Emotional by Design

The best description of Nier: Automata’s approach to affect would not include the word ‘subtle.’ Few recent games in fact have quite so boldly unveiled their softer side as Yoko Taro’s quirky masterpiece. Emotion pervades every aspect of its design. Nier: Automata is a game that tries to make its players feel every ounce of pain, pleasure, and passion that it can possibly squeeze out of them. Setting a new bar for the expression of emotion in video games, Yoko successfully accomplished this feat through unwavering attachment to his powerful artistic vision. Every component of his creation - story, art, and gameplay - was specially crafted to support it. But at the center of his artistic vision wasn’t a political statement or moral declaration. The real driving force behind Nier: Automata was a feeling: melancholy.

Long, cool woman in a black dress

Yoko introduced the idea of “backwards storytelling” in a talk at the 2014 GDC. The principle at work in this technique is quite simple: write the story from end to beginning. This definitely runs counter to the practices of most writers today, but fits perfectly with Yoko’s approach to game design. Fiction writers generally try to set up a story such that it plays out naturally from section to section. Since the characters and conflict have already been established, the story in this sense can be said to ‘write itself.’ But this type of writing is best suited to situations where the goal is to build a consistent, coherent, and otherwise rational world. Yoko’s aim was never to be ‘rational.’ Nier: Automata was designed to be emotional. The technique of backwards writing perfectly suits this aim by enabling Yoko to build outward from the game’s emotional climax. In other words, every part of its narrative is there to support a single moment of intense impact.

Spoiler alert: the following paragraph contains minor late-game spoilers.

The affective power of backwards writing is plainly perceptible in each of the game’s four main endings. The characters are basically pent-up balls of emotion that self-destruct in a crescendo of pain, anger, and sadness. There’s also quite a bit of blood. Much could be written on Adam and Eve in this respect, but the endings are truly about 2B, 9S, and A2. These playable characters end up dying in various ways, but their deaths ensured that Yoko could establish the profoundly melancholic tone which runs throughout the game’s earlier parts. This was done by carefully crafting cutscenes to conclude with a highly-charged image. Since the technique of backwards writing involves developing a mental image of the most gut wrenching story beat and building backwards, these emotionally impactful scenes are in fact the kernels from which Nier: Automata’s entire story sprouted.

Fade to black: each ending leaves players with a highly-charged image

Similar to his take on narrative design, Yoko’s approach to game art is heavily focused on communicating emotion. Most developers try to create assets that maintain your suspended sense of disbelief by anticipating what you expect to see. The goal is to build immersion through logical consistency. This means that everything in a level has to seem as though it belongs in the game world. Realism isn’t necessarily needed, but individual assets can’t seem to be out of place. Enchanted swords in a science fiction universe would rip you right back into reality. There isn’t much about Nier: Automata which actually holds together in this respect. Killer androids in cocktail dresses? Absolutely! Rusty robots that look like trash bins? No problem! The fact is that Yoko wasn’t aiming for this kind of consistency. What makes Nier: Automata seem coherent isn’t how seamlessly the assets fit the setting, but the emotional response which they elicit. Everything about the game art communicates the same feeling of melancholy.

The game's costumes are gorgeous, but impractical

The emotional focus of Nier: Automata’s game art comes to the fore in its character design. The countless hours put into the skins were clearly worth the effort: few games have been as highly praised for their haute couture as this one. The costumes hardly make sense in practical terms, but they’re not really supposed to, either. Why would YoRHa equip their frontline models with schoolboy uniforms and frilly dresses? The design choice wasn’t arbitrary: Yoko wanted to provoke an emotional response. There’s a good reason why 2B, 9S, and A2 look so much like china dolls. Playing on cultural ideals about childhood, Yoko’s goal was to create a melancholic feeling of shattered innocence. Dressing them completely in black, he even chose a color palette for these highly-sexualized YoRHa bots that reinforces the effect. Black makes them look especially artificial against the pastel backdrop of civilization’s hollow remains.

YoRHa bots always dress in black

The concept of “procedural rhetoric” provides a useful context for thinking about gameplay mechanics. The idea is basically that games form arguments by structuring player interaction. Consider a typical shooter where you can run, shoot, and use melee attacks. Given these limited means of interacting with the game world, the silent argument would be that conflict resolution can only take place through violence. (In theory). But if gameplay mechanics can form arguments, what else can they do? Nier: Automata proves that video games are able to communicate so much more than just logic and reason with gameplay. Something else comes through as we mash on those controller buttons: emotion. In designing Nier: Automata, Yoko skillfully weaved a profound sense of melancholy into the gameplay mechanics. Rather than a philosophical statement, Nier: Automata’s game systems were used to convey a feeling.

Spoiler alert: the following paragraph contains significant mid-game spoilers.

The dialogue system is where emotion is most clearly manifest, but it shows up in less likely mechanics, too. Combat for example is characterized by contrast: shooting and swordplay. Both are done simultaneously. This introduces an irreconcilable tension between the two mechanics that forces players to seek out a middle ground which the game never provides. (You can also use auto chips). Besides the additional thematic tension between these ancient and modern modes of combat, this finds a reflection in the primary narrative tension presented in the opening cinematic. After millennia of downloading her memories into new robo-bodies, 2B says that she’s “perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death.” Her melancholic resignation to push on despite the senselessness of her mission to save an extinct human population from a failed alien invasion is in this way baked into one of the core mechanics. In other words, feelings are communicated to the player through gameplay.

Combat involves shooting and sword fighting

Every aspect of Nier: Automata is focused on communicating emotion. This holds true for all three of its fundamental components: narrative, art, and gameplay. But why? The answer is probably to be found in the two basic approaches to fiction: detail and drama. Books, movies, TV shows, and video games try to provide memorable experiences by either prioritizing the logical consistency of their worlds or the dramatic flair of their stories. Think Star Trek versus Star Wars. In line with a lot of Japanese anime and manga, Nier: Automata weighs heavily on the dramatic scale, but falls flat when it comes to keeping the details straight. This is hardly a strike against it. Yoko took Nier: Automata very far in this one direction, but detail and drama are equally valid approaches to fiction. Lacking in all the right ways, Yoko’s game turned out to be an outlandish masterpiece.