The MoeGamer Awards are a series of made-up prizes that give me an excuse to celebrate games, concepts and communities I’ve particularly appreciated over the course of 2017. Find out more and suggest some categories here!
Today’s suggestion comes to us from “riobravo79”, who doesn’t appear to have a website or Twitter or anything — not that I could find, anyway — but left a comment on the initial awards post. Thanks; hope you see this!
Balancing narrative themes and mechanical interest is always a concern for those making a game with any more complexity than a “walking simulator”, visual novel or similarly story-centric experience. And it’s with this in mind that one of the most common terms bandied about by people who like to pretend they know what they’re talking about is “ludonarrative dissonance”, intended to describe the disconnect between the narrative themes of the story and what you actually spend your time doing in the game.
Some games handle this better than others. Some games don’t even attempt to handle it, combining abstract mechanics with a more realistic narrative. But some games do a wonderful job with fusing their narrative and thematic elements with how the game as a whole works.
And the winner is…
There are a number of games I had in mind for this award, but some of them, like Criminal Girls — a deeply fascinating game with mechanics that tie in with its core theme more strongly than I think any RPG I’ve ever played — aren’t titles I’ve covered this year.
Nier Automata certainly came out this year, though, and to everyone’s surprise and delight it was an absolutely magnificent experience, combining creator Taro Yoko’s troubled worldview with the fluid fighting and mobility mechanics developer Platinum has made a name for itself with. It also did a great job of tying its mechanical elements in with its setting, narrative and theme.
The simplest and most obvious way the game handles this is through the game’s “equipment” system. Unlike most RPGs, you don’t outfit the playable characters with normal equipment other than weapons. Rather, you take advantage of their nature as androids by using their available memory capacity to install programs that provide various benefits. The more powerful a program, the more storage space it takes up, though there are ways to compress programs and use space more efficiently.
One of the interesting aspects of this system is the fact that the game’s interface is made up of a number of these programs, too, so you can actually free up a small amount of storage capacity for yourself if you think you can do without, say, a minimap, a message log, navigation markers or even a health bar. The amount you can save by removing these components is relatively negligible in the grand scheme of things, but it does provide a small benefit for those who want to customise their experience and make it more challenging for themselves. Or you can just whip out your character’s CPU chip and realise a moment too late that this will, of course, kill them. The game is ready for this, mind you, offering one of its 26 endings in exchange for you doing something so silly. I hope you saved.
The interface is also used in various creative ways throughout the game to reflect things like the characters taking damage or becoming infected by viruses. This is used to particularly heartbreaking effect towards the beginning of one of the main narrative paths through the game, but more on that in another article.
It would be remiss of me to discuss this aspect of Nier: Automata without mentioning 9S’ hacking sequences. These beautifully presented, completely abstract pieces of gameplay represent his unique ability as a “Scanner” to hack in to other mechanical beings — be they the antagonistic Machine Lifeforms or other androids like himself — and achieve various things. Throughout much of the game, the hacking skill is used as a means of remotely inflicting heavy damage on enemies, effectively allowing 9S to act more like a “mage” than the close combat-centric 2B and A2. But there are number of significant moments where we see it used to deliver pertinent plot information, too.
During these sequences, the abstractly presented environments 9S’ avatar has to explore are often more elaborate than a simple arena with a core to destroy. And they’re handled in a variety of different ways over the course of the game, too; there’s a particularly memorable boss fight where 9S and 2B cooperate, for example, with 2B doing the physical work while 9S hacks in to the enemy, discovering exactly how it became an insane wreck in the first place. Elsewhere, 9S locates information nodes to uncover protected files and discover a number of difficult truths about the world of Nier: Automata; it’s a consistently effective use of mechanics to help advance the story.
And those who finished the game to its full completion will also be aware of the final credits sequence, which takes the form of another of these hacking sequences combined with some distincly “bullet hell” shooting action. By a particular point, it becomes all but impossible to progress further, so the player is presented with a choice — give up (and, the game suggests, accept that life is meaningless and there is no point to anything) or persevere. Take the latter option and you’ll start to see messages of support appear in the background. Continually persevere and you’ll be able to solicit the help of the people who left these messages — actually other online players — though in doing so you discover that this is truly their last act in the Nier universe, as reaching the end provides you with the opportunity to make yourself available to help, too, with the price for offering this support being all of your save data.
Nier: Automata is an absolute masterpiece in so many ways, but it deserves particular praise for its thoughtful game design, incorporating its thematic elements into its gameplay (and vice-versa) in a way not many other games bother with. It has most definitely been a highlight of 2017 for me, and if you’re yet to experience it, what on Earth are you waiting for?
More about Nier: Automata
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