NieR Automata and the risk of pissing players off

If you haven’t heard by now, NieR Automata is unbelievably good. Like, easy Game of the Year tier good. Hell, it’s probably in my top games of all time at this point. It’s nice to have a Yoko Taro game that you don’t have to recommend with any reservations about things like “sluggish, repetitive combat” or “framerates that sometimes dip into the single digits,” and for that I owe Platinum Games gratitude.

I remember hearing concerns back when this game was first announced, though. By this point, Yoko Taro’s games had become known for having a degree of jankiness to them. Some fans were worried: would having a top-tier developer like Platinum onboard strip NieR Automata of some of the “charm” of previous games? Now that the final product is in our hands, we can see that, thankfully, the answer is mostly “no” for one big reason — Yoko Taro is one of the few figures working on the game industry who is daring enough to actually piss players off.

See, one of the big problems I have with most big-budget AAA titles is that they constantly play it super-duper safe: familiar gameplay and story tropes, overused character archetypes, mandatory tutorials up the wazoo to make sure you never struggle at all. Everything from character designs to control schemes to cover art has been focus-tested and run through EEDAR analytics to appeal to the widest group of potential game players possible. Nothing is allowed to turn off a particular segment of the player population, because these games cost absurd amounts of money make, and if it doesn’t sell several million globally then the entire dev team gets shut down tomorrow, so make that quest-giving lady more attractive, tighten up the graphics on level 3, and no you can’t give that boss a 90% damage attack even if it is heavily choreographed, are you NUTS?

As a result, we’ve wound up with a huge slate of really technically impressive, incredibly polished games that are somehow profoundly bland to actually experience. Much like Hollywood blockbusters, they are designed from the ground up for mass appeal, taking care not to do anything deemed too radical in terms of story, world, or gameplay design. The biggest risk they might take is maybe offending screaming internet jerkwards by having gay NPCs. But doing something deliberate in-game that might make some people angry? Oh hell no, did you see what happened with Mass Effect 3? They weren’t even TRYING to upset people with that one, and look what happened!

But somehow, Yoko Taro has never gotten the memo that “pissing players off” might be a bad idea, and Square-Enix has just let him run with it. Now we have NieR Automata: a beautiful, polished game that’s packed full of high-grade action, phenomenal music, incredible storytelling, and emotional gut-punches… and some master tier trolling. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS UNDER THIS CUT!

I don’t know if this really qualifies as a confession, but I put myself on a serious media blackout after NieR Automata’s official announcement. I knew I wanted to play this game, and I remembered how much of an impact the original NieR had on me when I went in not really knowing what I should expect out of it. I didn’t play the demo when it hit PSN, because I wanted to go into this game as fresh as I possibly could. I hindsight, I absolutely made the correct choice, because I got trolled amazingly in the game’s first chapter, getting crushed by failing to evade some of the boss’s buzzsaw arms. Hey, I was still getting used to the controls, and I was sure that the reserve of auto-heals that the game was giving me would protect me through the tutorial! I just didn’t expect to get KO’ed by something that did more than 40% damage.

And so I saw the first of the game’s many “whoops, you fucked up” endings – ending W, given if you die in the first chapter before you get the ability to save. A quick text box appeared onscreen, the fast-forward credits appeared, and bam, I was back to the title screen, having lost about 30 minutes of progress.

At first, I was stunned. Then I was a little angry. Then I just laughed my ass off. That’s certainly one way to force you to get good, huh?

Sure enough, the second time I attempted the opening chapter I was performing leagues better, making full use of my dodging and attacking with melee and pod fire simultaneously. I wasn’t about to get trolled again. If I’d played the demo beforehand and had already adapted to the game’s pacing and controls, I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that this troll ending seriously pissed off some folks. I saw more than a few tweets — some from media folks, even — complaining about having to re-do up to an hour of gameplay. (I can certainly think of worse things to happen than having to replay Platinum Games action sequences…) Several players who died in a similar fashion to me were also incensed. A game that will kill you in the first hour and give you a bad ending? What the hell had they just spent sixty dollars on? (As of this writing, you’ll find angry reviews of the game on Steam talking about this!)

Of course you shouldn’t be able to die so early on. It goes against the principles of good AAA game design, where you hand-hold the player for at least a few hours until they’re ready to face some real threats. Hell, Automata looked like it was protecting me, precious babby 2B, with all those auto-heals, only to pull the rug out from under me. No, the real game wasn’t prepared to be so nice, and it wanted me to know that.

But NieR Automata isn’t done trolling you. The game has 26 endings, 21 or so of which are “bad endings” doled out for all sorts of reasons. A lot of them involve consequences for doing things that you assume would be OK to do in this game because they’re fine in other games. For example, there are a few points where you get an urgent call for help to aid with fighting off enemies. In other games, you can safely ignore this and go faff about doing sidequests until you finally decide you want to progress the story. (Hell, I must have spent in-game weeks in Yakuza 0 managing real estate and making the best hostess club before I finally decided to complete the final story section.) Here, however? If you stray too far off course, you’re given a game-ending message about how you screwed up by deserting your mission. You might also be tempted to swing your weapons around at random NPCs, because hey, a lot of crucial plot or nonviolent NPCs in these games tend to be immune to your strikes, right? Nope, you can murder some important characters and/or explode your home base, leading to yet more bad endings.

And then there’s the fish. I’m convinced that everyone eats the fish on their first playthrough. How much of a dick move is it to disguise a thing that will instantly kill you as a sidequest?

It means “ate the mackerel”

I absolutely love that NieR Automata has these alternate endings, because these are the sort of things that would never, ever be allowed to happen in many other titles of NieR Automata’s status. Having any sort of potential consequences for curiosity or making mistakes is bad and makes players upset. You don’t want upset players, do you? They might review-bomb Steam or Metacritic and tank the millions of dollars the company put into marketing this game!

Here’s the thing: When developers are so scared of doing anything that might piss off players — either gameplay- or story-wise — we wind up with the sort of safe, bland products that have turned people like me off of most AAA titles. We wind up with unmemorable, cookie-cutter games that fade into the mists of forgotten titles once the next big release hits shelves.

Automata’s alternate endings can be pretty dickish, yes. But they’re also surprising, memorable, and — once you get past your initial anger — pretty damn funny. It’s a lot like a really bad or embarrassing death in a Souls game: at first you’re pissed off at the game, but after just a little bit of time, you look back on it and laugh at how stupid it was. Then you pick up the controller and go back to work. A tiny fraction of players in this situation might swear off the game and post expletive-ridden screeds on messageboards, but are those people truly worth worrying about?

Probably not, if reviews are any indication — NieR Automata is sitting at overwhelmingly positive, well-deserved reviews from press and players alike.

Yet a crippling fear of these angry individuals persists among most developers. I just mentioned the Souls games — do you know why Sony Computer Entertainment America passed on publishing Demon’s Souls originally? It’s because Shuhei Yoshida got angry at it, and erroneously assumed everybody else would think the same way. Knowing how much is on the line in modern console game development, I’m honestly surprised a company like Square-Enix lets Yoko Taro get away with this stuff. I’m not just talking about the alternate endings, either: Automata is full of dramatic gameplay and story shifts that are bound to surprise, shock, and disorient you in ways few other games manage to pull off. The game takes a unique pleasure in blindsiding you constantly, with seemingly little regard for your feelings, by things it pulls out of goddamned nowhere — and that’s part of what makes it such a masterpiece.

NieR Automata is one of the boldest big-budget releases out there. It’s not afraid to do things that will confuse, terrify, and actively piss you off, and by god, it’s a better game because of it. I can only hope that maybe some other AAA developers might look at it and realize that sacrificing a small amount of player comfort is a reasonable trade-off for creating a game that will stay in the hearts and minds of players long after its release. If not, well, at least we can take comfort in knowing that Yoko Taro probably won’t stop making games anytime soon. The industry is a better place with him around.

3 Comments

  1. >If I’d played the demo beforehand… I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience.
    Actually, it would have been even more powerful if you had played the demo since they only added one-hit kills in the retail version of that level. It took me two hours of replaying before I could accept that it wasn’t just me and meekly set the difficulty down to Normal. :<

  2. I didn’t even get that first bad ending. I would have, except I just restarted the whole game right when I ran out of items so I wouldn’t have to see a game over screen. I only heard about the existence of this ending because my brother got it a day after I beat the opening. I completely missed that first experience and I have only myself and my inability to get past my failure-averse upbringing to blame. It never even occurred to me what would have happened if I failed so early because I’m so afraid to make a bad first impression on a software that doesn’t care.

    In fact, it reminds me of when I first played Disgaea. At the first chapter where the party faces a boss hundreds of levels above them, I tried some stuff, realized it was pointless, and reset the console to try to grind up to a point where I don’t die in a single hit, and by reset I mean exit through the menu so I could reload my save. Good thing exiting this way counts as a loss for the purpose of the story so backup would still come and auto-win that battle. It was that or just throw all my characters to die as I see if there was any possible way to get anywhere, which the game and the storyline clearly wanted me to do, but I sincerely thought I was doing something wrong or even playing the game wrong, so my only thought was to save scum and find a way to avoid that situation altogether. And if that fallback on exit didn’t exist, or if I wasn’t so lazy as to just walk up to the physical reset button, I never would have gotten very far at all.

    I did get other similarly fun endings though, because a friend watching suggested I self-destruct in front of the commander at the earliest opportunity just to see what would happen, and exactly what he expected did. No game over, just a very specific message for something tons of people who don’t think like I do would think to try. I don’t know why I still don’t think to go out of my way to explore mischief in video games with save systems that negate any repercussions. I love when games acknowledge unexpected behavior, so maybe I just don’t want to be disappointed when I try it and get no response. Like when I tried self-destructing in front of the Pascal and not only did I somehow not die, but Pascal and the surrounding machines did, so I was forced to reload anyway because my objective was destroyed and the game didn’t acknowledge it. Then again, I knew immediately when I heard about this game having so many endings that most of them would be gained by dying in very specific ways, so chalk it up to laziness.

  3. Excellent post, but I have a minor thing to say: you say AAA games are technically impressive and incredibly polished. This could maybe be true some years ago, but not anymore. Every “big” game (with a big percentage of western ones) which comes out has incredibly bad, game/immersion-breaking problems or idiotic features which often require big patches or they are just left as they are; you can really see the publisher pushing for release no matter what and the devs with no sense of direction at all. Most of times the “next big thing” just gets forgotten in a couple months (or less) and publishers just start working on the sequel.

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