The release of Nier: Automata on the heels of the new Zelda, Breath of the Wild, has action RPG fans in some sort of near-shock coma. While the latter capitalizes on the promise of the N64 classic Ocarina of Time, producing what people are calling a game-changer in the open-world genre, the former is a bit more difficult to pin down. And with good reason — Nier: Automata is the sequel to the not-especially-popular PS3 game Nier, which itself is a spinoff of the Popular-in-Japan-But-Not-So-Much-in-the-States Drakengard series. As a result, the genre-bending, meta-fictional action RPGs that lend their logic to the foundation of Nier: Automata aren’t really in the common imagination in the same way that the Zelda series is, and Nier (I’ll be referring to the new game under this title from here on out) is a bit of an odd duck as a result.
Half-Dark-Souls-esque-fighter, half classic RPG, and a smidge of 2D platformer and bullet-hell SHMUP, the genre conventions of Nier could be fodder for two or three blog posts — I’ll be discussing them soon in the podcast. What I want to touch on in a brief reaction piece to the first four hours of Nier is the fascinating way the game does an end-around on Settings menus and typical RPG logic. To paraphrase the game in its opening, when it says that “Saving isn’t available right now, keep playing to determine save function,” it isn’t just being coy. There is a plot decision behind every function in the game, which both locks the player into Nier’s logic while pushing back against the seamless totality of that logic in a self-reflexive move that hints at the game’s idiosyncratic qualities.
Nier focuses on your characters’ foray into a post-apocalyptic earth, in which your avatar needs to kill machines that effectively enforce (what you are told is) an alien invasion that has pushed all human life to the Moon. Your characters — androids — work for the human race and are programmed to perform self-sacrificing labor and combat, constantly being killed and reborn into new shells of yourself with your memories more or less intact. I’m not too far in yet, so I don’t know the full twist yet, but given that the machines seem to have empathy and are producing weird hairless and genitally smooth humanoid bio-machines, I’m assuming that we’re not getting the full story.
This Twilight Zone esque plottedness follows the entirety of the game thus far, with small hints in the corners of our metaphorical eyes hinting at deeper plot revelations to come. There’s a lot in common plot-wise in Nier with the Metal Gear Solid series, particularly as concerns betrayal and incompetence in the higher levels of command…..or so I’d guess. In any case, the game certainly is quick to emphasize your characters’ roles as cogs in the machine of the Yorha forces, fighting the machines on Earth. Certainly, 2B and 9S — the female protagonist and her male foil — are completely likable cogs, don’t get me wrong! But four hours into the game, cogs they are, ready to follow rules and not stray from the rectitude of their orders.
The mediation of such a gameplay choice — that the player is aware of the moral peregrinations and complexities of the plot before the characters that they control — is dealt with admirably by Nier, which insists upon the machine-quality of the androids. Despite their very humanoid appearance, 2B and 9S are absolutely robotic in purpose and function. After a very humanized early mission, in which both 2B and 9S must commit suicide in order to defeat several large machines, 2B is brought back to “life” in the intergalactic “Bunker” by 9S. The screen cuts into black, as 9S attempts to fix the video input signal. When you, 2B, regain your vision, you’re brought back to the settings menu, where 9S walks you through the “calibration” of your visual and mechanical experience.
In this moment, Nier does two things. One, and this is one I can’t properly describe quite yet because I’m not far enough, it gives you the option to turn on or off your “self-destruct” mode. The existential choice of suicide for a greater cause being broken down into a toggle switch is jarring, even with the somewhat on-the-nose OSHA warning of 9S who reminds you that “you should do this yourself. Regulations and all.”
But the second thing that the game does, and this is the interesting thing for me, is that it sets into motion the total integration of the game mechanics with in-game explanations. Your brightness is adjusted so that 2B can see, not so that your monitor can display the game correctly. The voice volume has to be adjusted so that 2B can hear 9S, not so that the player can. There’s even a control option in the menu to allow for autopilot playing, in which a player can let the game play itself through some of its more difficult moments. Everything in this sequence takes the player out of the central subjective position and reorients it back around 2B as an autonomous protagonist. It locks the player out as an interlocutor.
And this mechanical tick continues apace. Your saving is not actually arbitrary — it’s an upload of memories to a database. Loading is booting up an old body. Finding your body in the wild and collecting its information and items is as simple as replacing the parts of a new car with an old one. 2B is at once humanized in form and content as a thinking, personalized character, but is continually made to represent a figure in the gameworld that is figured by the structures of the menu screen. Toggles, choices made in slider graphs, nothing more irrational or complex than a scroll-down menu — these are the explicit brains of the protagonists of the game. They are at once so simple as to be doll-like, and also so autonomous as to reject player input. The world of Nier moves like a wind-up toy, uncaring of its reception or its player, and the game is notable in this modernist ambition. On its face, Nier is a JRPG about attractive androids; under the skin, however, it is a mediation on free will, and one that from the get-go rejects your participation in that debate.
In other words — it’s attempting a true artistic self-reflexivity. I’ll let you know how it does.