There’s a choice you can make during the playable credits sequence of NieR Automata’s fifth and narratively conclusive ending: whether or not to make the ultimate in gaming sacrifices by helping a stranger, who you will never know or meet, with the game’s final challenge. It was a sacrifice I agreed to. I could say that I believed wholeheartedly that I wanted to help another player, especially since said final challenge is deliberately near-impossible, and it was only because of someone else’s sacrifice that I made it through. But in truth, I have no real answer as to why I willingly made the choice. The thought that keeps running through my head is a line from Matrix Revolutions: that the answer to why I persisted is simply because I chose to.
That ability to make carefully considered decisions that have no true purpose or meaning—the very core of free will—is a defining human trait, and the fact that this is something that cannot be taught or given to other living beings is a problem NieR Automata is almost pathologically fascinated with. It’s a fact it dances with, argues with, screams at, cries about, and mourns from its first seconds until the moment its final credit rolls. No, director Yoko Taro doesn’t have answers to the questions that the game poses, but he engages with what it means to be human in ways no game operating in AAA space has before, and certainly not one where you spend countless hours stylishly slicing up robots while dressed like the maître d’ at a FetLife dinner party.
NieR Automata lets its anime-inspired freak flag fly in the early hours of the campaign, giving absolutely no indication of the depths it will reach. Taro knows that 2010’s NieR was a thoughtful but mechanically uninspired game, which is why he brought in action-game savants Platinum Games to help assist with the sequel’s numerous gameplay styles. Within this game’s first hour, it’s at once a scrolling-screen Gradius-style shooter, a full-3D hack-and-slash action adventure, a 2D platformer, a tactical RPG, and a large-scale mech-combat jamboree. Later, the ability to damage enemies through a Geometry Wars-style mini-game becomes a gameplay staple. Throughout NieR Automata, it’s as if Platinum Games is showing off, and if they earn that braggadocio it’s because the developer excels at every single genre field the game chooses to play in—a rare jack-of-all-trades that masters all.
Most of the game, however, is spent in 3D-action mode, exploring a city-sized open world that strangely alternates minute to minute between PlayStation 2-levels of graphical austerity and breathtaking, lush moments of natural beauty that weren’t possible on that system. And all of it is bolstered by one of the most eclectic and evocative musical scores ever bestowed on a video game.
The game takes place 8,000 years into the future, where humanity has been supplanted by a race of deadly robots as the dominant species. Man’s last hope of retaking the planet is in an army of hyper-powered, silver-haired androids acting under orders from our lunar-based government to cleanse Earth of the machines. We initially play as 2B, a leather-clad, cold-hearted, all-business soldier who ends up saddled with 9S, a hacker-model android with the personality of an awkward 14-year-old. Their mission is simple reconnaissance and errand-running at first, with a plethora of machine-crushing sidequests and plenty of the kind of varied, large-scale, multi-part boss fights that Platinum is famous for (and accessible here within a couple of playtime hours). The waters get muddy fast, though, once it turns out the robots may not all be the mindless killing machines humanity says they are.
It’s obvious upfront that something might be off, as the supposedly lethal robots are redolent less of Terminators or the Borg than they are of the kindly robots from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, only dwarf-sized. Most of them wander aimlessly, and many of them don’t even attack when 2B or 9S wander too close. One particular robot, Pascal, waves the white flag the second he sees 2B, and invites her to a village where robots have discovered the futility of war, and have begun trying to figure out what to do with their sentience. Despite no physical resemblance or similarity to humans, across the world, the robots clumsily fumble toward humanity, savoring our joys, and dreading our mistakes in equal measure. One of the game’s more bizarre, yet oddly affecting moments has our heroes coming across a hidden enclave full of robots trying to approximate human love by rocking empty cradles back and forth while chanting the word “child,” miming sex acts on each other, and screaming out for someone—anyone—to hold them.
Despite working in a genre whose ethos more or less relies on the concept of killing anything that moves, at any given moment, the game confronts the player with the shared values and ongoing personal development of the Other, and gives us multiple options, including flat-out murder, for engagement with it. There are narrative and gameplay consequences and advantages that result from every decision. Even the necessary fights against the deadliest of characters have justifications that require a measure of understanding and empathy from the player. NieR Automata is the first game to truly stand up and greet ludonarrative dissonance as a friend, and actually start the conversation about our bloodlust versus our empathy, while not short-shrifting the argument for either side.
Taro employs every dirty game-design trick in the book to get his points across, up to and including some of the mind-trippy visual distortions in the game’s user interface, and it’s all in favor of story above all else, which never once takes the easy way out. Said story isn’t afraid of offering up a high body count, indulging in non sequiturs, or laying a guilt trip on a particularly cool gameplay segment, and in general is utterly fearless at bringing us face to face with what it means to have latent humanity in a game genre that so very often holds empathy in contempt. There’s power and glory to be had while playing NieR Automata, and perhaps the greatest testament to what’s been created here is how much of that glory involves mercy, not murder. And that, coming from the developer whose greatest moment prior to this one involved a gun-slinging witch punching the face of God into the sun, is miraculous.