I don’t replay games much anymore. Sure, when I was younger, I’d play every RPG I got my hands on at least half a dozen times. But now, I have papers to grade, new games to review, and the occasional dish to wash. As the cliché goes, there’s just too much to play, and not enough time.
This is the third time I’ve played NieR: Automata in less than three years. Each playthrough has been worth it.
Here’s the thing: NieR: Automata rewards multiple playthroughs in ways other modern games do not, beyond those that are required to achieve the true ending. My first pass through, I remember enjoying Route A, with the music and the graphics and the combat, but I wasn’t blown away until I got to the later playthrough. Early on, I thought to myself…isn’t this just another “Robots aren’t really the bad guys” narrative? The sidequests were good, but nothing I’d write home about. However, on a second and third playthrough, so many of the moments from the beginning of the game, including the sidequests, had more emotional and thematic weight because I knew how everything plays out. The game asks questions about the futility of our efforts to find meaning in the meaningless cycle of life and death; seeing the way Taro plants the seeds for his answer is powerful when you see the beginning of the cycle again.
So, even though I’ve played this game more times than I probably should, I’ll be coming back again to uncover more of Yoko Taro’s storytelling, bask in the glory of Keiichi Okabe’s music, and emotionally wreck a few more of my afternoons. After all, that ending is always worth it.
I largely ignored NieR: Automata when it released in 2017. I heard good things about it, but what I saw of it made me think that it wasn’t really my kind of game. When it was announced that Final Fantasy XIV would be doing an alliance raid series based on Automata, I knew I was probably going to have to play NieR to have full context for my beloved MMO, and Retro gave me the perfect chance to do just that. Having now completed every route and seen every ending, I can say that I definitely missed out back in 2017.
Midway through route A, I found myself getting hooked. Then in route B, I fought Simone, did the Wandering Couple and Amnesia sidequests (among others), and my jaw dropped…multiple times. Route C felt a little rushed, but learning more about A2 and watching 9S spiral into madness was still very compelling. Ending E was quite the ride, and I doubt I’ll ever experience a credit sequence like that again.
Playing NieR: Automata was both fun and frustrating. The combat is smooth, and I enjoyed equipping my character in such a way that I basically became almost unkillable. There were sequences that tested my patience, but persevering was usually worth it. I appreciated Automata’s distinctive visual style, even though the panty shots and booty shorts made me roll my eyes. Last but not least, I fell in love with the music. I wasn’t too enamored with the soundtrack when I first listened to it back in 2017, but playing the game has made me realize how amazing it is. Let’s just say I have a long list of music I hope to hear in the remaining installments of the NieR raid in FFXIV.
NieR: Automata is the most profoundly human piece of interactive media I’ve ever had the (mis)fortune to lay my hands on. Where many other JRPGs stay firmly within the lanes of their now well-worn narrative structures, Automata races off the beaten path, executing its contemporaries with alarming speed if only to dance on their graves for the sheer delight of it all.
In fact, very little is safe or sacred in the shadow of NieR: Automata’s critical scythe. The greatest minds of yesteryear, stripped of the nuance they so craved, are presented as nothing more than roadblocks for the continued proliferation of life. Tear apart the many segments of Hegel in the form of a robotic desert caterpillar, as the synthesis becomes, well, an avoidable death for one of you. Where Friedrich Engels may have wrestled with Blaise Pascal within the safety of letters written centuries after the former’s passing, NieR: Automata places you in the shoes of Pascal as he is able to take on his critic on his own terms… And those terms are a brutal physical encounter of kaiju-esque proportions.
When trapped looking through this lens into the current state of human nature, Thomas Hobbes’s observation of our species’ life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” takes on more weight than I find myself comfortable with. The further the depths of NieR: Automata, the more I find myself questioning what the point of all this was. And then I realized I wasn’t just asking the game. I was interrogating my own fight, its value and worth, and whether it would truly be meaningful in the end.
I currently find myself writing this after a long day and a longer night where I failed to get enough sleep. I feel that my writing is rather shoddy, even more clumsy and lead-footed than usual. The words contain very little flow, and my… memory retrieval (yes, that’s the phrase) is lacking. And yet, even in this, there’s one thing that I’ve taken from NieR: Automata: there is a point. There is inherent meaning to each action we may take in life.
“Even if our words seem meaningless, it’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world.” It’s the individual actions that we take towards the collective progress of our world that make the long arc of the moral universe bend towards justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had said. One must imagine Yoko Taro happy.
What makes an entity human, and whether an AI is capable of human intelligence and emotion versus merely imitating human behavior, is an unresolved argument explored in many science fiction stories. NieR: Automata’s version of this concept is absolutely brilliant, as an intense action RPG with some of the most creative, thoughtful writing ever seen in a video game.
Avoiding most spoilers, NieR: Automata is the story of a centuries-spanning war on Earth between human-designed Androids and alien-made Machines, with the last vestiges of the human race having evacuated to the moon. The game depicts a battle android named 2B and a supporting scanner android named 9S undertaking missions “for the Glory of Mankind” on Earth while the other androids and machines around them struggle to survive. The story goes to some incredible places, with more intrigue and backstory revealed by completing side quests, performing multiple full playthroughs, and achieving new endings. This story goes to some incredible places by game’s end.
This is one of the best stories ever to come out of Square Enix (thank you Yoko Taro!) and one of the best game soundtracks of the modern era (thank you Keiichi Okabe!), and if that isn’t enough, the balletic robot-versus-robot combat is fun as hell (thank you Platinum Games!). If the above sounds interesting at all, then NieR: Automata is a must-play RPG. If you still have no inclination to play NieR: Automata or at least learn more about it after all this gushing, then I’m not sure we can be friends.