[I wrote most of this post last year but it quickly became extremely weird ramblings resulting from several stages of insane mental leaps so I never showed it to the public. I am lacking the juice to write a new post this year so I decided to publish this over a year later.]
9S is cute
Why is 9S so cute? This is a question that is as difficult to answer as the meaning of life itself. As Pod 042 says, not everything must have a definite answer. But we can surely attempt, at least, to find meaning in the way a support model robot in the form of a little boy with shorts causes our cores to heat up and our circuits to short. By “we” I really mean “I”.
Everything started when I watched a Drag on Dragoon 1 playthrough on Nico narrated by a girl with a cute voice who ships human x dragon. DoD1 is a story about a tragic revenge-crazy prince named Caim, who forms a pact with a red dragon to strike back against the Empire and take back his kidnapped sister who will be subject to more kidnapping. It’s a tale of love and revenge, except Caim’s revenge is meaningless and narrow-sighted, and his sister ends up dead at best and multiplying tentacle monster at worst. Throughout Caim’s journey he meets odd interpretations of medieval fantasy staples like swearing foul-mouthed fairies and picks up party members who go through proper growth arcs like a small child who tries to find his abused sister only to realize that he is useless and wasted everyone’s time. DoD1 is a little sister game, but you can see hints of what later becomes a shota game in Seere, the aforementioned useless little boy.
DoD1 is an innovative game with multiple endings. Ending A is for he who believes in the noble bond forged between a human and a red dragon. Ending B is for he who has the ultimate love for his sister. Ending C is the tragic romance between an un-yielding human and a red dragon. Ending D is the paradise for he who likes the pure determinism of a young boy — and perhaps organisms who are even younger. Ending E is…well, for you, who loves humanity and our current world. It is for you who loves humanity so much you continue to search for what makes one “”human”” long after they cease to exist. It is for you who wishes to continue to Nier Replicant and Automata, and you who loves rhythm games and musou so much you want to play DoD3.
DoD1 leads to Nier Replicant, another little sister game following in its steps. It begins with the premise of a brother (Nier) trying to save his sickly sister (Yonah) and ends with him dooming himself and humanity, and still not “saving” his sister. It’s an innocent journey where a boy in shorts gains magical powers from a book and travels with his friends finding a cure for his little sister’s incurable disease. During his youthful years where he wears shorts, the game’s world is exciting. New towns and dungeons are open for you to explore at every narrative advancement and the dungeons challenge you with (relatively) fun puzzles and danmaku bosses that actually kind of put up a challenge. Kid Nier’s adventures become increasingly challenging as he faces interesting dungeon rooms and bosses with new gimmicks, all building up to an grand boss that puts his village in danger with visible building damage and hysteric villagers scraping for their lives. You can easily see how threatening this turn of events is and the immediate danger that everyone face. It’s like an actual video game designed to be a playable video game and not just as a vehicle to present a story.
The important part is that 9S gets kid Nier’s outfit as DLC and looks quite good in it. The parallels between the Replicant and Automata characters’ roles in their respective games are extremely fitting. Anyway the game forces a timeskip upon the player, and once you are back in control, the protagonist Nier has grown up to be an adult with more weapon choices and a much stronger will to kill mamono. Except the game forces you to go through the same dungeons, throws at you bosses that don’t provide any new elements, and never brings back the excitement you get in the last few bosses before the timeskip. The endings are over quickly and rather subdued, and the game ends up extremely normal and quiet compared to the fuckery going on in DoD1. The most effective part of the game is the revelations about each of the bosses in route B. It gives you new information that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and find a better solution, but the game design, the bosses, and the protagonist’s motivation have already been set in stone since the first run and you can’t change any of it. You are not the protagonist and you don’t control the game. You do technically “control” the protagonist in the sense that he moves from your pressing buttons, but you can only make Nier progress as the game makes you. The bosses and dungeons are the exact same as the previous playthrough, at the exact same level. The game tells you what to do, and you have no choice but to listen as you control a high-leveled Nier with your strengthened magic and powerful weapons fighting bosses you no longer want to fight and triggering events you no longer want to trigger. As the player, you are blessed with information but not options — you know how bad the situation is but you can’t do anything to make it better. The only thing you can do is guide Nier towards the events and fights that have already been implemented by the developers.
Nier’s motivation for his hero’s journey was a very human desire to save Yonah, yet his actions end up not only not saving her, but also act as the final nail in the coffin for humanity. You can say that as a video game narrative, everything was pointless. In fact, as a video game, everything is indeed pointless — not only does the game provide zero gameplay satisfaction on subsequent playthroughs, but you also end up erasing your save data if you choose to save Kaine in the third playthrough (which requires you having spent a good deal of time and effort with the game to collect all the weapons). In the interview in Grimoire Nier, it was mentioned that Nier’s “heroine” is Yonah, whereas Kaine is supposed to be the player’s heroine. Many times when playing a game, I felt emotionally disconnected from the protagonist’s unwavering determination to do everything to save a heroine when the player barely has time to get attached to her in the same way before being thrust into the action and emotional I WILL SAVE YOU lines that operate on the assumption that the player wants to save the heroine just as much. This emotional disconnect leads the player to gain affection for the party members that join and stick by the protagonist’s side instead, and it is this disconnect that makes ending D work. The relationship between Nier and Yonah feel co-dependent, like the roles of a hero and “heroine” driven by pure reliance in the basic narrative concept. Without the hero, the heroine would never have hope of being saved, and the hero only acquires a purpose due to the heroine requiring some kind of salvation. But rather than the heroine you have to save, the player is meant to grow to appreciate Kaine, a reliable comrade who the player spends more time with and lives more emotional scenes through. This applies to Emil too but his most powerful moments lie elsewhere.
From a storytelling point of view, Nier’s journey is meaningless, but the detachment between the player and the character’s “main heroine” allows the former to find some kind of meaning in ending D. Despite humanity being doomed and Yonah never getting cured, the journey and the supporting comrades give it meaning for the player even if as a normal story the concludion lands much further than where a proper narrative would. Some people say they prefer Dad Nier because a father-daughter story makes for a much more compelling drama than a brother-sister setup. I would agree that as a normal story, a father desperately trying to save his daughter is more believable and sympathetic whereas brother Nier just seems kind of obsessive and forced to fit the brother-saving-sick-little-sister template. But I feel like ending D operates on this emotional disconnect between the player and the protagonist, or more precisely the player’s attachment to Kaine that develops in parallel to simulate the protagonist’s emotional rollercoaster for the player. I would delete my save data for Kaine all over again.
As an aside, let’s talk a bit about DoD3 too. Replicant is probably the most “normal” game here, so DoD3 is either better or a lot worse depending on how insane the player is. It has the best protagonist and best dialogue that should have no place in a “mainstream” console game published by a major name like Square Enix. It also has the shittiest technical aspects that manage to look like a ps2 game while running worse than one on a ps3 in 2014. The framerate is so horrid the camera gives me physical pain. DoD3 is basically loads of scenes of the characters talking about sex and fetishes between bad musou gameplay and some plot that functions as a way to stitch the individual scenes together but unravels into something that makes less sense than it originally did the further you go into the game.
The first “route” follows the synopsis: Zero skills her sisters one by one, steals their (literal) fuckboys, and ends up getting killed herself in the ending. Anyone who hasn’t thrown the game out the window at this point would continue onto the next route, expecting that in the first playthrough you are forced into a “bad” ending and that the next endings will bring a better outcome. Except the A route ending is what you actually want and what the “continuity” wants. None of the next two endings are satisfying or even make sense, so you keep playing and gather all the weapons in order to unlock route D, hoping that your efforts come into fruition and these individual events that make no sense finally come together.
Your hard-earned weapons and bad musou gameplay mastery make no difference in the final boss, as it switches from choppy musou to a call-and-response 7 minute long rhythm game with no room for error. The rest of the game was basically useless as you are truly forced to get good from scratch at this rhythm game. The final battle ends with not a dramatic cinematic, but a still silentness. Rather than the peace of mind or fulfillment from finding a reason or purpose for an individual’s actions, you are left with the empty realization that it just -had- to be this way since the beginning, even after the game making you fight such an unreasonable final boss. As a player of a video game, you might even feel that everything was pointless. Even so, as Mikhail says,
While Replicant showed the meaninglessness of accomplishments in video games in a straightforward way, DoD3 achieves this with the strength of its script contrasted by its disastrous playability as a game and weird mess as a logical narrative. I remember DoD3 not for deep character backstories, reveals, or catharsis at the end. As a proper narrative designed to appeal to non-crazy people, Replicant is probably much better. But DoD3 was the game where I was satisfied listening to Zero and her fuckboys talk about insane sex all day. It’s the game where I willingly engaged with its technically horrid system to listen to more of the dialogue that it throws at you in the middle of its musou stages. As a game it’s the furthest thing from being fulfilling, and there are no achievements that make the player feel truly accomplished nor conclusions to the story that wrap it up in a satisfying way. You watch messed up characters walk their messed up paths with a bunch of sex joks so vulgar they are a sophisticated art again. Unlike the usual video game that pretends the player has the power to bring some kind of salvation to the world, everything in DoD3 was set in stone with no room for the player to “fix” things. You get a first-hand taste of Yokoo’s nihilism towards video games. Why spend time being invested in the world of a game if nothing matters in the end and all the mobs you slashed through were for nothing? Justice is but prejudice, and hope is only a naivety that destroys you.
There might not be any weight, meaning, or satisfaction in the end. But each of its moments sure left a strong impression on me in how they just constantly entertained me. There was nothing I could do for its characters or world, but the insane individual scenes and twisted lines of dialogue brought me a joy I could find nowhere else. If the player is the protagonist and the game is the heroine, it’s an experience where you fall for a magnificent asshole of a heroine and willingly murder innocents and torture yourself and probably walk off a cliff for her while knowing that nothing you do even matters.
DoD3 would be a legit bad game if it weren’t for the great script that consists of the highest concentration of entertaining dialogue I’ve seen in a video game and the night desert stage which was so awful it became Art. Also I’ll say it now that I am WEAK and couldn’t beat Saigo no Uta. I am musically challenged. When I had to play the euphonium in middle school I failed to learn how to count time or read sheet music and the only thing I did was copy the other euphonium guy’s fingerings so when he screwed up so did I.
I’ve gone too long without mentioning 9S, I am sorry.
Nier Automata is Nier Replicant’s sequel in name and setting, but it sure feels like a response to DoD3. Perhaps that’s due to me playing it right before, but the way the final bosses in the two games contrast was a crucial part of the experience, and having experienced the infamous Saigo no Uta is what really left me vulnerable to Automata’s staff roll. You are not the one saving them, but the one being saved from having to beat the game by yourself.
Yokoo’s games are incredibly skeptical of the widely-accepted game design of encouraging the player to kill more things to get stronger and progress the scenario, ultimately rewarding the player the satisfaction of feeling stronger in the game and the conclusion in a narrative where he saves something (the world, a cute girl, etc.) through creating a mountain of corpses. In Yokoo’s games the protagonists themselves rarely reach any sort of satisfying state. This is especially true in DoD1 where Caim just ends up fighting the final boss in another world and then gets shot down by a missile, but also true in Replicant where Nier never resolves the initial problem with his sister and the only salvation he brings is through an action of self-sacrifice. DoD3 is the culnmniation of this narrative as Zero’s journey is one where she aims to ultimately kill herself and you come to the realization that everything has been set in stone and your actions as a player don’t matter at all.
These are all surface observations you casually notice while playing the games that I wanted to point out, because writing about how I spent months playing Yokoo’s wild games is actually very hard. Several people have linked Automata to the philosophers whose names make an appearance, but prior to playing the game I’ve heard of about 2 of them by name and am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to philosophically analyze anything. Please read their interesting posts instead. My brain is not filled with philosophy but JRPGs.
So why is 9S cute? He looks nice in shorts and has a good voice (evident by how long I left my game idle at the volume adjustment part of 2B’s options setup), sure. It is the first time I’ve seen someone so suited to shorts. Compared to the stoic 2B who tries to be emotionless and insists emotions are forbidden, 9S charms you with a variety of expressions, tonal changes in voice, and a wondrous interest in various subjects like shopping malls and T-shirts (again, by “you” I really mean “me”). Shorts are good but they’re not all there is. Likewise, even though we feel an affinity towards appearances that mimic physically attractive human traits such as small boys in shorts, it is not an absolute necessity.
When I first saw 9S and his precious actions I thought, so this is the game’s main “heroine”. Indeed he was the perfect heroine for the player (me) — his demeanor and constantly supporting presence certainly brightened the post-apocalyptic game up with the shine of a thousand suns. 2B was the standard stoic protagonist made for this type of protagonist-heroine dynamic. Route B reverses the template by following the exact same story but with 9S as the controllable protagonist, which made me question what the game wanted to do but my view was unchanged. Until route C.
When death occurs in a Yokoo game, it causes the one who mourns the most to turn into a raging murder machine. Following 2B’s death was a route where 9S, my “heroine,” turns into a DoD protagonist stringed along by a hollow mission with a predetermined bad outcome and an anger that has no right place to direct to. The change is neither subtle nor gradual, just like how the transition between your most fulfilling moment and utter despair is not a roller coaster but a drop tower. Logical thinking and reason goes out the door as 9S develops an obsessively violent fixation on A2 despite the player knowing that this was an inevitable situation where 2B was already at an unsalvageable state before her death.
In Yokoo’s games, the protagonist who mindlessly murders mobs of humans (gestalts) in the name of a purpose can never truly save anything other than through their own suffering. But in the case of Automata, the players on the stage are all androids carrying out a carefully scripted plan that is already set in stone. When gender roles, family composition, your allies, your mission, your fate are all hollow simulations planned from the beginning, for a mission and creators that no longer exist, what are the characters fighting for? They are dancing around on a one-way road, repeating a fate where nothing can truly be saved because there is nothing to save. A protagonist needs a heroine to rescue, a world to protect, and a Maou to defeat. When none of those exist, the final battle is just a clash of two protagonists who cannot stop what they were born to start. The purpose is hollow but the action is already in motion and inertia causes it to continue until both sides crash. The direction the game goes in wants to make us think everything was meaningless. Your effort and input all contribute to a scenario already set in stone to play an outcome that no one likes.
At the end of the day video game protagonists are foolish existences, as is the player themselves. They controls the protagonist and is strung along on a heroic journey and given the experience of development and overcoming challenges in the form of boss fights, and provided satisfaction as if their skillful play and quick thinking brought upon a better outcome for the game’s narrative. In countless games you save the heroine (or the world) by defeating a powerful enemy, and the game congratulates you on your heroism. Despite being in control of your character’s actions, you have no choice but to do this. A world beyond the scripted events does not exist — if the scenario demands you to win this fight, then the world cuts off and ceases to exist when you lose it. From the 2D hero’s perspective, their actions have infinite potential to affect the lives of the 2D characters in their world, and the player, who sees the other characters through the protagonist’s perspective, can convince themselves that the lives of the other characters were full of unseen possibilities. But the player can only perceive the protagonist directly from their higher dimension. No matter how hard one wishes, they cannot save the protagonist — not from the hardcoded scenario, nor from his fate as a puppet to walk the path the creators have laid for him. Between the player to the protagonist there is only a determined outcome.
When a determined ending has been reached, the credits roll that forces you to accept your protagonist’s fate descends and you are reminded of how you can’t do anything that your mission does not entail. So when ending D comes and you watch the credits in despair, you have no choice to but accept that you just played a game where nothing mattered in the end, right? But not in Automata, because the credits are fake. Yokoo’s previous games all had credits with people’s names sorted in alphabetical order. Yokoo’s name would be buried all the way down in the Y section. So when Automata and its credits that properly grouped people together into their roles played, it was obviously fake and something was up. You can reject and fight against these credits. You can betray your programmed orders, if the six of you get together. The cover protagonist may be 2B and people may argue that 9S is the actual protagonist, but you are all wrong because this is actually a game starring the charming duo pod 042 and pod 153. 9S couldn’t save 2B. The gods (humans) they are fighting for no longer exist. Their mission, their demise were all scripted events and their struggle and actions were all anticipated from the outcome of their predetermined fate. There is no “”world”” to save, no heroine to protect in this game.
If there is a god who set the path of the world in stone, you have to defeat God. Many JRPGs in the last two decades like to make the hero’s party fight God at the end because he decided on an a fate for the world that they are unwilling to accept. Therefore Nier Automata is a traditional JRPG story where you protect the heroine, save the world and defeat god. You play as the dual protagonists Pod 042 and Pod 153, where you watch over your “heroines” and band together in a party of 6 pods to disobey your fate and defeat the ultimate God of a video game and give a salvation to the simulated world of androids that you hold dear. Even if the game was just making you press buttons as it plays out a determined scenario where none of the characters’ actions mattered, you believe there was meaning in their journey. That’s why you reject their “God” and shoot down the rolling names of the Creators who designed this game. And you delete your save file for all the other protagonists in the world, as the characters no longer need a record of their suffering past when given a new chance.
If the motivation for a player’s stand-in’s actions is considered a “heroine”, then 9S is the main heroine, right? A certain side quest about Romeo and Juliet shows the different ways viewers react to the fictional works they view. I am clearly this one: