expect, that excitement, has gone down.” An escalating feeling of uncertainty is precisely what kept me hooked. During one sublime moment, after the visuals on the screen began degrading before my eyes, I really felt as though I didn’t know what the game might throw at me. At that moment, I wondered if it might be right to call “Nier; Automata” an experimental action game. In any case, I can’t wait to see what Yoko Taro does next.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.