Video Games: When Decisions Actually Matter

After approximately three whole days of relative sunshine, the weather of Great Britain has returned to its usual piss miserable self and promptly rained upon the nation. Not that it matters, because it isn’t like I’ve had a chance to go outside and enjoy that weather while my dog’s been recovering from surgery, but now I don’t even have the ability to look outside my window and admire what a nice day it is.

So with that in mind, I figured I’d write a post about video games. Because, well, why not, really?

Certain video games, RPGs as a genre in particular, like to make us think that our decisions matter and that we have some manner of agency in the world our pixel protagonists exist in. Some games do this by giving you multiple endings based on the actions you took during your time playing, with Undertale perhaps being a prime and somewhat semi-recent example of such. You can murder whomever you choose or spare whomever you wish and the game has a slew of different endings to give you based on both the actions you took in that playthrough, and actions you may have taken in previous ones.

Other games do a rather poor job of giving you any kind of agency, even in a world where you should surely have some. Life is Strange is a good example of this, insofar as giving you a pixel protagonist who has the ability to make many interesting decisions from mundane to extreme, and yet ultimately the decisions that you choose never fundamentally matter in the end. The ending is always the same regardless of how you play, and certain choices you do make don’t actually change things they should change. (You could make the argument that fucking around with time is a fundamentally stupid idea, too, and I’d probably agree with you.) The game will always end in a Trolley Problem thought experiment and that’s just how it goes.

NieR: Gestalt&Replicant and its very recent sequel NieR: Automata offer a different way of giving players agency over how a story does or doesn’t end, and they do so in such a way that their method of giving agency and interaction with their universe can only work in a video game.

The title screen of NieR: Gestalt&Replicant

NieR: Gestalt&Replicant, the first of the series (and in itself a spinoff from Drakengard) tells a story about a father trying to save his daughter (or brother trying to save his sister depending on your version.) The game has multiple endings, a staple for the series it was a spinoff from, and all of them generally result in the same sort of doom and gloom. Curiously however, the game demands multiple playthroughs of the same content in order to achieve these endings. Automata strayed away from this, but we’ll talk about that later. What’s important about NieR: Gestalt&Replicant and the way it tells its story is that, the second time you play through the game, the game tells you more about the bosses and the enemies you face.

And they’re all quite tragic stories. The game presents you with a moral dilemma: you have already killed these characters once, thinking they were just terrible boss monsters. But now you are given their stories and their history, told of their characters and their justifications. The game humanises the enemies you face and, in turn, presents you with a terrible realisation: you might actually be the monster of the story. This is only emphasised as you learn more of the monsters themselves and their own struggles, encouraging you to empathise with their own problems and showing you that the world is not as black and white as you thought it was. The game then gives you a very clear agency as a player: keep playing, or don’t. It’s a kind of agency that no other game series, in my experience, has ever given me. I have never been challenged by a game as a player to make a moral decision, because the moral decisions games have to offer have never weighed on my conscience. Undertale made an attempt to, with the reveal that the protagonist Frisk has in fact been usurped by an entity called “Chara” which is, in turn, a representative of you “the player”. But by having Chara exist at all, Undertale also fails to fully place the burden of your actions on your shoulders and you don’t necessarily, to take a line from the game, “feel your sins crawling on your back.”

NieR: Gestalt&Replicant does this by making it very clear (though subtle) that when you play through the game a second time, you are doing it for your personal reasons. Completionist? Hoping for a better ending? Whatever your reasons, they are your reasons, not the reasons of an in-game entity. And as such, every time you murder a Shade in that game, the weight falls upon you, not your characters, because you are the one that has the new information about what they are.

It’s genius.

The title screen of NieR: Automata

NieR: Automata offered a similar story, but also offered a very different ending. The sequel to the original no longer gives you a subtle hint that the enemies you’re facing might be more than the powers-that-be in YoRHa tell you that they are, and is very obvious that the theme of “what is a human” still remains. However, the game doesn’t force you to replay the same story multiple times in order to achieve various endings that you hope improve upon previous ones. Instead, it has you play through effectively three stories – the first two stories are the same, but from the perspective of two different main characters. The third story is split into chapters following one of the main protagonists from the first half of the game, and one new protagonist. While the third story has two endings, the only change in story comes at the very end, as these two characters fight head to head to the death and you have to choose which of them to support.

There is no hidden agenda behind many of the bosses in this game. They all still have stories and they all still have character in their own right, justifications for their actions, but none are as in-depth or as well-elaborated as those from the first NieR game. Instead, what Automata does is reward you for your determination by giving you Ending E: a near impossible bullet-hell style ending against the title credits that you are offered to play by the game itself. And I do mean that you are offered to play.

The main characters are all dead by the time you reach Ending E. You aren’t playing as one of them. You are playing as you, and nobody but you, with your own convictions and determination to beat the game. And as you inevitably die in the bullet hell, the game asks you if you’re willing to keep going, or if you will give up. And finally, as you keep dying and keep retrying, the game offers you a glimmer of hope: other people. Other actual players, who have sacrificed their saved games so that you can beat Ending E and give the characters a happy ending, yourself. Once you beat Ending E, you are given the option to help out somebody else, too – at the expense of all your own save data, of course.

It’s a very real agency the game gives you, because the game doesn’t create an entity to represent you but just directly speaks to you. As such, Ending E in NieR: Automata is an incredibly emotive ending with an incredibly powerful narrative. It is also perhaps the best example we have of how video games can give their players agency and make them feel like their agency matters. If you beat Ending E, you get to save everybody – even when the developers tried to stop you themselves. It’s absolutely fantastic.