For a video game, the finale is especially vital: it determines whether the game is one or multiple things. If it fails, it fragments the game into mere minigames and short stories, but if it succeeds, it pulls the game together for an ultimate conclusion that leaves a lasting impact on its players.
(Spoilers ahead for NieR: Automata, Celeste, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls III.)
NieR: Automata’s Ending E is an exemplary finale. We all remember it: the onslaught of the credits, the weight of the world on our shoulders, and the choice to sacrifice our save data. Some shouted triumphantly as others reeled in frustration, but no matter the emotions felt, for those of us who finished NieR: Automata, Ending E remains a uniquely impactful moment.
Upon its release, NieR: Automata garnered the attention of various video game analysts and sparked a plethora of conversations about its storytelling, many noting the profound effect Ending E had on players. Despite the abundance of discussion surrounding NieR: Automata and its memorable conclusion, most analyses of Ending E have focused on its thematic meaning without endeavoring to understand what fundamentally makes it so thematically resonant in the first place. Beyond the primary thematic impact it had on players, Ending E may leave a broader secondary impact on the realm of video-game literature—an effect prior analyses have yet to acknowledge. In this analysis, I intend to fill that gap and explore how and why Ending E sets a new standard for storytelling in video games.
Ultimately, Ending E answers a question pondered by video game analysts for years: How can games bridge the gameplay-story divide? Currently, games tend to separate interactive components, like gameplay, from non-interactive ones, like cutscenes, and as a result, the perception that story and gameplay must exist independently of each other has ingrained itself into the gaming industry. Considering the inherently interactive nature of games, this divide constrains their ability to create uniquely interactive narratives, thus suppressing the storytelling potential embedded in the medium. To rectify this disconnect, Ending E proposes a solution where games make each of their related components interactive, thus crafting one interactive narrative and mending the gameplay-story divide. In order to accomplish this task, it incorporates its various verbal, visual, and auditory forms of storytelling into its gameplay. By doing so, Ending E demonstrates how interactivity improves the thematic impact of a story by making the player apply a theme to their own actions, allowing them to better understand its value.
In each section of this analysis, we will define each form of storytelling and cite examples from Ending E. From there, we will explore how Ending E integrates each form into its gameplay and then compare it to thematically similar games that do not in order to directly illustrate the improved thematic impact brought on by interactivity. Lastly, we will examine how the forms work in tandem to create one interactive narrative.
The First Impact
In order to argue that Ending E’s cohesive interactivity facilitates a greater thematic impact when compared to other games, I will analyze how each element of the ending uniquely espouses a singular theme, one that we should agree upon before delving further into this analysis. Due to the profound impact it has had on its players, a number of analyses have focused on exploring Ending E’s themes, leading to a wide variety of interpretations of its thematic worth. One such analysis comes from Max Derrat with his video, “NieR: Automata – Story Explanation and Analysis.” In the video, Derrat explores how each of the major characters in the game’s story cope with a lack of purpose and the difficulty of making one for themselves. He views Ending E as a response to their struggles, interpreting the major thematic takeaway of the ending as the value of finding purpose in the strength of character necessary to confront inevitable defeat and persist despite it.
Though one may disagree with his thematic takeaway, this analysis will use Derrat’s interpretation to best illustrate how Ending E’s comprehensive interactivity lends itself to a greater thematic impact. (Since we are more concerned with how Ending E expresses its thematic meaning than that meaning itself, you can replace Derrat’s interpretation with another one and still understand the point of this argument.) As we investigate the different types of content and how Ending E intertwines them with its gameplay to make them interactive, we will contextualize them as the means it uses to express this theme of persevering despite inevitable defeat.
Verbal storytelling refers to the ways of communicating a story through words. As it applies to video games, this form includes text and dialogue, be it spoken or unspoken. In Ending E, prime examples of verbal storytelling come in the form of the messages received from other players and the questions asked every time the player dies.
Let us start with the messages from other players. These messages provide a perfect example of how Ending E merges verbal storytelling with its gameplay, and the game achieves this synthesis by having a message appear immediately following the player’s death. Through this structure, the messages become a product of the player’s actions, making them interactive.
Every time the player fails, they receive a supportive message, and in response to that support, they gain the determination to challenge the ending one more time. As the player stumbles and falls, these messages convince them to stand up and try again. By linking the verbal storytelling and the gameplay this way, Ending E incorporates the messages into its interactive narrative, which more effectively conveys its theme of persevering in the face of inevitable defeat because it encourages the player to follow the path of perseverance in response to their actions. Through interactivity, Ending E causes the player to prove the value of perseverance.
Another great example of verbal storytelling comes in the form of the questions asked to the player. A question appears each time the player dies, and each of the questions essentially asks, “Do you give up?” In this example, we see another instance where Ending E makes stereotypically non-interactive content interactive. When the player dies, they face a challenge to their resolve in the form of a question. Upon facing this question, the player feels compelled to assert their resilience, so they answer “No” and try again only to die and encounter another question. Ending E crafts a distinct feedback loop, where the player fails, gets questioned, and tries again in response to that questioning. Through this loop, the questions become part of the interactive narrative. This interactivity proves even better thematically because it causes the player to persevere despite their inevitable defeat. As such, Ending E makes the communication of this theme significantly more impactful because the player themself demonstrates its value. This dynamic occurs as a result of the synthesis of verbal storytelling and gameplay.
Beyond their standalone effects, the two instances of verbal storytelling work in tandem to convey Ending E’s theme. Notice that the questions appear alongside the supportive messages from other players. By linking these two components, Ending E further convinces the player to persevere. When the player dies, they question their will to persist due to the questions, but at the same time, they see messages from other players offering their support. The messages help to reassure the player that they can overcome this challenge, causing them to answer “No” to the questions. In this way, the collaboration between these two pieces of content works to further Ending E’s theme.
To see how this dynamic proves more impactful, let us compare to a game that does not synthesize verbal storytelling with its gameplay. Celeste, a game sharing this theme of persevering, serves as a fine example. In the game’s finale, the player finds themself racing to the summit of Mt. Celeste, the mountain they struggled to climb throughout the whole game. The gameplay in this section presents a major challenge; however, it encourages the player to continue despite its difficulty due to the euphoria of success. Additionally, at various points along the climb, the protagonist, Madeline, and her antagonist, a physical manifestation of her personal conflicts, discuss the difficulty of their journey and reassure each other that they can reach the top of Mt. Celeste. Both of these components serve to present a theme of persevering through difficulty.
Celeste’s finale differs from Ending E in that the gameplay and the verbal storytelling exist separately. Specifically, the dialogue does not result as an immediate product of the player’s actions. The player faces the challenges of the gameplay, and only after they reach certain points will the characters talk with each other. Two stories occur separately: the gameplay progress of the player and the discussion between Madeline and the antagonist. Contrarily, the verbal storytelling in Ending E directly reacts to the events of the gameplay, merging the two into an interactive narrative. This direct feedback serves to influence the player’s actions so that they reach Ending E’s thematic takeaway. Through this more interactive style of storytelling, Ending E creates a more direct emotional and thematic impact on the player.
Having discussed Ending E’s usage of verbal storytelling, we should now turn to the next form: visual storytelling. Telling a story through visual elements, this form, when it comes to video game stories, consists of pictures, colors, and the appearance of the characters and world. Ending E primarily employs visual storytelling in the design and evolution of its setting.
As it does with verbal storytelling, Ending E merges its visual storytelling with its gameplay for the purpose of accentuating its theme of persevering through inevitable defeat. We can observe this phenomenon in two instances: first, with the simple act of continuing to battle the credits, and second, with the arrival of help from other players.
In the first case, Ending E links visual storytelling and gameplay by having the battle field grow more hectic the more the player fights. More of the credits appear, more projectiles are fired, and the player’s presence grows ever smaller on the screen. As the player perseveres, the battlefield presents a more daunting challenge in response, which oppresses the player and makes them second-guess their chances at success. Synthesizing visual storytelling and gameplay in this way makes the visual design of Ending E interactive, and it causes the player to question the odds of victory. This interaction works to beat the player down, but should they persist, the game rewards them with the second linkage of visual storytelling and gameplay.
If they die enough times, the player may accept an offer of help, which comes in the form of additional ships that surround the player. This moment marks a notable shift in not only the gameplay but also the visual design of the battlefield. Due to these extra ships, the player gains a greater presence, firing more projectiles and covering a larger part of the screen, which gives them the determination to fight back. Through this evolution, we see another example of visual storytelling uniting with gameplay. Because the player continues to fight despite the growing threat, they receive help, leading to a change in the visual layout of the battlefield and conveying to the player that they should persevere no matter the difficulty they face. The player’s actions thereby shape the layout of the battlefield, incorporating it into the interactive narrative. By way of this interactive visual storytelling, Ending E conveys its theme to the player through their actions.
Ending E’s implementation of interactive visual storytelling becomes all the more compelling when we recall that the enemies are names—visual representations of the developers of NieR: Automata. By fighting the developers, the player attempts to subvert the rules of the game and literally change the game world from the way the developers originally intended it. If the player continues in their struggle, other players will then join them, at which point they can successfully defeat the developers and change the game world.
In order to see how this method proves more effective, let us contrast Ending E with a game that chooses not to merge its visual storytelling with its gameplay. One such example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. Sharing the theme of persevering in spite of inevitable defeat, Getting Over It presents the player with the goal of climbing to the top of an absurdly challenging “mountain,” composed of an assortment of seemingly random objects. The player sits in a cauldron and can only climb using a sledgehammer, so it proves quite difficult.
Where Ending E’s visuals morph in response to the player’s actions, Getting Over It’s visual design remains unaffected by them. Although the design of the mountain presents a daunting task, it does not change as a result of the player’s progress. The mountain remains static and does not care about the player’s presence. Ending E, however, depicts the player as a threat. In trying to subvert the game world, the player must defeat the developers, the literal Gods of this world. As the player’s progress continues, more enemies appear, and the battlefield becomes increasingly daunting, creating a sense that some entity is reacting to the player’s success. The fact that the enemies continually move around the battlefield only adds to this perception of a living entity reacting to the player’s actions. In Getting Over It, the mountain ignores the player, but in Ending E, the player’s actions directly influence the visual design in a way that stresses the value of their perseverance.
Since we have examined Ending E’s usage of visual and verbal storytelling, let us now see how the two work together to help convey the theme. As the player confronts the ending, the challenge increases, causing the player to die. The growing insanity of the battlefield beats the player down, making them question their ability to overcome the challenge. In response to this difficulty, the messages from other players appear to restore the player’s determination, getting them to fight once more.
Additionally, the questions cease at the same time the visual layout of the battle field changes to give the player a stronger presence. These two events coincide to effectively communicate Ending E’s theme about perseverance. Testing the player, the questions gauge the player’s determination to persist, but they disappear after the player receives help because the player has demonstrated and learned the value of perseverance. With that final “No,” the player asserts their will to persevere, leading to the offer for help and the subsequent change in the battlefield’s layout.
From this dynamic, we can observe how the visual and verbal storytelling cooperate to convey Ending E’s theme about perseverance. By working together, both forms of storytelling expand upon their unique interactivity within Ending E to help build a cohesive interactive narrative.
Having addressed both verbal and visual storytelling, let us now turn to the last form: auditory storytelling. This form utilizes the capabilities of sound to convey a story. In video games, we see auditory storytelling present in the music, sound effects, and voice acting, if applicable. One example of auditory storytelling in Ending E comes through the introduction of the choir.
In the case of the choir, Ending E provides another example of its synthesis of story and gameplay. It appears following the player’s decision to accept help from other players. If they choose to receive assistance, a choir begins to underscore “The Weight of the World.” Like with the other forms, this merger of auditory storytelling and gameplay works effectively to turn Ending E’s auditory storytelling into a part of the interactive narrative. The choir appears specifically in response to the player’s willingness to persist, even if it means accepting help to do so. By choosing to persevere, the player shapes the audio of the ending.
A small bit of research only adds to this impact since the choir, cheering the player on in their fight, consists of the development team of NieR: Automata. This minor detail holds major significance because the song they sing along to explicitly endorses the theme of perseverance. With lyrics like “Cause we’re going to shout it loud, even if our words seem meaningless” and “Maybe if I keep believing, my dreams will come to life,” “The Weight of the World” tells the story of a girl trying to persist in the face of an insurmountable difficulty. By underscoring this song, the developers join the player to cheer them on in their struggle. Previously the enemy trying to defeat the player, the developers now become the player’s ally, hoping for them to succeed in subverting the rules of the game. Through their individual perseverance, the player wins the support of the developers, which only further justifies their willingness to persevere despite their inevitable defeat. In this way, Ending E uses interactive auditory storytelling to generate a greater thematic impact.
Let us now compare Ending E with a game that does not link its auditory storytelling with its gameplay to better understand how this synthesis creates a more effective thematic impact. The final battle of Dark Souls comes to mind. Arguably the best example, Dark Souls’s gameplay promotes perseverance through its grueling difficulty, coupled with its equally rewarding euphoria, but the final battle with Gwyn offers a unique twist. The player faces the weak husk of a once legendary king as the track “Gwyn, Lord of Cinder” plays in the background. Sorrowful and reflective, the track contrasts the epic battles the player faced throughout their journey as it juxtaposes the player with Gwyn, a man who sacrificed his humanity so that his kingdom might survive. It solemnly loops.
But that statement highlights why Ending E’s interactive auditory storytelling sets itself apart. In Dark Souls, the music, while great in its own right, exists as non-interactive material—the player’s actions exert no influence over it. It exists separately from the gameplay and does not contribute to the interactive narrative. Where the music in Dark Souls loops, the music in Ending E evolves. The appearance of the choir works so effectively because it happens in response to the player’s decisions. By changing the music in response to the player’s actions, Ending E not only creates a more impactful scene for the player but also leads them toward its theme since the choir represents the developers congratulating the player for persevering. Though Dark Souls’ use of auditory storytelling is by no means bad, it proves inferior when compared to the interactive auditory storytelling in Ending E.
Perhaps you find this comparison objectionable due to the consensus that Gwyn’s theme plays an essential role in the thematic presentation of Dark Souls’ finale. If so, let us look at another example in the Dark Souls series that supports my point: the music of the Soul of Cinder, the final boss of Dark Souls III. During the final boss fight against the Soul of Cinder—which, in the game’s universe, represents a conglomeration of all previous Lords of Cinder, including Gwyn—its attack patterns and music will change as the player deals more damage to the boss. When the fight enters its second stage, the Soul of Cinder adopts portions of Gwyn’s moveset from the first game, and the music, the track “Soul of Cinder,” mimics Gwyn’s boss theme. Like we see in Ending E, the music changes as a result of the player’s actions, leading to a very memorable moment for many fans of the series. Contrast this with “Gwyn, Lord of Cinder,” and we can see how interactive auditory storytelling generates a stronger thematic effect over the non-interactive variety.
Now that we have analyzed Ending E’s synthesis of auditory storytelling and gameplay, let us see how this interactive auditory storytelling works in tandem with the visual and verbal storytelling we previously analyzed. First, let us look at the cooperation between the verbal and auditory storytelling. The appearance of the choir marks the end of the supportive messages since the player can no longer die, and this change brilliantly links the two techniques. As the player dies, the messages encourage them to continue, and when the choir enters, the messages cease, creating a feeling that everyone who sent those messages encouraging the player to continue fighting has now joined the choir to congratulate them for doing so. This evolution further encourages the player to persist in their fight.
Additionally, the introduction of the choir marks the end of the questions. As the player repeatedly asserts their determination to fight despite the insurmountable odds, the questions cease, being replaced by a choir that sings to congratulate the player for doing so. By cooperating in this way, the verbal and auditory storytelling accentuate Ending E’s central theme of perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat.
When it comes to the visual storytelling, the introduction of the choir accompanies a noticeable change in the battlefield’s layout. Now that other ships surround them, the player’s presence grows from covering a minor portion of the screen to gaining a larger presence in the battlefield. The ships occupy more space, and their projectiles begin to outnumber the enemy’s. As the choir arrives to reward the player’s grit, the visual storytelling of Ending E morphs to give the player the upper hand. Combining both visual and auditory storytelling, this change serves to illustrate to the player the value of persevering despite inevitable defeat.
With the addition of auditory storytelling, Ending E not only continues its synthesis of the forms with its gameplay, but also expands its collaboration between the forms. By combining the forms with both the gameplay and the other forms, Ending E successfully integrates all of its components into its interactive narrative.
Beyond the Game
We have analyzed the bulk of the content within Ending E itself and explored how it combines everything into one interactive narrative; however, one aspect—arguably the most often discussed—remains untouched: the player’s choice to sacrifice their save data. Until this point in the analysis, we have focused on how Ending E uses its interactive narrative to convey its theme to the player by making them consider that theme in regard to their own actions. The choice to sacrifice their save data serves a different purpose. It is a test, one that compels the player to take the lessons they have learned from Ending E and bring them to the real world.
By sacrificing their save data, the player can offer assistance to another player struggling through Ending E by becoming one of the additional ships that surround them if they accept help. This decision holds a profound weight. From a thematic standpoint, the player choosing to sacrifice their save data reflects a collective perseverance, contrasting their individual perseverance demonstrated throughout the ending. It allows the player to spread the message of perseverance to other players around the world. More importantly, from a practical standpoint, this choice leads to genuine impacts on real people, and these effects arise by way of the interactive content discussed throughout this analysis.
First, in addition to the decision to sacrifice their save data, the player can leave a message like the ones discussed in the verbal storytelling section. This message will go on to encourage other players in their fight against the credits. Having gone through the same struggle, the player can offer the same support they received during their battle. By doing so, they join with the other players as they cheer each other on in a demonstration of collective perseverance. Through this choice, the player interacts with other players around the world as they all urge each other to persevere through this challenge.
Second, by making this choice, the player’s save data becomes one of the ships discussed in the visual storytelling section that will assist another player in their struggle. This ship will go on to help that player surpass Ending E’s insurmountable challenge, and if it dies along the way, a notification that the save data was lost will let that player know that someone sacrificed something in order to ensure their victory. This display illustrates the players of the game joining forces to collectively persevere in the face of the game’s unfair reality. Like with the message, this choice facilitates interactions between real players around the world, but more interestingly, it also creates an interaction between the players and the developers, seeing as the developers are the enemies the players join forces to defeat.
The offer of help the player sends not only contributes in the form of an additional ship but also causes the developers to cheer the players on via the choir discussed in the auditory storytelling section. Seeing the players of their game joining together to change fate, the developers congratulate them and celebrate their demonstration of collective perseverance. Like with the ship, this choice lets the players interact, supporting each other in their individual and collective battles, and also lets the players interact with the developers, winning their favor by helping one another.
Most importantly for our current analysis, this choice contributes to Ending E’s comprehensive interactive narrative in a distinct way. It allows the player to apply the theme the ending taught them and generate a real effect on real people. Through interactivity, Ending E does more than say something in a more effective way: it convinces people to act, to go beyond the game and leave an impact on the real world. By crafting a cohesive interactive narrative, Ending E manages to bring together a community of complete strangers from around the world and convince them to demonstrate the value of helping each other persevere through the hardest challenges.
The Second Impact
I stated at the beginning of this analysis that Ending E offered a solution to mend the story-gameplay divide, and as we have analyzed the various aspects of the ending, we have seen that solution in action. By incorporating them into its gameplay, Ending E successfully integrated all of its components into its interactive narrative, bridging the gap between its story and gameplay. In so doing, it crafted one of the most impactful segments of video-game storytelling in recent memory.
The video game industry can learn a lot from Ending E. It shows not what video games can be, but what video games are: interactive stories. Embracing that fact, it displays the logical extent to which games can implement interactivity, basing its entire narrative structure around the player’s actions. Such comprehensive interactivity remains relatively uncharted in the video game industry, but it stands to bring about a noteworthy shift in the ways video games approach their interactive narratives.
Ending E shows us how to do it. By structuring its story as a response to the player’s actions and incorporating all of its aspects into that interactive story, a video game can more effectively convey its themes and leave a more lasting impact on its players. If taken advantage of, this revolutionary style of storytelling can move beyond the personal impact it created in Ending E and mark a monumental change in the realm of video-game storytelling.
Vitor Kataoka · January 23, 2021 at 11:47 pm
Thank you Caymus for writing this and making me remember my time with this game. No other game has had the same effect as Nier: Automata (and the original NieR).. It was an amazing experience that has left only one regret, not being able to play it again for the first time