Welcome to another edition of “The Casual Gaymer!” This is a weekly column from AiPT! Gaming in which I’ll share my thoughts, questions, and concerns about video games and the gaming industry as a queer person with limited free time. Missed last week’s edition where I helped readers who fear the old blood a little too much make their way through Bloodborne‘s Yharnam? Away! Away! This week, I want to open The Casual Gaymer with a quote:
We are perpetually trapped…in a never-ending spiral of life and death.
Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment?
I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle…and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.
These are the words that open PlatinumGames’s Nier: Automata and immediately after hearing actress Ishikawa Yui deliver these lines, I knew this game was extremely my bullshit.
Not only is this dialogue just sweet as hell, the very first line before any mention of killing god introduces one of the most important narrative and ludological mechanics of the game: repetition. The macro cycle of life and death as a concept. The micro repetition of engage enemy, fight, defeat, repeat. Finishing a chapter of the game, seeing an “ending,” and being prompted by the developers to continue playing and finding oneself at the beginning of the story once more. Nier: Automata presents repetition in various forms and inspire various degrees of pain or numbness, at times even pleasure when the repeated action yields something new. Like the machine who repeatedly brings buckets of muddy water to a deactivated–or, if machines can “live,” dead–machine they call their brother, hoping to revive him, the player must repeatedly slaughter machines through the same combos of movement, but to what end?
I should say before continuing that this column will not contain major spoilers for any of Nier: Automata‘s five major “endings” (a misleading name the game uses) or the story beats between. I will say, however, that after rolling the credits on Ending E, the last major ending of the game, and digesting the post-human existentialism I had just finished wolfing down (I couldn’t put this game down near the end), my thoughts around the combat where mixed. On one hand, examining the combat by itself with no consideration towards narrative or theme, the combat very quickly becomes less about chaining together stylish combos and more about pressing the X button to get through the fight and hurry to the next bit of story. This feels especially grating when it comes to the side quests. While, narratively, the side quests in Nier: Automata are the best side quests I’ve ever played, running back and forth across the map, fighting the same machines again and again with the same combos to complete a fetch quest and finally be rewarded with story got to be…a drag. The story payoff always felt worth it, but the actual act of combat got boring after tens of hours of playtime.
Nevertheless, when the credits rolled for Ending E, I thought longer about what the game has to say about repetition and without spoiling the specifics, I was left feeling the combat did exactly what it should have done. Nier: Automata depicts a war and while the game is concerned with more than war alone, I feel the repetitive, numb nature of the combat is thematically perfect. This is not one of many AAA shooters that pretends at telling a grounded story about war while slapping quippy phrases on top of commercials showing which guns you can slaughter your friends with. This is instead, a game that makes you truly feel the numbness of a soldier made to kill over and over, even after their body is destroyed and their mind is uploaded into a new one. Yes, the soldier you play as is also wearing stylish as hell, sexualized clothes, but what does that say about humanity’s ideas about gender that they would dress up their killing machines in sexualized attire if their built to present as female? Also, the game’s director, Yoko Taro, who also helped write the game, “just really like[s] girls.”
Regardless, I wouldn’t change a thing about the combat of Nier: Automata. I may be giving the devs too much credit for subpar gameplay, but I can’t help but love how well it all comes together in the end. I’m going to keep it briefer this week, but if you’re like me and missed Nier: Automata because it came out in the same freakin’ month as Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Night in the Woods, I highly recommend picking up this very special game. Was that not enough italics for you to be convinced? Play Nier: Automata. I know the combat gets to be a drag, but I promise it’s worth it. Part of why I’m wrapping it up so soon is because I have a much bigger, much more spoiler-filled piece in mind concerning this game. Have a lovely week and become as gods! Become as gods!