The NieR Games Are Singularly Brilliant...But They're Not Replayable
Ah, to play these games for the first time again…
Looking at the cover art of NieR:Automata, I was confused. A blindfolded woman with a katana…a white-haired boy with short shorts…and another woman in the back, wildly leaping toward some robots with a spear. I’d played weird games before, but I have a kind of unspoken vetting process I usually put them through first. Based on what I was seeing here, this game would not have passed. And yet, it was a birthday present from my youngest brother.
The kid has an uncanny gift for gift-giving; from birthdays to holidays, he absolutely nails it. When asked what his secret is, he’s liable to shrug and say, “I don’t know. I just know you.” He must, because even gifts that seem completely out of left field often end up becoming treasures. NieR: Automata followed that trend, carving out a coveted spot among my favorite games ever.
When NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 was announced years later, I was on board right away. I’d missed the original Replicant train in 2010, but there was no way I was missing this gorgeous-looking remaster-remake hybrid. It, too, earned its place in the inclusive club of my great games pantheon.
Before playing it, however, I considered revisiting Automata, both as a refresher and because it’d been quite a while. Yet barely past the game’s bonkers introduction, I stopped. I couldn’t go on. I wasn’t sure why, but I decided not to push the issue. I simply let it drop and dove into Replicant.
When I beat that game, the same thing happened: I thought about replaying it a few months later, but couldn’t bring myself to do so. It wasn’t like I hadn’t replayed story-based games before, sometimes multiple times in a row (I’m not at all ashamed to admit I’ve played The Last of Us a whopping 13 times since it first released in 2013 — and the 14th is all but inevitable). What the heck was going on? What was holding me back?
One playthrough is not one playthrough…sort of
The overall story of NieR is a complex weave of twisting timelines and insane happenings, made even crazier by the fact that the whole darned thing is a spin-off of one of Drakengard’s multiple endings. To say Yoko Taro, the main creative force behind the series, respects players’ intelligence is all wrong: most of the time, it seems like he’s wondering if we can keep up!
Jokes aside, the stories of Replicant and Automata are quite beautiful for all their convolutions. Their characters, themes, and musical scores (headed by Keiichi Okabe) are among the most affecting video games have to offer. The thing is, in order to experience them in full, players must go through each game multiple times…in a sense.
Both have multiple endings — several of which require you to play through the story again, but from a different character’s perspective and/or bolstered by new context, cutscenes, and dialogue. Replicant ver. 1.22…even adds an ending that lets you play as a previously unplayable character, significantly improving their original role in the story. (It’s adapted from “The Lost World,” a short story published in the Japanese-only book Grimoire NieR.)
So, part of the reason I found it hard to replay these games was because, in essence, I already had. Revisiting characters and events from different angles isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I totally get that. For me, though, it turned good stories into great ones, without which I probably wouldn’t revere them as much as I do.
To do that twice, however? It’s already more of a commitment than replaying, say, The Last of Us again, but that’s not why. Really, it has to do with how both games end — for good and all, that is. Their respective “final” endings.
Endings to end all endings
Automata’s definitive ending, “the [E]nd of YoRHa,” isn’t traditional by any means. It doesn’t result from any single playthrough, but from you having achieved endings A-D, which together recount the full story of androids 2B, 9S, and A2. Once you have, the credits start rolling…and then they stop. Pod 42 and Pod 153 (2B and 9S’s respective supporting units) realize that the androids’ personal data is still there, despite the three of them having perished. Their initiative, as planned from the very beginning, was to ensure the erasure of this data. And yet…they agree to salvage it.
What follows is a bullet hell section — like the ones you’ve experienced throughout the game — only this time, you’re blasting away at the credits themselves to protect the androids’ personal data. Eventually, it becomes too much, and you are inevitably destroyed. The only path forward is to accept help from other players, granting you the necessary firepower to all but guarantee success. That success takes form in the restored bodies of the androids, who, as the pods remark, may go through the cycle again… or may experience an entirely different future.
Whatever that future may be, you’re then given the choice to erase all of your data so that you might help another player — a complete stranger — succeed in their own quest. Should you say yes, the game makes good on its promise, and you watch as everything, from your map to your items to your save files themselves, is lost. It’s the greatest closure a game can offer: a way for your efforts to really mean something, both for the characters and other players.
Personally, doing that again would’ve left a bad taste in my mouth. Not because I don’t want to help more people, but because my story has — quite literally — ended. To go on would grate against the very reason I went on in the first place. Like the characters, my life is one of cycles, but I want to hope for a future that’s different — and the only way to do that is to move on, to work toward it. Is that such a bad thing to want? It’s certainly what 2B wanted.
The androids’ names aren’t random jumbles of letters and numbers: they all mean something. The “S” in 9S, for example, designates him as a scanner model, more suited to observation and exploration than battle. 2B is a battle android, but as we learn, her official designation is 2E. That marks her as an executioner. Knowing the intelligent 9S would divulge their secrets, 2B’s masters at YoRHa stuck the two of them together so that she could kill him whenever he got too close to the truth. And since they’re androids whose consciousness could always be transferred to new bodies, she’s had to kill him again…and again…and again…
This is why, when we first meet her, 2B is reluctant to become close to 9S. She’s already spent who knows how long getting to know him, having to kill him, getting to know him, having to kill him — rinse and repeat. 9S’s work was invaluable to YoRHa, so they couldn’t erase him for good. They just had 2E nip the bud before it bloomed as many times as “necessary.”
So in not playing Automata again, I also wanted to respect 2B’s memory. A replay would have forced her to commit horrendous acts yet again, when by abstaining I could possibly grant her, 9S, and A2 that new future the pods discussed. I realize, of course, that these characters aren’t real, but come on, I know I’m not the only person who’s ever gotten attached to fictional characters. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To get attached, to experience the story through their eyes, and to wish them the best (or the worst, depending on the character)? To take something away from the whole shindig?
My takeaway: to not take away the possibility of a happy ending. I did my part, and now the characters can do theirs.
Replicant ver. 1.22 takes a similar approach, but tweaks it to fit the context (and even takes Automata into account). The original game’s ending presents the choice to either put an inhuman Kainé out of her misery, or to erase the nameless protagonist’s existence in order to restore her humanity. Should you choose the latter option, your save data is purged — as is the other characters’ memory of the protagonist.
Ver. 1.22…’s additional ending puts players in Kainé’s shoes three years after the events of the rest of the game. Fighting alongside Emil, she heads to the Forest of Myth — which the protagonist visited many years before, taking special interest in the Tree of Memory — to take down a factory-like structure threatening to upend everything. Of course, the simple mission ends up being more complicated than it first seemed, pitting Kainé against a version of the creature that killed her grandma long ago.
Upon defeating it, Kainé takes something she felt like she never had: control. She’s given the choice to resurrect the protagonist, and in doing so, you not only lose your current save data, but gain your old save data back. (That Tree of Memory from earlier? That the protagonist interacted with it was no coincidence.) This restoration of memory — of the person Kainé and Emil cherish — is the first step to the kind of new future only hinted at in Automata.
Once again, I felt that encroaching on this second chance would be wrong, and left the characters and world as they were. Seeing the kind of happy ending that was possible come to fruition wouldn’t have worked for Automata’s grand sci-fi trappings, but Replicant’s story is smaller in scope, and that intimacy lends itself to a conclusion like this.
So, given time, will I ever play the NieR games again? Say in five, maybe even 10 years? I don’t think so. That extra time doesn’t change my sentiments about their respective endings. I may forget some of the finer details as life goes on (I already have, in Automata’s case, as I played it the year it came out, 2017), but the core feelings that formed… the experience of lending a hand to another, then seeing where the wind blows…the closure of characters who lost so much gaining what they love back…all that will stay.
This is not to say you can’t replay the games, or that I haven’t felt the itch myself. The gameplay is exciting, the music is surreal, and the stories are mazes worth weaving your way through. I can only speak for myself when I say that my time with NieR has come to an end — one I can make peace with.
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