NieR: Automata is a game whose predecessor famously deleted players’ saved games. It is a game with roots in a 2014 stage play that featured an all-female cast of blindfolded androids equipped with super-weapons and imprinted with false memories. It is a game whose creator, Taro Yoko, is known for turning up to interviews wearing a skeleton mask and talking through a sock puppet. A degree of mischievousness is to be expected when I sit down to play this action RPG.
Playing through the opening hour of NieR: Automata, it doesn’t take long for me to feel that mischievousness working beneath the game’s story of weaponised androids, sent to fight invading robots on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Without giving too much away, the opening menu setup has you doing more than adjusting brightness settings. Later, I’m shown that if you unequip your character’s OS Chip, the game will fade to black and boot you into the opening menu without warning.
Yoko tells me that his love of playing with the tropes and internal logic of games stems from when he was a child playing Dragon Quest III. “I remember I actually lost a save-game file by accident. I still remember feeling that level of shock. It was one of the biggest losses in my life at that time – all this data I’d worked so hard for.
“I remember feeling games have this ability to link in and access real feelings. I really wanted to keep that going, particularly as game design has become fixed into a set number of patterns. I want to keep that idea of the game being able to react with the player in a very real, direct sense.”
This meta-playfulness seems to me a part of Yoko’s wider interest in the logical inconsistencies within gaming. When talking about his work on Drakengard 3
– via a sock puppet
– he spoke about how uneasy he felt about the disconnect between games that involve mass-murder but frame the player as a noble hero: “I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane. That’s why I decided to have the army of the protagonist in Drakengard be one where everyone’s insane.”
A similar level of self-awareness was put into the original NieR. In the same video, Yoko cites the impact of 9/11 and the war in Iraq on the game, and how that informed its approach to violence: “The vibe I was getting from society was: you don’t have to be insane to kill someone. You just have to think you’re right.”
So, how does this interest in bringing real-world morality to bear on the logic of games translate within NieR: Automata? The focus is on questioning the gap between man and machine, but also the concept of remote warfare. Both your character and her accompanying partner, named 2B and 9S respectively, are androids, sent by humans, to fight machines that have populated Earth. If the original NieR was influenced by the Iraq war, NieR: Automata could very well have taken a few cues from the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for unmanned aerial vehicles and lethal drone strikes.
Of course, these are rather weighty subjects for a game that boils down to a bullet-hell gauntlet of projectiles, featuring a protagonist that has already caused a degree of controversy over upskirt pictures and Photoshopped anuses. Then again, Yoko has made it clear he wants players to think about what they are playing. “This game is about the fight between robots and androids, neither of which are human themselves,” Yoko explains. “To use that as a reverse mirror, it asks ‘what does it mean to be alive?’ If people think about that as they play the game, then I've done my job here.”
Yoko is working with PlatinumGames – the studio behind the frenetic combat of Vanquish and Bayonetta. The influence is palpable. Skirmishes are fast-paced, and at their best when absolutely frenetic. While I survived the opening sections by shooting from a distance, later confrontations forced me to jump into the fray – stepping on the front foot to make the most of 2B’s rapid attacks.
"They’re machines – it feels kind of right that you can automate certain things"
PlatinumGames’ Takahisa Taura explains that the machine-like nature of the characters encouraged them to make 2B’s move-set feel exaggerated, and with an emphasis on flow. “They’re not human, so they can do these kinds of fast, high-tempo actions that a human character wouldn't be able to do.”
PlatinumGames also added a choice into the game’s Easy mode, where combat becomes automatic. “This is also linked into the theme of the characters being androids. Because they’re machines, it feels kind of right that you can automate certain things."
While an automated Easy mode aims to make the game accessible for novices, combat outside of this can be a punishing experience. I was able to try a variety of weapon sets, which can be paired up in different ways for combos, but getting a good grip on these inside combat will take longer than an hour with the game.
NieR: Automata plays like a familiar action JRPG. There are enemies to fight, clearly signposted levels to complete, semi-open-world environments, and boss fights. The opening sections are enjoyable enough, but the hope is that Yoko and his team has gone further than hinting at existential questions and peppering in a few meta Easter eggs – that they’ve actually made something weirder and more experimental than Western audiences have come to expect.
Yoko tells me that the popularity of games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy outside of Japan in the 1980s and 90s led to a saturation in style, and a “closing up in the culture of game development”. Now, however, the Japanese game scene is embracing experimentation, and it’s something he chalks up against a polarisation in Western game development:
“You have the AAA titles, which aren’t taking any risks – all trying to be open-world, first-person shooters, and following a safe, set format with systems that people are familiar with. And then on the other side you have indie studios, making games with interesting designs and ideas but low budgets,” he says.
"A lot of Japanese creators are thinking ‘what do we do now?’ They’re really having to branch out in weird directions"
“Compare that to what we see in Japan at the moment. As I said, people don’t make old JRPGs so much because it's been done to death. They tried making Western-style AAA open-world shooters, but that failed. So now a lot of Japanese creators are thinking ‘what do we do now?’ They’re really having to branch out in weird directions and try new things. I think that spark of creativity from not having a safety net is really going to push at something special for the next generation.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Square Enix’s Yosuke Saito, who is producing the game: “A little while back, Japanese games creators tried to take on the world, and play the same game as the West, but didn’t do so well in that. Now they’re trying to do new and experimental things, rather than trying to follow the crowd. I think that shows there’s a lot of creativity and potential in the future for Japanese games.”
I only had an hour of play, so it was too early to judge whether NieR: Automata is testament to a newfound sense of experimentation in Japanese game design. However, Yoko’s enthusiasm for mischievous humour, and questioning of established game systems, hints that the game could stick in your head long after its story of blindfolded androids has ended.