‘NieR: Automata’ finds humanity in its machines

“NieR: Automata” portrays a machine-ruled world slowly being reclaimed by nature. Image courtesy Square Enix.

“NieR: Automata” portrays a machine-ruled world slowly being reclaimed by nature. Image courtesy Square Enix.

It’s a shame that many people will play “NieR: Automata” without glimpsing its true brilliance.

Some will stop after reaching the end credits, perhaps slightly baffled by the several hours of Japanese sci-fi weirdness they just witnessed. Following the post-credits suggestion to play the game again, a smaller number will find an entirely different gameplay scenario awaiting them. But only those who play the game a third time will experience the full scope of the story and its themes. And among that relatively small group of players, even fewer will follow the branching choices to the game’s true ending: a moral decision of perfect poignancy, crystallizing everything that came before it.

It’s an undeniably strange structure for a game, but it serves a purpose. “NieR: Automata” is ultimately about self-destructive cycles, and it uses both its script and game design to explore that idea.

The game wastes no time throwing you into the action. In the distant future, a war with aliens has driven humanity to the moon. With Earth abandoned, the aliens’ self-replicating network of robots and machines takes over the planet. Nature slowly reclaims humanity’s ruined cities and highways. But the powers that be aren’t giving up the planet without a fight. From the safety of a satellite military base, human-made androids stage regular attacks on the machines in a never-ending cycle of war.

At first blush, it seems like an entirely derivative sci-fi story. But it quickly becomes clear that “NieR: Automata” is more interested in the nature of consciousness and identity than a humans-versus-machines “Terminator” rehash. Not long after taking control of the main character, the absurdly stylish combat android 2B, the player finds that the machines are behaving strangely. They’re forming families and emotional relationships. They’re setting up communities. One contingent has created a bizarre religion in mimicry of human history. Right about the time you encounter a village of pacifist machines who would rather study philosophy than fight, you may feel a twinge of regret at the hundreds of robots you’ve destroyed without a second thought.

Better than any other title in recent memory, “NieR: Automata” uses gameplay to inform its story. Even as it builds its themes of identity, it defies setting one for itself. In one moment, you’re carving through robots using a well-crafted combat system of dodges, attacks and counter attacks. In the next, you’re flying over a ruined city in a ship-based scrolling shooter reminiscent of “Galaga” or similar arcade titles. And don’t be surprised when the full 3D environments seamlessly transition to a side-scrolling action-platformer ala ‘Castlevania.”

Despite having generally fun and defiantly unique gameplay, “NieR: Automata” suffers from some rough design edges and pacing issues. Its artistic vision, on the other hand, is almost peerless in the medium for its ambition. Director Yoko Taro, one of gaming’s few auteurs, has developed a unique storytelling vocabulary unifying game design and writing toward a single purpose. Taro wants to capture something essential about the human experience in his work, and he uses player agency to drive his point home. It’s no mistake to say that “NieR: Automata” could only exist as a game.

It’s difficult to talk about what makes “NieR: Automata” so special without spoiling its true ending. Suffice it to say that while “NieR” is never an especially happy game, its final moments threaten an ending of pure fatalism. Then, in the 11th hour, the game provides a glimmer of hope—a hope contingent upon overcoming a nearly insurmountable challenge. What follows is perhaps the most profoundly humanistic moment I’ve experienced in a game, one that binds each “NieR” player together in a network of selfless kinship. What makes the moment all the more staggering is the revelation that it was made possible through a real sacrifice, one that some stranger somewhere in the world made willingly to help you complete your journey.

Late in “NieR: Automata,” a character wonders if there’s any hope of ending the civilizational cycle of self-destruction. By offering the player a chance to break that cycle for a stranger at substantial personal cost, the game seems to answer that question with a question: It’s impossible to say for sure, but what are you going to do about it?

“NieR: Automata” is available for Playstation 4 and PC.

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