This is a spoiler heavy look back at the only game of the year contender that matters. If you are interested but haven’t played NieR:Automata, check out Zigg’s proper spoiler-free review and go buy it! NOW!
I often say the best storytelling in video games is when the narrative is tied to the gameplay itself. The purest example I can think of is the final level of the original indie darling, Braid. It’s hard to explain in words (which is my entire point) but basically it takes the game’s time reversing mechanic and uses it to flip your perception of the plot on its head. This is done entirely through gameplay, with no cut scenes or significant dialogue. What the ending of Braid delivers is an experience that could not be created in any other medium, a story told through your direct interaction with it.
When I finished NieR:Automata a few months back, I realized I was going to have to change my go-to example. It does rely on traditional story telling methods like cut scenes, but those are just a small piece of the overall experience. Nier uses its constantly shifting gameplay mechanics and rotating narrative perspectives to generate a beautiful mess of a story that barely makes sense from a logical point of view, and yet it delivers one of the most powerful emotional gut punches I’ve ever felt in any medium.
To accomplish this feat, NieR asks a lot of questions. Most of these questions end up being a variation on “what does it mean to be human?”. At first glance it looks like a classic trans-humanist science fiction story, but that’s not really the case. The artificial humans in the game have already gained humanity to varying degrees and we’re asked to play along to answer bigger questions. Still, the fact that this story is told through the perspective of robots is important. By removing humanity from humans themselves, it helps us distill it down to it’s most essential elements.
The story begins with 2B and 9S, two androids who from all outward appearances are human. The androids talk and behave like humans. They experience joy and love, anger and pain. Basically, if we weren’t told they were androids we wouldn’t know the difference. We do get hints every now and then when one of our heroes is injured, or from the countless mannequin-esque bodies of other players that litter the world map. That’s pretty much it. The androids are barely a step away from humans as we know them, but it is a step.
On the other side of the conflict we have the machines. They look significantly less human than the androids and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they still generally take bipedal human form. The machines learn about humans from the androids and attempt to adopt human behavior as they rapidly evolve. They become a copy of a copy as the torch of humanity is passed on. In fact their ultimate evolutionary specimens, Adam and Eve, are nearly identical to the androids, white hair and all.
As we get swept up in the climax of the war between android and machine, we see the best and worst humanity has to offer. It becomes apparent that the most “human” characters in the game, the real heroes, are the ones you meet outside the main battle. They are androids and machines just trying to get by and do the right thing in a world ruined by a meaningless war. Not too hard to see the real life allegory there.
In fact it’s the main cast that ultimately ends up dead, defeated, or driven mad as the truth behind the conflict is revealed. They are doomed from the start by a big lie, then finished off by a thirst for revenge – not coincidentally, two very bad human traits. By the time the first four endings are complete, it seems all hope is lost. But humanity doesn’t die there. The torch is passed again to our loyal pod companions. They are nothing more than floating computer boxes with arms, one step further from human form. Yet in that final moment, they realize they must carry on.
The torch is passed one last time as the credits roll into the final ending. This is where NieR’s brilliance reaches its peak. The player becomes nothing more than an arrow on a black screen, completely deprived of any visual or audio cues that would make your brain think “human”. The battle begins and it all seems kind of silly compared to the intense scenes that happened a few minutes earlier. And yet as the fight intensifies and the chorus of “Weight of the World” swells over and over, you begin to feel something. I didn’t know what it was at the time. Even when the ending finished, all I could do was ask “what just happened and why am I so emotional?”. Hours later after my brain processed it all, I realized I had been a part of something truly special.
Ending “E” does away with nearly all traditional storytelling elements and relies heavily on the context of your journey up to that point. It is a message delivered through pure gameplay. It answers the big question the game has been asking for the past 30-40 hours, not with a cut scene, but with an experience. With a feeling. I don’t have words to do it justice and no one ever will. The only way to fully understand it is to play the game yourself.
As a video game, NieR:Automata is far from perfect. It has plenty of little technical details you can pick apart. That said, I do think NieR is a perfect experience. It is a game full of moments that you will remember long after you forget some of it’s small annoyances, culminating in one of the greatest endings in gaming history. It is the best example of the unique storytelling potential that this medium has. For that, even in a year full of all time greats, NieR:Automata is the best game of 2017.