As players, we want our games to acknowledge us. More specifically, we want to see our actions make some sort of impact upon the worlds displayed on our screens. Well, only up to a certain point that is. We neither want nor expect our games to acknowledge everything we do, especially when it comes to triggering their endings. Instead, we want them to ignore us as we dally about finding extra loot and completing side-missions, leaving the ending to be triggered at our leisure. Most games do this, and we love them for it. However, it does make one wonder what would happen if a game didn’t do that. Well, it seems we can now find out.
(Potential minor (very minor) Nier: Automata spoilers found below.)
I recently discovered the Nier: Automata is not the type of game that ignores its story for the sake of the player. If it tells you that something needs your immediate attention, then you’d better listen or prepare for the consequences. I learned this the hard way after reaching a point in the game where 2B and 9S (the main characters) were called upon to confront a boss-level enemy that was about to go on a rampage. The game stated that it was their top priority and to get going right away. So what did I do? I treated the order as I would any story event in any other game.
I interpreted it as “This is the next major event. Stay away from this area until you want to trigger the boss encounter.” So, I hung around the location I was in for a bit in attempt to try an turn in a couple of side-quests. I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that now that this even had been triggered, so I had 2B & 9S start making their way back along what I’d meant to be a roundabout route in order to gain a bit more experience first. They couldn’t have gone more than a few yards before I was confronted with a black screen stating that 2B & 9S had decided to abandon their mission, thereby dooming everyone to destruction. The text faded out, the credits (quickly) rolled by, and just like that I was back at the title screen. I suppose it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say I was quite stunned by this turn of events. I opted to load up my game again, only to greeted with a new metric added to my save data.
The game had done the exact opposite of what I’ve come to expect from a video game: it didn’t ignore my decision. 2B and 9S had been ordered to immediately respond to a threat. I, the player, chose to have them ignore that order. Instead of ignoring my decision, Nier: Automata took it literally. My choice to ignore the mission was explained in-game as 2B & 9S choosing to abandon their mission and thus dooming everyone in the process (they being the heroes of the story and all). I cannot think of another game that not only came up with an in-universe explanation for my actions as the player, but also showed me what the result of those actions would be. It made me want to see it happen more often.
Many of us love to point out the inconsistencies between our actions as the player and those which games acknowledges as the actions of their characters. In Skyrim, the Dragonborn will always be a grand champion of the mortal races, no matter how many things we steal or people we kill as the player. In Half-Life, Dr. Gordon Freeman is the hero of the resistance, even if the player decides to spend several minutes flinging garbage at Dr. Kliener or drive off in the middle of the final battle. I could go on, but that’s the essence of the joke. The character and the player are separate, and the actions of the player are separated from the official actions of the character. Realizing this takes us out of the experience somewhat, thereby draining much of the urgency from whatever crisis we’re confronting at the time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a necessary compromise in most games. It’s just that the jokes’s gotten funnier now that I’ve seen a game actually treat my actions, all of them, as those of the character; as if that were the natural way to handle it in a video game.
Suffice it to say, I think Nier: Automata is doing something very special here. It doesn’t follow all of the same rules other games do and is all the stronger for it. It acknowledges the player’s actions as those of the character and so far that’s enabled its story to play out more naturally than many other games. This enables it to actually catch its players off guard since it’s looking directly at us while we’re looking for trigger conditions. It doesn’t follow all of the same rules other games do and (so far) it’s been all the stronger for it.
I’ve played a lot of games, but not so many that I’d think Nier: Automata is the first to do this. Have you played any other games that function similarly? Do you like this approach or do you prefer to trigger story events as you see fit?
Images captured by Hatm0nster