Friday, March 17, 2017

This Cannot Continue

Most of my time spent with 2010's NieR was spent staring slack-jawed at the screen. Between its bizarre genre shifts, oppressively dark anime-esque narrative, and patchwork mechanics, there was a fascinating and bizarre game. It indulges itself in almost every flaw and merit allowed for a video game, all while weaving a weird tale about humanity's extinction and your role in it. It became one of the few games that I've played that has aged as well as Metal Gear Solid 2[1] in terms of what it's actually doing as a video-game.

(*this is your spoiler warning*)

It was even more strange as its universe only exists as a spinoff of a sort-of joke ending from Drakengard, a game I don't particularly like. Hell, I didn't even know it was "in the same universe" until well-after I got into the game, as NieR immediately had my attention on its own merits after its initial teaser trailer. Drakengard was one of those games I rented when it released and was extremely happy that I only rented it at the time. A shallow musou-like with a side of Panzer Dragoon, its saving graces were its batshit insane narrative and how the cacophonous soundtrack feeds into your psychopathic actions as a character throughout the game. I wound up hurling any number of expletives at the screen when it came to Ending E's final hellboss[2] and was very happy when it came time to return the game (and I would be just as flustered ten years later[3]).

The games have a reputation for being "bad", but the metrics by which most people use for that began to irritate me when the first NieR was released. NieR is by no means a poor-playing game, but you wouldn't have known that at the time, given how far people went out of their way to criticize the game for things that only marginally matter to what made the game special (sidequest design, shallow action RPG combat, not fantastic looking, etc.). Not that those things shouldn't be called out, but as I said---people were mostly tripping over rocks in the driveway and just giving up entirely on making it out of the yard.

So then we come to Automata, which fused Taro's narrative fuckery with Platinum's action game pedigree. Along with Bloodborne, this was the reason I kept the damn Playstation 4. Fortunately neither game let me down and Automata may be one of my favorite games in a very long time.

While it was NieR's overall narrative arc that pinned me down the first time, it was the small things in Automata that wowed me this this time around. Things such as the recording of the player's actions during 2B's bootup in route B and the smooth transitions between the game's primary third person action combat and the hacking minigames inherent to the universe (and how effortlessly they made the music shift between the two). It begins to play with and disrupt the methods of "video-games" in such a way that I haven't seen since JD goes off book in Sons of Liberty. That the game organically tethers the in-universe pain of losing the major server feature of YoRHa's command bunker to the player's real-life save game feature (how you save in the game changes halfway through it) is amazing. These things begin to stack up and Automata does it constantly compared to the original game where they were more along the lines of cute novelties. They seem far more intentional now---deft, realized.

Also more than its predecessors (specifically Drakengard and NieR), Automata best exemplifies itself as a game working in a grand synergy with its own soundtrack. Both the the game itself and its music are layered and uncharacteristically beautiful, with the music punctuated by nonsense languages arranged into lyrics (which is also complemented by the narrative overall). Occasionally the vocals will change and the tracks are almost all dynamic with two or three various mixes shifting around depending on your actions. The remixed tracks from the first game are also placed in sequences that actually mean something relative to the scenarios in which they play. The first time you go through the game, you will see the seams on the story and world's absurdity but it will be fairly tepid right up to the end of your first playthrough. Then you start replaying it and those seams break, shit begins to spill out, and your understanding of its reality begin to warp substantially as the story spirals out of control.

For example, the track "Birth of a Wish" is mixed quite a few times, but the most prominent differences are in the desert sequence (the first real mission on Earth for 2B) and final sequence of path A, with different chants by the Machine Lifeforms:

"This cannot continue!"

"Become as gods!"

The way the chants permeate the scenarios you play them in made me regard them as a musical sequence in a Disney movie (i.e. with a bit of a sick and twisted edge). The game dances with its music in a way the series hasn't done before, at least not this well (the first game makes up for it with more memorable banter and dialouge between the main characters, so at least it was a trade-off for something worthwhile).

The final hellboss sequence in this game is also a good example for how the game collaborates with its music. Initially it's a Geometry Wars-esque twin stick with an increasing difficulty, but the twist isn't as obtuse or forced now. It's actually pretty damn smart. Instead of the impossibly skewed rhythm battles from the the other games, it's a melancholic sequence using hope starkly juxtaposed with hopelessness[4]. After watching the characters learn of the recurring cycle of lies and murder they're trapped in, the player is given the option to delete their data. However, it isn't an obvious separation from the game's narrative as it was in the first NieR and can be rather dubious in how it plays out. The line blurs between how the pod addresses the player and acknowledges the characters in its own universe.

Rather than force you to hopelessly slam your head against the wall this time, the game gives you the option to accept help from other people who have played the game and allowed their entire save files to be deleted so you can succeed. So while you begin to receive much-needed help from earlier players, you also have to watch the significant sacrifices that these people made die and disappear (presumably forever) all on your behalf. This is all while the music progressively reaches a point to where a choir begins singing in the background (which I learned today is the game's entire staff singing very cheerfully). The final boss actually being a credits sequence is also fascinating to watch as certain things are harder shoot down than others (e.g. "Square-Enix" is a pain in the ass to destroy).

There's even a weird treatment of how reveals work in this game (which isn't entirely new to the series, but feels more realized this time). Anyone who played the original NieR knew there was no way that humanity was still alive (as the player actively dooms it through their actions in the first game), so a good chunk of Automata is spent waiting for other shoe to drop for 2B and 9S in terms of that information coming to light (at a point it becomes obvious for newcomers as well). This becomes apparent in path B as you're playing with 9S and its added as a by-the-way in such a manner (from the player's perspective) that reminds me of a meaningless headstart in your average MMO power-creep cycle. A lot of the players will know this by that point but its such a shock to the characters and the information itself has drastic repercussions for most of them[5]. The knowledge the player is granted is only valuable insofar that they're allowed to realize just how hopeless it all is right before the characters themselves do (if those characters are even allowed make it that far). NieR's sense of nihilism has always been a uniquely charming thing to experience and Automata is no different.

While I do have quite a few things to say regarding Breath of the Wild and Horizon, they can wait. This was the game I was waiting for this year, and it didn't disappoint me in the slightest (which doesn't happen too often) so I'll probably be spending a little while savoring it before going back to those two (and before Stormblood releases).

1. Both of which have a very anti-human theme pervading the entire game.
2. "Hellboss" is just going to be my term for any final encounter in a Yoko Taro title from now on, referring to any stupidly difficult and obtuse sequence the player has to overcome in order to complete the game. As it stands, only Drakengard 1, 3, and NieR Automata have these (though the first NieR does have an equivalent in terms of being "remembered" for how it ends).
3. Despite the fact that I actually enjoyed Drakengard 3 (Zero still remains my favorite Taro "protagonist" with A2 as a close second), that final boss is still one of the sickest things I've seen in a video-game to date:
4. Interesting thing to note here is that out of the four games in this series worth playing, two end in an absurdly dark manner, the other two end on somewhat hopeful notes. Automata is actually one of the latter. The hopeful ones are always sequels to the real dark ones.
5. Devola and Popola in particular are now on my very short list of favorite video game characters because of how this in particular affects them.