Revisiting NieR: Automata

Not every really good RPG got to be in the running for GOTY.

If you’re at all nerdy enough to bother with reading this blog you’re probably aware that The Game Awards happened on Thursday night. Now, of course, I didn’t watch them because I am simultaneously too lazy and too busy for awards shows. But I did track who won which awards. Or, at least, best RPG, best soundtrack, and Game of the Year because those are the awards I actually care about a little bit. I was pleased with the first two but not so much the last one. I’d love to tell you why I don’t think Legend of Zelda should have been the Game of the Year but the truth is I didn’t even get to play the game. All of my opinions of it are based on the things I’ve read about it online – I’m sorry but a system that both forces me to give up my favorite weapons and requires awkward inventory shenanigans on a regular basis does not sound fun. But, ya know, I didn’t play it so I could be wrong.

A game I did play, this year, was NieR: Automata. Some of you will probably know this because you can see on my YouTube channel that I started to do a Let’s Play for the game, spent a great deal of time complaining that it made no sense, and then abandoned it. The thing is, I didn’t abandon the game. I just stopped recording or streaming it. I continued playing it, fell in love with it, beat it, and then sat around and thought about it for at least a week before I felt like I was ready to move on with my life.

NieR: Automata was not a finalist for Game of the Year. In a different year, perhaps it could have been, but there were just too many great games released this year. It does a lot of really good and really interesting things – much as I suppose fans of Drakengard and the original NieR games expected. The combat is a boat load of fun. This remains true even when you become completely over-powered only a third of the way through the game, something most games wouldn’t be able to get away with. The characters are fascinating even as you play through nearly the exact same story twice from two different perspectives before things advance again. The biggest complaint I can muster for the characters is that some of them don’t get nearly enough screen time for how interesting they were and it feels like they’ve got a lot more backstory to fill in than we actually get to see; part of that, of course, is due to the sequel nature of this game. The story arcs are fairly predictable, but the details are very unique and incredibly fascinating – remember when I said before that stories don’t have to be unique to be interesting? This is an excellent example of that.

The music, of course, is amazing. It won the award for best music at The Game Awards for a reason and the one repeated compliment I had for it during my videos was how great the music was. I have a habit of walking around my office building at my day job while everyone else is taking a smoke break. One day as I was preparing to do that I booted up the NieR: Automata soundtrack on my phone and listened to it as I walked. It felt like I was transported to an entirely different world, but even more so. The experience defies words but it is absolutely something that will stick with me for a very, very long time. For weeks after I beat the game I listened to the variations of the ending theme found in the official soundtrack. Rarely have I heard a song that offers such sadness, hope, and beauty. The song fits the themes of the game like a glove and it’s always a joy to see composers and game designers able to match like that.

But the most impressive thing NieR: Automata does? Side-quests. There are a variety of these that boil down to escort missions, collectathons, or kill-a-handful-of-enemies just like you’ll see in the majority of RPGs. The difference is that every single quest comes with a purpose. In the vast majority of modern RPGs, especially Western RPGs but we’ve seen it creep into JRPGs as well, side quests exist merely to hit your sense of achievement buttons and allow you to grind experience and materials in a way that is more than just “kill ogres until you get tired.” The reasoning for them is often incredibly flimsy – Noctis, Prince of my kingdom, go take random pictures of a thing for my magazine! Shepard, toughest and most badass commander in an allied military, go mine some platinum for me! Altaïr, master assassin, you must race me to prove that you are the best. They do little or nothing to advance the plot, characters, or world in any meaningful way. NieR: Automata does all of the above, frequently all at the same time.

Let’s talk about the side-quest Amnesia. Mild spoilers ahead, of course. During your playthrough you can eventually come across a red-headed, female android in the ruins of the city. She tells you that her best friend was murdered and that she has a damaged pod with her friend’s final moments on it. She asks you to investigate and help her find the killer in order to exact revenge. After you complete the investigation it becomes apparent that the killer is none other than the woman who asked you for help in the first place. It turns out she was a special E-Type Unit (which stands for Execution, the Android spy/assassin class) and had infiltrated a resistance camp to keep an eye out for traitors. This work had forced her to kill her best friend but she was so upset about it that she erased her own memory. Confronted with the knowledge again she recalls the events and goes insane, right in front of your eyes. This moment advances characters first in that it actually gives the quest giver some character – she legitimately cared about this person and wanted your help. The dialog is written such that you can tell how motivated and distraught she is.You can empathize with her and feel disgust, pity, fear or any of a wide variety of emotions as she confesses to the murder she was ordered to commit and slowly loses grasp of her sanity as she realizes this is what her life has been. It advances the player’s understanding of the world: android’s can betray their orders, they can go insane, and there is a special class of android that exists only to kill other androids who don’t behave as they should – even when those androids are their best friends. MAJOR SPOILERS in the following text DO NOT READ IT IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME: It also foreshadows events and character developments for the two heroes; at the end of the game it turns out that 2B is more correctly named 2E and has been repeatedly killing 9S for years every time he figures out that the YORHA project is a scam.

Most of the side quests are like this. There are some which are bland in comparison. There are also quests which maybe don’t tell you anything about the world, characters, or plot but they still raise interesting questions for the players. Each side quest has been obviously and carefully crafted to do something specific, though. That’s a rare level of care by a developer, these days.

So, no, NieR: Automata maybe couldn’t be game of the year, this year. But it was still a fun and thought-provoking JRPG with an interesting story and terrific gameplay, stand-out visuals, and one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. The best part about the score winning at The Game Awards is that it brings fresh attention to the game; it came out at the same time as several others that were or will be Game of the Year contenders with most outlets: Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wind, Persona 5, and Horizon: Zero Dawn and anything that will direct players to give it a chance now is a good thing. If there were an award for “Best use of side quests in an RPG”, however, NieR: Automata could have won handily.