After fighting a horde of robots that were attempting to recreate scenes of human procreation as 2B, an android in Victorian fetish garb with a platinum blonde bob, I could only stare at the screen in confusion as the robots somehow “gave birth” to a silver-haired, totally nude android.
Flying the Freak Flag
Nier Automata is a strange game. As the latest game from action game superstars Platinum Games, it cranks the insanity to 11. With a strange blend of cyberpunk philosophy, a post-apocalyptic setting, and oddball characters, Nier Automata proudly flies its freak flag.
But the best part of Nier Automata is how it goes from insanity and silliness to profundity so quickly. Sure, the scene I just described could just be the strange, meaningless fever dream of Nier director Yoko Taro. Or it could be a clever examination of the ways human ritualize sex. The fact that both explanations are valid is part of Nier’s appeal.
It’s also how Nier Automata remains fresh and enjoyable, even as it pulls from some of the oldest themes in sci fi. Robots finding humanity and the nature of consciousness are hardly revelatory ideas in science fiction. However, Platinum Games use an abundance of style to reinforce its substance.
A Delicate Balance
Nier Automata tells the story of 2B and her android allies, as they fight a robotic army sent by aliens to conquer Earth. Humanity has fled to the moon and uses an android army to fight back. It’s a fun and pulpy sci fi concept that puts the player right into the action. But the more the player learns about the ongoing war, the more depth Platinum rings out of its action and characters.
Every moment teeters between insanity and profundity, which makes Nier Automata either a heady or purely visceral experience depending on the player’s preference. It’s difficult to think that the game was designed this way on purpose. There are clearly aspects of the game that have no deeper meaning. How do you design and write a game that’s so blunt with its imagery that it becomes subtle? But Platinum Games manages to walk that tightrope for most of the game’s length.
There are moments that are a little too silly or a little too “deep,” in that “look at me” Square Enix kind of way. Platinum Games doesn’t always succeed with its strange brew. However, the game throws enough stuff at the player that it almost always succeeds. It’s refreshing to see a science fiction story address these themes with humor and style. With Detroit: Become Human, a serious game for serious people, due out later this, it’s great to get a cyberpunk story that knows how to be heady and heart-pounding.
Style and Substance
In Nier Automata, style and substance need each other in order to support the weight of Platinum Games’ insane creation. Without its stylized character design, ballet-like combat, or funny yet melancholy robots, the game would be a mess of sci fi tropes. But without heady themes like the cyclical nature of violence, Nier would be just another stylish Japanese action game. Nier not only balances gameplay and narrative; it manages to balance style and substance inside the narrative.
A large part of Nier Automata’s success comes down to its characters. 2B and her partner 9S start off as a fairly stock buddy cop duo. 2B is all business and 9S is happy go lucky. Been there, done that.
But Platinum Games slowly peels back the layers of this relationship, revealing something far more complex. Both androids have to question why they act the way they do and if they can even change their programmed behavior.
Platinum Games does something similar with the robots in the game. For a supposedly deadly force of machines, the robot enemies in the game are the primary source of humor. They’re bumbling and a little bit cute. But they also have personality or are at least striving to have personality. 2B also encounters friendly robots, machines that have disconnected from the alien network. These machines constantly mimic human behavior, playing at familial relationships or performing their version of Romeo and Juliet.
They want to be human, but they can’t override their programming. However, through performing human rituals and relationships, they create their own form of humanity. The robots start as comic relief, but they become the most human characters in the game. They’re a testament to the power of performance.
At the same time, players can still enjoy all of this on a surface level. Nier Automata rewards players for however much they want to put into it. It’s the rare example of a game that becomes profound through sheer insanity. Turns out genius and madness aren’t that different.