NieR:Automata’s Big Sad World

Nier: Automata has many of the components of a poorly designed opened world, but it’s also one of the most exciting worlds for the future of narrative and storytelling in games.

Hey there are going to be spoilers here for Nier: Automata. Now you know.

Nier: Automata has garnered much attention this year for its narrative design, and unique storytelling experience. That experience takes place over multiple playthroughs of the same timelines. Grand revelations are delivered in changes of perspective, not just the passage of time and character actions. One of the final reveals is in fact that characters knew all along what you believed only you had been privy to, re-contextualizing much of their actions and attitudes.

But that central, core narrative is only the primary thread in a unremarkable open-world game design. There are dozens of side quests to do in your downtime, and they’re mechanically quite poor. Most are fetch quests returning to areas you have already completed, to scour a vague region for some NPC or nondescript item. Coupled with a restrictive fast travel system, low resolution map, vast empty expanses, and poor exploration rewards it’s a perfect recipe for skippable content, but you shouldn’t. While Automata might be a poor sandbox for gameplay, the characters and stories which fill that box are their own kind of systemic narrative design.

One of the classic features of a strong open-world game is the sandbox. Games where player interaction, mechanics and world systems all work on each other in both expected and surprising ways. This encourages players to not only become stronger, but become smarter about the world around them, rewarding creative players with original solutions. 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been called one of the greatest examples of this, with a system of interactions based natural properties built into every object. Players have discovered solutions to which the developers never designed for. Years earlier, Metal Gear Solid 3 is not an open world, but it’s gameplay spaces are full of wildlife and tools which can be used to overcome challenges throughout the game. Guard’s have a seemingly complex pattern of AI routines. Players who become familiar with the enemy behaviour can act on it to their advantage, which is especially helpful on higher difficulties when traditional ammunition is at a premium.

If these games are sandboxes, it might be appropriate to call Automata’s world a concrete slab. The world is purely static geometry, with a dusting of enemies spread across the surface. And aside from a few bespoke moments, the only possible interaction is to smack the enemies until they explode, again and again, until the inputs and movements become almost reflexive when you enter an encounter. I can’t tell you if this monotony was intentional, but it certainly feeds into the game’s themes communicated elsewhere.

On my first playthrough, I made the mistake of not wanted to deal with that monotony. In the rush to avoid major spoilers, and join the game’s conversation, I blasted through to the end, ignoring the majority of side content. Automata’s main plotline stands so strong on it’s story that one of my first reactions was the the game shouldn’t have been an open world experience. It only resulted in several hours of my playthrough being spent trying to reach destinations, and restricting the plotline to a few square kilometers of land. It was still a fantastic experience, but on a second go through months later I realized what I had missed.

Automata is one of those games which has its themes built into its core. Upon replay, I discovered how every story in the game explores self-determination, how machines built with purpose would do so, and what happens when human behaviour is studied by those with an utterly different existence. The primary plot line is just one thread through those themes, but the game unexpectedly leverages open world design not for gameplay exploration, but narrative exploration.

Many of Automata’s sidequests are simple stories given new context by the world. A mother asks you to find her lost child, but their family units is purely chosen a performance. A couple deserts the battle, but when given the chance one of them rewrites the other’s personality into a perfect partner. Several machines are performing Romeo & Juliet, or at least what Romeo & Juliet means to networked intelligences. Someone dedicates their life, body and identity to their chosen craft, and but still loses to the newer production model. These are all the kind of simple stories we have been telling forever, but resolved by folks who have only heard about humanity through the things we leave behind.

The distinction from any other open world game I have played is how these stories are all written with the same tone and feeling of the rest of the game. Just like a the way games use visuals and music to set the tone, Automata wraps the writing into that goal as well. It’s something only games can do, with their non-linear storytelling. The end result is a game which feels like a complete thought or exploration of its own themes, all of the stories informing and extrapolating on others. Rarely do games have such a focused theme, and contain branches of those themes in itself. Even in open world games, sidequests are usually often an opportunity to give players a break from the core plot. While this is certainly valid, it creates a spread of less powerful content.

Nier: Automata is one of those rare games which feels uniquely authored, created as the vision a single person, or an extremely well tuned team. While the traditional gameplay may fall flat, the stories the world tells and how it tells them is unlike anything else. The themes explored in Automata have been told before, but not in a way which so uniquely leverages the strengths of the interactive medium. With the seemingly endlessly inflating scale of game development, I’d like to see more medium-large productions not afraid to have this feeling. If developers and publishers take the lessons they should be from Automata’s success and critical reception, I’m excited to see what our open world games look like in the coming years. 

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