Existentialism: 2B or not 2B?

We need more games like Nier Automata.

Yoko Taro, its director, isn’t afraid to attempt the unconventional, and the game wears its enthusiasm for philosophy proudly on its sleeve. The amount of referencing and namedropping is beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a game before, but it’s chosen carefully to suit the themes of the game’s story. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoiling the plot, but there is a real focus on easing the player into concepts of existentialism. Simply put, existentialism is the view that people define their own meaning in life and must try to take responsibility for the freedom they have to make their own choices; things only matter because people decide that they matter.

You even run across a very talkative robot named after Jean-Paul Sartre who outright tells you that “existence precedes essence” – a lecture that protagonists 2B and 9S find confusing and pointless. Further shoutouts to various philosophers – including Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Simone de Beauvoir – also crop up. “Subtle” isn’t really a word I’d choose to describe how the game puts it across – it more of beats you over the head with it all – but the fact that it even tries to explain and use such concepts in its storytelling is impressive, and the degree to which they influence the emotional weight of the finale is even more so.

In a time where a great deal of AAA releases follow what amounts to a cookie-cutter open world formula, it’s refreshing to see a game experiment with form as much as Automata does. While it’s an open world game, it doesn’t fall into the conventions of creating a huge, empty space with little to interact with. Save for a desert section, the map is relatively small and dense, and the side missions peppered throughout it actually have a bearing on the player’s understanding of the story rather than just being busywork to artificially extend game length.

Platinum Games’ handling of the combat is a godsend, with plenty of variety offered to the player as to how they want to fight. It also plays around with genre fairly often – the camera will occasionally switch to an overhead or side-scrolling view in particular areas, and elements of bullet hell appear too. There are nods back to retro gaming as well, with autosaving completely omitted and fast travel locked to progressing to a certain point in the story – these can get frustrating, but they’re a nostalgic reminder of how JRPGs used to be.

Despite what seems to be a general consensus among the cult-like fanbase the game has accrued, I don’t think it’s quite a masterpiece – and that’s just why we need more games like it, to take the ideas present in it that much further. It would be incredible to see a story as strong as Nier Automata’s without some of the familiar JRPG tropes it falls back on. Similar to the recently released Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the sexualisation of female characters can get a little distracting at points: during what was meant to be a touching conversation with an NPC on higher ground, for example, the camera showed what is basically 2B’s undergarments enough times that the trophy associated with peeking under her skirt popped. I don’t think this is inherently bad – I enjoyed Lollipop Chainsaw, which had a similar trophy – but it feels tone-deaf in a game that tends to take itself more seriously.

Overall, it’s a brilliant example of how far games can go with storytelling – and hopefully one that other developers choose to follow now that Yoko Taro has seen more commercial success. We see quite a few games that feature choices to make, now it’s time to see some that really expand on why we make them and what that means about us. After all, as Sartre said: “it is only in our decisions that we are important.”


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