Jeremy Signor is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania whose byline can be found at USgamer, PCGamer, GamesBeat, PCGamesN, GamesRadar, Unwinnable, and elsewhere.
Content Notification: reference to suicide
NieR: Automata tells the story of the androids and robots who are fighting over the last remains of humanity. Both the androids and the robots display behaviors learned from humans, whether integrated into their own behavior or just mindless mimicking without understanding of why they’re doing it. In the end, it’s revealed that humanity has been extinct for a long time, but it hardly needs revealing, as one of the most striking things about Automata is its use of absence and artifice to speak to the nature of humanity without ever portraying a human at all. Its soundtrack, composed by Keiichi Okabe, reflects this as it strikes appropriate tones of melancholy, emptiness, and repetition.
It all starts with an electric buzz and a piano note. The title theme of NieR: Automata feels downright hollow thanks to the sparse piano playing note by note. There’s a bit of a metallic echo in the background as well, which parallels the robotic theme of the game perfectly. But it’s also lonely. The minimalism with which the theme carries itself makes you feel like you’re in for a lonely game, and you’d be right.
The main battle theme breaks the silence quite suddenly. The insistent percussion and the urgent-sounding strings let you know that the game is more than just melancholy: it’s a war. The otherworldly vocals lend to the magnitude of the conflict, but they also keep all the action grounded in a certain sadness that you can’t quite explain. In reality, it mirrors the odd war between the machines and the androids perfectly, as it reaches a fevered pitch just as you start playing the game, but the entire reason for the war, to protect the human race, is built on a lie. The only thing that keeps the war going is the lie and inertia.
All the noise that builds up during the prelude chapter of NieR: Automata dissipates once you reach YoRHa’s space station. Fortress of Lies suggests a serene space scene, with heavenly, breathy vocals and sparse instrumentation that gently bounces like someone in zero gravity. It’s a nice reprieve after the aggressive battle theme and action-packed tutorial chapter, letting your psyche recover with gentle music to ease you into battle once more. It’s not an accident that Fortress of Lies leads directly into the similarly gentle City Ruins. But the angelic nature of Fortress of Lies proves too good to be true once the true nature of YoRHa becomes clear. The reveal of YoRHa’s lie of an existence – that humanity is already dead and YoRHa exists only to keep the androids sane – shatters a beautiful illusion of purpose, and in the one place where you thought you were safe from everything.
When you finally get to the main hub of the game – a destroyed city overgrown with plant life reclaiming the Earth – City Ruins starts to play. Feeling like a continuation of the hints of piano in the title theme, City Ruins feels slightly more lived in thanks to the lilting vocals that accompany the song. This mirrors the state of the city itself, as we immediately recognize the city as a place where people once lived, though not anymore in its ruined state. City Ruins comes in three different arrangements, and they each play at different points in the story. Each successive iteration becomes fuller and more crowded thanks to the addition of a soft guitar and, finally, a string section. These arrangements also speed up the song slightly, which all match the tone of the game’s narrative as it escalates and the ruins of the city become more crowded with robot enemies. The empty home of humans is now increasingly a hotbed of activity in the war between the androids and robots. The automatons are symbolically playing the role of humanity.
One impressive feature that the music in NieR: Automata uses makes progression through the game feel dynamic, giving specific areas their own vibe. Most of the tracks in the soundtrack are actually three different tracks, but used in different places. These tracks range from calm and quiet to heavy and loud. The best part is that the transition between the three is seamless, letting the developers give a tucked-away area a calmer feel than somewhere in the thick of battle.
Standing in stark contrast to the melancholy, lonely piano-tinged sound of the main theme and City Ruins, Amusement Park comes at a point in the story where you’re starting to get into the heads of the machines you’re fighting. You come upon an abandoned theme park that the machines have got up and running again for the benefit of no one in particular. Amusement Park hits you right away with a sense of whimsy and drama, a wall of sound befitting the garish, confetti-laden park you’re now exploring. But there’s something else at the core of Amusement Park, something that lacks the warmth of something that’s supposed to be for somewhere where children have fun. It’s cold to the point where it feels like it’s just going through the motions, but that’s the point. After all, the machines are basically going through the motions of running a theme park because that’s what humans do. There’s a kernel of warmth in the music, just like there’s a small part of the machines that really do want to make the world happier by doing this. But it’s mostly artifice, copying the motions of happiness without an understanding of why humans did so.
Directly after the theme park, you come upon a town of machines lead by a robot called Pascal. The track that shares his name is a counterpoint to the cold artifice of Amusement Park, albeit in an undeveloped way. Guitars and xylophones intermingle with childlike vocals to show the childlike nature of the machines. The treehouses and child robots around the town drive home the fledgling sentiment further. They’re emulating humans to try and learn what it is to be like them, but they lack understanding, much like how the greater theme of the game is about machines mimicking human behavior to become more human. We need only look to the opening vignette of 9S’s route to see this in full view. A robot wants to revive his destroyed brother, so he goes and gets a bucket, fills it with oil, and splashes it on the metallic husk that once was a machine. But the little brother has no understanding that splashing oil does nothing to fix things. He’s only doing it because of the old cliché of human behavior that you give a dying person water to stabilize them.
The desert environment’s theme, Memories of Dust, is probably the most bog-standard piece on the soundtrack mainly because it hits many beats similar to other desert songs: big, sweeping measures, world music-inspired vocals, and pacing that rises and falls in equal measure much like the dunes of the desert. It’s hard to argue that it’s not appropriate, though, and provides an appropriate backdrop to a city complex that’s been partially buried by sand. It continues the theme of nature retaking the land that we saw in the city ruins, and furthers this narrative by hinting at what this complex was used for in files you can find. Once it was used for finding a cure for the Black Scrawl, the disease that eventually kills humanity. Now all that effort is like so much sand, burying the past along with humanity’s hope.
Much later on, you find a group of machines have formed a cult where they kill themselves in order to become like a god, and are willing to kill you so that you can join them in godhood. The music that accompanies this part of the game, Birth of a Wish, is a suitable song for a serious situation complete with vaguely church-like chanting, but it also features another chant in the song itself: “Become as gods! Become as gods!” It’s the machines chanting their new dogma, but within the song. The chant is even within the rhythm of the song itself, leading to an interesting fusion of audio, music, and scenario.
The ending credits song Weight of the World could easily be written off as pop schlock, but a few things put it in line with the themes of the rest of the game. The lyrics talk about how all this expectation and pressure is put on “one girl”, but she can’t save everyone because it’s just her. The song speaks to the singularity of the individual, tying back into the loneliness, the hollowed-out world devoid of humanity. It also deals with the androids’ own tendency to emulate humanity both consciously and unconsciously, demonstrating that they’ve forged bonds much like humans do. The relationship between 2B and 9S further cements this, but Weight of the World puts a capstone on the entire scenario. It’s a somber note to end on, but also provides a spark of hope in the lyrics, talking about the hope for redemption.
We can pull many common themes from the soundtrack as a whole. The game starts with melancholy piano, and the subsequent songs keep up the melancholy beats even during songs you wouldn’t think of as sad. A lot of the soundscapes make allusions to how empty the world is by either using small, echoing sounds or making big sound statements that feel vast. We also have a lot of songs that use vocal tracks, which serve as a reminder of humanity’s absence from the world. And then there’s the non-traditional percussion used in a lot of the tracks: xylophone, bells, metallic clangs. These all reference the mechanical nature of the Earth now that humanity is gone and the androids and machines are all that’s left.
NieR: Automata also utilizes multiple versions of a single track really well. The seamless transitioning between versions based on your location is cool, but the best tracks are repurposed in impressive ways depending on the situation. Birth of a Wish is the simplest track, with a version of the song featuring a chant of “This cannot continue!” But by far the best example of this is The End of YoRHa, which initially transforms The Weight of the World by playing it using an 8-bit synthesizer, a nod to the past of video games. Soon the familiar vocals come on, but with an accompanying choir in the background. Suddenly the song about isolation and singularity isn’t anymore, and is replaced by a song that’s populated with living beings – for the first time in the game, you don’t feel alone as you realize that in aiming for humanity, the androids and robots were already very human. And the main vocal gets split into three different languages, completing the effect that the world is full again, or rather, that it never was empty to begin with.
NieR: Automata is a surreal game that dares to ask players what it means to be human, or even if you need to be a human being to be human. To that end, Keiichi Okabe gives us a soundtrack that mixes together the warmth that we associate with humanity – soft guitars, soulful vocals, invigorating strings – with the artificial tinge that calls to mind machines – synthesizers, alternate percussive instruments, metallic sounds. It swirls together lonely lilting piano with wall-to-wall choir finales. But most of all, it’s as dreamlike and thoughtful as the game itself.