NieR: Automata’s Poetic “True” (E)nding
(This post will not have any spoilers for the actual game. I’ll just be discussing what the ending does and how it made me willing to throw away 30 hours of work. If you plan to go in completely in the dark, then skip this.)
I liked NieR: Automata a lot. Like a lot, a lot. Even so, I could still sit here and tell you many ways the game was unpolished. It was far, far from perfect in regards to the gameplay, that is. This was but one of my numerous experiences with this game’s oddities. That one was pretty fun, though.
However, this game was NieR(haha) perfection when it came to telling its story. As the story guy, I will get into that at another point soon. For now, I want to talk about what the ending of the game meant to me. As of writing this, I just finished it about an hour ago, so it’s pretty fresh.
Different mediums have certain strengths in the way that they tell their stories. Novels are good for slower, more atmospheric stories. Manga, comic books, or any similar thing manage to add visuals that can help give us a better understanding of characters, or just more action, which pure literature can have a hard time doing.
Then you have true visual mediums. They can give us a level of emotion that no other really can, what with music, camera work, actors. There’s a lot. Anime is similar, but with that having an art style and a world visually crafted by someone, they can tell a story in a whole new way. My point is, every different medium has unique ways they can tell stories.
And video games happen to be one of the most unique purely because you, the player, have more input than ever before. You have the ability to participate in that story in such a different way than just watching a show or reading a book. Having that player interaction can carry a story as far as the writer can imagine.
This can be with little decisions that might allow you to change the outcome of a quest, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. That lets you change the story in a way video games could only allow, but the story isn’t different per se because of the medium. The medium affects it but is not the reason it is what it is.
Breaking the fourth wall is one way that the medium’s specialties are often explored in stories, like in Doki Doki Literature Club, for instance. That story only works as a video game. I already talked about before how video games are the best medium for fourth wall breaking. I bring this up because NieR: Automata was very similar. I couldn’t imagine that game as anything other than a game.
NieR doesn’t go crazy with breaking the fourth wall (it only does it a few times, from what I can think of), but when it does, it destroys it. While some games chip away subtly, NieR: Automata kills it dead.
One instance is when you play through the game from 9S’s perspective, and I get to watch a recording for about 20 minutes of all the times I made him say the same thing over and over in an options menu. It was a unique form of torture, and it may stop me from doing stupid things like that in the future in case it ever comes back to bite me.
But the biggest fourth wall break is in the E ending of the game. I hope people now appreciate how clever and on theme my title was. To not spoil the story, I won’t talk about the context of anything and instead give you a very simple, vague rundown.
Bad thing happens, forces the player to make a few decisions. If you make certain decisions, it sets you towards the E ending where the game doesn’t end when you hit the credits. You are instead sent into a Bullet Hell minigame similar to the hacking sections of the game, where you progress the credits by blowing all the staff’s names away as they attempt to kill you. Got all that?
This, in and of itself, is one of the biggest fourth wall breaks I’ve ever seen. Because it’s not just a fun minigame, there’s proper story stuff going on behind the scenes. It’s mind-blowing, really. Had I experienced the game sooner, I probably would have put this ending in that post.
But a neat concept like that isn’t what makes it one of my favorite endings to a game ever. It’s how it pulls the player right into the characters’ shoes in such a way that could only ever happen in the medium.
NieR: Automata is a game that asks many tough questions. Its story centers around wholesome themes like what’s the meaning of life, whether there’s any point to living when life is an endless struggle, and what it even means to be alive in the first place. Very fun stuff, I assure you.
This stupid little minigame manages to somehow put the player in a similar predicament, albeit in a fairly metaphoric way, and ask the player the same questions.
Life is hard. The act of living isn’t as easy as it may seem. We come across many challenges in life, and sometimes it may be too much for us to handle. Like we can’t make it on our own. Do you know what else invoked the same response in me? This ending!
It is brutal. It is harder than you could possibly imagine. I don’t know how many times I lost trying to get past it. My extreme stubbornness started to waver. This is made all the more grueling when every time you lose, you have to answer a question the game poses to you.
“Give up here?”
“Do you accept defeat?”
“Is it all pointless?”
One by one, you’re berated by these messages until they eventually repeat. You die over and over, each time losing faith in your abilities to complete this impossible task. Every death saps your will. I know I was slower answering those questions than I would have liked to a few cycles in. To the player, we’re talking about the game. But to the wider story, it means much more than that.
Those aren’t questions about completing the game. They’re questions of whether life is worth living. Whether the impossible journey that will eventually lead to our own demise has any point. By saying yes, you aren’t only accepting that the game was too hard for you, you’re telling the characters in the game that their life and their struggles are meaningless and not worth fighting for. That there’s no point in fighting the impossible and living life. That life is too hard for you or them.
With each death, you lose resolve. You begin to think that this task in front of you is truly impossible. It makes you want to give up, knowing that when you accept your defeat, it will all finally end. Yet, you continue on. You continue to reject defeat. You struggle on with as much strength as you can muster to fight another time. To fight as many times as it takes. You keep getting back up.
And finally, when you’re at your lowest, another message pops up—this one, not bringing despair but hope. The name of a real player shows up, offering their assistance to you, a complete stranger that they have never met before.
When you finally accept their help and understand that this is a task no one person can accomplish on their own, six ships (what are they actually?) surround you, all represented by a real player coming to lend you their aid, as the credit music goes from a single vocalist to a chorus, really driving the point home.
These strangers act as your shields. With each hit, you are protected by your comrades. Every hit you take kills one of them in turn. You are no longer by yourself. You are surrounded by your allies who will see this through the end no matter what. With your increased firepower and health, with these strangers by your side, you finally manage to complete the herculean task set in front of you.
You see the ending of the game, and all is right. You’ve rejected defeat and powered on against all odds. But the strength you used was not your own. It was the strength of all your allies that gave their lives to ensure your success. This was not a victory you claimed alone. It would have been impossible to do so.
It is then that you are left with the true ending of the game. You are asked to submit a message that a random player struggling to beat the game may see one day. A message that could give them the motivation to fight another time. It’s all preset options, but I picked what conveyed my feelings best.
“There’s no trick to this. Even so, we’re all here with you.”
I truly, from the bottom of my heart, hoped that that simple message could invoke the same feelings that almost drove me to tears as I was struggling myself. But then, it’s when the biggest decision is made.
You are asked whether you want to help a player struggling to beat the game. If you desire it, you can become a ship to help defend a player and carry them to the ending of the darkness they so desperately desire. The end they could never reach on their own. But it comes at a cost.
The price for doing so is that you must give up all your saved data. It doesn’t matter if you put 100 hours into the game, or 30 as I did. It will all be deleted. It will be as if you’ve never touched the game before. It’s a full reset. The closest video game equivalent you could ever have to sacrificing your own life.
In exchange for that, you can help someone else. As the game tells you several times, there is no reward for doing this. You don’t get some secret item. There’s a chance you won’t even like the person you help. Hell, you don’t know if anyone will actually see you. You may never help anyone. It’s a complete shot in the dark.
You are asked whether you want to give up all your time and effort for just a small chance to help a complete stranger that you will never meet or talk to in your life. You won’t be rewarded. People may think it’s just for show. There’s absolutely no logical reason to ever agree to this at all. You are losing everything you’ve ever done for nothing. Still, there’s only one real answer in my eyes and one I didn’t hesitate to make for a second
And so, I ignored every warning the game gave me and watched my data get deleted one item at a time with one of the biggest smiles I’ve had on my face in a while. I gave up absolutely everything about this story except for the precious memories I have in my heart, just for the one small, tiny, one in a million chance that I could help pull someone out of the darkness the same way they did for me.
Was I done playing the game? No. I still had a lot I wanted to do. I wanted to clean up some of the quests I had left and level up. I still had endings to get as well. I wasn’t done with the game at all, but that’s the thing. It just didn’t matter to me anymore.
I didn’t care. That ending, in the span of about 20 minutes, managed to change my perspective. I went from thinking it was a fun game I wanted to play for a long time to thinking it was a metaphor for life with more important things to do.
All in that one moment when I was asked what to do, I stopped thinking about it as a game and realized how worthless any arbitrary item I could get or what those stupid achievements were worth. I felt like I had to make the decision that was right in my heart, and if I didn’t, I would regret it.
I could always do everything and then delete my data, but it wouldn’t feel meaningful. It would undermine what the story wanted to do. I had to decide then and there what I felt was more important, and that’s what I did.
And that’s how a video game told a story that made me willingly throw away two weeks of my work and sacrifice the equivalent of my own life to help pull some stranger out of a metaphoric depression and show them that life is worth fighting for.
Will I ever help someone? I hope so, but the truth is, I don’t know. Nobody does. Nobody that sacrificed for me had any way of knowing how much I would appreciate it, if even “I” exist. So, I stopped my PS4, popped my wiped NieR: Automata game out, stuck it up on my shelf, and I’ll likely never touch it again for years. And to be honest with you, I think that’s the truest ending this wonderful game could ever have.
And that’s all this ending ever could have been, a game.
Thank you very much for reading
What endings have stuck with you for a long time? This one won’t leave me any time soon, I’ll tell you that.