Nier: Automata is simultaneously one of the most outstanding and most intriguing games to have been released last year. To even a cursory observer, this tale of sword-wielding, blindfold-wearing androids in the distant post-apocalypse has a distinct air of oddity about it. But just how deep does the rabbit hole go? For many, a deep dive into the convoluted world of eccentric creator (and mask aficionado) Yoko Taro can be an intimidating prospect.
A multimedia artist whose work ranges from games to spin-off content as diverse as novellas, audio dramas, musicals and stage plays, there’s clearly a lot to work with when analysing this subject. Should further curiosity reveal the fact that these disparate elements are all often in some way connected, the peculiarities of this particular auteur may appear too daunting or simply too prolific to parse. Here, we will dig into the strange roots of Nier: Automata, and chart the course of one of the strangest stories in video game narrative.
If you had asked a few years ago if Nier (stylised as NieR), Square Enix’s 2010 post-apocalyptic role-playing game, was a candidate for a sequel, you’d likely be met with one of two reactions; One of the initiated, bitterly conceding that such dreams were unlikely, or the perplexed stare of the average person. Despite its status as a niche cult-classic to many who played it, the original Nier was far from a resounding success for Square. Middling sales and an initial critical reception languishing around the mid-60%’s led to many writing off the idea of a Nier franchise. However, what these detractors perhaps overlooked was that the games eccentric director, the enigmatic Yoko Taro, had already outplayed them, secretly ensuring that his game was indeed part of a franchise. This is where the strangeness in the unlikely story of Nier: Automata begins.
Yoko Taro’s directorial debut came to us in the form of 2003’s Drakengard for the PS2. Part- Dynasty Warriors, part-Ace Combat with dragons, this dark fantasy action-RPG starts a trend in Taro’s work- a unique and compelling story, locked behind dull, repetitive and unrefined gameplay. Drakengard’s world and writing are unrelentingly dark, not to mention utterly bizarre- how many RPG’s can you recall whose party includes a cannibalistic elf, or a blind implied-paedophile, for that matter? Subversive and shocking in equal measure, the strength of Taro’s writing is perhaps best illustrated in Drakengard’s endings, of which there are five, labelled A through E, and none of which are anything less than harrowing. The problem remains, though, that to access these endings, you would be required to play through the entirety of Drakengard multiple times, an experience which, by-and-large, cannot be recommended. This issue plagues the entirety of of the Drakengard series- the excellent writing of its auteur creator hidden behind a slog of sub-standard combat. Why does this matter to the story of Nier: Automata? Well- this is a shot from Drakengard’s ending E:
Surprised to see a modern cityscape in a medieval fantasy setting? This is where things get a little complicated. Ending E sees Drakengard protagonist, Caim, and his dragon engage in a final boss fight with a grotesque otherworldly being known as the Queen Beast, supposed ruler of the Watchers, a race of other-dimensional cosmic beings with the appearance of giant floating human babies (Yoko Taro makes strange decisions) in a sequence which eschews the established gameplay which the player is used to in favour of an extremely challenging rhythm-action mini-game (Yoko Taro makes strange decisions). Crucially, this surreal sequence transports the game to an otherworldly landscape: modern day Tokyo. After defeating the Beast, Caim and his dragon are unceremoniously shot down by the Japanese air force. Roll credits.
Ending E was apparently originally Drakengard’s “joke” ending- think of the Silent Hill franchise’s long-running tradition of alternate “Dog” endings. Trust the mind of Taro, then, to create the original Nier as a serious story which is a direct follow-up in the timeline of Drakengard Ending E. The apocalypse which occurs approximately 1,300 years prior to the main plot of Nier is in fact caused by the aftermath of this supposed joke ending. By now, you should be getting a sense for what kind of auteur Yoko Taro is, and how convoluted his writing can be, both at its best and its worst.
Nier in and of itself is an exceedingly strange case in the world of video games. Released on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the West as simply “Nier”, it was immediately notable for its protagonist’s subversion of Japanese RPG cliché. Instead of the usual feathered hair and pseudo-androgynous pretty boy looks popularised to the point of saturation by the success of Square’s Final Fantasy franchise and others like it, audiences were treated to a refreshing rejection of such tropes in the form of a weathered, long-faced, middle-aged man in Nier, the titular (though re-nameable) protagonist. A father motivated by the need to protect his daughter, Nier was perhaps the game’s single most readily apparent distinguishing factor- at least to Western audiences. In Japan however, the lines become more blurred. The Japanese release of Nier had two titles for the two consoles on which it was released; Nier: Gestalt for the 360, and Nier: RepliCant for the PS3. The Gestalt version was virtually identical to the version released in Western markets. RepliCant, however, had a major difference. In RepliCant, Nier’s daughter, Yonah, is re-written as his younger sister, in order to facilitate the major alteration of having Nier de-aged and re-tooled as a standard JRPG protagonist straight from central casting.
Whether it was the pressures of the Square Enix marketing department, a satire of the trope, or some unknowable other factor which motivated this dual release, it certainly marks the game out as an anomaly amongst its peers. This idiosyncrasy, however, did not translate into the kind of success that a major publisher such as Square would be overly impressed with. Nier’s flaws as a game were immediately noticeable to critics: its graphics were unambiguously sub-par for the time, its core combat was lambasted as equal parts monotonous and awkward, and its flirtations with other styles of gameplay, from bullet hell shoot-em-up sequences to sections paying homage to the fixed camera adventure gameplay of titles such as the early Resident Evil games, were often considered extraneous and cumbersome, or worse, as patchwork solutions to the intrinsic problem of the core game’s lack of polish. Nier’s initial reception was that of an aggressively average game, but as time went by, a small but dedicated cult following attached itself to the title for its virtues as a narrative experience. Taro’s unique and sometimes twisted sensibilities as a writer imbued the game with an innately different feel from that of the role-playing games it resembled at a glance, and, without venturing into spoilers, Nier’s use of Taro’s most beloved trick, multiple endings which must be acquired by consecutive playthroughs, is implemented here in a way that highlights the artistic and narrative potential which exists only in the interactive experience of video games, with content actively changing and evolving to give new context on subsequent playthroughs, providing a story that not only surprises but challenges the audience. This combined with the stellar score by Keiichi Okabe, perhaps the title’s most consistently excellent aspect, helped to propel Nier in many circles to the status of a tragically flawed masterpiece. Nier was the ultimate expression of the frustrating duality of Yoko Taro, an auteur whose work took advantage of the medium of games in a way few could match, but were simultaneously hampered by a dearth in quality between narrative and gameplay.
Enter PlatinumGames Inc. A studio headed by creators who had helped shape such titles as Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Okami and Viewtiful Joe for Capcom, PlatinumGames cut their teeth on the Nintendo Wii’s 2009 title MadWorld, a notable injection of ultraviolence into the consoles overtly family-friendly catalogue, before launching further original IP’s such as the provocative Bayonetta, cementing themselves as a standard unto themselves when it came to the stylish, fast-paced character-action combat gameplay first innovated by the Devil May Cry series. However, despite their frenetic, exhilarating gameplay, Platinum’s titles often left much to be desired in the narrative department- often indulging in the barebones schlock-style scenarios of their original titles such as Bayonetta ( hyper-sexualised witch uses hair to perform magical attacks, also becomes progressively more nude the better the player performs) or Vanquish (American soldier in rocket-propelled armour must stop Russian doomsday plot in space). PlatinumGames presented a situation diametrically opposed to that of Yoko Taro: in all the places one showed their strengths, the other was deficient. Thus was the stage set for Square Enix’s conference at E3 2015, and what would be an extremely fruitful synthesis.
The announcement of Nier: Automata united two niche fandoms into one infectious wave of anticipation. The loyal fanbase of PlatinumGames’ exciting gameplay crossed paths with the cult of Yoko Taro, those who had lamented the technical imperfections which held back the potential they saw in titles such as Nier from achieving the success that their narratives deserved. It was a shocking reveal, with no prelude or prognostication hinting at its existence until the day of the announcement. However, to those who knew the two parties involved, their minds swam with the possibilities; how each half could shore up the other’s shortcomings by exploiting their own superlative talents. It became increasingly clear that there was potential for both sides to reach new heights with this project. Full advantage of this opportunity was taken upon the release of “NieR: Automata DEMO120161128”, a free to play demo of the game’s opening sequence, in December of 2016, two months prior to the games release. It was with this that it became apparent that PlatinumGames had worked their own brand of magic once more. The combat felt immediately responsive, layered, slick and satisfying, fusing the essence of Nier with the substance of Bayonetta. Stepping into the shoes of android protagonist 2B, the game was a joy to play, and in an instant, the original Nier’s problems of a poor first impression were averted, with the demo’s unpredictable ending hinting at the trademark complexities of Yoko Taro’s narrative that were still to come.
This fusion of Platinum and Taro bore fruit upon the game’s release, as Nier: Automata immediately enjoyed a level of both critical and commercial success which elevated both to new heights. Though not a perfect game (and I’m thinking here specifically of the hacking minigames which many found wore out their welcome) Automata as a whole coalesces into a combination of fluid, expertly designed gameplay and an intriguing, compelling narrative, both with hidden complexities for the audience to explore and enjoy.
To date, Nier: Automata has sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide, and accrued numerous awards, nominations and accolades. In the context of the struggle of Yoko Taro to escape the technical shackles and design failings which have for so long hampered his bizarre yet captivating story, Nier: Automata is a redeeming triumph.