Saturday, September 28, 2019

Nier: Automata's Moments of Self-Deprecation

I extend a giant and heartfelt tahnks to my friends Ecclesiastes and Angel Adonis for their generous and intelligent assistance with pre-reading this rant and sharing their thoughts with me on it. It's always a great source of reassurance to know that other, greater minds can confirm that my ramblings on more intellectually complex RPGs are reasonably on the mark. You blokes are the best, you truly are!

As I and countless others have stated before, Nier: Automata is filled to the brim with existential philosophy. An absolutely brilliant RPG that examines in a gaggle of ways the search for meaning to one’s existence, both on the level of individual and species, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about everything in this game is there for a reason, has a purpose in the grand scheme of Nier: Automata’s search for truth. And I daresay there are probably many who would agree with me on this point. As any creator does through their philosophical treatise, Yoko Taro wants us to think, long and hard, about ourselves.

And yet, at the same time, there are moments in Nier: Automata of self-awareness that seem to warn us--or perhaps it’s more accurate to say reassure us--that there are downsides to going too deep into this thoughtful realm. While Nier: Automata wants to make us question our existence and help us to find new perspectives through which we can arrive at our own truths on the matter, I think that it also, in at least a small way, wants us to confront the question of whether all these philosophical musings are even worth it.

This relates a little to some of what I spoke of in my rant about N2’s demise, so let’s start there. Recall that N2, the summation of the Machine consciousness and an otherwise unassailable opponent, is defeated by itself: once N2 has focused enough of its mental processing on the fight with A2 thanks to her following the Pod’s advice not to attack N2’s instances, N2 finds itself at odds with itself, split by indecision about how to proceed with its goals to the point that its different opinions destroy one another, just, as A2 points out, like humans destroy one another over differing viewpoints. Now, in my rant, I made the argument that this is way of NA telling us of the danger of unquestioningly following another’s path to enlightenment, and I’ll stick by that, but it’s also a tangible representation of a mind being undone by having mired itself too fully in a single matter. Becoming unavoidably preoccupied with this single battle has caused the mind that is N2 to fold in on itself, just as becoming too focused on his own pain and loss causes 9S to behave in self-destructive ways.

Now, this by itself doesn’t really act as an argument that getting too serious about existential philosophy, specifically, is a bad thing--9S’s deterioration can easily be seen as primarily emotional in nature (though I would, myself, argue that it’s half that, and half his continuing to learn the truth of YoRHa’s existence), and you can view N2’s downfall to be more of a commentary on human nature’s tendency towards indecision, and social in-fighting over trivialities of method. But it does act as supporting evidence if there’s already a case to be made for Nier: Automata possessing the intent to argue against the necessity of taking these questions of existence too seriously...and, indeed, that case is made in the game.

There are times in Nier: Automata in which the creators of the game outright poke fun at how seriously we take the questions that they themselves are exploring so diligently. I first noticed this during the sidequest involving the machine entity Jean-Paul. The gist of this venture is that Jean-Paul is a rather self-important philosopher, pondering and attempting to find high meaning (or an equally snooty lack of meaning) in existence, which has, peculiarly, made him something of a rockstar in the machine community, and it’s 2B and 9S’s job to act as courier for him, delivering to Jean-Paul love confessions from his groupies, and subsequently returning with the news of his rejection to each. While it’s a somewhat tedious sidequest, it’s also kind of amusing, because Jean-Paul has his round head so far up his shiny metal ass that his reaction to each admirer’s gift is to try to judge it on its merits as some representation of some higher purpose of thought--he seems actually incapable of viewing a basic, emotional purpose of these items, even though that would be the most obvious perspective to take toward them. Likewise, his enamoured followers are all too ready to read utter brilliance into his rejection. 2B and 9S come out of this sidequest thoroughly nonplussed at this weirdo and the nuts that hang on his every word,* and the overall purpose of this sidequest seems to first and foremost be to have a chuckle at the fact that these characters have taken their desire to contemplate existence so far that they’re actually missing the basic, overt facts of what’s in front of them.

When I played this quest through to the end, I was amused, and honestly, I respected it for being a little bit of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation on the part of Yoko Taro and his posse, a little admission from them of perhaps taking the questions of our existence too seriously. I’ve always personally held the belief that it’s an easy pitfall for a thinker to get so wrapped up in finding deeper or grander meaning that they start to miss the obvious and find things that aren’t there, like the populists may have done with The Wizard of Oz, or as fans do for Rick and Morty to make themselves feel smart for the first time. But after feeling amused and appreciative, I simply moved on, assuming it was a one-off moment.

But it was not. There’s also a moment in the game in which we see Pascal reading one of Nietzsche’s works, and witness him reflect aloud that Nietzsche either was quite profound...or just drove straight past Profoundville and wound up in Crazy Town instead.** Additionally, there’s the post-game research report written by Jackass, in which she briefly details the now fully-revealed lore of the game, its events, and ends with a hilariously disgruntled and blunt summary of it all that points out that the whole conflict and everything they’ve all been doing is completely stupid and frustrating. It’s a remarkably straightforward, down-to-earth reaction that’s such a supremely stark contrast to the serious, earnest approach that Nier: Automata has otherwise taken with its complex and thoughtful story, that it winds up being hilarious, and even, in a way, a relief to the player, after having been caught up so deeply in the game’s conflicts and meanings for so long.

And then there’s the endings. Nier: Automata has 26 endings (sort of; A and B are actually halfway marks), 1 for every letter of the alphabet, and the substantial majority of them are joke endings! Much like several of Chrono Trigger’s alternate endings, Nier: Automata has various quick little conclusions that more or less just toss away all the weighty heft of the plot, and end things on a mildly amusing and insubstantial note...ending the game because 9S decided to just wander off in curiosity when he was supposed to stick to the mission, or because you had 2B gum up her inner workings with a fish like that scene in AI where the robot kid breaks down from trying to eat spinach,*** or because you decided in your infinite wisdom to do your own tech support and accidentally uninstalled A2’s operating system...little joke endings like these are scattered throughout NA at every turn. At practically any time, there’s an opportunity to just drop all this high-falutin’ philosophy BS and end the whole adventure on silly, surface-level terms.

That, in my estimation, is enough occurrences to warrant consideration--particularly since Jackass’s report is sort of the final words the game has to share with us, which lends them great importance. Even as Nier: Automata plunges headfirst into the greatest depths of our search to understand the meaning of our existence, it also has no problem with some lighthearted ribbing to cut through all the heavy, even at times excessive, philosophy stuff. There’s a good-natured self-awareness to it...and that might even make it better as a work of philosophy.****

I mean, look at something like, say, Dragon Ball Z Abridged. DBZA is a work by fans which founds itself upon pointing out the amusingly dumb shortcomings of DBZ and its characters, a work for comedy, and yet, it’s made by hardcore fans of the original anime who also seek to communicate the parts of the show that made them love it in their parody series, and the result is a genuinely enjoyable interpretation of DBZ that a great many people (myself included) actually, legitimately believe is the better version. The rational, self-aware humor of DBZ Abridged allows it to be a far better vehicle for the anime’s story, cutting out the endless tedium of DBZ’s original narrative methods, acknowledging the incomprehensible stupidity of so many of its devices and characters, but asking, reasonably, that we allow ourselves to admit the parts within that stupidity that are actually kind of good as a basic concept.

Yoko Taro is doing the same thing, essentially. He seems, to me, to be showing a gracious, wry humility by allowing for the possibility that this is all an unnecessary bunch of hoopla, allowing us a reliable, universal access point, humor, through which we can enter into Nier: Automata’s depth, and likewise through which we can duck out for a moment of fresh air to get a joke ending for stupidly blowing up our home base, or appreciate the fact that even these possibly superior machine consciousnesses also wonder if maybe this whole business is trying to make too much of nothing.

I’d also like to say, lastly, that this occasional bit of poking fun at the intensity of our collective pursuit of existential truth is, in itself, actually a beneficial part of that very question. When your point is to question purpose itself, it’s only right that you be thorough enough to question the purpose of your method itself. Does exploring our own existence really even mean anything, have any value, when it doesn’t change the fact or nature of the world and events around us? Jackass is no philosopher, but her blunt, crude, surface-level summary of the existence portrayed in Nier: Automata might very well be the most honest and undebatable perspective in the whole affair. The machine Jean-Paul is a tenaciously dedicated devotee to finding the hidden truth of all he experiences, yet it is clear even to our protagonists that this is the very reason he misses the point, that he can’t see the forest for the trees. For all the penetrating, far-reaching intellectual paths we explore in a search for that which defines our purpose, there are some ways in which the more down-to-Earth perspective of most people, whose concerns are with living their existence rather than mercilessly interrogating it, does have the advantage. Within Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro offers us his own perspective on existentialism, he incorporates and provides others’ famous takes, as well...but he also provides the rejection of these quests of the mind as an alternative, and, interestingly, lends this approach legitimacy through the appealing power of humor.

* Although it probably would have done 9S some good to have given Jean-Paul’s “existence precedes essence” idea some more thought, considering how things go later for the guy.

** I especially like this scene, because Pascal’s next thought is that he’d best put away the books and go out and see the world for himself, which I believe is another major intention of Yoko Taro’s: to urge us to give the works of others their due consideration as guides (even including Nier: Automata itself), but ultimately to elect to find one’s answers about existence on one’s own.

*** Insert cliched 1950s joke about kids not wanting to eat their vegetables here.

**** I should note that the many alternate endings are not necessarily only intended for humorous purposes. 1 of the 2 fine gents I had proofread this rant, Angel, believes strongly that they also represent a take on free will, in allowing one to essentially walk off the stage rather than continue to play the rigid role assigned. I rather like this idea, too, as it squares very well with the concept behind the ultimate end to this game. But the minor endings would not need to be by and large amusing to accomplish that goal, and yet they are, so I do still feel that they fit with my interpretation in this rant, too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Nier: Automata's Downloadable Content

Nier: Automata. It’s regarded as brilliant. It’s been called by some the most philosophical game ever made. It’s as powerful an argument that video games are capable of being art as any I’ve seen. It’s received universal acclaim and praise. It’s shown that despite almost every available piece of evidence to be found in the past decade and a half, SquareEnix is still capable of publishing quality work. And it’ an add-on, proving that there is no possible work of sufficient merit and dignity to be able to escape the grasp of greedy corporate scum. I guess I should just be glad they never got around to adding lootboxes to the game.

So yeah, unlike what you’d expect from a game designed to explore and illustrate the meaning and conflicts behind one’s existence, Nier: Automata has a DLC. And yeah, exactly like what you’d expect from a dude who has no good idea of how to spend his free time, I’m here to talk about it today.

3C3C1D119440927: Goddammit, Nier: Automata, I know you’re deep and artsy and you perfectly embrace the whole artificial intelligence angle of your story, but couldn’t you have put all that on hold for just 1 freakin’ second and given your DLC package a title that I won’t have to look up and copy-paste every single time I want to refer to it by name?

When I first started to play this DLC, I was...pessimistic, to put it politely. At the outset, this package seems to just be about adding 3 coliseums to the game, which you can enter and win several matches of varying levels of challenge within. I’ve almost never found RPG arenas all that interesting, honestly--it’s like, oh boy, in addition to the literal hundreds of repetitive battles I’ll fight during the natural course of completing the game, here’s a gameplay feature where I get to fight MORE! What an innovative delight! Ugh. So yeah, as this DLC starts out by just inviting you to a handful of arenas to battle, I wasn’t thrilled, and that feeling persisted as I took part in each one’s matches.

I will say that the coliseum angle isn’t all bad here, though. While having to schlup your way through a bunch of new battles is boring as hell, there’s some merit in the lore surrounding some of the coliseum stuff. 1 coliseum shows a rather ugly side to the Resistance, which helps to round them out a little, because the main game’s focus, even in terms of lore-expanding sidequests, tends to be more on YoRHa and the machines as groups than on the Resistance: while you get to meet a few significant members of the Resistance over the game’s course, you never get to see the light and dark side of the group as a whole the way you do the other major factions of the game. And another coliseum establishes a small culture of machines who regulate their lives with thousands of rigid, completely arbitrary rules, which actually is pretty interesting--it seems like less of a random side-story gimmick, and more like a new perspective Yoko Taro wishes to share on methods we use to deal with (or perhaps ignore and deny) our existential dilemmas and fears. It at least feels like this arena’s lore is trying to say something to the player about purpose and society, so it seems like a good fit to the game, a more natural part of it than many add-ons tend to be.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that once the arenas had been cleared, this DLC isn’t over--there’s a final sidequest to get through which, while not really acknowledged or advertised very much as the content pack’s attractive features, ends up being, I think, the real point of purchasing this add-on. In this finale to 3C3C1D119440927, you’re given the opportunity to learn the story of 1 member of the machines: a somewhat defective and constantly bullied robot who found love and purpose in caring for a doll, and what his fate was. It’s a small but emotional story, told well through his perspective and then later through the eyes of another machine, and I really like the window it provides us into the everyday operations and frustrations of the machines. I particularly enjoy that fact because it seems like the overworked, underappreciated life of a single machine in an overbearing workforce may be a connection to the famous writings of Engels and Marx, whose works have, before now, not been given the same time and exploration in Nier: Automata as those of most of the other philosophers that the game has referenced.

In the end, the purpose of the tale of this lonely machine, and of the music video that concludes this DLC, are not fully apparent to me, and open to a lot of interpretation...but it’s a story that nonetheless clearly has meaning and thought to convey to its player. Which is neither unexpected, nor a flaw: this is, after all, Nier: Automata. Much of it is meant to allow the player to draw his or her own conclusions and insights from the game’s material, and the question of what this machine’s existence and legacy, and the artful music video that follows, means for us and and our existence should be something with which we grapple with the help and guidance, but not the hand-holding, of the game.

It’s hard for me to say whether or not 3C3C1D119440927 is worth the $10 that I currently see it listed for. Conventionally-speaking, it isn’t, as you’re not likely to get a full 10 hours of additional play time out of it, and much of what time you do get from it is sadly taken up by tiresome arena challenges rather than anything that matters. Conversely, though, this DLC is worthwhile and thoughtful enough, once you get to its real content, that it feels consistent to Nier: Automata as a whole, and perhaps that fact does, indeed, make it worth the cost. I suppose the matter boils down to your general experience with NA: if it’s something you’ve gotten a lot out of, and you’re interested in examining another piece of it and finding how that piece fits into the philosophical treatise as a whole, then this DLC won’t be a bad purchase for you. If it’s a game of which you’ve enjoyed the surface story layer but not had much luck in following the deeper content, then this probably won’t be worth the price, at least not right now--maybe if it ever goes on sale for, like, $5 or less. And if you just haven’t really cared for Nier: Automata overall...well, then, no, obviously don’t buy this, why is this even a question for you. I, at least, found it satisfactory, and that’s certainly more than I can say for the majority of my add-on experiences to date, so good on Nier: Automata in this matter.

Oh also it’s hard to dislike any DLC that gives me the chance to beat the ever-loving shit out of the guy in charge of SquareEnix.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Fallout 2's Temple of Trials Makes No Goddamn Sense

There’s no denying that Fallout 2 is a great RPG, as one would naturally expect of a Fallout game.* But great doesn’t mean perfect, and every player’s sure to find something or other about the game that they don’t particularly like. Most of these complaints vary from 1 person to the next (I, personally, am annoyed to no end by the stupid, pointless, damaging retcon of super mutant sterility; thank Susano-o they Yo Dawg’ed that retcon later on in the series), but there are 2 parts of Fallout 2 that are pretty much universally reviled: the Temple of Trials, and Overseer Lynette. In the latter case, it’s expected, as Lynette was engineered with masterful craftsmanship to be an even more unequivocally frustrating and loathsome human being than Bobby Kotick, a man whose mere existence ironically champions the cause of nihilism. Less intentional, however, is the general irritation that players have with the Temple of Trials, which is generally (and accurately) seen as a tedious, clumsy, heavy-handed tutorial mission that’s as unnecessary as it is pointless and unwelcome. As an opening to a game, Fallout 2’s Temple of Trials is close to the worst that RPGs have to offer, for several reasons that I’ve gone into in my rant on the genre’s worst beginnings.

But you know what I just realized the other day, while talking with a friend who’s just started playing Fallout 2? I realized that we’ve only been scratching the surface of how bad the Temple of Trials is. For 20 years, we’ve been so caught up with being annoyed at the Temple of Trials for failing as a gameplay device, that we never noticed that it also fails on the far more important narrative level, too!

To whit: this temple’s existence doesn’t make sense.

To begin with, let’s just talk about thematic consistency. How does this stupid fucking dungeon fit into Fallout? This is a dungeon taken straight out of a fantasy-styled RPG, not a post-apocalyptic future RPG! This religious structure of stone walls and imposing steel doors would look perfectly at home in a western fantasy game like The Elder Scrolls or Neverwinter Nights, or countless JRPGs like Grandia or Threads of Fate, but nothing about it fits with the Fallout universe. I’m racking my brain, and coming up short: I’m fairly certain that there is not a single other location like this in the entire series. Supposedly it’s a structure that existed before the war, which the Vault Dweller just happened to stumble across during his founding of Arroyo...but it’s too archaic to fit with the many pre-war structures and locations of the modern world, even in terms of what we’ve seen of prewar structures devoted to more supernatural pursuits. It’s just totally out of place in this game and series...which just makes it all the worse that it’s the first dungeon of Fallout 2, because the first impression it’s making on a player is completely alien to every single moment of the game that will follow!

But beyond the aesthetics, it also makes no sense within the game’s own lore!

Because seriously, why the hell does the village of Arroyo exist entirely outside of the temple? They’ve got this massive, perfectly fortified stone structure with several rooms in it, and they just leave it totally and completely unused at all times, save for the 2 times in the village’s history when the village elder and the Chosen One go through it as their trial for being Arroyo’s leader and fetch-quest schmuck, respectively. In a single room, the village keeps the Vault Dweller’s clothing in a shrine, but every single other of the half-dozen rooms in this thing, along with the spacious and long hallways connecting them? Completely empty and unused. For 75 years, this thing has sat within a stone’s throw of the Arroyo village, and they’ve never so much as used it as a tool shed! And hell, even the single room being used as a laundry museum has only been that way for the last 30 years or so, since the Vault Dweller didn’t leave Arroyo for several decades after founding the village, and we can safely assume that he himself didn’t have the idea to ostentatiously immortalize his long johns there. And the temple’s use as a testing ground has been for even less time, since the village elder took the first test in it 2 years after the Vault Dweller left! That means that for like half of Arroyo’s existence, they used this giant, sturdy, safe mountain fortress for absolutely fucking literally nothing.

This is a village whose residents live in a bunch of crappy tents! These people don’t even have the luxury of a hut’s stability! No one ever looked at this colossal multi-roomed cliff-side palace and thought to themselves, “Hey, maybe we could hang out in there sometimes, instead”? There was never a particularly bad patch of weather over the course of 75 years that made the prospect of having to live in easily-destroyed, easily-blown-away tents less appealing than hanging out in an actual structure? I mean, I know the community’s all about raising brahmin and plants, and hunting-gathering, but they could still do all that during the day, and then go to sleep at night with a real, actual roof over their heads!

Hell, the Vault Dweller was a guy who lived his entire life in an enclosed structure built into a mountain, and only left it because he was forcibly exiled. After founding Arroyo, he never once got homesick enough to recreate the living experience he grew up with? The fact that this struggling little village never considered using the Temple of Trials for anything is already hard to swallow in terms of overall logic, but it also runs contrary to 1 of the few things we can safely glean about the Vault Dweller’s character!

For fuck’s sake, Arroyo, there are people in the Capital Wasteland who count themselves well off if they can secure a shack in the shade of a crumbling piece of a highway overpass. There are ghouls in the Commonwealth so hard up for a solid living space that they’ve created an entire settlement around the remains of a communal swimming pool! And you assholes are just sitting around in tents, ignoring a fortress safe haven that makes most of the actual fortresses in this series** look like rickety little cabins built by someone using Fallout 4’s Settlement Builder for the first time?! I feel like an exasperated parent scolding a picky child to appreciate his dinner because there are starving people over in such-and-such country!

Hey, Arroyo, remember that time in the middle of Fallout 2, when the Enclave showed up to kidnap your entire village’s population and savagely gun down everyone who resisted? Yeah, that was awful. Too bad you guys didn’t have a giant mountain fortress with defensible solid steel doors you could have holed up in, huh?

Screw the Temple of Trials, man. It’s a bad decision in terms of gameplay, it’s completely wrong aesthetically to the Fallout series, and it just makes no goddamn sense conceptually.

* Even if one would be dead fucking wrong 3 times on this matter.

** The Brotherhood’s Citadel (Pentagon), the Master’s Cathedral, and the Minutemen’s Castle, for example.