Nier: Automata is a fascinating game in its own right, but it becomes even more of an interesting story when you take it in context of everything that led to its creation.
In order to understand Nier: Automata and its predecessors, it is particularly important to understand creator Taro Yoko, one of the most distinctive “auteurs” in all of video game making — albeit one who, until the release of Automata, had largely flown under the radar in stark contrast to his contemporaries such as Hideo Kojima.
Yoko is a creator who, it’s fair to say, has consistently pushed back against the boundaries of what is “accepted practice” in video game development — both in terms of subject matter and mechanical considerations. And the results of his resistance to conventions and norms are some of the most distinctive and interesting — albeit sometimes flawed — creations in all of gaming.
Much of the distinctive personality of Yoko’s work comes from the juxtaposition of dark, often disturbing themes with the light-hearted and ridiculous. According to a 2014 interview with Japanese publication 4Gamer, Yoko’s fascination with death and our reactions to it can at least be partially attributed to an incident he experienced growing up: he witnessed one of his friends slip and fall off a high building, resulting in their death. It was a meaningless death that could almost certainly have been avoided: tragic, but also ridiculous.
He recalls the incident as being “horrifying”, but also that there was something oddly humorous about the situation, as well. It was a feeling he was not sure how to process at the time, but one that he would later come to explore in great detail throughout his work. Speaking of his PlayStation 3 title Drakengard 3 (known as Drag-On Dragoon 3 in Japan), Yoko said that he wanted to avoid “one-sided emotional expression about ‘fear’ or ‘death'”, instead going on to explore humanity’s many and varied reactions to these situations — including the ones that are taboo.
Yoko didn’t initially intend to get a career in video games, though immediately after graduating he became involved with Bandai Namco Games as a 3D CGI designer, then as part of a now-defunct Sony second-party studio named Sugar & Rockets, and finally ended up at Cavia in 2001.
Cavia was only a year old at the time Yoko joined, with their early works consisting of a text-heavy soccer game known as Dramatic Soccer Game: Nihon Daihyo-senshu Ni Narou, in which the player took on the role of a soccer player attempting to become the figurehead of the Japanese national team, along with adaptations of popular properties such as One Piece and Resident Evil.
Drakengard was Cavia’s fourth game, and the first which Yoko became involved with. Initially conceived by Takamasa Shiba and Takuya Iwasaki as a take on aerial combat similar to Namco’s Ace Combat series, the project later incorporated ground-based battling as well in response to the rise in popularity of the Dynasty Warriors series with its second installment. The team encountered numerous problems along the way — particularly with regard to switching between the two disparate gameplay styles — thanks to the limitations of the PlayStation 2 hardware, but pressed on regardless. Shiba lacked confidence in the project, however, noting that Cavia’s inexperience in creating action games meant that it was not up to the standard of similar games of the time, and producer Iwasaki eventually moved on to other projects after originally intending to act as director. It was at this point that Yoko stepped in and took over directorial duties.
Yoko had a strong influence on the direction the game would eventually take, particularly with regards to its narrative and themes; indeed, although many of the more controversial aspects of the narrative were allegedly censored upon Drakengard’s Western release (though actual concrete evidence of this is surprisingly thin on the ground) , the overall darkness at the heart of many of the characters was still very much evident. Yoko ultimately contributed to the creation of both the main scenario and the characters in Drakengard, and co-wrote the script alongside Sawako Natori.
It wasn’t a smooth ride for Yoko, however; he encountered considerable resistance from the game’s advisory board and was asked to make numerous changes. Yoko reportedly found the experience so frustrating that he refused to work on another Drakengard title afterwards, though he would end up going back on his word; he worked as a member of the creative staff and as a video editor on Drakengard 2, the project that would eventually become the original Nier was originally intended to be a third Drakengard game and he even ended up working on an actual third Drakengard game that would eventually release in late 2013.
2010’s Nier feels like the first game where Yoko truly had the opportunity to spread his creative wings and express himself fully without exterior interference. Acting as a sequel to the rather unusual “Ending E” of the original Drakengard — and consequently rather pointedly ignoring Drakengard 2’s existence altogether, since that followed Drakengard’s “Ending A” and thus proceeded down a different timeline — Nier was a game in which Yoko very much explored his fascination with death, violence and inevitable tragedy, and the strange, ridiculous situations that can result from being surrounded by such things.
Nier was an inventive, fascinating game in a variety of different ways — narratively, mechanically and even structurally. Initially appearing to be a relatively conventional third-person hack and slash action RPG, the game would often surprise players by switching to different perspectives and gameplay styles such as side-on platforming, top-down maze exploration and puzzling, and even bullet hell-style shoot ’em up sequences. The game also features several “novel” sequences where there are no graphics whatsoever, events instead being narrated by text on a blank screen.
Yoko’s decision to construct Nier in such a manner, constantly subverting expectations and keeping players on their toes, can be attributed to his attitude towards risk-averse, big-budget games. Speaking with toco toco tv shortly after the release of Nier: Automata, he noted that he found today’s highly commercial games to be a little dull and repetitive.
“Looking at AAA titles, of course I find them beautiful and interesting, but after 20 minutes of gameplay, I wonder whether it is going to be the same for the following 20 hours,” he said. “I am a bit tired of this. If possible, I would like to make games that are unexpected, games that keep changing form. This is the mindset I had when I created the first Nier game, and it is present in Nier: Automata as well.”
He certainly achieved this with both Nier and Nier: Automata, and not just in terms of the gameplay mechanics. The original Nier also featured an unusual take on “New Game Plus”, a system where — usually, anyway — you can carry over your character, levels, items and equipment into a new game, normally so you can experience alternative narrative paths easily without needing to grind levels or work to re-acquire powerful equipment.
Nier certainly implemented the usual aspects of New Game Plus, but also took the unusual step of restarting from the halfway point of the game rather than the very beginning. Not only that, but when replaying the game from the second time onwards, you would discover numerous extra narrative elements that considerably fleshed out the backstories of the main cast members, as well as being able to understand the things that the previously unintelligible “Shade” enemies were saying. These elements combined to give what was essentially the same basic narrative content a very different sense of context and meaning; a potent example of how learning just one important piece of information can change the way you look at every other event that follows.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nier’s implementation of New Game Plus is that, unlike many other games that implemented such a system, there was an eventual end to it all rather than endless repetition and replaying that concluded simply when you’d had enough. Upon completing Nier’s fourth and final ending which, narratively speaking, involved the protagonist giving up his life to save another person, the game then proceeded to take great glee in deleting all your save data, one page of the menu screen at a time, and then salting the earth so very thoroughly after the fact that, should you ever wish to begin a new game on the same console, you would be unable to use the same filename.
Nier was a game about constant struggle in a world filled with adversity. Everything about the game reflected this. From the rather mundane sidequests that often ended in something bad happening to a person rather than the usual quest rewards you’d expect from the genre to the overall rather tragic tone of the whole narrative, this was a game designed to immerse you fully in a world that was difficult to live in, in which everyone had to pull together in order to survive. The sidequests in particular could be thought of as “method-acting” the role of the protagonist: despite being the hero of the story, he’s not exempt from “mucking in” to help make society a slightly better place, or at least attempting to do so. And for all record of your contributions to that world to end up being completely erased at the final moment of truth — well, that was just entirely appropriate.
Nier: Automata picks up some ten thousand years after the events of Nier, and a similar amount of time after an alien invasion of Earth infested the planet with “machine lifeforms”. Humanity retreated to the safety of the moon shortly after the invasion began, and the ongoing resistance against the machines on the Earth’s surface was entrusted to the androids, humanoid (and decidedly “human”) but nonetheless mechanical soldiers highly skilled in combat, engineering, hacking and infiltration.
Androids as a concept were first introduced towards the end of the original Nier, when it was revealed that two important characters in the narrative were actually androids that had been tasked with overseeing a project to save humanity from the deadly disease caused by the events of Drakengard’s Ending E. The plan, which involved separating humans’ “souls” (or “Gestalt”) from their bodies, creating clones (or “Replicants”) resistant to the disease and then recombining the two, ultimately failed due to the Replicants developing free will and the Gestalts becoming aggressive towards them.
The exact circumstances that transpired in the intervening 10,000 years between Nier and Nier: Automata aren’t made immediately explicit, but it’s suggested that enough of humanity managed to survive this disaster to hole up on the moon, produce the android armies and settle in for a long, possibly endless war of attrition. Indeed, when we first join Nier: Automata’s protagonist 2B at the outset of the game, she seems to have little in the way of long-term goals aside from “destroy the targets you’ve been assigned” and “survive” — though the latter aspect is made somewhat easier by androids’ ability to back up their consciousness data to a central server and then simply transfer this into a new body upon their “death”.
As we’ll explore in more detail when we take a closer look at Nier: Automata’s narrative, there’s a lot more going on than you might initially think, and the subject matter of Nier: Automata is ripe for philosophical discussion. Can something mechanical truly be described as a “lifeform” — and if not, what are the fundamental differences between the machine lifeforms and androids? Is something you’ve been fighting over for more than ten millenia still worth fighting for? What does “death” mean if you can just come back a moment later with minimal inconvenience? What, indeed, does this make “life” mean?
Likewise, Nier: Automata’s mechanical implementation takes strong cues from its predecessor in that it keeps you guessing and doesn’t stick to one single style for long. Much like the original Nier, the game uses open-world exploration to frame side-on platforming sections, top-down exploration sections, third-person character action sections, vertically scrolling and twin-stick shoot ’em up sections, text-only novel sections and plenty of other aspects besides — only now, thanks to Taro’s collaboration with veteran action game producers Platinum Games, those worries from back in the Drakengard days of the game’s actual mechanics not being able to match up to its contemporaries are a thing of the past.
Speaking with Eurogamer in 2015, a few months after Automata’s surprise reveal at that year’s E3, Taro joked about the positive impact working with such a well-regarded team had had on his new project.
“All the time I spent on the original getting angry at the development team, obviously Platinum’s removed that by working so well, so I spend that time drinking,” he said. “In the end it hasn’t really changed how much work I do. But when I drink I make better games, so that’s okay.”
Nier: Automata ended up being a very good game indeed, as we’ll explore further in the next few pieces. With this in mind, one can only wonder how much Taro ended up drinking during the entire creative process!
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