Chances are you’ve never heard of the video game “NieR: Automata” even if you’re a gamer, but it’s a game worth looking into. While “NieR” initially comes off as a very odd RPG from Platinum Games, it turns out to be much more. There is surprising depth to this bizarre story. You just have to reach the true ending to see the whole picture.

I was skeptical of “NieR: Automata” when I started the game, being dropped instantly into a bullet-hell-flying sequence followed by a mini-boss fight. The opening sequence sets the pace of the game — either get on board or be left behind. I strapped in, not knowing this would be a game that would cause me to rethink my life.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. Trying to explain what depression is like is nearly impossible. Some days I am sluggish and apathetic, while the next day I might be so deep in my own personal abyss that I cry for hours. Depression has the uncanny ability to make it feel like your whole life is happening in grayscale.

Back to “NieR: Automata,”  the character you play at first is simply named 2B, a combat android built to help humans retake Earth from an alien-made machine army. She is a member of YoRHa, an organization whose sole purpose is to wipe out the machine army in the name of humanity. Almost instantly, 2B is paired up with another YoRHa unit named 9S. While 2B is all business and rather unsocial, 9S is optimistic and never questions his orders.

Over the course of the game, 9S discovers that humans have been dead for a while, meaning his entire existence no longer has a purpose. We watch 9S go from a friendly go-getter to someone who sees no point in living. This changes when 2B is killed at the hands of another android, A2. Something inside 9S snaps and he decides the world is going down with him.

I can’t say I’ve never felt like that. When your base is taken out from under you, you fall. Your world collapses as everything you thought real disappears. Depression compounds that. On my dark days, my depression tells me there’s no point to living. A more extreme version of this resonates with 9S’s mission: “If I’m going to die, the world is coming with me.”

A particularly memorable side quest first appears about halfway into the game. NPCs abound throughout the game, machines the enemy YoRHa was created to fight, but these machines are different. Each machine you encounter is simply called ‘wise machine’ and you must hack into them to get any information. Once inside, it is revealed that all of these ‘wise machines’ are very depressed and suicidal. They all stand on the tops of buildings in preparation to jump. Once you reach the last one, they all collectively jump to their deaths.

That was a shocking moment for me — I had never seen a game so boldly tackle suicide. As a player, you had to hear what these ‘wise machines’ were thinking, the horrible thoughts that ate at them, that drove them to suicide. Not everyone encounters these thoughts. This dark little side quest, in my mind, may prevent some suicides by teaching non-depressives what to look for, a rather significant feat for a video game.

In the end, 9S hunts down A2 and they fight. The gamer chooses who wins. If you choose 9S, something rather poetic happens. In that version of the fight, 9S stabs A2 but impales himself in the process; he was so blinded by revenge that it killed him. In the version where A2 wins, she knocks out 9S then assigns her pod to take care of him — to try and fix him. She saw he was broken and tries to help. Both endings have strong messages that are applicable to real life.

The absolute ending of “NieR: Automata” is a top-down shooting sequence where you fight the credits themselves. As the credits scroll by they fire waves of projectiles. The fight isn’t easy. Each time you fail (which will happen a lot) the game asks if you want to continue. Initially, it asks a simple “Give up here?” but the questions become more pointed. That last series of questions include, “Do you think games are silly little things?” and “Is it all pointless?” The last question, “Do you admit there is no meaning to this world?” hits home. The game makes you question if you are just going to give up.

I thought back to all the times when my depression said “Just give up. This can all be over.” Every time I thought it’d be better if I just left, it was like I was saying “Yes, I give up,” and admitting defeat. Questions my depression had answered in the affirmative for years were challenged by NieR. The game was asking me to make a choice: whether or not to give up.

One of the final times I died, the game offered help. Sick of dying, I accepted. One by one, copies of my icon formed a shield around me. Not only were they shields, but they also fired their own projectiles. With the help of these extra icons, the rest of the fight was easy. Once you beat the credits, the game asks if you want to sacrifice all your saved data to be one of those icons who helps other players. I hesitated. I had spent 40 hours in this game. In the end, I said yes. The game informed me there was a chance a player I helped could be someone I dislike. It asked again if I still wanted to give up my data. This is where I cried.

The power of what was being asked hit me hard. Would you give up something you worked for to help a complete stranger who is struggling? The players whose icons I used voluntarily gave up their data just to help someone else. That act of selfless kindness is profound. I hope it resonates with people to the point where they help a stranger outside of the video game.

I gave up my data. Once I said yes the final time, I watched as items, quests, the map and even the options menu disappeared.

The parallels to depression and hope in “NieR: Automata” are not exactly subtle, but I am so happy they are there. Introducing the idea of what depression looks and feels like is a big step for mental health awareness. For me, it gave me some optimism. Not only was the game making other people aware, but it also reminded me that I hadn’t given up before and that I shouldn’t now. Neither should you.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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