Tuesday, May 16, 2017

NieR: Automata (2017)

This is going to be rambling, full of substantial spoilers, and comprehensible only to people who have already played both NieR games. Fair warning.

The biggest problem with NieR: Automata is, unfortunately, one that's difficult to divorce from the game's strengths: namely, that the stories of routes C and D are structured such that terrible things happen at every possible turn. Overall, I would say the game works primarily because of its willingness to take both personal and global loss to an apocalyptic extent; but the specific bad things that happen aren't all great for the game.

It kills off many characters too soon, some of whom offered side quests that are among the most satisfying in the game but feel like only seeds of larger stories that could have been illuminating. It also requires you to spend most of the game playing as 9S, the least interesting character narratively and most repetitive character mechanically. This is not only problematic because it's unsatisfying, but also because it seems the game assumes the player will relate to him over the other main characters, 2B and A2.

And all things considered, I would say 2B and A2 are both interesting characters whose stories ultimately do far more for the game than 9S's. I wish they had at least been represented more straightforwardly, especially in 2B's case. In fact, I'm tempted to speculate the prominence of 9S's story compared to those of 2B, A2, Anemone, Adam, Eve, and Pascal has led some players to read the game in ways that are, to put it bluntly, boring. The game overtly ponders mortality, nihilism, existentialism, and various other themes that pertain to the search for "meaning" in life, so naturally the player is drawn to consider how the game's story develops them.

But if you ask me, the game doesn't develop these themes, at least not in a way that's especially coherent. To the extent that it does, it does so hardly any better than the recent live-action production of Ghost in the Shell developed its theme. Just as the final line of that film is a mostly-empty platitude, so too is the final line of NieR: Automata's ending E. As far as statements about life's "meaning" go, the game fails to do more than reiterate the concepts of the many philosophers it references - if it even does that much.

However, as I've already said, NieR: Automata does work - in fact, I think it's an excellent game. A big part of that is its dramatic flair, which is attuned to the player's presence and role in the game. There's a reason most people who play it single out the first battle against Adam in the desert as one of the game's highlights, and I think other parts of the game work in similar ways. It shows you things you don't expect, at moments during which you need to immediately prepare yourself to respond to them. 

When you encounter Adam for the first time, it comes just after seeing something uncanny which calls the machines' true motives into question; also, the music (machine voices chanting "this cannot continue" in unison) carries the implication that Adam is several times more powerful than any of the enemies you faced up to that point. The boss battle is not actually that difficult, but you do feel threatened with increasing difficulty when you realize how quickly Adam's level is rising during it. Even if that threat is an illusion, it's still effective. Other parts of the game are dramatically effective for at least some of the same reasons. To name a few: the first glimpse of the Amusement Park, the Copied City, facing off with other YorHa units (especially flight units), and the replication of locations from the 2010 NieR; they all present you with some unexpected image or suggested threat, and consequently put you on guard as a player.

It's a little strange that it feels important to be on guard in NieR: Automata when the game ultimately doesn't give you much agency aside from choosing to complete side quests or not. Then again, you could argue that a player doesn't need agency to be responsible for what happens in a game. Mother 3, for example, goes so far as to emphasize the player's lack of agency in the story: you can't lose the rock-paper-scissors game to get Duster in your party, even if you try, and the game jokes about it. But it still directly addresses the player at the end of the game to thank them for their input. Mother 3's antagonist, Porky, is a character who experienced loss and comes to shut himself off completely from the world. You don't alter the events of the game's story, but your interest in it (and hopefully your concern for the characters) pushes it forward; you become the opposite of Porky, who denies the world because of his inability to control it.

There's also the 2010 NieR, in which you can't stop fighting even though you might want to. The point of that game is to be frustrated with your lack of agency, to bear knowledge that could spare the characters their profoundly depressing fates and be unable to do anything about it

On this front, NieR: Automata is subtler and less extensive than either of those games. Still, you can see some similarities to both. Parts of 9S's story in routes C and D are as frustrating as the 2010 NieR. A perhaps more interesting example is the boss battle with Hegel at the beginning of A2's story: Hegel is one of the longest boss fights in the game, and probably the biggest spectacle; but there's really no reason for you to be fighting it. You're only fighting it because A2 has devoted herself to destroying as many machines as she can. A2 is living the sentiment expressed by Popola at the end of NieR: "no one stops." These are characters who fight, who put themselves in harm's way, because doing anything less than that would give them too much room to think the unthinkable.

But if there's one place where NieR: Automata's treatment of agency more closely resembles Mother 3 than NieR, it's ending D. In ending D, you find that the game's villains, after witnessing everything every character went through up to the very end of the game, decided to abandon violence: they repurpose the gigantic weapon they built into a device that launches an ark into space, allowing the machine lifeforms to leave Earth in peace and search for a new home with new companionship. 

This is why I love the game, and I think it makes a far more interesting point than that articulated in the final line of ending E. Both NieR games are founded on problems caused by misunderstanding; but they're careful to demonstrate that these misunderstanding's aren't totally arbitrary, nor are they easy to avoid.

Two prominent themes in both games are the influences of innate tendencies and the emergence of consciousness among lifeforms that need highly complex behaviors to survive. The replicants are necessarily similar to the humans they were based on, but develop unique consciousnesses. The machine lifeforms were designed to serve the aliens, but gained consciousness and killed their own masters. Popola and Devola were meant to oversee Project Gestalt, but after its failure adapted their skills for other purposes.

The reason replicants and shades fight, or androids and machines, is because they're different species. They have different needs, some of which are incompatible, and that's one reason they fight. But another reason is that their different needs led them to different ways of thinking and communicating, which prevent them from figuring out which of their conflicts are substantial and which are arbitrary, and which prevent them from seeing each other as worthy of such consideration to begin with.

The idea that conflict is caused by misunderstanding is frankly immature taken by itself. People can genuinely have incompatible yet vital impulses, and if it ever felt as though either NieR game ignored this, their sections that expose what your enemies are thinking wouldn't work at all. But the prominence of innate influences in the series changes the meaning of those sections: misunderstanding arises from more basic conflicts before it starts exacerbating arbitrary ones. 

I like ending D so much because it recognizes and responds to this. It says the Red Girls saw what Adam, Eve, and all the androids went through, and decided they no longer had any reason to fight. Not only did they move past their programming, they moved past Adam's mistake of assuming conflict was the essence of life after he started to think for himself. What the Red Girls really express in ending D is productive curiosity, a drive to experience more and go beyond oneself. We see the same tendency in Pascal, for whom it manifests as unconditional compassion, until it becomes untenable. (The game notes that for the Red Girls, nothing is untenable.) We can even see it in 2B and eventually A2 in their feelings toward 9S. 2B has aspirations beyond the cycle of life and death she describes at the beginning of the game and beyond her assigned identity as an executioner. A2 aspires to live for anything after losing anything, and willingly takes on the mantle of protecting 9S from 2B. It's a very simple place for NieR to arrive at, but it's extremely hard-won, and it's hard to imagine what else could possibly provide a line of flight away from the conflicts depicted in the NieR series.

If Automata's overt philosophical pursuits are reducible to platitudes, it's because they're expressed by misguided characters, and the game is interested in getting away from that. Many of the villains - Adam, Eve, Kierkegaard, and even 9S - have one thing in common: they're all obsessed with death, and anything they do that resembles philosophy (or in Kierkegaard's case, theology) is corrupted by that. (Incidentally, this is why I don't take Kierkegaard's machine lifeform cult to be an indictment of religion itself, but of religion with an inadequate theology. The machines are failing to grasp it.)

There are two characters in the game besides the Red Girls who manage to get away from this: Pascal and Anemone. (2B and A2 are between the two ends of the spectrum.) Anemone in particular has suffered as heavily as any character, but her concern is with community and the future rather than death. She accepts Pascal's help, which is a considerable change from how paranoid we see she once was. Pascal is a pacifist, and remains so until pushed to the very end of his rope. Anemone and Pascal cooperate when no other character in the game expects them to. Neither of them can be totally compassionate because they lack the limitless power of the Red Girls - Anemone still wages war and Pascal nearly gets himself killed a number of times before his downfall - but they make an effort to keep it mind as a priority. The last glimmer of hope in the game's extremely bleak conclusion lies in the community Anemone cares for. This is true even in ending E. 

And this is why it's important that the game be as dark as it is, even though it resulted in some choices that were detrimental to the story (not that these were necessary results). The game takes the concepts of productive curiosity and unconditional compassion to be important, but refuses to be naive about it. It knows its characters are fallible and finite and that "unconditional" anything is too much to ask of them. It pits them against brutality so extreme that it leaves Pascal asking to die. But the goal still seems worthy in the end. The characters still have something to aim for, something other than war to organize their efforts. 

2B and A2 are valuable characters because they're part of the game's effort to seriously test its own conclusions: 2B isn't obsessed with death, but continually suffers loss; A2 suffered avoidable loss due to exploitation in the past, and has been left in an ambiguous position because of it. Through their eyes, death and violence might have value as instruments of rebellion - the destruction of YorHa benefits them. This is part of the reason I wish they'd been more prominent in the game, but I still think they play an interesting role. And, I still think Pascal holds up as the game's most admirable and important figures (with Anemone deserving a similar distinction).

NieR: Automata's playing with existentialism is most interesting when it asks where philosophical quibbling becomes obsession with death, and raises other questions about how to ethically respond to and recover from tyranny and disaster (even if it didn't put as much emphasis on this as it could've). And I appreciate its willingness to challenge itself with extreme circumstances. I do wish that at several points it had made different choices. 

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