In recent years, Yoko Taro has grown from a small Japanese developer, to an auteur who I believe will be making waves alongside Hideo Kojima and Suda51 before long. NieR: Automata is his biggest hit to date, and rather emblematic of what he does when it comes to game and narrative design. NieR games pull in elements from many genres in order to create a game that says things about all games. In this post I’m going to talk a little about this gameplay mosiac and how it works, and the story themes about evolution to godhood in a story about AI.
(If you just want to read me blab about story instead of game design, scroll down to “Gods”.)
I feel like there might be a real term for this, but I’m not sure what it is! So until I find it out, this is what I’m calling it.
Most games have several utilized styles of play. Each have different mechanics, responses, tutorials and so forth. For example, you could say that a Telltale game has three: walking, quick time events, and navigating choices. Visual Novels and Dating Sims have one: negotiating choices. Most games have between 2-5 sets of mechanics for shifting types of play.
NieR: Automata has four: Play Exploration/Combat, Fishing, Visual Novel and SHMUP. However, thanks to mindful game design, the shift of graphics, music, and camera angles can lead one to claim that there are seven. Three of them are SHMUP in different styles with different units (Flight Unit Flight Mode, Attack Mode, Hacking), Fishing, Visual Novel, and two styles of combat and exploration guided by camera use: Third Person and Metroidvania.
The original NieR had fewer game mechanics, but did more with the latter aspect where the camera angle changed the mood and play. It utilized a profile Metroidvania style, and sometimes a top-down perspective that emulated Diablo. These methods were effective in changing the mood and aura of a scene, similar to an Automata shift between dramatic mech battles and minimalistic, lonely hacking. It’s a fascinating trick to save money in development while also broadening what your game has to offer, and ways that the story can be delivered.
Yoko Taro’s Visual Novels
People love or hate the sections of NieR that are told in visual novel format. The original game had a lot more, but there are more VN influences in NieR than that. The unique way that the endings are constructed in NieR and Drakengard games is more akin to the way that Visual Novels operate. This is not to say that other non-VN games don’t have replay value, or that playing to the end a second time gets you new content — games have been doing that for a long time. Rather, the way that NieR is constructed so that getting to the credits the first time barely tells you anything about the story reminds me more of how Visual Novels function than typical games.
When someone tells me that they have also read and enjoyed Hatoful Boyfriend, I always have to ask them if they played through to the BBL route. Unless you play through Hatoful Boyfriend multiple times to date every boy and see each of their routes, you will not see the real ending of Hatoful Boyfriend. In fact, unless you see BBL, you barely know anything about the story at all. This is often how dating sims are constructed, and I believed influenced the way the endings function in NieR and Drakengard. If you stop playing after the first ending of NieR, you might feel ripped off. That’s because the game was just getting started, and it takes several playthroughs to get to what the story wanted to tell you.
After reading about Yoko Taro over the past few months, I believe that he did this to make sure that everyone who played his games were fully committed. In reverse, it adds legitimacy from the triple-A market to dating sims and visual novels by adopting the way things are done.
(If you want to disagree and tell me why x y z game did it first I can fight you about it.)
Divine Evolution (Spoilers Ahead)
Yoko Taro enjoys discussing deep, existential topics in his work. NieR: Automata does an incredible job of laying all of the information out for you, almost beating you over the head with it, but never preaching directly to the player (until the end). If you’ve played the first NieR, it’s clear to you that humanity is extinct by the time that Automata begins. Still, androids are driven to provide for humans because that is what they were built for. 9S even uses the line that androids were “made in the image” of humans.
Of course, because it has been so long since humans were on earth, the concepts of what we left behind are corrupt. 2B and 9S wonder about the uses of diet pills, and we even see this happen. Humanity is far removed from the events that take place, and androids and robots alike pine over what we left behind.
How did humans become gods? They died. And the machines become fixated on that concept inappropriately. In reality, however, we became gods the moment we created androids to serve us. When humans were no longer available to be served, YoRHa manufactured some for the sake of keeping up morale. This comes full circle in the finale of NieR: Automata, when the pods that have served the androids choose to reject their programming for the sake of their desire to save their creators.
I think I’m still digesting how incredible some of these concepts are after beating the game.
In conclusion: NieR: Automata is incredible for many reasons. Please play it, and keep an eye on Yoko Taro and his future projects. He is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.