Coming from PlatinumGames, you wouldn’t expect the last thing I’d want to talk about with Nier: Automata to be its gameplay. A studio that made its name on crafting top-tier action in the likes of Bayonetta and Vanquish, this is a different beast altogether. Even knowing outsider/Drakengard torchbearer Yoko Taro was leading the charge, you wouldn’t expect this kind of game.
That’s because this is a game that is so far from being a game while explicitly and strangely being about being one. It’s thought-provoking and weird in equal measure, charming you in the way E.T. or Eleven could disarm you with the naive insight into a lot of what we simply accept and barely see. It uses parts of the video game buffalo that not only had no one ever used before but no one even knew existed.
I hesitate to say more than even that because this is an experience best taken in without any spoilage. If Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was about huge, bombastic moments hiding bits of quiet introspection and terrifying consequence, then this is the polar opposite. It’s the most still scenes that betray an underlying current of deeply affecting and shocking turns, as if under a bucolic, grassy clearing was a whitewater rapid of swirling, burning fire.
And caught up in those mechanized, post-apocalyptic flames are flagrant, upending considerations. It’s easy to reduce the story to something akin to sci-fi fodder—robots bearing questions about humanity and whatnot—but it’s the specificity in which this game takes hold. It’s not just about wanting to find out what they lack but why it’s what humans lack that inform the gestalt. It’s how our perceptions of what we have shape what we don’t.
On some level, it’s a condemnation of us all. Fear keeps us alive, but fear drove these robots to do something completely avoidable but altogether tragic. Love drives us, but love drove a robot to consume herself into an assumption that meant the end of everything. It’s a reminder that we are the only ones to blame for, well, ourselves.
It all culminates in a single, unbelievable, wild, staggering ending among 26 other unbelievable, wild, staggering endings. Route E. For all the jokes the game makes over itself about being a game and how it makes this question of life and death seem like something as simple as a sliding scale of one thing simply being the absence of this other thing, this ending asks something bigger. It truly, unequivocally floored me. Literally, it was a moment that poured me onto my terrible, dusty, unkempt carpeted floor and I stayed there. Surely no decision was better than…I don’t know. Anything.
It’s nearly impossible to capture in words what it does. The mechanism is simple enough, but what it does to you on the inside—as if a car mechanic were working in the age of horse buggies—is something else completely. It’s uplifting and debilitating at the same time. Paralyzing and fully vibrant at once. It’s something that has truly affected the way I live my daily life.
And that’s why Nier: Automata is our number two game of the year.