Stories You Can’t Tell With a Pen—NieR: Automata

Spoilers abound for NieR: Automata!

One of my more controversial stances on video games and literature is that the video game is the best way to tell stories. So controversial, in fact, I haven’t said it to anyone yet. I’m finally feeling brave enough to defend this particular point, so here goes. Authors, put away your pitchforks and hear me out. Let me talk to you for a minute about NieR: Automata, a story you can only tell with a controller, and not a pen.

NieR’s Protagonist,2B Credit: Jorge Figueroa

Before I get into NieR, let me answer the obvious question: why video games? It comes down to immersion. I enjoy plenty of books that I don’t feel immersed in. It’s a difficult thing to do in a novel, even ones in the first person. There’s something about the physical disconnect between the me reading and the protagonist. That disconnect simply doesn’t exist in video games. Immersion is a necessary part of the experience. Even in bad games, it has to exist. You hold a controller and physically manipulate the character throughout the experience. The game forces you into the shoes of the character you play. It’s hard not to be immersed. And that’s so important when telling an impactful story. Some games, especially more modern ones, really lean into this relationship. I’ve felt things while playing video games I don’t think I could feel while finishing a novel. And now we’ve come full circle! Nier: Automata is one of those games, a truly incredible exploration and existential experience that can only happen with a controller in hand.

NieR has a lot to get into, so I’ll be brief. The game takes place in a far future, wherein you take control of a robot that is indistinguishable from humanity, referred to as an android. Codenamed “2B,” the protagonist is a combat android, designed to fight against “Machine Life Forms,” an army of invading robots, ones that look simplistic and reminiscent of current robotics projects today, that have invaded and taken over the earth. Actual humanity has retreated to the moon, where they wait for the androids to destroy the machine life forms so they can return to their home planet…

The Machine Lifeforms. Credit: Jorge Figueroa

Wait, no, come back! I promise you, despite the out-there story frame, there’s a lot in NieR that hits home.

In fact, the game does something incredible. As you play, you actually buy into the story and it fades to the background. You aren’t thinking of robots and aliens, you’re reacting to the story as naturally as you would events in your real life. And when the game takes an existential turn, it hits hard. You eventually find out you’ve been lied to. Humanity has been extinct for years. The lie was perpetrated to keep the androids fighting, since it’s all they were built to do. But after existing for so many years, the androids have begun to evolve past their singular purposes. They’ve built relationships and developed feelings. Confronted with the existential truth that their lives are built upon lies, how will they continue? The game explores this reality. Some characters go mad, and rebel against the systems that perpetrated the lie, and others tried to find meaning in the fact that they exist. I remember a feeling of pure dread when the lie was revealed. I had to pause and walk away for a while. I got emotional in a way that I hadn’t through any other media. I couldn’t stop though, it didn’t feel right. I needed to know where I would go next. How would I go on? For a brief second, I was entirely immersed in the story. I thought in 2B’s head and not my own. It was a powerful moment, one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I don’t think I could get that feeling of pure, visceral despair without the existential link that video games provide.

The lonely earth. Credit: l a n g g i

And the game’s conclusion pushes that existential envelope further. Through circumstances possibly too convoluted to describe, the player finds oneself at a moment where success literally cannot be achieved. The game then breaks the fourth wall and addresses you directly: proposing an option. You can “upload” your own experience and help other players stuck at the same point. To perform this though, you have to give up the totality of your life in the game. If you accept the offer, the game deletes your saved data while you watch the game take control of your gaming system, selecting the options to delete all of your data. It was a unique and brave moment. It made me, the player, face the same questions 2B did. Why did my “life” in the game matter? Was there meaning in the time I spent in the world, or the fact that I could join with the others who gave up their time for each other. Did the singular events, characters we fell in love with and hated matter, or was the memory of that life with no physical remnant enough?

I remember this being the moment that NieR broke me. I dropped the controller and watched the hours and hours I put into the game get wiped out. I felt like something was being torn from me, as ridiculous as that sounds. I remember looking down at the controller once the credits finished rolling and the screen went black, as I reflected on how much that moment moved me. That kind of connection, as much as I love reading, could have never come from turning pages. Only with a controller in my hand could something so artificial feel so real. I look back at this memory with the same visceral, tactile force that my real life memories have. And that’s what’s key, the force I think video games have that novels lack. Novels are unparalleled in their ability to show readers other worlds. Readers get to know the world through the eyes and ears of someone completely different, in every way. Video games though make us feel other worlds. We mentally and physically inhabit them. Games pull you into their world and through them we have visceral experiences that blur the line between our real-world experiences and digital ones. Video games have the potential to make us forget physical reality, even if just for a moment. That’s where the power in video game storytelling lies.

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