EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay contains spoilers for Nier: Automata
Playing a game years after release carries a different set of expectations than at launch. After an initial cycle of hype, dissent, and varied initial reactions from critics and players, narratives tend to codify about what the game is. Consensus comes into focus. So playing Nier: Automata in 2021, I felt like I knew what I was getting into, a thoughtfully written game about a war between androids and robots that asks you to play it several times with each playthrough or route being either somewhat or totally different than the last. I also knew that, of these, Route B, the second playthrough, had a reputation as a bit of a drag. To paraphrase forums and podcasts, I had been told that after playing the first part of the game “you play the game again but with worse combat” and that I should “just push through it to get to the good stuff.”
When I finally finished Route A a few weeks ago, I was understandably nervous about going forward. If I had to play through a lesser six-hour stretch to get to the good stuff, would I ever see what makes this game so beloved? I’m bad enough about finishing games I like—I started the first part of Automata in 2018 and only got around to finishing it this past month—and, worse, I still had to do all those Flavorful Sidequests I had neglected. I pushed ahead. Route B turned out to be about 4 hours longer than A, but it was also the better experience in a walk. Maybe having put the game down for an extended period of time made some early sections feel fresh. But even after finishing the last section of the game and seeing the final ending, this middle section as 9S remains the high point of my time with Automata.
Yes, I was won over by the spectacular narrative beats of Route C, devastated by the one I assume devastates everyone else, and brought to tears by ending E in one of the only true “I didn’t know games could do this” moments I’ve ever had. But Route B achieves a thematic–mechanical synthesis that makes the best case for why Yoko Taro’s game should be played and not merely seen.
This starts with that “worse combat” mentioned up top. As 2B, you employ the Platinum Games trademark action, beating up Machine after Machine, switching between two weapons with ease, and dodging the large number of projectiles on screen at most times. It is slick and defined by the same sense of cool you’d get watching anime. It is also, sometimes, a chore, especially against damage sponge Goliath-class Machines. Even dropping the difficulty to easy, the state of play feels the same: constantly engaged but occasionally bored, pressing buttons thousands of times to diminishing returns mowing down the Machines. I understand this to be part of the point, and I think it’s cogent, but the warmblooded constant activity of 2B’s combat in contrast with how 9S controls is even more potent to me in illustrating what the game wants to say about its characters’ attitudes towards their enemy.
In the field, using one weapon instead of two, 9S fights in a way similar to his counterpart. Mixing it up is slower and less entertaining than it can be at the peak of 2B’s fights without the combos afforded by switching between swords, but he does have an alternate method of play: hacking. When I control 9S I am compelled to dispatch enemies by hacking into them, played out as a perfunctory bullet hell shooter minigame. For the lowest-level enemies, this minigame could not be more rudimentary. Even for the more complicated enemies, 9S’ hacking ability is generally an easy and engaging alternative to the game’s primary mode of battle. Even bosses fall in a matter of seconds to my grand strategy of mindlessly moving the analog sticks and holding R1. Where 2B’s combat is meant to be arduous, the 9S experience is about dispassionate ease. He’s not a warrior like 2B, but he’s more deadly and less concerned.
For context, Route B is largely the same as Route A, but with a steady drip of new information, mostly relevant to the sapience of the Machine lifeforms created by aliens to wipe out humanity on Earth. Throughout this playthrough, 9S finds evidence of Machines mimicking human behavior—through philosophy, family ritual, and sex—but brushes off each new piece of information as puzzling or trivial. When he hacks into certain Machines, he hears their thoughts and even finds some to be suicidal. The idea that Machines could feel or have concepts like family is ridiculous to the androids; they are, by nature, inhuman husks of metal. By contrast, androids like 9S were made by humans to serve humans in the image of humans, as God made man. Yet the androids are defined by an incuriosity towards what came before, having inherited the mantle of humanity in their design enough to deny the emergent humanity (for lack of a better word) of the Machines. Androids are given alphanumeric designations instead of names, while the Machines sport borrowed names like Engels, Hegel, or Pascal. The meaning drawn from these naming conventions is simple: Androids are defined by their purpose and Machines, finding themselves without the same, have taken to looking for meaning in community and philosophy, defining themselves as they learn.
At the point at which Route B dramatically diverges from A, when 9S and 2B become separated, 9S learns that humans have long been extinct. The human base on the moon and the war to retake the Earth for them are simply lies created to give the androids purpose and morale. Like the Machines then, their meaning is manufactured. But unlike the Machines’ existentialism, this meaning is imposed rather than sought out. Does this affect 2B’s relationship to the Machines? No, not really. And neither does the Route C revelation that the android consciousness is just repurposed Machine parts. He still carries on with his genocidal project, clinging to the superiority he was convinced he naturally possessed. By this point, the player has known to be uncomfortable with the slaughter of the Machines for hours now, but now I watch 9S retreat into the purpose he knows to be a lie, blowing up Machines not only because he is meant to but because he hates them. The endgame reveal that 2B kills 9S every time he learns the truth, a cycle the game implies they have been repeating for ages, is likely for nothing, then. It’s not like the little shit was going to do anything with the information to stop the war.
Once 9S learns the truth about humanity, we return to the factory sequence we played as 2B. In Route A, 2B slices her way through the area, relying on a remote 9S to open doors otherwise locked. It’s easy to imagine during this playthrough that 9S is playing his hacking minigame in an abstraction of the factory, a little triangle shooting lasers at spheres to trigger door mechanisms. Instead, we get Nier: Automata‘s best section. 9S hacks into a Machine and remote controls it. This isn’t the first or last time this will happen, but it is the most significant. As the Machine, I run through the factory looking for the doors 2B needs me to open. I am not well-suited to all of the factory’s environments and must transfer to different types of Machines, some faster, some stronger, and some that fly. It’s a ten-minute sequence, but one that presents a diversity of Machine experience that simply isn’t present in the android homogeneity. The game, in all its sections, is spent playing as three separate androids who look roughly the same—even the third playable character, A2, gives herself 2B’s haircut upon the start of her arc—and, more importantly, control nearly identically. There is more variety of movement and embodiment in this ten minutes than in the whole of a game praised for its genre-mashing variety. Here, after learning that his fight against the Machines is a meaningless quagmire, 9S is made to experience not just what it might be like to be one Machine (we are to understand him to be in their head where we know he hears thoughts) but many. He could not care less, he’s just thinking about how much he wants to **** 2B.
That the Machines are sapient, and that assuming a lack of sapience in others is destructive hubris, is among Automata‘s most simple and obvious themes, and 9S’ narrative arc is the ideal depiction of this. Despite having the bluntness of a hammer to the head, what this sequence has is elegance. Yoko Taro, for all his wild ideas and reflexive narrative design, has that same Video Game Auteur quality that affects Hideo Kojima and Neil Druckmann: he tends to yell his ideas at the player, even when the thematic point might be obvious. He has zero chill, though I find that quality more compelling in his work than in his peers. In this brief factory sequence, Automata achieves simple and understated mechanical storytelling as affecting as the most crushing moments of its endgame. And while it may happen in the part of the game that many declare a slog, it is ultimately what has stayed with me since playing the game.