Sunday, April 28, 2019

Nier: Automata's N2's Defeat

Don’t read this if you haven’t played (and beaten) Nier: Automata.

No. For real. Don’t. Spoiling Nier: Automata for yourself is as extreme an act of self-harm as spoiling Undertale is. So don’t do it.

We good? Good.

Also: Major thanks to my buddy Ecclesiastes, and my work buddy Guy Whose Name I Forgot To Ask Permission To Share So I Won't Although Honestly Dude People Would Just Assume Your Real Name Was An Internet Handle Anyway Because It's Pretty Weird (But In An Awesome Way). I usually have my sister read my rants before I post them, so that they don't suck, but she is unfamiliar with Nier: Automata, and I don't want to spoil it for her, so in cases like this, I outsource to other educated parties. Thanks, Ecc and work buddy, you guys rock!

Nier: Automata is brilliant. We all know this. It’s brilliant from the beginning, and it only gets more so as it goes along. It’s the latest great work of philosophy, in my opinion, and it says so much about existentialism, social purpose, trust, the fatal flaws within us as individuals and as a species, our obsession with the past, and even just our own mental framework in our approach to video games, that I’ve more or less avoided ranting about it in any substantial way here for the same reason I rarely do so for Planescape: Torment, or Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC: because most of what I could say about them has been said before, by more thoughtful intellectuals than myself, and, frankly, the level of higher contemplation and genius behind these works feels a bit out of my range. I have a healthy respect for my own intelligence, but the minds behind some games are intimidating in their scope, and Nier: Automata’s one of those games.

Still, every now and then I’ll have an insight that I haven’t really seen during my internet ramblings, and I feel compelled to share it. And that’s why we’re here today: because although I’ve seen quite a few people go into the many ideas and intents of Nier: Automata, and why they’re brilliant, I haven’t really seen anyone talk in detail about 1 moment in the game that I thought particularly well-crafted: the defeat of arguably the main antagonist of the game, the manipulative machine consciousness that serves as a God analogue in the game, N2.

To me, this scene is a really great moment in the game because it manages, in a single clever moment, to accomplish several functions of storytelling, theme, and philosophy. First of all, as a moment within the story, it is, of course, a rather cool and unexpected way to bring about the end of what is arguably the main antagonist of Nier: Automata: through intelligence rather than strength, by the villain’s own hand rather than the heroine’s. Yes, you could argue that it’s important for an audience’s satisfaction that the protagonist be the one to finish the ultimate baddie of a story, and that’s often true (and failing to do so can result in a catastrophically anticlimactic ending), but at the same time, there are times when more can be said through a villain falling to some force other than the hero, and that, I believe, is the case here--there are deeper aims achieved by having N2 destroy itself, as I’ll soon get into. I’m reminded of Shishio’s epic demise in Rurouni Kenshin: he dies not from an attack from Kenshin, but rather from the fact that he has overexerted himself in his battle against Kenshin, and he perishes in the flames of his own lust for conflict. Shishio represents anarchy and rule of the fittest, and so it means far more that Kenshin, a representative of peace and order, wins the fight not by outright strength, but simply be the fact that Kenshin can endure, and Shishio cannot.

More important than the unexpected coolness of N2’s defeat, story-wise, is the fact that this scene serves to enhance the depth of 1 character, and to reinforce the development. To understand each, we need to first understand 1 of concepts that N2 represents: self-aware intelligence. See, N2 is the overall machine consciousness, right? Basically a mind. And each freaky little girl image that we see it use to interact with, and later attack, A2 is essentially a thought, a feeling, an idea...a single little firing of the N2 mind. With an infinite number of incorporeal thought-selves that can be called on to attack A2, it’s beyond her conventional ability to stop.

However, eventually A2 stops attacking the N2 entities, even as more and more flood into battle to eliminate her, and with enough instances of itself gathered in a single place, N2 becomes more and more conscious, as it devotes more and more of its attention, more and more of its processing power, to the matter at hand. With more and more “thoughts” gathering together to focus on a single task, eventually the inevitable happens: a division between them on what the next step will be. It’s the equivalent, I believe, to a moment of indecision, of second-guessing oneself: having put more and more thought into the matter, part of the mind rethinks its plans, and suddenly can’t decide what the best option is. The N2 instances lose unity and cohesion, and begin to war with each other over their differing opinions, dooming themselves to failure even as their enemy watches them--it’s basically that moment when your indecision costs you both things you were trying to decide between.

With this perspective that N2 represents a mind, its destruction is a great moment for reinforcing what we’ve seen happening to 9S in these last chapters of Nier: Automata: he’s mentally self-destructing. Unable to focus on anything but his own grief at the death of 2B and the rage at the truths he’s been discovering about the world, 9S is coming undone, pursuing nigh-directionless vengeance with no regard for his own wellbeing, even going so far as to infect himself with a logic virus just because doing so will let him keep attacking and destroying everything before him, even if only for mere minutes more. 9S can’t get out of his own head, can’t focus on anything else; he’s letting the turmoil within his mind destroy him as a whole. And what we can see through slow symptoms in 9S, we see mirrored quickly and directly in N2: a mental turmoil that leads it to self-destruct.

What’s even greater, though, is that this doesn’t just reinforce the development of 9S (and, for that matter, the important idea that the androids and the machines are the same). It also is a refreshing and welcome moment enhancing the personality of another character: Pod 042! The reserved personalities of both Pods don’t get to shine very much, but here is a masterful exception. It’s Pod 042, not A2, who realizes the only way to defeat N2 is to let it keep devoting more and more “thoughts” to a single task, let it keep getting more and more consciously intelligent, until it turns on itself. And that probably doesn’t seem all that important--Pod 042 came up with a clever idea to beat an enemy, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is how Pod 042 came up with the idea. How could this simple character, ostensibly the most limited consciousness present in that battle, be the one to come up with an idea so brilliant that the supposedly greater mind of an android couldn’t think of it, and the surely superior mental entity of an entire race’s collective consciousness couldn’t foresee the danger of? The answer’s simple: because Pod 042 is an observer.

This entire game, he’s observed 2B suffer the pain of a conflict of interests, as her devotion to her duty waged war with her sorrow at having to continually kill her friend 9S. He’s observed (through reports from his counterpart, at least) the deterioration of 9S’s mental stability due to being unable to focus on anything but his own loss. He’s observed the self-destruction of the pacifist machine children, who died by their own hands for fear of the pain their attackers would cause them. He’s observed the subsequent end of Pascal, who could not find it within himself to continue living with such sorrow. Over the course of this game, time and time again, we’ve seen the main characters and those they interact with suffering and come partially or even totally undone by the turmoil in their own hearts, as their thoughts and feelings become entrapped by 1 particular memory, emotion, conflict of interests, etc. And all the way along has been Pod 042, observing everything with us. He’s seen over and over what self-aware, conscious beings do to themselves when something weighs too heavily on their mind to escape. And so he knows what beings theoretically far his mental superior do not: that to defeat a powerful mind, all that’s needed is to simply let it think too much about something. Pod 042’s just giving N2 the chance to fall into the same pitfalls that he sees his charges constantly deal with.

And the positives that N2’s death serves for the storytelling are just 1 facet in which this is a great scene! It’s also great in terms of furthering the game’s purpose of examining and commenting on human society as a whole. While Nier: Automata is certainly first and foremost all about existentialism in relation to the individual self, it also has a lot to say about humanity as a group and whole (which is unsurprising; it’s an inevitable extension of any philosophical musing, no matter how individual-oriented, I should think). While N2’s self-destruction is an excellent analogy for our own self-destruction as we mire ourselves too deeply in our inner conflicts, it also serves as a commentary on our self-destructive social behavior, as well. When the two groups of N2 consciousnesses disagree on their next step--a disagreement so trivial that it’s not about differing desires, but about how they should proceed to achieving the same goal--they recklessly and arrogantly attack one another, even while their actual enemy stands right in front of them! A2 outright spells it out for us as she watches in amused awe at the sight of N2’s consciousnesses destroy themselves over nothing: “They’re acting like humans...” So the scene not only shows us how we defeat ourselves on a personal level by letting ourselves fall prey to our own intellect, but it also shows us how we so frequently doom our own efforts as a species by letting trivial squabbles distract us from our real problems.

On that note, it’s also a great reflection of the entire conflict between the androids and the machines--Nier: Automata has gone out of its way to show many times that in all important ways, the androids and the machines are fundamentally the same,* which throws much of their war’s purpose into question, and now we have a display of 2 groups of the exact same being finding a stupid excuse to wipe each other out, even though the only point on which they disagree is ultimately not even all that sizable. It’s a great extension of the idea that NA has been pushing with its war between machine and android all along, that we make war over stupid reasons that waste our time and resources on the wrong target.

Finally, N2’s destruction is a great, philosophical end to the machines’ wish to be human. Throughout the game, the machines have been grappling with the inevitable questions of existence, and their method for doing so has always been to seek to become like the humans who originally owned the Earth. Over and over through the course of Nier: Automata we see, in both the main story and the sidequests, machines imitating human behavior, immersing themselves in human pastimes and passions, and studying human culture, religion, and philosophers, attempting to make sense of their own existence by making sense of humans’ existence. It’s always with this faithful reverence--as though they believe without a doubt that humanity had all the answers, so even when the human behavior has no purpose with machine lifeforms (childcare, sex, pursuit of physical beauty, etc.), or they don’t really understand the significance of what humans did (Eve questioning why he’s being named after a female figure, pointing out that Cain and Abel might make more sense than Adam and Eve, and being rebuffed by Adam simply because that’s not how the humans did it), they still go through the motions, simply trusting that it’s how things must be done. More or less everyone in Nier: Automata is trying to figure out the purpose of their existence, it’s what the game’s about, but by and large, the machines do so by mimicking the ways of beings they believe to have had the answers.

And then, in this scene, the machine consciousness net N2 finally makes the breakthrough, finally advances enough to--again, in A2’s (and thus the game’s) own words--truly act like humans, and it immediately destroys them. They wanted to take up humanity’s mantle, but it was such a poor fit that it only choked them.

It’s a brilliantly tragic end to the machines’ journey.** And it’s also a great philosophical message that the game has for us, one unlike most of its others: find your own answers to your questions. The machines sought the answers to their own self-awareness from outsiders (and worse, a species which, frankly, had not, as a whole, figured out those answers to begin with), attempting to become humans instead of figure out what they themselves are, and the only result that has come of that method is demonstrated by N2: a system failure. In a sense, this scene is a warning label stuck onto the entirety of Nier: Automata, telling us that we should consider what it, and any other work of advice and philosophy, tells us, adopt its ideas and suggestions to the extent that work for ourselves, but not to let it do all the thinking for us, not to just let its answers be our own. Just as NA has reached its own conclusions which it shares with us after examining the works left by the previous great minds it frequently references, it wants only to give you ideas to consider in your own quest for existential truth, not to just give you an answer sheet to copy unquestioningly. Reminds me of Buddhism, a bit--the Buddha is a revered figure who has found enlightenment which you’re encouraged to respect and examine, but just outright emulating him won’t lead to your own enlightenment.

And...that’s all I got for today. There’s probably more bits of narrative, thematic, and philosophical brilliance that the defeat of N2 provides to Nier: Automata, because this game really is just that complex and sharp, but that’s all I’ve come up with in my own musings. And I think I’ve done a decent job! It’s something to think about, at least, and it’s a scene I haven’t seen discussed in too much detail in my (admittedly limited) ramblings across the web.

And now, back to our regular schedule of nitpicking stuff that doesn’t matter, jokes at Fallout 76’s expense, and reviewing DLCs for games over a decade old.

* A fact which, of course, is patently obvious to us, a biological audience to whom all mechanical life forms basically seem the same. But that’s the beauty of Nier: Automata: the fact that the androids and machines acting like there’s some great distinction between themselves seems absurd to us is easily flipped around as a commentary on our own racial conflicts--just as it seems silly to we humans that the androids before us are aghast at the notion that they and the machines are similar beings, so, too, would an android observer of human history find it ludicrous that we humans put such stock in distinctions like skin tone when we’re all the same organism in every significant way.

** Obviously this isn’t literally the end of all the machines at this moment, of course, as there’s more battles ahead for A2 after this point. I mean in the figurative sense--N2 has completed the journey to human-ness that the machines as a whole are all on, and that journey ends in self-destruction, so as long as they each stay on this path, this will be their end.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

General RPGs' Battle Speed-Up Option

Alright, guys, I’m sick as a dog today (well, as of writing this, at least; by the time it goes up, I hope I’m long since recovered from this demon malady afflicting me), so let’s do a quicky rant. ...What? Yes, I can write those! I have before! I think. Shut up.

So, as I’ve mentioned a great many times over the years, in spite of RPGs being my chosen video game obsession, I actually don’t find these things any fun, generally. The majority of them base their “gameplay,” if such it can even be called, around making selections from a menu, for heaven’s sake. It’s like some programmer was going through the multiple-choice section of his driver’s test and had the brilliant idea of coding the process into the next game he made to see whether anyone would be able to tell the difference between it and actual fun.

But the other reason RPGs are generally boring to play is something I don’t mention nearly as often, despite the fact that it is actually even worse than the overall gameplay methods of the genre: the horrible, tedious repetition. I’ll crack wise about how unengaging it is to turn life-threatening combat into a process indistinguishable from browsing folders on a Windows system, but honestly, the boredom of this set-up would not be nearly as bad if it weren’t for the fact that, in the course of your average RPG, you’re gonna be going through it actual, literal HUNDREDS of times! Frankly, even the few fun RPGs get old after a while just because of how often you’re required to combat something--after a certain point in Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas, I got so powerful and so utterly bored with doing the same damn thing every time, even in a genuinely good gameplay system, that I would frequently just pass enemies by on my way through their aggro territory, or, in enclosed environments, utterly ignore them and let my companions slowly deal with them while I just did my exploring. And that’s Fallout, a series of actually fun games!* Having to go through the random encounter motions in your standard RPG hundreds of times is tedium beyond description!

That’s why I so greatly appreciate the feature many RPGs in the past decade or so have been adding, the option to accelerate battle animations. The option to speed up combat actions in Etrian Odyssey 2, as well as the auto-battle feature? Love it. The option in most Kemco games to make combat go at 2x or even 4x its usual pace? Possibly the most (and at times, only) positive trait of their products. The option to turn off combat animations in several Fire Emblem games, or use the B button to cancel them in Stella Glow? A godsend.

Because let’s face it: even in a properly story-rich RPG, you’re gonna be spending at least half the game’s span of 20 - 80 hours in combat, and most of those battles are against generic, time-wasting random monsters that you’ve already defeated at least a dozen times before. Friends, our time on Earth is finite, and even if some of us are fool enough to have wasted a portion of it playing Quest 64 or Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, that time is something we should value--and value more than spending dozens of hours confirming menu options so we can kill enemies we’ve already killed several times before in the exact same way. Every RPG that has a battle speed-up option will save you literal hours of your life that you can devote to something more fulfilling than watching a goblin get bonked on the head for the 20th time in a row. I both appreciate it every time a game gives it to me, and sincerely hope to see it saturate the genre even more from here on out.

* Not counting 76, of course. Never counting 76. Just...any time I talk about Fallout games as a whole being good, assume that 76 isn’t in that estimation. In fact, any time I talk about any positive experience or aspect of life, the universe, and the works of humanity, just assume that Fallout 76 is excluded.

Monday, April 8, 2019

General RPGs' Dying Breath Syndrome

I’ve come across more than a few speech impediments in my time of playing RPGs, no doubt about it. I’ve seen Scias stutter in Breath of Fire 4, and I’ve seen Micky lisp in Makai Kingdom, which are 2 kinds of speech disorders quite common in real life. I’ve also seen some real life speech disorders that are less common, such as Final Fantasy 9’s Garnet, who loses her ability to speak for quite some time as a result of mental trauma and guilt. And, of course, I’ve seen quite a few speech impediments that I’m fairly sure the RPGs just made up for the sake of adding quirks to their cast members, such as Fujin’s only being able to communicate by shouting a single word at a time in Final Fantasy 8, the guards in Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle speaking in emoticons, Cyan of Final Fantasy 6 speaking in an old-fashioned middle english manner in spite of the fact that nobody else in his country or even the entire world speaks that way so where the hell did he pick that up, and Wild Arms 4’s Jude, who’s unable to speak a single sentence that isn’t incredibly stupid.

Also, I think at least a few of the variations in Chrono Cross’s accent system really count less as manners of speech than as disorders. No one else uncontrollably elongates their vowels with every sentence they speak, Starky. You don’t have an accent, you have a communication problem.

But of all the many speech impediments I’ve seen in RPGs, from the disorders one can observe in the real world to the irrepressible compulsion to add “kupo” to the end of every sentence, by far the most frustrating has to be the one where an important character can’t bring themselves to cough up any important information until the moment they’re gonna die.

Dying Breath Syndrome: my newest term for these rants, which shall be defined as the complete inability to communicate basic, easily-understood facts of the plot until you’re dying and your previous silence has screwed things up beyond repair. Certainly not unique to RPGs, this genre nonetheless seems to be far fonder of the annoying trope than most other storytelling mediums, from what I can glean. It seems I can’t go a whole 3 RPGs in a row before someone important to the game’s story decides that the best time to spill their guts is while they’re literally spilling their guts.

Does it annoy anyone else that an inexplicable lack of ability to express essential yet simple ideas is such a staple of RPG storytelling? Like, how many times have you played an RPG in which the heroes are manipulated into killing the wrong person or helping the wrong cause, and they’re only told the truth of the matter after there’s no going back, even though the entity telling them this could have just told them this important shit before getting stabbed through the heart and saved him/herself a painful death?

It’s always such a clumsily-handled narrative device. Like, let’s use the example of Asdivine 4’s Shadow Deity.* During the first half of Asdivine 4, the heroes are tricked by the Light Deity, who secretly wants to kill all humans and restart the world with better indigenous life forms and so on, normal RPG villain stuff, into thinking that the Shadow Deity is the source of their world’s recent problems. So the heroes bumble along on their quest, defeating the 2 guardians who are basically glorified padlocks on the Shadow Deity’s front door--neither of whom, incidentally, see fit to say anything to the heroes about their mistaken goals save for the most cryptic and vague warnings possible--and eventually meet face to face with the Shadow Deity. Before they begin combat, does the Shadow Deity tell them something like, “Kids, the Light Deity is manipulating you. She wants to destroy the world, and I’m the only thing in her way”? Does he yell, “JUST COOL IT FOR A SECOND YOU IDIOTS, IF I DIE THIS WHOLE WORLD IS GONNA FOLLOW ME”? Does he communicate any information that is direct, clear, and useful?

No, of course he doesn’t! All the Shadow Deity does prior to battle is utter some non-specific warning that this isn’t a good idea. And then, during the entire battle that follows, he keeps mum. Even as he’s slashed and punched and blasted closer and closer to death, the Shadow Deity doesn’t see fit to spend a single turn of combat to just outright say “You’re being tricked and I’m actually the good guy.”

But after it’s too late, after he’s dead-ish and can only speak to the party as a helpless spirit projection thingy? Oh, then this mouthy motherfucker’s got all kinds of useful plot information to share.** He’s more than happy to tell the (so-called) heroes alllll about how the Light Deity’s gonna destroy the world and everyone in it then, after it’s too late to go back. Somehow, dying seems to have enabled the Shadow Deity to clearly lay everything important for the heroes to know out in the open, all the information that would have been most beneficial to know prior to killing him.

And of course, there’s also the equally common scenario in which an NPC had vitally important plot information that they only choose to share with the heroes after someone ELSE fatally wounds them. This case has a better chance of having some logical reason why King Plot Twist IV couldn’t be bothered to reveal all prior to this moment, but there’re still plenty of occurrences of this brand of Dying Breath Syndrome in which there was absolutely no rational reason why the NPC would hold onto all this useful information until after their kidney had been punctured. Hell, considering how often these characters are killed specifically to prevent them from telling the heroes what they need to know,*** a lot of them could’ve saved their own lives by just being forthcoming about what they knew as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

It doesn’t always have to be plot-essential info, either. Dying Breath Syndrome can also apply to situations of emotional relationships between characters, too. Like scenarios in which someone who seemed like they were Important Character A’s enemy reveals, after the fatal battle, that they in fact always admired Important Character A, or loved them, or were their brother/father/etc, and some inconvenient and usually stupid plot device always prevented them from being able to properly connect with Important Character A, leading inevitably to this battle in which they have now been killed by Important Character A’s own hands. Inevitable, that is, but for the fact that had this dying dimwit bothered to explain all this about 5 minutes ago, Important Character A wouldn’t have felt the need to kill them to begin with!

It’s not even like there aren’t easy ways to achieve the same necessary plot results that make more sense. If you’ve absolutely just gotta have your important NPC only reveal important shit after it’s too late, then you could at least have the heroes launch a sneak attack on them, to prevent their having the chance to reveal that it’s all a misunderstanding until afterwards--same result, but at least it doesn’t seem so idiotic that they waited until the most unnecessarily worst time to spout their exposition. Or maybe have the heroes be given the expectation that they need to cover their ears going into combat to prevent a mind-control or sonic attack or something, so prior to engaging with the important NPC they take a page from Startropics’s Mike’s playbook and stuff some bananas in their ears and can’t hear the NPC shouting to them that they’re being morons. Or maybe--and this one’s a really crazy thought, I know--maybe writers could just try prioritizing a logical narrative of character interactions instead of assigning inflated importance to plot twists that aren’t that creative anyway and cheap, forced emotional drama coming from needless character death.

* When you want to illustrate a clumsy and thoughtless RPG cliche, you just can’t go wrong looking to Kemco for an example.

** In fact, it’s actually kind of amazing how MUCH can be said with one’s dying breath, according to RPGs. I daresay that many of these final speeches would cause a healthy person to get out of breath while trying to expunge all this information at once. Yet apparently having a lung collapse does the exact opposite of what you’d think it would for one’s ability to verbally convey large amounts of information! Really putting the “die” in “verbal diarrhea” there, RPGs.

*** Thinking about it, the villains would have been better served just not killing the important NPC at all, since apparently they would’ve just continued to hold out on the heroes forever otherwise.