WARNING: This article contains massive spoilers for Nier Automata and The Last of Us Part 2.
The Last of Us Part 2 was the most divisive high-profile release of the generation. Most critics hailed it as the game of the year and perhaps the decade. They praised the characters, acting and plot, celebrating a new standard of storytelling within gaming that surpassed even the universally acclaimed first game.
Lots of fans echoed this but many others were far less convinced, expressing disgust and rage at some of the creative decisions. The complaints included (but were not limited to) killing off popular original protagonist Joel early in the game; pandering to SJW politics with its characters and subplots; providing misleading promotional material; forcing you to play as Abby; artificially manipulating players’ emotions; and ending with an unsatisfying conclusion.
At the time of writing, the discrepancy between Metacritic’s critic review score and user review score stands at 93 compared to 5.7 (and that’s with a lot of the user review bombs excluded).
The divide within the fanbase reminded me of the response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and such partisan rifts are becoming more and more common within the entertainment industry. Well, I’m not here to preach about unity, I’m just here to share some thoughts that may be of interest.
As I witnessed The Last Of Us Part 2’s shifting point of view, repetition of prior events and insatiable lust for revenge… I couldn’t help thinking it felt a little familiar. Was the narrative structure really as unique and revolutionary as it seemed?
I think not. After a couple of months, something dawned upon me – aspects of this are remarkably similar to Nier Automata.
Now, Nier Automata, released 3 years prior, did not follow conventional storytelling rules at all. We played an initial playthrough with 2B, before experiencing the same time period from the perspective of 9S. We then picked up events again, in a new final segment covering the time afterwards.
The first of these sections involves 2B ripping through countless robots with her katana. We are told that robots have invaded Earth for their alien overlords, forcing humans to flee and take refuge on the moon. Our task is to annihilate these enemies and reclaim the planet… for the glory of mankind.
Except, it’s not all as it seems. After seeing some pacifist robots happily living in a village, and other robots making love to each other, we find out the alien overlords are actually dead. More shockingly, so are humans. With mankind gone, our entire purpose as YoRHa androids is erased. The robots, without their alien creators, are in the same boat. They’ve been forced to try and find a new meaning, and the entire reason for our animosity has disappeared.
“What is it that separates machines from androids like us?” asks 2B at the conclusion of the first of many endings. We are left to contemplate whether our merciless slaughter actually achieved anything at all, before starting from scratch as 9S.
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Compare this to The Last of Us Part 2. After the introductory few hours, we delve into Elly’s three-day killing spree in Seattle. She is consumed by rage and though there are signs of the toll this takes, harbours little remorse for the many cold-blooded murders she commits until she finally crosses the line by killing the pregnant Mel.
Just as Abby shows up and it looks like we are reaching the climax of the story, the plot stops dead. We go back in time and repeat the same three days from Abby’s point of view. This time, we get to know the characters we’ve just murdered as Elly. We are shown they are not necessarily bad people, and from their perspective had understandable motivations for their hatred towards Joel (I understand this sentiment didn’t land with everyone).
With the knowledge of our past exploits, we’re supposed to regret our actions. We’re supposed to see that we perhaps just didn’t understand our foes, and if we had known all of this beforehand we’d never have wanted to travel to Seattle at all. It’s a brutal message that we should think before we act – that some things can’t be undone, and understanding your victim after the fact is too late.
While doing this, The Last Of Us Part 2 also goes to great lengths to draw parallels between Elly and Abby, showing almost identical life experiences and motivations through the various flashbacks.
Nier Automata takes a similar tune. From the perspective of 9S in the second playthrough, we already know the robots aren’t a true threat to humanity. They are simply trying to find purpose in their life. With his hacking ability, we’re given further snippets into the psyche of the bosses and their tragic, pitiful backstories. It actually goes the step further of making us commit these atrocities again, rather than simply telling us to regret them retrospectively.
It’s worth noting the distinction that although 9S’s playthrough is a different pair of eyes, they are on the same side in both sections.
Nevertheless, the games share a first section with a set purpose, before a second one from a different perspective that (in theory) highlights the sins of our previous actions, making us ashamed of them by using our prior knowledge against us.
Another similar conclusion can be drawn at the same point of both games – you may not be so different from your enemy.
This is then followed by a third section, which also holds some parallels. In The Last Of Us Part 2, by now I believe we are not supposed to be on board with Elly’s continued lust for revenge. She has settled into a life that seems as good as it can possibly get in a post-apocalyptic zombie-invested world, living a pretty peaceful life with Dina and her child.
Incidentally, this was the weakest part of the game for me. I didn’t buy into Elly’s motivation whatsoever, and since the final message was about revenge being a cycle that must be broken… didn’t Abby break it when she spared Elly and Dina? Maybe it didn’t count because she killed Jesse.
Anyway, in Nier Automata’s third act, 9S is driven by the very same bloodlust, albeit more understandably since he has witnessed 2B’s death at the apparent hands of A2. He descends into a mad vendetta we know is misplaced, and we can only see it ending one way – very badly. Though as the player we do not have a choice but to proceed.
Admittedly, the cycle of revenge is not a new concept, and nor is the notion of opposing parties sharing huge similarities. It isn’t anything groundbreaking for games, or any form of media, to share these themes. But portraying the same messages in such an incredibly unconventional way? Hmm.
Maybe Neil Druckmann and Yoko Taro happened upon the same unusual narrative structure within three years of one another. Or perhaps such an unusual resemblance was born from inspiration rather than coincidence.
Overall, who did it better? It won’t be a surprise to learn that on RPG Overload, the winner is Nier Automata. It’s not to say I disliked The Last Of Us Part 2, but Nier Automata was a rare gem – and did it first.
There’s just something about it that made the barmy, bizarre narrative structure feel more palatable without coming across as manipulative and preachy. Maybe the futuristic, sci-fi elements and eccentricity of Yoko Taro made me more willing to accept the obscure methods. Or it may be that Nier Automata didn’t ram its messages down your throat as much. Cheap tricks like forcing you kill dogs and hearing their owners cry out their names instantly broke any illusion that Elly was meant to be a force for good.
On a concluding note, it’s fair to say the games are still far from identical. Whereas The Last Of Us Part 2 gave us, ahem, ‘realistic’ body types, Nier Automata went for good old sexy French maid androids in high heels. Never change, Japan.