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Nier: Automata, Operation Bitter Chocolate

“And when that day comes, we should go shopping together.”

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In many respects, the original Nier was an impossible project.

A deep cut spinoff of a narrative based on the fifth ending of 2003’s Drakengard (Drag-On Dragoon). The “joke” ending, to be specific, where your fantasy characters and creatures fall into another dimension. Our dimension. They fight a mighty queen over a modern city skyline. The magical bodies of our heroes then shot down by air defense force interceptors.

Nier released around seven years after the fact. Knowing this direct background was not necessary to enjoy the story. Text archives and other documents exist to clue in characters and players alike. But, as disease swept the land and the game goes from a modern snowy steel city to a “future” out of medieval times with remnants of this past? It sure helped faster contextualize a lot in understanding the nature of the conundrum mankind found itself in. Never mind the projects we undertook to try and get things under control. And how it all leads to so much damage one man can do in his attempts to save his ailing daughter.

I did not buy the original Nier when it launched, which is important to point out.

I will not claim to have been at the forefront of any ahead of the curve vanguard. I bought it used some time down the road. Nier was, and remains, a game with wondrous ideas of storytelling and ambition. One which game critics I trust spoke with a lot of fondness for. But it was also one they always mentioned with a lot of caveats. A project which had run out of time refining its gameplay, and made a lot of tough cuts. But one which had put elements like its writing and music so forwards in importance. It was worth it to hear, if you could get through the ample rough spots. Trust in this, and remember the name. So one day, I gave in snagged a copy for myself.

I do not imagine my bargain bin story is at all an unusual one for the folks who have come to Nier over the years. Nier was something which tended to find you. An experience which, while clunky in the mechanical aspect of getting you from Point A to Point B, would often be so eager to reward you for trusting it. And after the credits rolled, it wanted you to come back and see what else it had in store for you. It had been holding out, all this time. Stories were happening all the while which you were never privy too. It needed to trust you as well, or it could never tell them all.

About seven years later, here we are again.

Nier: Automata should not, by any means, exist. An impossible project. Celebrated members of the original team would return to write (Hana Kikuchi), compose (Keiichi Okabe), sing (Emi Evans), and direct (Yoko Taro), among others. They would now be in command of one of the most well regarded game development studios in the world, via PlatinumGames. Akihiko Yoshida, noted as the Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII artist, also joined by request. Every conceivable advantage for a sequel project to a property which, at best, holds a cult classic status. Disastrous failure would not come from a lack of trying.

Allow me to help you then, in a similar way to how someone once helped me.

 

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One of the most well traveled aspects of Nier: Automata comes from the character designs, so it seems fair to start there.

Given the kind of circles you may run in if you have made it to my particular corner of the internet, odds are high you have seen some promotional art. Blindfolded characters in black dresses. Velvet uniforms with embroidery and a bow. Puffy shoulders leading to feathered sleeves and long gloves. It is a striking look in about any context. The box art (or reverse box art, as some cases may be) drives it all the further. A smoky illustration of leading lady android 2B, holding the injured body of unit 9S in a princess carry.

Seen less often in the marketing materials are the Operator class personnel. These androids provide data analysis, situation reports, and work from YoRHa’s Earth orbiting space base known as the Bunker. They function as your eyes in the sky, in a manner of speaking. Likewise, their outfits also contain their own meanings and ironies. Their uniforms are more form fitting than the ground units, and standard attire involves veils over their mouths. They can see everything, but are bound to their base. In the words of one non-player character in the control room, Operators remember things you may no longer be able to. Ground units like yourself can upload their memories to a database for reconstruction upon death, but that only goes as far as your last backup.

You would not be out of line if these designs were to bring to mind images out of a fantasy mail order catalog.

Rather than run away, downplay, or otherwise deny this, the more rewarding path is to lean into these kinds of metaphors and meanings. Nier: Automata takes place during a long running proxy war which has gone on for thousands of years. Androids and machine lifeforms fighting each other for human and alien interests. By the time the fullest, truest arcs of the story play out, it will have delved into many issues surrounding wants, needs, and emotional honesty. You will meet characters in various kinds of relationships, or those seeking them, in configurations from the romantic to friendship to the familial. And everything between.

So the design work is something I have to trust you will keep an open mind about when I ask and say I find meaning in. I am going to harp on trust boundaries a whole bunch before we are through here.

Nobody even bats much of an eye about gender arrangements. The game is very direct on having some canonical queer characters. Others mention the ability to request duty reassignment. For the YoRHa forces, your production class ties to your function (ie, Scanners perform on the ground reconnaissance, etc). Some variance exists in how androids may have things like their hair colored or styled, plus they all have their own consciousness. For mass production though, there are a lot of specialized features shared in a production class. Reassignment then is not a job title change, but a whole new set of body parts and ways of interacting with the world. While elements like this are not the major thrust of the main storyline, for the side characters it does come up with the process is not mentioned with concerns about complicated approvals. The message becomes one where if you want to, you can receive reassignment.

Given how various gender matters came up in the original Nier, such as Kainé being intersex, this never feels like I am extrapolating things out of thin air. Kainé was never framed as The Intersex Character, but as a person who happened to be intersex. A text adventure section goes into bullying experiences from when she was a little kid. Otherwise, the plot stays interested in so much else about her and her interactions with other people. While positioned as a romantic partner for Nier over the course of the story, there are no far reaching speeches about “liking her despite her body” or some other easy to fumble grandstanding. She just gets to be liked without it being a big deal. Grimoire Weiss and Kainé have a running back and forth where he talks a lot of smack about her, and Kainé hurls her own brand of fiery banter back at the stogy old magical book. But even at this, Weiss never breaches the subject. That would be going way too far, and cause genuine harm. So the verbal sparring matches are always fielded on Kainé’s presented terms, like fashion or her penchant for aggressive cursing. Kainé gets to be like an adoptive older sister to Emil, and the story does not have such moments careen over into folks making statements about her body.

So in keeping with this tradition, Nier: Automata never has big showboating gay android revelations or whispered words about model unit reassignment fears. Its interests here are instead in normalization and exploring meaning. A lesbian android is not only A Lesbian Android, but has plenty of other things going on which define them and how they are seeking their place in the world.

It is also worth pointing out, for however much attention Yoko Taro receives as series director or for scenario work, the team writers for these various game projects have always been women (Hana Kikuchi, Sawako Natori, Jun Eishima). This has been consistent going all the way back to the first Drakengard. Taro is rather notorious in interviews for things like downplaying his own roles in production, and expressing fondness for doubting himself. But this shines through in his writing teams and who he trusts.

The extra effort to ensure the narratives for his game worlds have women guiding them has always been kind to the legacy of these works.

 

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An aspect of Nier: Automata’s storytelling which spread like wildfire is its possession of twenty six endings. One for each letter of the English latin alphabet. An incredible, even intimidating number.

While true, the game makes this far more sensible than it sounds at first. By design, the story will send you back to the title screen several times over, with end credits sequences signifying an end to an individual chapter. It makes a bit more sense to think of the game like one would a television show. You may see an end credits sequence each episode, but unless you are at the true finale there is more to come next time. To trim things down even further, there are only five “canonical” endings in this progression, which each being straightforward to reach. Keep coming back from the title screen, as it trusts you to, and follow the new series of events. These receive full credit sequences at their conclusion, taking several minutes with full backing vocal songs, that sort of thing. Each ending also has a distinct title, framing and bracketing a letter in its name for denoting it. Your save file will list each of these ending letters on it as you reach them, showing you how far you have come with the characters.

So if there are five “real” credit rolls to this story, then we have the matter of the other twenty one letters in the alphabet.

One of the many stunts Nier: Automata wields is an arsenal of nontraditional game over events. Unlike the main story progression, for these it is far less direct at telling the player how to achieve them. There is no long running moral choice system awarding points or funneling you towards some selection of fates befitting degrees of acting as a saint or agent of chaos, for instance. Rather, in many specific situations, the game reacts to how you have acted in a given moment of action. Which is to say, these ending paths are fast, if not outright immediate. A clear breach in where things “should” have gone. They present a short alternative future, give you an ending title with a designated letter, and hurl you back to title screen with a fresh stamp on your save file. You found a new way to see the world, and are welcome to return.

While some of these finales are quite humorous in tone depending on the situation, I do hesitate to call them “joke” endings. The buried final jet fighter ending of Drakengard is super jarring in context to its game, for sure. But is also a sad one, whose narrative has direct reach into the events of Nier and Nier: Automata. I do like this large alternative finale system quite a bit, as it not only expands on a series tradition of multiple endings but because of how pervasive it can feel. From start to finish, the existence of these hidden ending points is ever present. Even if you did not know going in, you are sure to slam into a few by accident. Then you gain an idea for how many more there are out there. Waiting.

I always enjoyed triggering one of these, as I find the texture of presenting so many “What if…?” scenarios to add a lot to the main characters and narrative. Your path towards the ultimate canonical conclusion is not a “guaranteed” one. The story takes the time to also allow for and show how things could have gone off in so many different directions well beforehand.

This is a very long running war between the androids and machine lifeforms, after all. On a narrative level, the odds are not in the favor of your characters.

 

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There is one particular alternative ending I want to bring up, which is one of the earliest ones possible to receive.

If you would rather not hear about it, fast skip ahead to the next screenshot and I will meet you over there.

If you are still with me, then it means you have an interest in what I am about to say next. Something you will look at often in the game is an options screen and information menu. The place where you check your world map, review quests, browse your inventory, and so on. A neat feature the game has comes from its Plug-In Chip system. As an android, you have system memory for running various programs. These can be movement speed upgrades, endurance enhancements, any number of things. These require a certain volume of memory blocks to run, including default video game interface elements such as your health bar. It makes for a very customized experience, as you can drop “essential” functions if you need to squeeze a little more free space for a chip you want to run. One of the default system chips, present at all times and in every configuration, is for your operating system. Unless you rip it out. You can imagine what might happen if you do that. This menu option is always with you. Even if you do it once, see the result, and return to the game again, you still have this option. You have to think about it when messing around with your chips, lest you unequip it by accident. And given how the market for Plug-In Chips supports many shops throughout the game, this is a widespread feature among all androids. So anyone in front of you at any time has made some particular choices to maintain that existence. To say nothing of any Operators who, if a mental backup of yours went back into service, are once again assigned to try and watch over you. They know what you did. Again, their very design means their eyes are never covered, but perhaps their words may not reach. Maybe more are in some degree of mourning behind that veil than ever let on.

Play the game for a little while, and over time you will start to acquire various accessories. Your uniform may be standard issue, but you can wear various hairpieces, masks, or other head and face wear. These do nothing, from a raw gameplay perspective. This gear provides no bonus statistics, and will not help you in your story in any way. The game even has a tendency to unequip your chosen accessory after particular scenes or loadings. You have to head back to the menu. A roundabout question inherent to this process is what meaning you happen find in it.

“Why do I keep wanting to put this flower in my hair, and why haven’t I killed myself yet?”

It is not an unfamiliar kind of question to me.

 

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An easy trap to fall into when it comes to talking about Nier: Automata is to get stuck talking about sadness.

And it is a world in a rather sad state of affairs.

But I did not steal the subtitle from a screwball R-Type spin off for this write up because it too has multiple campaigns and features references to arcade spaceship shooters. I like the Operation Bitter Chocolate line because of its tasty meanings about playing with balance.

There are a lot of good, sweet things you can do for folks in Nier: Automata. The world is not so large as to be unknowable. You can become quite intimate with the surroundings while fulfilling various sidequests in addition to the main narrative objectives. Areas are often to kept to a tight enough design size to reach for impact and foster familiarity. Some of these locations will adjust over the course of the game. Character requests are not on the other side of a whole continent, so I felt more of a drive to do them all. And there is this drip feed of small rewards. Having quests in progress or revisiting certain areas in a different context often triggers additional dialogue segments. Sometimes you might get personal emails. Plus any direct story for turning in the task upon completion. Almost any given music track in the game also has layering or performance changes designed for specific circumstances. Some variants only play as a reward for completing particular sidequests. A meditative kind of reward, as you walk away and head somewhere else after a job well done.

Of course, these intend to tug at the heart for various fitting moods. And some are laser forged to go for the aorta. Maybe a sidequest had a few ups and downs, so perhaps you now hear a familiar song with missing or different instruments. Or you did something you find terrible without knowing it. The side quest is over, and you are free to go wherever you want. No forced cinematic is holding your hand to a timer, but instead you get to be in a space and reflect how you want. Which I find to be much more of a gut punch, when and where it does occur. As with the alternative endings, you have some direct agency here. There are ways to brute force the music to cycle to something else right away. Or maybe you go for a reflective run and take a land route to the next location you had in mind instead. Whatever you find meaning in, or want to hold on to for a little while longer. There is a jukebox in the Resistance Camp, an early location in the game, and various Sound Data sets to collect. I recommend playing around with it after a while. The same song done in new variants can explore all kinds of different story or situational directions. In theory, we always know this to be true, but here this applies to almost every theme in the game multiple times over.

Bitterness has little meaning if not for the ability to compare and contrast it to the sensations of sweetness. And there are a lot of ways for such feelings to go. This is a keen point the game always holds close.

You have no idea if a given situation is going to pay off in the ways you may hope for. But you have to trust that it will. That it can. Because by asking for help, another character has often already opened themselves up for vulnerability. They trust there is the potential in their desire.

Even if this may not always prove true, there can be meaning in having hoped you were right.

 

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A game requires your input to play, after all. It is an active relationship.

Yet I have made no real mention of the ease or difficulty of this one. It is something which may have crossed your mind during all I have said so far.

Under no circumstances should you read the Trophies, Achievements, or what have you if you want to play Nier: Automata. There are massive story spoilers told within them as plain text and images. But, I do want to talk about an aspect of the very first one you will receive, awarded to all for completing the first level area.

At the time of this writing, around twenty percent of Playstation 4 players who had turned the game on have not received this first designation. On the PC side, according to Steam this number is even higher, around thirty percent of all players. You can not save your game in the first level, which is one of the first things the game tells you.

On the surface, this may look like a horrific bloodbath. An exercise in hellish frustration, as the success statistics drop even further for each subsequent area of the game.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To go back to all those notions of trust and intimacy, the very first thing Nier: Automata is asking is for you to be honest. You have to select your desired difficulty. Your partner, the game itself, has layers and layers of things which make it tick. They would like to share them with you, and build a great experience together. This is a game laced in support systems. Operators. Folks making do the best they can on the ground. Unit 2B holding 9S in a princess carry with A2 maintaining a defensive position right on the box cover.

If you would like to enter this relationship, you need to be honest. The narrative arc of the game depends on this. You need to ensure you are both interacting on the same page.

If you select Normal, you receive a lock-on target function. If you select Easy, you receive both this and a full rollout of auto-attacks, auto-dodges, and more. Nothing will be kept from you. Not a single item, sidequest, ending, or secret boss. The game will respect your needs the very best it can, and value the time you are hoping to spend in its world. You have concluded you have doubt, that you have vulnerabilities. For this, you are embraced.

Playing on Hard will mean it assumes you are being honest about wanting a Hard time. And it will respond to you in kind. Hard is a well and true interpretation of Hard. Or selecting an even higher difficulty level, which will kill you in a single hit. You receive no extra benefits from doing this. You unlock nothing extra. This too, is by focused design.

Nier: Automata has a generous heart to those who have fears, to those who question or are unsure of themselves. As core themes, it values such people most of all. It wants to energize and excite folks. It wishes to run with you. The greatest scenic and narrative rewards, the full scope of the story, all of it. It wants to go there, and it wants to be with you. This requires only your faithfulness and passion, to keep visiting in your free time and seeing things through to their ultimate conclusion. You will, again, see the credits multiple times before the final end. You can bail out at any time. Or you can keep building and moving ahead together.

The “stunt” of the first level, being unable to save, is a remarkable work of filtration. You can, by all means, choose to make this relationship as hard as can be. If you refuse to acknowledge if this is not the best of ideas, your partnership will likely fail. If your pride can not be swallowed, if you can not be open about if this is too much, if you can not ask for help when you need it? You will be dismissed. You can not save scum ahead, because to do that you would need to reach the first save point. The game will never open itself up for you.

Nier: Automata is trying to determine what kind of person you are. If, in turn, it can trust you.

Because if you are lying on your first play throughs from the start, it knows nothing it wants to share will be able to reach you. None of its sweetness, none of its bitterness.

And there are downright ugly conversations it wants to have about intimacy issues.

A selection of players, as it turns out, refuse to be so honest or open.

 

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At the PAX East 2017 convention, held a few weeks ago, Yoko Taro had a panel spot to answer various community questions.

While running a gauntlet of subjects, and often kept quite silly in tone, his last segment in particular made for a strong closer, if you jump to around the 19:55 mark:

 

 

“…those who haven’t played Nier, I just wanted to let you know that Nier isn’t necessarily the most perfect game. It is a little bit off, it is a little bit strange. It may not be the most fun, it may not be the most beautiful in terms of graphics, or it may not have the most interesting scenario. But to give an analogy, I’m sure in your middle school days or when you were younger, there was a girl or a boy who you liked. And that person may not have been the most beautiful or the most funny. You weren’t quite sure what the reason was, but you just liked that person for who they were. And so Nier is kind of an offbeat, kind of strange game. But just like that memory of the first girl or boy that you liked back then, I’m hoping that Nier would be a game that would have a very fond place in your memories and in your hearts. And that’s what the hopes that were had were for this game.”

 

In the interest of leveling with you, being as honest as I can, and with not a scrap of hyperbole:

Nier: Automata is, as of right now, my favorite video game ever made.

As a work of interactive fiction, it accomplished things I had waited my whole life to see and experience.

Which is such a terrible, awful thing for me to say. A horrific curse of a statement. An impossible standard for someone to hear and take as a serious remark. The words of a child perhaps. Not someone old enough to have been on the Sega side of various video game console splits as a kid, and thus my preferred console maker has been out of that business for almost two decades.

To say anything is a favorite of yours is a rather vulnerable thing.

However.

Synapses in my brain were firing in ways no other game has done to me in… a long time. If they ever did it quite like this at all. Cascading waves I could not write off. I wracked my head about this for a while. The game came out almost a month ago at this point, after all. It took me a while to draft and edit all this. Because I know the feeling, and I can  pin it to other life experiences.

While I am by no means a professional media writer, I have poured hundreds of thousands of words into reflecting on things here in my spare time. I have met met plenty of works which make me laugh, smile, sad, etc. I am always honest when this happens. But this has been a tricky one. You already know how long this post is, and seen at least some of what I have been working through here.

And if you have read enough of my others, you have seen a whole lot more than that.

At least in part, almost everyone wants an entertainment box like this to show up on their doorstep. It is the best possible personal result for someone to have with a media experience. And yet it is such a frustrating, inscrutable thing. I never had plans for what they might be like, what they may look like, or where they would take me. How I would talk about them to other people.

I suppose the optimal description… is like what Yoko Taro said.

A weird kind of earnest love.

I even like Nier: Automata’s unconventional poetry. If you die, your body remains in the world to be retrieved by yourself and found by others for mutual benefits. By default you also leave a single sentence, assembled from smashing together a large pool of preset phrases at random. I took hundreds of screenshots of ones I found over the course of the game. The quality varies, but sometimes the engine creates profound statements. Their meaning resides only in what you wish to ascribe to them. To me, it is telling that out of those who stuck with the game, few folks whose bodies I found ever created obvious custom death poems. They had trust in the system.

You know you are in pretty deep when you find the poetry of a partner super endearing.

I can not promise what you will find will be the same as how I reacted. Perhaps nothing could reach you that way, after all I have said. An impossible thing.

But if you made it this far, you trust me on some level. If that is the case, then you will find a lot worthwhile in spending time here. And since you would also now know the basics of how the story structure operates, I trust you will get to the conclusion. Keep going.

A few bodies of mine litter the world. I hope you can grab what I broke, read the poetry made of me, and let me help you.

To modify a line from the original Nier, said a  almost a decade ago in our time and thousands back in this chronology:

 

Don’t stop.

Don’t ever stop.

 

 

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