Nier: Automata may have 26 endings, but it respects my time

NieR: Automata makes me feel the way I assume sneaking wine from my parents’ liquor cabinet in high school would have: excited, then unexpectedly weird, and finally just very sad. Except I never did dip into the family booze as a child. So what Automata actually reminds me of are the countless times I snuck down to the family computer before sunrise, muffled the sound of our dial-up modem, and played Runescape until it was time to catch the bus for school. Yes, I was a rebellious teen indeed.

That was the last time playing video games felt forbidden to me. It was like I was cheating the system by sneaking playtime past my parents, between school and homework, and against common sense that said I should be sleeping at 4:30 on a Wednesday morning. That is until NieR: Automata back-flipped and sawed its way into my life.

See, nobody commissioned me to write a review of NieR: Automata — a game about robots fighting other robots over the meaning of existence. That’s not unusual. Out of the review pitches I send every month, more get rejected than accepted. Yet that makes it extremely hard for me to justify putting in the time NieR apparently needs to fully appreciate it. When I review a game it’s not only acceptable for me to take the necessary time to appreciate it; it’s expected. Conversely, when I play something nobody’s paying me food and rent money to examine, that time feels irresponsible — like I’m acting against my own self-interest.

I love that my job allows me to think, write about, and share things that fascinate me, but freelance writing is an unstable and often scary occupation. I don’t always know how much money I’ll make in a given month, if I’ll ever find a more reliable source of income, or sometimes if I’ll even be able to afford trips to the doctor. My parents may not be around to tell me when to go to bed and when to get up anymore, but adulthood and the crush of capitalism certainly fill in for them just fine.

NieR: Automata doesn’t care about any of that. Its introductory reminds you, repeatedly, that you won’t be able to save until you beat it. If you die it’s a quick trip through one of the game’s 26 endings (complete with a comically quick skim of the credits) back to the start menu.

Yes, that’s 26 different endings — most of which are cutesy little nods to players who poke and prod at the game’s odd angles. Shortly after that harrowing first level, for instance, I was told that my android protagonist has a self-destruct function accessible at any time from the game’s menu. Pressing its plunger at your avatar’s headquarters will net you another quick ending and an even quicker reload.

Five of those 26 climaxes, however, require complete playthroughs of the game and are necessary to see all of NieR: Automata’s main plot. Depending on what you consider the “full” experience, Automata takes anywhere between 18 and 50+ hours to finish. Much of that time is spent treading through the same territory and meeting the same characters as in previous playthroughs. Although other elements, like the player character, do change considerably between ending routes.

We (as in me and my admittedly small bubble of fellows who write about games) often talk about how games do or do not “respect our time.” Which isn’t surprising. The natural consequence of almost anyone under a certain income bracket getting older, regardless of occupation, is to have their free time evaporate. People who write about games are no exception. 

The main pinch point on my free time, right now, is making sure I have enough money to keep on living. Some of my peers, meanwhile, need to worry about that and spending time with children of their own. As a result, I and people like me often appreciate games that “respect our time” — that don’t overstay their welcome or “waste” precious life-hours making us jump through hoops.

NieR: Automata is one great big hoop after another. The idea of playing through 45 minutes of a level, only to die on its last boss and start all over from the beginning, should be repulsive to me. It shouldn’t just make me want to walk away from the game and never come back; it should frighten me that I wasted so much time I could have spent on something my career and linear time tell me are more constructive.

It’s had the opposite effect. I’m itching to see what happens next to its central android duo, 2B and 9S, as well as look for more miniature endings that will only set my progress through the main story back.

A lot of this has to do with the game itself. Automata is a joint production between PlatinumGames — makers  of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising — and a team at Square Enix directed by Yoko Taro. Platinum brought their shoot-and-slash sensibilities to the game’s combat while Taro and company brought “That really crass, really odd, weird shit you expect from Nier,” as the director himself put it, to the game’s plot. The action is tight, impactful, and difficult to tire of since it constantly flits from 3D action game, to 2D side-scroller, to Gradius-inspired shooter, and so on. The story, meanwhile, is propelled by thoughtful existential questions with anime-as-hell bombast. On its own merits, NieR: Automata is just a damn fine game.

But, for me, Automata isn’t just operating on its own merits. Intentionally or not it’s also tapping into a feeling from a very different time in my life. In the same way horror games and movies and games let me tap an adrenaline and endorphin rush fear in a safe space, NieR: Automata lets me graze on the idea of being able to throw my time away at every new, interesting game that crosses my path.

NieR can manage this because — while it doesn’t sacrifice the weird, winding story it wants to tell in order to kowtow to my lifestyle — it does respect me in its own way. That one-death-and-done opening mission made it absolutely clear to me that I had to beat it in one run. Those 26 different endings I mentioned? All of them are clearly labeled with letters of the alphabet and appending to your save file. They’re the first thing you see when the game starts and the last thing you see when you reach a conclusion. Finally, beating the game’s first of five main endings grants a useful message about how subsequent playthroughs are necessary to see the whole shebang.

Automata easily could have felt like Yoko Taro and Platinum’s video game equivalent of negging — insulting and taunting my anxiety over, and thirst for, more free time in order to frustrate me into beating it. Except it’s absolutely clear about its intention to eat my spare time at multiple points in the process. NieR: Automata doesn’t make apologies for what it is, but it also doesn’t try to deceive me about or obfuscate it. Meaning I can play it fully prepared for the investment it requires, and knowing where to get off the ride when needed.

When I was a teenager I could convince myself that sneaking a few hours into MMOs under the structure of my life felt dangerous — you know, for fun. Now, sneaking that free time always feels dangerous because it’s time spent not digging myself out of student loan debt, staying ahead of bills, and saving up to reinforce and uncertain future. NieR: Automata’s enticing story and design, blended with clear messaging about the kind of hard-to-tackle beast that it is, lets me recapture some of that old, “safe” stress when I don’t always feel safe at all.