11-Mar-2021 Commentary

Nier: Automata is the accidental dystopia for our times

Everything is changing. The advent of COVID-19 is transforming how we live now — and how we might live for years to come. The world we knew yesterday won’t be the world we know tomorrow.

In NieR:Automata, everything has already changed. The sun shines on a desolate land, a place where tranquillity makes the world feel immediately safe yet forever in peril. A sunstricken cityscape once teeming with people, now littered with machines waiting to be slaughtered by androids, built and controlled by humans who retreated to the Moon.

It’s a premise you can’t quite trust. We’re told the machines roaming the Earth are dangerous automatons whose murder needn’t be second guessed. Yet in NieR’s opening hours, they show love, they show fear, they show culture — they show humanity. It’s a message the game iterates time and again, reminding you why these machines are meant to die. Each iteration, though, only reveals the absurdity of that initial claim.

This is where NieR and our new world align: both are covered by a blissful curtain that masks suffering, historic and present.

In both NieR and our new world, there’s a shared sense of warped familiarity — a weird kind of normal. Each day we work remotely, interacting with digitised people who don’t quite exist beyond the borders of a screen. Like NieR, we’re now taking dictates from text on a screen and interacting with technological representations of people.

Step outside into the British spring and you’re met with empty streets — backdropped by whistling birds and a beating sun. An empty cityscape for some, an empty town or village for others. A peaceful, silent unease: the world looks right, but it feels wrong. This apparent contradiction, like NieR, is followed by a death-driven narrative that seems murky and difficult to follow.

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NieR is initially littered with events that have little rhyme or reason, things you can’t quite quantify or understand. Each occurrence weakens your foothold on your already vague understanding of the world. You feel forced to rely on the narrative you’re fed, despite your fundamental distrust of it.

This, too, is how our world feels now. It’s hard to grasp the narratives we’re fed — each one different, as nations play out the same core scenario in very different ways.

Regardless, the effect is the same: a sense of helpless unease about almost everything. From the doubt you feel at taking the lives of machines who have no qualm with you — to whether or not nipping to the corner shop for a bottle of milk could kill if you’re a carrier. That uncertainty permeates the vibrant appearance of British springtime. It permeates us, too.

But that sense of uncertainty at the heart of NieR makes it a world worth exploring — to peel away those layers to hopefully discover a truth underneath. It’s a mystery we can work to unearth, a sense of vagueness we can at least work to unravel now. A sense of control we don’t have in our lives today — a mild form of exposure therapy.

NieR is a balm, then. A digitised thought experiment accidentally designed for our world as it is today. The open emptiness is a refreshing contrast to the sameness of a locked-down life — as our real open worlds are now anything but. It’s a kind of uncertainty that video games are uniquely positioned to help us challenge. Where our world has shrunk to the confines of our living room, NieR and games like it re-expand our worlds across countless universes — providing a mental and emotional shortcut out of lockdown.

Here, we have a game that evokes the same feelings as the real world around us — despite their differences in so many other ways. NieR lets us explore and resolve those feelings, and enact a form of catharsis for a world in which there’s so many questions we can’t yet answer.

That balm doesn’t have to be NieR, of course. Minecraft gives you the power to conjure a world in which you find your escape. Final Fantasy XIV might offer a personal connection that’s lacking for so many in isolation alone. Linear games might provide a different kind of remedy, as they shrink a large, confusing world beyond our doorsteps to a single, straightforward path with a singular objective: beat the game. It’s a question we can absolutely answer — and we can likely do it in 10 to 12 hours.

But NieR’s mechanics and themes do feel particularly pertinent now. As android B2, death is an inconvenience as your consciousness is uploaded to a new body each time. You can opt to recover your body and its upgrades to your restore your previous set up. From there, you can alter B2’s internal workings to build a body more suited to the challenge that last bested you.

This is a surface-level reading, of course, as I delve deeper into NieR’s own internal workings. But even then, it’s a reminder that with dark times comes the potential for positive change, from ourselves, our communities, or the world at large. The world, too, will have to reconfigure itself to thrive in the future, taking the best parts from before and building on them in a post-virus reality.

NieR is a balm, NieR is a mirror, NieR is a reminder of the emotional relief video games can provide. Through its themes, mechanics and world, it’s a meditation on the limitations of human life and how video games can imbue us with a sense or power and control when the harsh, cruel touch of reality does absolutely everything it can to take it away.

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