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Nier: Automata
Square Enix

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GOTY 2017 #4: Nier: Automata

A game about discovery

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

I’d always kind of sensed that Nier fans were intense, but at this year’s Tokyo Game Show I had a chance to see it up-close.

On the first day of the show, I met with Nier: Automata director Yoko Taro in a hotel across the street, doing some research for an upcoming story. We had a photographer there, and suggested heading over to the show floor to get a nice backdrop for a portrait for the story.

We thought it would be cute to take him to the cosplay tunnel at the convention center — an outdoor corridor connecting two halls where fans often show off costumes and get photos taken. It was one of the TGS business days, so there wouldn’t be much of a crowd in the cosplay area, and he has a tendency to wear a mask based on the Nier: Automata character Emil whenever he appears in public, so we figured it would make for a clever shot.

Nier: Automata
Square Enix

Writing it out now, I’m not sure it was all that clever, but it seemed fun at the time.

He was up for it, so we started walking that way. Carrying his mask in a duffel bag, he went down the convention’s main hallway and not a single person stopped him.

We got to our spot and set up the camera. He went around the corner to turn into Superman, and within seconds of him putting on the Emil mask a crowd began to form. Within minutes, it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen flock to a developer in public. Fans began to clog the aisles. Everyone started pulling out their phones, snapping pictures. Some snuck up behind him, making faces to get their perfect shot. It became a struggle holding people back.

Yoko Taro took it all in stride. Part of it was that he couldn’t see much while inside the mask. And the other part was — well, he’s seen this before. In many ways, he’s the person of the moment in Japan’s game industry, leading one of the biggest underdog successes of 2017 — a rare console breakout in an industry dominated by mobile games. And sure, when he puts on the mask, it breaks down a wall with fans, making him more of a character putting on a show than a person going about his business.

#4: Nier: Automata

For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #5 - Resident Evil 7

Still, as an onlooker watching this unfold, it drove home what the past year of conversations had signaled: Nier fans are intense. People don’t just like Nier. They love Nier. They can’t wait to tell you about it. One Nier fan is worth 10 Mario fans in a fight.

And, well, I count myself in that group, so let me tell you about it. For me, it’s the first third-person action game in years to feel fresh.

Go back to the early days of the stylish action genre and everything felt new. I remember getting a demo of the first Devil May Cry and spending weeks just messing with the controls, cackling at how fun it was to hit enemies in the air with a sword then shoot them on the way down. I remember spending day-after-day at work finishing the first God of War on its hardest difficulty mode because I wanted to soak up everything I could.

As time went on, the appeal of those sorts of games faded. I’m sure that had something to do with growing up and being less interested in discovering 20 different ways to kill a thing. More than that, though, it just started to feel like I’d been there before. I’d grown numb to hacking away at giant enemies on the shoulders of giant enemies. I’d lost the sense of discovery that made those titles so exciting to begin with.

Nier: Automata
Square Enix

Automata was the game that pulled me back in. That’s because it isn’t a game wrapped around a combat system. It’s a game that happens to have great combat as a starting point, and then layers a lot on top of it. It brought back that sense of having something new around every corner.

Whether switching genres on the fly, changing camera angles to vary the combat or offering weird little options like the ability to kill yourself in the inventory menu, Automata actively throws surprises at the player. Combine that with a mature story and love and care put into strange small details that most development teams streamline, and you have a game that keeps you paying attention. It’s rare to see a big action title handle social commentary so well, with strong parallels to issues currently relevant in society, and Automata jumps between serious and silly scenes better than just about any other.

Nier: Automata is talented, weird, serious, goofy, thought-provoking and beautiful, and it mixes up those qualities to hit you with each often enough that you don’t forget about any of them. You don't have to be superfan chasing around the game's director to like it, but chances are you might become one anyway.

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