And the #1 game of the decade is…
1) NieR: Automata. PlatinumGames, 2017
When I first made this list, I had Nier: Automata somewhere in the 20s. I came to it later than most did, mostly because I don’t have a PlayStation but also partly because I’ve never really been good or very fond of PlatinumGames’ house style. So I came into this thing in December having already absorbed a good amount of this game’s plot and atmosphere through just seeing stuff about it on Twitter. I knew it had multiple playthroughs, I knew it starred a cadre of scantily clad robot ninjas, and I knew it had a big hard-on for 18th century French philosophers. So I was definitely intrigued, but unsure of what to expect.
So imagine my surprise when I got a janky, half-broken, insanely schizophrenic game that varies wildly in tone, character and plot through multiple dreamlike, feverish playthroughs. Set in a far-flung post apocalypse some 9,000 years in Earth’s future, NieR puts players in the shoes of the Android supersoldier 2B (and 9S and A2, and sometimes the robot Pascal), a member of the elite YoRHa unit — a zealous military organization dedicated to defeating the robot armies in a proxy war between ancient humans and alien invaders. The plot isn’t really the point here; it’s the context behind it.
Soon enough, I understood that the grandiose war for the survival of humanity was less important than the little stories in the margins, where 2B and 9S come across some niche group of robots, separated from the mainframe and just making their own way through the world. Robots named Pascal and Jean-Paul and Simone, robots who exist as delightfully ironic subversions of the Canon of existentialist philosophers. So my first playthrough of the game, which ended after 10-12 hours, was kind of a nice tour of my High School philsophy courses.
The second playthrough, as 9S, repaints the events of the first as a way of glorifying the efforts of 9S himself, who comes off as a suspiciously normal and well-adjusted being in a world full of anime melodrama (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s the only prominent male character in a world full of more powerful and dynamic women. I’m not entirely sure what the point of that is, but it’s there to be made). What I’m getting at here is that the first 30ish hours of this game were fun and they were enjoyable, but they held me at arm’s length. I was intrigued, and I was entertained, but I hadn’t really engaged with the material yet. It was either cold and mechanical or mawkish and manipulative.
There’s a way these games go, and if you’ve played your fair share of JRPGs, hearing stuff about killing the gods and “cycles of death” aren’t exactly going to be new concepts. There’s a certain set of tropes that are just expected at this point, so while I definitely admired NieR, I wasn’t quite blown away by it. When it’s revealed halfway through that both the aliens and the humans who started this war have been dead for thousands of years, I wasn’t surprised. It was something I had seen before.
And then it wasn’t.
So the third playthrough, starring A2 and 9S in alternating gameplay segments, deals with the fallout of the collapse of both the android and robot control systems. The game goes from musing about existentialism to openly partaking in it, as all the assorted side characters are pretty rapidly dispatched of and destroyed, and then at the end its just A2 and 9S, attacking each other because they don’t know what else to do now that the world is over. You choose one to play as, they win, and the game ends. Then you do it again. Then you do it again. A never-ending cycle of death. Then, one of the times you head through the credits, everything stops. One of the Pods, the floating robotic assistants who provided fire and logistical support throughout the entire game, directly addresses you, the player, and asks you if you think 2B, 9S and A2 deserve another chance at life. When you agree, the credits reverse and become something straight out of a Touhou bullet hell shooter as you blast your way through them (finally killing your gods, the game’s creators).
It’s brutally hard, and as you die, again and again, the fourth wall isn’t obliterated as much as it is absorbed. Now, you are stuck in a never-ending cycle you can’t escape from. The game mocks you, asking if you agree that “games are silly little things,” or that you should just give in and accept that there is no meaning to life. After a while, however, messages from other players show up, cheering you on. After an even longer while than that, one of them finally offers you help. When you accept it, the background music swells from one single voice to a full choir, and your little icon is surrounded by a group of other players, who shield you from attacks, sacrificing themselves, each one dying a in burst of “[Player X]’s data has been lost.” Eventually, you make it through, and find 2B and 9S having been rebuilt by the pods, with their memories intact, ready to live their lives for themselves this time.
But that’s not the true ending. That comes after, when the pods again address you, the player, and ask if you want to become one of the anonymous helpers getting someone else to the true ending. It will likely be someone you will never, ever meet, and they’ll never be able to thank you for it. All it will cost is the entirety of your save data. I said yes, immediately, remembering all the brave souls whose names I didn’t have time to remember who died selflessly to get me through. After roughly 30 hours of this game playacting at morality and thought experiments, it finally did the thing this type of game never manages to do: enact a real moral challenge for its players.
Usually, when games try to do moral systems, they amount to making a good choice or a bad choice: help the villagers or leave them to die? It doesn’t usually matter which one you choose, since they’ll both give you similar rewards. To get the “good” ending you have to have a certain amount of good points so next time you can unlock the “good” armor. It’s all ultimately self-serving. Worst-case scenario, you’ll get to play more content of a game you probably already like. In Automata‘s case, you have to give up the ability to play the game as it exists anymore at all.
After a game all about suffering and the costs of war, to end on such an earnestly optimistic tone is striking. It’s a perfect fusion of gameplay and theme, and it makes the jankiness of the rest of the game stand out more as a deliberate choice. A deliberate statement on humanism after a game full of mechanistic, dry philosophical treatises. After feeling like the game was holding me at arm’s length, studying me, such a rapid blast of pure sentiment was overwhelming. A game that had spent 30 to 40 hours meticulously proving to me that we live in a reality that is inherently meaningless reversing course in the 11th hour to say that, even if this is true, one act of kindness towards another human being that you will never, ever meet, makes it all worth it. If the world is without meaning, then the only value we can get out of it is being nice to each other. It’s a simple sentiment, but one that seems to completely reject the politics of self-interest that have overtaken our contemporary existence. Be fucking nice to each other.
If Yoko Taro was able to pull something like this out of his hat, then what does it say about the rest of the game being so cynical and myopic? This, to me, is what makes art, well…art. Then you look into Taro and you see his long, sordid history with games that are considered failures, his contentious relationship with some of Japan’s biggest developers, and you realize that for him, just the act of making this game at all was some kind of miracle. And so he celebrates it, but he doesn’t do so alone, because as I found out, the choir of voices that joins in with you as the other players come to your rescue during Ending E was mainly made up of the other members of NieR: Automata‘s development team. Only through combining his efforts with the whole, only by joining together under a common vision, was Taro able to make his masterpiece.
So in the end, if I had describe Nier: Automata in one sentence, I’d say that it’s a game about how the point of human suffering is not simply to survive, but to band together and overcome. Nietzsche famously said that progress was a “weakling’s doctrine” and that human beings are doomed to repeat their same mistakes unless the yoke of our previous belief systems was overthrown (God is dead, and remains so, etc.), and I’d say that Nier more or less agrees (note that Nietzche is the only philosopher in this game who is actually name checked and not parodied, except that it takes time to say, through Pod 042 (the meaning of life), that the future is not guaranteed. It is ours to what we want with.
In a world teetering on the brink of environmental collapse, where the enemies of progress seem almost innumerable, it’s refreshing to see someone state, unequivocably, that morality is not subjective. There are things worth fighting for, even when nobody else knows that the fight even happened. But they’ll see your name in the credits, egging them on to finish when they feel that there’s no hope. It’s a game that fully understands, explains and embraces the tenets of nihilism, then violently and categorically rejects them in favor of pure humanism. Even if the world is without meaning, we still exist, and we alone decide what to do about it.
Hopefully you can understand why I felt like I had to put NieR: Automata at the top spot for this decade. Not because I think it’s the best game, or because I think it’s perfect or even that great to play, but because if we’re all still alive in another ten years, I already know that it’s the first game I’m going to think of when this decade comes to mind. It’s the exceptionally rare game that feels mandatory, like something everyone should play. It’s the kind of game that only comes along once in a generation, under very specific circumstances, and should be appreciated while it lasts. A stroke of madcap, possibly cocaine-fueled creativity interspersed with deeply humanist philosophy and giant robot fights and anime ninja girls with giant swords. And really, what’s more human than that?