In many games, the only input you have is violence. This isn’t an inherent problem. After all, thrust into a violent situation, there’s not much else anyone can do.
The post-apocalypse is one of those environments you’d expect to be full of strife, and Nier: Automata‘s ruined city is no exception. On a planet decimated by machines and abandoned by humanity, much of your time is spent slashing up robots left and right. But despite this, trees grow across skyscrapers, boar and deer are plentiful, and flowers bloom across the fields. The world’s emptiness makes you cherish every non-combat encounter, from your fellow androids, to the pacifist robots of Pascal’s village.
I’m currently playing through Automata, and made a silent vow to only harm the robots that would attack me. But early on, I had to make one small exception.
Consider this your spoiler warning.
As part of the sixth chapter, the player must travel to a forest kingdom, inhabited by robots crying out their loyalty for The Forest King. By this point, I’d already seen machines copying what they knew about human emotion, trying to replicate joy, lust, longing, and now loyalty. Nothing ever felt off the table in Automata, so robots yammering on about a Forest King just seemed like Nier‘s usual wacky but intriguing writing, probably leading up to a big boss fight.
Attacking the robotic forces, I made my way through a fairytale castle, smiling at the machines dressed as knights, until I eventually reached the throne room, ready to fight this Forest King. Rather than a large imposing machine however, I met a defenceless, round, baby-like robot. I didn’t have too much time to be bemused by the adorable bundle before another android descended from above and skewered it. Before I even knew it, the Forest King was dead.
The moment itself was certainly sad, if bizarre, but ultimately, this was just one small part of the main story, meaning very little in the grand scheme of things. No tears were shed, and I carried on playing as normal. I didn’t realise that this one moment, along with a single side quest, would lead to a feeling of anger I don’t think I’ve ever felt before from a game. Not the kind of rage that might make you throw a controller across a room. It was actual fury. At a single character.
Stumbling upon a machine outside Pascal’s village, they sent me on a quest to find the forest kingdom’s treasure. A typical setup; I’d thought a simple quest for treasure would be just that, maybe a bit of world-building and backstory for the forest kingdom, with a nice reward at the end.
As part of this mission, I had to gather what 2B called “junk”. At first, I thought this could be the treasure, one man’s trash and all. But after collecting a few items, they merged together into a key. I instinctively knew it would open that giant door in the castle’s basement.
Opening the door, I came to a garden-like area, perfect for a big treasure chest. Guarding an archway was a strong robot that took me a fair amount of time and skilled dodges to beat. The machine muttered the usual chants of “For the forest king!”, “You will not reach the forest king!”, so I thought little of it. Defeating it, I passed through the archway. Instead of a treasure chest, I saw a gravestone. A large rusted robot loomed overhead, almost cradling it. The grave of the Forest King. A small pang of guilt hit me as I remembered the baby robot, but the treasure would surely heal those wounds.
The “treasure” in question was a computer chip given to the Forest King by its servants. A cute memento, and some added backstory for the Forest King. With a bit of closure, I left to hand in the chip to the machine who’d given me the quest, eagerly awaiting some nice loot for my troubles.
When I spoke to the robot, they seemed incredibly chipper, and I was beginning to feel more than a little put off. In their strange drawl of non-punctuated speech, they explained that due to its odd voice, machines in the forest kingdom avoided them. As the NPC continued, with no full stop to give the speech room to breathe, the music became deep, “All them guys are better off dead anyhow haw haw haw”. I was then given my reward, a large amount of money, and a few rare items, before the robot began to repeat the same phrase over and over.
I killed the machine. I’d killed hundreds by this point in the game, but this is the only robot who hadn’t attacked me first. But they had hurt me. They knowingly had me kill the guard, had me steal from a grave, and even deleted the information on the chip. Everything I had done was pointless destruction for a twisted creature. Everything the king’s followers had given their fallen monarch was gone. The quest wasn’t even necessary. I could have skipped it. It was pointless.
6 experience points. That’s all the machine was worth when I killed it. I could have ignored him, and carried on my game as if nothing happened. But they had it coming.
In many ways, what hurt the most was that it was a side-quest. Completely missable. I wasn’t forced to listen to the robot, or to kill all the machines on my way through the castle, or the guard. I could have gone through it all, and not handed the NPC the chip. In many ways, it was as much my fault as theirs. I shouldn’t have assumed every quest has a happy ending, least of all in a game by Yoko Taro. I suppose I had it coming too.
It wouldn’t be the last time Nier: Automata made me sad, but it was certainly the first time I’d felt something so painful in a game.
In another playthrough, I discovered the backstory to how the robots created their monarchy. Imitating human culture, but barely understanding it, they put a large robot in charge. Years later, the king rusted, giving much of its parts to its followers, as mentioned in the chip’s data. They give the title of king to a small robot, and even give the “child” the old king’s memories. The only problem is that, as a robot, it will never grow into anything akin to the original king.
I then realised that I’d gotten the story a little wrong. That gravesite I’d plundered and the looming robot? That was the grave of the original Forest King: the leader who brought these robots together.
Once more, even after having my revenge, I was struck with sadness. In my rage, I’d destroyed the NPC for having me desecrate a grave, even if I didn’t know whose honour I was defending at the time. Nevertheless, I had killed a vile, despicable machine, in the name of the Forest King.