Nier: Automata and Breath of the Wild are amazing games with occasional technical problems. How do they manage to side step these issues and incorporate them into their structure? Heather takes a look in this critical video.

Head’s Up: This video contains minor spoilers for Nier: Automata.

Transcript:

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My current video game poisons of choice are Nier: Automata and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One is a wild science fiction slash-fest jam packed with philosophy and the other is just about the most adventurous feeling game ever. I’ve had a blast playing them but from time to time, I would notice graphics or performance hiccups that would bring me out of an otherwise great experience. I was forced to examine how these game handle their technical shortcomings and I think I’ve come to two distinct conclusions.

We’ll start with Breath of the Wild. This is the more straight forward matter of analysis. It has a vast game world that lends itself to exploration but it often runs into small problems. Areas with high foliage counts will drop framerate, textures don’t hold up to close scrutiny, enemies pop suddenly into view, and there’s noticeable aliasing.

Breath of the Wild is conscious of these limitations. It’s a launch title on new hardware that wasn’t even planned for that system when it was first made. To pack so much into the game, visual sacrifices were made and stylization became the name of the game. Breath of the Wild lacks the drastic art direction of Wind Waker but still ambles down that road. Characters and creatures in the world have a noticeably messy quality to them.

But this messiness is consistent. It’s all throughout the world, in creatures and on the rocky cliffs. And because of this, while graphical shortcomings might draw the eye, they never threaten the experience because the rules of the world don’t change. It never feels random. Lacking the attempts at fidelity that games like Skyrim or Horizon Zero Dawn have, Breath of the Wild sidesteps being hampered by technical limitation through a clear style and aesthetic that is applied throughout the game space.

If a consistent style and visual ruleset is one way to address technical limitations or hardware restrictions, what’s the other? Well, it’s a bit more abstract but we can boil some of it down to themes. Nier: Automata is a game concerned with a few fundamental concepts. Among these are issues of dual identity, the breakdown of society, the limits artificial life, and the blurred lines between physical existence and a digital self.

In some cases, these themes are expressed cogently through gameplay. Shifts in camera perspective or even character perspective stress the idea that our perception of the game world is mutable. There’s a sense that things can breakdown or reform based on our growing information. When playing as 9S, we can hack into enemies to fight them, highlighting the thin line between the real world and a digital space. These spaces are destructible and can blink out of existence with too much pressure.

This begins to toss meaning into any graphics abnormality we might find. In the over world, I often found myself looking at buildings that would gain a severe lack of definition as I moved away. Because the game already stresses the fragility of digital space within its fiction, we can begin to see that same fragility reflected in the spaces we navigate.

Functionally, the shifts and changes in environmental details call to mind the game’s focus on shifting worlds, redefined spaces, and decay. This is a world far after the end, where technology has adapted to survive beyond expectation. When I walk through the over world and spy incongruities in the game’s fidelity, it feels in line with the messages that Nier: Automata wants to communicate.

There’s also the postmodern element to consider. While self reference isn’t necessarily a hallmark of post-modern work, which has just as much to do with skepticism towards the entrenched ideologies that arose during the height of great empires, the use of self referential content within Nier: Automata does help establish it as a postmodern text. Tongue in cheek bad endings poke fun at the narrative and the player’s ability to throw it into confusion while a preoccupation with game systems and interfaces highlight the boundaries of the world.

Nier: Automata is a game that is concerned with rejecting grand ideas like rationality or an idealized humanity and by calling attention to the form of the game, it questions the validity of its own construction as well as undercut the player’s power by portraying it as something fickle and changeable. When a texture fails to load or area stutters as a new chuck is fetched from memory, Nier: Automata calls attention to itself in a way that, while probably unintended, still falls in line with the game’s tendencies to point out its own fragility.

A lot of this might sound like bending over backwards to dismiss a few poor textures. After all, a strange looking bit of graphics isn’t always profound. A cigar can be a cigar. A glitch can be a glitch. But examining how Breath of the Wild and Nier: Automata manage to avoid being crippled or weighed down by these aspect helps us understand the things in games that are more important than the visuals.

Consistent art direction and narrative design go a long way to imbuing even the accidental with meaning and these two games are wonderful case study in how, if you’ve got a solid enough core concept, very little can hold you back.