Nier Automata is cruel to its characters. An action role-playing game from Square Enix, very few games have made me react as strongly to the story as Automata. While Yoko Taro's games have always been disturbingly provocative as they dig at deep existential questions, the optional sidequests from the Machine Village exemplify what makes Automata so compelling and heart-wrenching.
Players won't get a sense of what Nier:Automata is really about until the end of the second playthrough. Even then, it's actually the third playthrough that causes the world to start crashing in as the deception that surrounds their social structure gets hacked away at.
But until that happens, 2B and 9S act as guardian angels sent by the deities in the form of the Council of Humanity. Their main job is to carry out their mission, but they can also help the NPCs throughout the postapocalyptic world. This creates opportunities to get to know more about its characters, including the machines who are supposedly thoughtless automatons.
There's an entire village of them, a community comprised of peace-loving machines who wave white flags at you when you first meet them. They're led by an unusual robot who calls himself Pascal and genuinely wants to convince the androids of his peaceful intent. The team at Platinum designed the sentient robots to look cute and appealing with spherical heads, glowing round eyes, and humorous animation to make them cartoony and child-like in their motions.
Their attempt at mimicking humanity, kind of like Star Trek TNG's Data, creates some of the more funny, and surreal, scenes in the game. This juxtaposes against the physically more human-like androids who, instead of trying to negotiate and get along with the machines, are determined to exterminate them- a dark commentary on their all too faithful dedication to humanity's cause.
The contrast sets up much of the conflict in the game and the way Nier gets players to start questioning their orders is through the obvious fact that the machines are living beings with feelings of their own. One of the most endearing quests is an optional journey called "Lost Girl."
A machine they meet has a part that was "starting to seize up". Her thoughtful younger sister wanted to help and travelled to the desert by herself to look for a replacement piece. Unfortunately, she's been missing for several days, so the elder sister asks 2B to find her.
When 2B arrives at the desert, Pascal actually calls to tell her to consider this a personal request from him as well since the younger sister is "such a good little girl, and so fond of her sister." 2B finds the Little Sister Machine cowering between two rocks, afraid to move. Wearing a pink ribbon, the funny part is she's actually bigger in size than her elder sister. She also has some good news; she's found the part that can fix her sibling.
For much of the mission, you have to goad her forward. There's a whole lot of desert to cross too and swarms of enemies to fight off, so it can be a frustrating escort.
"Hey mister, why'd they make the desert?" the little sister machine asks, genuinely curious. When 9S tries to explain, she inquires what "soil" is and where the "wind blows" from. Her curiosity and her inquisitive innocence convey her child-like nature, but also remind the players that she's painfully vulnerable in a world where almost everything wants to destroy her.
"Hey mister. How do you make children?" she wants to know.
9S has an awkward pause and isn't sure how to answer, before stating that machines can't make children. But the little sister machine is a child and the core of her question has existential roots: who made her and how did she come into being? She possesses consciousness of herself, an idea that goes against most of what the androids have been taught about machines. Her inquiry also foreshadows some of the deeper issues that will cause 9S and 2B to question everything they have lived for.
At first, I thought we had to accompany her the whole way back from the desert to the village and groaned inwardly at what seemed like an unnecessarily long escort mission. By the end of the desert, when she volunteers to head back by herself, I was worried for her and wanted to stay by her side to ensure she'd stay safe. "Make sure to come back and tell me how to make children," she tells 9S before slowly marching off.
I immediately returned to the Machine Village where the sisters had reunited. It was sweet to see the two of them are together. On top of that, the elder sister is fully healed. Every visit you make back through the first two playthroughs, they're there, just hanging out.
By the third time through, everything has changed. You've discovered that humanity, who created the androids, have gone extinct. The aliens, who brought the machines, were wiped out by their own creation. Proxy wars, in the form of machines and androids, have fought for centuries over dead gods and creeds that no longer have any meaning.
Weapons have stories, androids record their tragedies for posterity and machines try to etch out their humanity by copying them to fatal results. The futility and stupidity of it seems so wasteful, but uncannily familiar to our own world.
Mike Fahey wrote a fantastic essay about the plight of the leader of the machine village, Pascal. Like almost every character in Automata, Pascal gets a raw deal and his dream of creating a peaceful society of machines get obliterated when a virus corrupts everyone. As the machines go haywire, they begin to cannibalise one another.
Fires burn, machines die, but all along, I thought to myself, don't let the sisters be dead. Please Yoko Taro and Platinum Games, don't kill those two.
I found them dead in each other's arms.
I was deeply upset.
Not The Children
What disturbed me even more was the "Play With Us!" sidequest.
In the third playthrough, you play as a completely new android, A2. Unlike 2B or 9S, she's not sympathetic to the plight of the machines, having no history with Pascal and his village. She's gruff, a deadly killer who, in the initial playthrough, actually kills a baby machine called the Forest King. The first time A2 meets Pascal, you're even given the option of destroying him.
When A2's fuel filter gets damaged, it's Pascal that helps A2 to recover. A2 doesn't know how to react to their kindness and as Pascal continues with his barrage of machine pacifism, A2's cold edge begins to thaw. That's when a group of machine children call A2 "Big Sis" and ask her to play with them. The idea of family and connections echoes throughout the entirety of Nier. After all, they're both technically robots. With humanity and the aliens gone, what are they fighting for?
"I don't play with machines. Now get lost," A2 crankily replies.
They ignore her and plead with her to play with them.
"I'm an android, weirdo. I'm your enemy," she warns them.
They don't care. To them, A2 isn't the enemy and they even laugh innocently, finding her words funny. They ask A2 to help them find something to play on. I found their cute pleas hard to resist. After accepting the quest, A2 goes to the tool shop. The Tool Shop Machine doesn't have equipment for them to play with, but points out where A2 can get materials for him to work with.
Everyone is so cheerful about it, A2 gets annoyed, even as she goes to search for the goods. There's five pieces scattered in the Amusement Park you need to collect. It's not difficult, but requires patience and a bit of time investment. After finding the pieces, the Tool Shop Machine builds a huge slide near the top floor of the village. Kids immediately begin sliding down it and they ask to personally thank you, giving you a gift.
It's one of the few times where a sidequest results in a physical change to the geography as there's a big slide that slopes around the village. The machine children are excited to see their "Big Sister". Pascal even comes to express his gratitude and invites A2 to come back any time.
The next mission is when the entire Machine Village gets destroyed.
In my head, I was thinking, really? The mission after y'all had me help these kids build a slide and bond with them, you're going to destroy them? This isn't one of those sidequests that you have to actively seek out either. They bombard you with their cuteness and almost beg you to help them out.
It felt sadistic.
Fortunately, the children survive and flee with Pascal to hide in the Abandoned Factory. A2 is relieved to find them safe and though they're scared, wanting to go back home, at least they're alive. I sighed in relief. I was already feeling fragile after the YoRHa bunker got destroyed, 2B faced her fate, and 9S took a major beatdown. Surely, kids were sacred, even if they were machine ones?
When a massive army comes to attack, I was ready to annihilate them- I'd do anything to protect the kids. A2 rushes to battle and Pascal even busts out a huge mecha to combat the wave of foes that seems interminable. It's an epic fight, but they are victorious in grand fashion. The machine children will be safe.
When you re-enter the factory, all the children are dead. They committed suicide because they were too afraid of what awaited. Pascal is so horrified by what happens, he begs A2 to either erase his memories, or kill him. The choice you're given, wiping the tragedy from his memory banks, or cutting him apart to become scrap metal, is really about choosing between two evils. What's even more disturbing is that if you choose to wipe his memory, he returns to the Machine Village and sets up shop.
There, he sells scrap metals parts and children's cores, oblivious to their meaning.
If only I could wipe my own memories (and I don't mean my memory cards, a decision you can unintentionally make in one of the later endings!).
What's so intriguing about Nier is that the choices they give you aren't binary in the sense of good and evil. It's about deciding between suffering and even more suffering. There are no resolutions and death is just another injustice in a world rife with them. Is the principal cause of all these tragedies humanity and their desire to survive and propagate? Or does it lie with the deeper repercussions behind Little Sister Machine's simple question, "How do you make children?"
The fact that I'm still thinking about those questions thanks to the NPCs shows how Nier brilliantly gave greater impact to its sidequests by integrating them into the main journey. It was a richer and more painful, experience for it.