Thursday, May 30, 2024

The NieR: Automata Anime Struggles For The Impossible

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While everyone’s attention has been (understandably) focused on the premiere of The Last of Us, another video game adaptation recently began when Nier: Automata hit Crunchyroll. To say that this is a wholly different challenge than adapting The Last of Us is an understatement. Nier is sprawling where Last of Us is focused. It is vague where the other is clear. Most of all, while The Last of Us is interactive cinema, Nier: Automata is a game through and through, with a celebrated narrative that largely works because it is a video game and explores video game conventions alongside its deeper philosophical analyses of life and humanity and free will.

Clearly, translating the meaning of the story to an anime is a tall task. And right now I don’t know if it will succeed, but I can at least admire the effort A-1 Pictures have put in to the project.

2B finishes fighting in Nier: Automata

Interestingly, every episode of Nier: Automata has taken a different approach to adapting the game. The first episode functions basically like watching the cutscenes reanimated, with almost all of the combat in between them removed or shortened to fit a 20-ish minute runtime. The second episode is mostly an original story taking place during the events of the game, and featuring different perspectives. The third episode goes for more of a blend of these two approaches.

You can see the show trying to figure out how to approach the monumental task of adapting Nier: Automata to traditional storytelling. Right now it is not clear which approach will win out, and whether it will succeed.

For what it’s worth, I though the second episode made for the best of the bunch. It featured the best pacing and the best characterization. Its subplot featuring the machines replanting flowers was a really interesting way to portray the evolution of machines towards more human behaviors. It also featured a closer look at the actual resistance forces battling the machines than anything the game ever shows players, which was something I hoped for possibly more than anything else.

Of course, you are going to run into the actual problem of adapting the game material, and you cannot just do original material forever.

The first episode shows the problem with condensing Nier’s missions and cutscenes into a single episode of an anime. The key points are there, from the disastrous entry flight to the black box sacrifice meant to destroy the Goliath-class robots, but without gameplay these moments flow awkwardly from one to the next. Combat served the purpose of pacing these moments and without it, things just cannot work the same way.

Episode 3 sees a similar problem when 2B and 9S reach the desert apartments. Their discovery of the machines who eventually “birth” Adam and Eve is one of my absolute favorite parts of the first game. Coming across the machines simulating sex is so weird, and the ability to just walk along them and realize exactly what they are doing is so memorable, as is the combat sequence afterwards.

The same is true of the Adam fight. Adam’s learning process throughout your fight is an effective way to establish the speed of machine learning and the threat the two humanoid machines will pose later. In the anime, this doesn’t exist. Adam is impaled within seconds of birth and the whole sequence ends.

The anime struggles to replicate the impact of these moments, and it is not even something I am necessarily saying was wrong with their approach. I could say that they should have spent more time here. Maybe that was not a real option.

Seeing key moments like those fall short especially disappoints me when the anime clearly understands what Nier: Automata is about and what I should feel.

Strangely, it is the totally original scenes that sell me on the potential of this show. The second episode’s subplot with the flower-planting robots is exactly the kind of story that makes Nier: Automata a special game. It raises every question about the nature of existence at the very core of this franchise. Its conclusion breaks your heart the same way so many Nier subplots break your heart. Every moral and narrative question about the war between the machines and androids is put front and center for the viewer to think about, and to question the official account presented to the audience at the start.

Devola and Popola from Nier: Automata

When combined with the closer look at the androids resisting the alien invasion these machines seemingly belong to, and the establishment of the resistance leader, Lily, well, I feel for the entire situation. I am invested. And it made for a beautiful, tragic episode showing me what Nier: Automata is capable of in this new medium.

But it is almost entirely original, and this story inevitably has to portray the game’s major plot points. So far, they have been the anime’s weakness.

As the title of this article says, this may be an impossible struggle mirroring the seemingly hopeless fight YoRHa and the resistance dedicate themselves to winning. Nier: Automata is a narrative so dependent on being a video game that any other approach feels like it cannot possibly match up.

But I suppose it does not necessarily have to. The anime just needs to treat the source material with earnest respect that understands what it is adapting, and so far I feel like it has done that much at least. This has certainly been a better show than I feared.

There is a clear, loving respect for the franchise that I really appreciate. Despite my complaints, this shows in the faithfulness to the game’s story and major scenes so far. It shows in the references to Nier: Replicant and even the goofy Drakengard ending that leads to Nier happening. The environments and characters look and feel spot on. The music is lifted straight from the game. I would be more upset if I felt like this show was failing to try and do right by the game, but they are doing the best they can with a difficult task.

Can Nier: Automata have the same impact on its audience that the game did? I highly doubt it. I still think this project is turning out good enough for fans of the game to enjoy themselves, and that is good enough.

Images Courtesy of A-1 Pictures

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