This is the accompanying blog post for the presentation on NieR: Automata that I did all the way back in September in Session 066 at the EAA conference in Barcelona. The paper was meant as a kind of thought experiment- is it possible to conduct an archaeological desk-based assessment of a video game?
The assessment I ended up doing of NieR was incredibly rudimentrary but I think it did at least demonstrate that it could be useful to do a preliminary survey of a video game prior to more in depth fieldwork.
The powerpoint presentation can be downloaded from this link below:
McMullan, T. 2017. NieR: Autotmata’s creator on pushing the boundaries of gaming. Alphr. [online] <https://www.alphr.com/games/1005320/nier-automatas-creator-on-pushing-the-boundaries-of-gaming> [Accessed: 23/12/2018]
Reinhard, A. 2018. Archaeogaming An Introduction to Archaeology In and Of Video Games. Berghahn: New York
Taylor, T. L. 2009. Assemblage of Play. Games and Culture. 4:4, 331-339
PlatinumGames. 2017. NieR: Automata. Square Enix: Tokyo
Good morning, thank you for coming to this early session. My name is Florence, I work as an archaeological consultant in London and conduct independent research into archaeology and video games. Today I’m going to be discussing the game NieR: Automata.
To give a brief introduction to the game, NieR: Automata is a Japanese action role-playing game produced by Platinum Games. It was released in 2017 on Playstation 4, PC and Xbox One.
The game is set during a proxy war between machines created by aliens that have attacked earth, and androids created by humans. The main protagonist is a combat android named 2B, hence the terrible pun in this presentation title. NieR is set in an open world environment, with gameplay involving exploration of an earth abandoned by humans, as well as hack and slash combat with robots.
When the player dies, they respawn at the last point that they saved the game, and can retrieve their previous android body to reclaim lost items. If the game is played with the online network features enabled, they will encounter the corpses of other players on the game map which can then be revived or scavenged.
Since I submitted my abstract back in March of this year, this research project has changed. The original focus of this presentation was stated as the exploration of the potential and ethical concerns of recording the reliquary system in NieR Automata through various different theoretical lenses. Whilst the reliquary system is still the core focus of my work, the framework for my research and digital fieldwork has altered. When coming to actually start this project I realised that I needed to find a structured way of assessing the archaeological potential and background of a video game which would help me to assess what the best way would for recording the reliquary system and for taking into account the ethical and methodological concerns that this would entail.
So, I decided that I would do a desk-based assessment of NieR: Automata.
What is an archaeological desk-based assessment?
In the Chartered Institute for Archaeologist’s Standard and Guidance for historic environment desk-based assessment, they state that the main standard for a DBA is to assess the nature, extent and significance of the historic environment. In my day job as an archaeological consultant, producing DBAs means producing a very standardised report in which I assess the archaeological potential of a site before its developed, in order to suggest appropriate mitigation either before or during development of the site.
You may be asking how is a DBA relevant to a video game? As an archaeogamer, I consider video games to be archaeological sites. This is one of the main focuses of our session organiser, Andrew Reinhard’s book Archaeogaming. There are three main points that I have taken from his book which are key to this assessment. Video games are archaeological sites, and as we know that both games hardware and software is subject to decay over time, there is a need to record them while they are still accessible, and this is an argument I will build on over this presentation. Another key point that Andrew brings out is that just as is the case for any analogue archaeological investigation, digital archaeological projects needs to be managed properly. When I first started looking in to NieR and the reliquary system I became overwhelmed with the amount of available data and the methodological concerns involved which is why I chose to do a desk-based assessment.
I would argue that the Chartered Institutes’s Standard even as it exists now can be applied to video games. In the introduction it starts that:
“The historic environment expert is left free to make a considered selection of appropriate established techniques and to develop new methods.”
It also lists one of the potential applications as “archaeologists designing their independent research, to define the quality required”
So this document is appropriate to apply to a video games. I will be using this as a model to structure the DBA contents as well as this presentation.
Following this model I have sketched out some preliminary aims and objectives. Apart from assessing the archaeological potential of the game I also want to be self-reflexive about my own creation of a desk-based assessment and how important it is to question the limitations of the methodologies we use to assess archaeological sites, whether digital or not.
Following the suggested methodology for a DBA, I decided to delineate a particular area within the game that I would focus on in terms of recording the reliquary system. I chose the City Ruins area, which is shown in the image on screen, for several reasons. It is at the centre of the game map and can be considered as a kind of cross-roads area. Although it is populated by both robots and wild animals that can be dangerous for the player, it constitutes an open world area that is easily traversed without continuously engaging in combat.
When considering the experience of gameplay I adhere to Taylor’s ‘assemblage of play,’ which refers to the idea that the human player, gaming platform and virtual space of the game are not discrete entities. However, it could be said that by having to delineate a contrived site outline is in direct contradiction to this. That being said, it is useful to have a clear focus in the assessment.
As well as the sources already mentioned, I also aimed to use as many sources available that could help build my background knowledge of NieR: Automata and the reliquary system. This includes online articles, reviews, as well as the NieR wiki, forums and recorded gameplay.
As well as arguing that a game can’t be assessed without considering all elements of gameplay, I also consider that it can’t analysed without looking at gameplay in a wider historical and archaeological context. This can be illustrated just with this single image on the screen. The masked figure here is Yoko Taro, the creator of NieR:Automata. He is known for wearing a mask during interviews and for creating atmospheric games with unconventional design choices that question darker aspects of human nature. I would argue that without knowing this you really can’t understand the game. Taro has stated that 9/11 and the War on Terror influenced the first NieR game, and parallels have been drawn with NieR:Automata and the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes.
This is just one example of the importance of looking at the wider context of a game’s creation. It is also crucial to consider the history and archaeology of the site in terms of the internal logic of the game. With limited time I’m going to mostly focus on an experimental site visit I made to the City Ruins in which I attempted to document the appearance of player corpses on the map.
The site visit consisted of me making one total walking survey of the City Ruins site as delineated by the site outline. Every time I encountered a player corpse I documented it through screenshots, written notes and in some cases recorded gameplay. I also noted the location of each player corpse on the very rudimentary site map that you can see here. I’ve included some of the screenshots which illustrate some of the points I would like to make. Funnily enough, just as in an analogue site visit I had to be wary of foliage such as grass obscuring bodies, as you can see from body 16 here. One you encounter a player body you will see the name they used to create their save file with as well as their gamer tag, as can be seen from the screenshot for no. 4. The fact that I’m collecting the data of player deaths without their consent was a big concern for me, however anonymity is maintained. It was also interesting to find a glitch during the process of the site visit, which as Andrew points out in Archaeogaming can be considered as an digital archaeological artefact in its own right (as can be seen from picture 14).
There were a lot of difficulties and limitations I encountered with this simple and experimental recording, and with the research in general.
A big obstacle to my research is that I can’t read Japanese, so I wasn’t able to look at any articles pertaining to the game or play it in its original language.
In terms of the site visit itself, several major limitations are illustrated by this gif here. As you can see when you encounter a body you get a body report with a death message which is either randomly generated or chosen by the player, as well as the option to retrieve or repair the body. If you want to find out what the body is carrying then you have to retrieve it, but this means removing the body from the map -so this is a destructive process. However, it is possible to just revert to the last save to get round this. Another limitation is, as you can see, there were often enemies in locations where players had died (unsurprisingly) and this made recording potentially quite dangerous.
Thinking in terms of the assemblage of play and my own bodily experience of conducting this fieldwork-I was playing the PC port of NieR which is slow, often lags and this means gameplay can be quite difficult.
How do you assess the historical significance of a video game? The Historic England guidelines on assessing archaeological significance highlight four main areas-evidential value, historical value, aesthetic value and communal value. I’m not go into these in too much detail. Certainly it could be argued that the reliquary system in particular has communal value in that it forms a record of the player community and essentially the only multiplayer aspect of the game. However, looking at some of the other criteria such as aesthetic value you can see how that could be problematic, and of controversial, when applied to a video game.
So all in all, what was the point of this exercise and what did I gain from it?
The first thing I’m able to say that even with just a few rudimentary tool such as a paint , and a pen and paper at my disposal, I was able to record -player locations of death. However, ascertaining the archaeological potential and significance of NieR Automata and in particular the reliquary system is a difficult question and one which I think needs more consideration. Using a DBA to do this also has limited applicability in its current form. Delineating a site outline seemed very contrived and in some ways limiting, though it did help to focus my work. The highly structured and standardised DBA template in its current form isn’t necessarily always applicable to a video game, however it is helpful in directing initial research. The DBA is useful in terms of encouraging the production of an initial document that could be used to inform a research project involving multiple team members and would help to plan the fieldwork affectively.
A couple of points I want to end on-
-I focused on the reliquary system as a feature which shows past gameplay, but is a record of player gameplay more archaeologically significant than other features in the game?
-If fieldwork were to go ahead, it would need multiple archaeologists across different gaming platforms and the direct involvement of the player community
-Need to read Japanese sources
-DBA assumes certain criteria for ascertaining significance