‘The machine rotates on the same spot.’
Nier Automata is a hilarious, touching and heartbreaking game. It is also at times boring and typical. It is, however, in keeping with its existential themes that we consider boredom as more than something to be avoided at all costs, and, instead, a key component of video games.
Nier Automata has quite a typical quest structure. The majority of the quests are fetch quests. Fetch quests are quite rote and tend to be the barest of covering for the actions the player is engaged in. A fetch quest gives a player a reason to do something whilst also acknowledging that the act, and not the reason, is the important part. This boring and traditional quest structure is in place, I am sure, mostly because of publishing pressures, the sort of necessary self-censorship that takes place when one works for a major publisher like Square Enix. In Nier you rarely see the items you pick up or what use they actually have. They are Mcguffins. On a few occasions, 9S comments on these quests and notes how boring they are before being chided by 2B. These moments of self-reflexivity may tend to irritate the player. Being self-aware that the quest design is boring does not stop it from being boring. Equally, by foregrounding boredom Nier makes the player aware of a certain need for boredom. With RPGs, especially, players still expect the game to last a certain number of hours and so the game requires moments of stretching, of action that is mostly meaningless and boring. But these boring moments create familiarity with the characters and environments. Through repetition and time we build connections. In real life, I grow a certain attachment to objects, to people, purely because I have spent a lot of time with them. It is not an aesthetic experience, but one of familiarity and comfort. Boredom creates comfort, and comfort allows new emotions to form when that comfort is removed. The zombie machines in Pascal’s sanctuary and the dead machine children has a heightened effect exactly because the camp comes to be a reprieve from combat.
The machines are the most subversive part of Nier. The player is told that they are the enemy, and will fight a number of them to the point it becomes a nit numbing and dull. However, it quickly becomes clear that something is not quite right. When the player stumbles into a machine orgy it is funny and disquieting. The machines play at being human, and the question of why they are doing so immediately reveals that all is not as it seems, that there is something below the surface.
At the beginning of the second playthrough the game foregrounds the uncomfortably human nature of the machines. The player takes control of a small and slow machine who must fill up a bucket with oil and give it to the machine’s ‘brother’. The machine is extremely slow, and once the player has picked up the bucket, caution is required to not its content. The machine will stumble over a pipe on the ground, or if one decides to jump with the bucket, which is faster than walking, the machine will fall on landing. This sequence took me an inordinate amount of time to complete. It was a slapstick joke that was pushed to the brink of frustration. In my feelings of frustration I knew that it was my own fault, that by trying to rush I was making it go slower. I then derived a feeling of pleasure from the sense that the game had preempted me, from the feeling that the game was trying to slow me down, that it was going to make me do what it wanted at its own pace.
The grand finale of Nier is frustration and boredom pushed to a limit, and then, just when it seems unbearable, there is a great moment of transcendental release.
The credits scroll for eternity, I am shooting text, my eyes begin to lose focus and I wonder if I am doing something wrong, whether I am just meant to die. Eventually I die. I decide to give it another go. I can do better. I get further but die again. Now there are messages tell me not to give up. I retry and get further, but die again. This is stupid, I think. I’ll give up if it doesn’t work this time. The screen is coated in bright bullet baubles and now something has changed. I am offered help and accept it. New ships appear and surround mine. They take the blows from bullets and perish to see me through to the end. These are other players’ save data. Their data is helping me through to the end. I have forged my way through the boredom to realise that I could not make it on my own, that I need support. This is a single player game, but I am only able to get through it thanks to other players.
I wish that I had noted down the names of the players who helped me, that I could have sent them a message of thanks.
To get the final ending of Nier Automata you must give up your save, your past, the history of what you have done. Like Christ, you destroy yourself to save others.