We Are Falling, But Not Alone (Nier: Automata Final Log)

Following the third ending of Nier: Automata, the player gets a bunch of new options for the remainder of the game experience.  At this point, you’ve effectively played through all of the primary content of the game, and to save you the frustration of having to replay a bunch of stuff that isn’t novel, you’re given access to a chapter selection when you go to start a new game.  It’s nice because it includes all the major movements of both the 2B/9S story and the 9S/A2 story in a continuous sequence.  I didn’t bother to replay from the very beginning at this point, so I don’t know if the game is designed to allow a player to play both halves in immediate succession; it’s hard to say if that sort of experience would enhance or detract from the story, since the two halves seem very distinct in tone.  Instead, I jumped directly to the final chapter where 9S and A2 face off at the top of the tower because I wanted to see what 9S’s ending would look like if you choose to play as him for the final battle.

What you get in this fourth ending (canonically called ending “D,” so I guess I viewed them all in the right order) is 9S succeeding in killing A2 before the tower begins to fall apart.  As it’s collapsing around him, 9S accesses the tower’s network and discovers that it’s not trying to destroy the human server on the moon; it’s trying to send all of the data collected by the androids and machines out into space.  All of Adam and Eve’s memories are preserved, and 9S has the option of adding his own data to this Ark; for my part I elected to have 9S turn the opportunity down.  He’s a nihilistic manbaby, so he can expire on Earth for all I care.  The ending is a lot more positive than I anticipated since it turns on 9S realizing he was wrong to try to destroy everything, but it still ended up feeling a little hollow; I have a hard time accepting a five minute redemption arc for a character who spends the second half of the game fully invested in wiping out all machine intelligence because a girl he liked happened to die in a military operation that the androids initiated (seriously, if the machines can learn to peacefully coexist with androids, then the androids, who think themselves sentient, should be able to deescalate tensions as well).

Despite my antipathy towards 9S as a character (hacking is fun, but seriously, 9S suuuuucks), his ending does help bring into relief the thematic thread through all the characters’ various endings.  The chief motif of Nier: Automata is that beings with an ill-defined purpose and a sense of self will struggle to make meaning of their existence.  The machines and the androids both are fighting in a proxy war for their creators who are all long dead, and some of them have begun to understand that fact.  The leader of the pacifist machine village, Pascal, is an active student of philosophy because he wants to help usher his followers into a future that’s guided by their own sense of purpose rather than something that was given to them.  The YoRHa androids are all invested in the war because learning the truth is likely to set them off on a death spiral.  This is a significant implication of the late game revelation that 2B was actually a 2E–Execution–unit whose primary mission was to repeatedly kill 9S in order to prevent him from learning the truth about YoRHa high command.  Because of 9S’s superior analytical abilities, YoRHa assumed that he would inevitably figure out what happened to humanity and the YoRHa androids’ own origins as technological descendants of the alien machines, so they needed someone to eliminate him whenever he got close to the truth.  The death of 2B during the virus attack undermines that strategy, and we see from 9S’s story in the second half that all this forbidden knowledge combined with his grief over 2B’s death drives him to utter madness.  He’s the character who most quickly assumes that all machine behavior is ultimately meaningless, and when he learns that his own actions have no inherent meaning anymore, he goes off the deep end.  A2 has an inverted narrative where she moves from nihilism to a newfound appreciation for all the creatures just trying to live their lives around her.

All in all, this is perhaps the most existential game I’ve played in a while.

Rounding out the experience (because of course there’s more) is the fifth major ending, which helps contextualize all the repetitions of the story that the player has had to experience in order to get the full game.  The Pods 042 and 153 have developed their own self awareness as they follow 2B, 9S, and A2 through their various adventures and have also grown attached to the androids.  Following the last ending, we see that the Pods have been recording all of the data of the entire story, and part of their mission has been to observe events to their ultimate conclusion.  The complete destruction of YoRHa marks that, so they start to delete all the data (there’s no one left besides them to observe it), but the player and the pods have the option to halt the process and preserve everything.

I have a deep affection for interactive credits in games.

This is where the last major twist of the game comes in.  If you elect to half the data erasure, then the credits turn into a long bullet hell sequence in the style of the hacking minigame (but with way more things to dodge).  The difficulty gradually scales up as the credits roll, and eventually (unless you’re especially good at this particular kind of game), you take three hits from all the debris and fail the sequence.  While the final credits song plays on a continuous loop, the game asks if you give up, and messages from other players who have completed Nier:Automata appear in the background.  If you choose not to give up, then the credits start from whatever checkpoint you last reached, and you can keep going until you fail again.  After a few failed attempts (assuming you don’t give up), you see a prompt with an offer of help from some random player.  You don’t have to accept it, and you’re free to try as long as you want to get through the credits by yourself.  I’m stubborn, and I tried for a long time until I accidentally accepted help from someone.

This is some dramatic stuff.

Once you accept help, the sequence changes dramatically as a battalion of hacker icons like your own surround you and add their own firepower, making it remarkably easy to finish the credit sequence.  As you finish out the credits this last time, you can still be hit, and every time you take damage, one of the helpers is destroyed with a small message stating that so-and-so’s data was lost.  When you finally reach the end, the game congratulates you on completing Nier: Automata, and it asks if you want to help others reach the ending as well.  The stipulation is that if you agree to do this, then your save data will be erased.

Suddenly everything about the ending sequence gets recontextualized as you learn that those players who were helping you reach the end of the credits have already done so, and they sacrificed their save data to do it (barring, of course, any quirky tricks like creating a duplicate save file).  Gamers are a weird bunch when it comes to record keeping, and the prospect of deleting a save file on a completed game can be a pretty compelling disincentive from helping others out.  Despite that obstacle, clearly a decently large number of players agreed to do just that (or least the game gives that appearance).  In the face of an ultimately pointless activity (you’re trying to get to the end of a credits sequence), people will band together to accomplish their goals.  Or they won’t (the messages that other players leave can be either encouraging or discouraging).  Either way, Nier tells us, we should spend our time the way we want to spend it, and people will be there to help one another out.  Existence is a big scary thing that’s sort of incomprehensible for everyone, but at least we’re muddling through it together.

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Nier: Automata Log 5

So the short version of the story is that I am sometimes really bad at gauging how long I have to go until the end of a game, and as a result I spent five hours on my couch the other night playing through the third iteration of Nier: Automata.

Because we’re seriously still sticking to the “multiple playthroughs” thing, there’s another title screen.

The long version is that I finished the second playthrough a few days before that, and it ended with a trailer for the next bit of story (and a teaser that there would be two potential endings this time around–hooray, choices!).  After two playthroughs that follow essentially the same events from 2B and 9S’s respective perspectives, this promise of an actual different story was super enticing.  The first two playthroughs (which for me totaled about thirty hours of gameplay since side quest completion is cumulative and combat gets exponentially easier as your characters gain levels) did a pretty thorough job of exploring the story’s protagonists; 2B is extremely adept at hiding her emotions, although she’s actually very conscientious and kind to the non-hostile machines, and 9S is outwardly cheerful but suffers from some serious Nice Guy(tm) syndrome along with apparently having a deep seated bias against the very concept of machine self-awareness.  Despite their flaws, these two make a good team who does good while they run around the city ruins helping androids and machines alike that are dealing with some very relatable problems (I mean, who hasn’t wanted to throw a parade for love and peace but needed to hire bodyguards to keep the bullies from killing your participants only to become jaded with the entire experience?).  There’s an affection between them that I’m willing to buy into, even if 9S’s story reveals that there’s a lot of stuff he hasn’t told 2B (like the fact that YoRHa is fighting a war with no end goal because humanity already went extinct).

The third iteration starts where the first two iterations left off; with Adam and Eve destroyed and the machine network in major disarray, YoRHa sees an opportunity to wipe out the machines once and for all, so they organize a massive ground campaign to eliminate the hostile machines.  Because this is the opening act of the story, you know that something’s going to go wrong, and it does, spectacularly.  While fighting machines, the YoRHa forces are suddenly and inexplicably attacked by a logic virus that forces them to go berserk and attack any androids who aren’t infected.  Because 9S decided not to sync their operations data with the YoRHa server before the operation (something about the data didn’t look right to him), he and 2B haven’t contracted the virus.  They’re severely outnumbered though, and have to detonate their Black Boxes to escape, transferring them back to spare bodies on YoRHa’s satellite Bunker.  Things go from bad to worse there as the entire station is infected with the virus as well, and so they have to escape while the whole base self destructs.

Red eyes, take warning.

Back on Earth, 2B discovers that she’s been infected with the virus, so she makes a desperate dash towards an uninhabited area so as to not infect any more androids.  When she reaches the place she runs into A2, an old YoRHa unit who went renegade some time ago because her squad was sent on the equivalent of a suicide mission (we briefly meet and fight A2 in the first story, but she’s not significant in the Adam and Eve plot).  Because this is the story where everything is going to get very depressing, 2B begs A2 to kill her and take her memories (YoRHa androids apparently back their memories up in their weapons, because why not).  A2 obliges, but in such a way that 9S, who is watching from a distance, can’t tell that 2B asked her to do it.

Cue revenge arc.

After all of that admittedly dense prologue, we get to the main event of this story: 9S’s gradual descent into madness and nihilism paired with A2’s reluctant journey to appreciate the world around her and its inhabitants, all while the Pods (those little satellite robots that follow the YoRHa androids around) conspire to keep the androids apart for as long as possible because they maybe have developed free will and they don’t want their charges to go off and kill one another.

This was around the point that I thought, quite wrongly, at six o’clock on a Sunday night, that I was nearing the end of the playthrough and could probably finish it within a couple of hours.  I did finish it, but it was after nine o’clock and I’ll be honest; I did not grok all the finer details of the plot as I was barreling through the ending sequence that takes at least an hour and a half with no save points (I feel like I will have words about this game’s lack of an auto-save feature, but that will be for another time).  Besides the arcs for 9S and A2, there’s also some stuff about a third kind of sentient AI manipulating the androids and machines while trying to force itself to evolve further, the revelation that YoRHa androids’ AI circuitry is based on the machines’ because they were always meant to be disposable (I’m more than a little pleased that 9S makes this discovery and it very probably pushes him over the edge into nonstop homicidal rage because he’s been so smug about the machines throughout the whole game), and a whole mess of character death.  The Adam and Eve story ended on a hopeful, uplifting note, but this second arc is just relentlessly depressing.

A2 saves 9S from being killed by a completely different android who is not 2B that he was also maybe, possibly in love with before she caught the logic virus and deduced that he’s a whiny brat.

And at some point in the near future, I’m going to play it again because I have just totally given up on trying to predict what else Nier: Automata has in store.

Nier: Automata Log 4

Okay, I’m willing to eat a little bit of crow.  I was very skeptical about Nier: Automata‘s design that requires the player to do multiple playthroughs of the game in order to see the full story, but on my second time I’m seeing enough new and interesting bits that my trust in the game is bolstered.  I’m still not sure how long the game can pull off this replay trick, but for now it’s working, and I appreciate that.

The second playthrough starts things off differently right away, with a small scene that features a machine in the factory trying to gather a bucket of oil to feed its brother who has become nonoperational.  It’s a sweet little sequence where the player, who has presumably become very accustomed to the relative agility of controlling 2B now has to navigate a small environment with the clumsy body of a tiny machine.  The sequence is well-designed with little surprises like learning that you can move more quickly if you jump, only to have that workaround sabotage you once you get the bucket filled with oil; the machine trips and spills it if you attempt to jump to speed along the task.  From that little scene, the perspective shifts to 9S, who is doing reconnaissance in the factory that 2B and the assault squad are attacking at the start of the previous playthrough.

This second main character controls almost identically to 2B except in one key way: because he’s a “Scanner” unit, 9S doesn’t have a secondary weapon for melee.  Instead, he can hack into machines to initiate a shooter mini-game that will deal immense damage (or explode if it’s weak enough) the enemy upon completion.  It’s a nice variation on the core gameplay, and after about five hours with the character, I’m still entertained by the mechanic, even if I would like a little bit more variety in the shooter’s level design (this is the eternal problem of a game that tries to integrate so many different game styles into a cohesive whole).  The effect is for combat, which from 2B’s perspective was a relatively frenetic button masher, to become more deliberate with very little use of primary melee in favor of hacking minigames that will score instant kills against the vast majority of regular enemies.  I’ve found that while it’s still possible to customize 9S’s stats to optimize for whatever style the player prefers, I’ve been content to leave him set up in the same way I customized 2B because hacking is just a far more efficient way of dispatching threats.

The hacking minigame is a multidirectional shooter that consists of maneuvering around a small field to avoid being hit by fire from enemies while eliminating them within a set time limit.

Narratively, the shift to 9S’s perspective has been satisfying at major story points where his presence in a different physical location or his hacking ability gives him insights that were simply hidden from the player during 2B’s story.  The game also sprinkles in more cutaway scenes to give us more detail about what’s happening with the antagonists Adam and Eve (I’m still cracking up over a scene that shows them lounging around in underwear while Eve, confused about the practice, asks his brother why they’re bothering since they don’t have genitals to cover up in the first place).  The effect is both enlightening and infuriating, because 9S knows so much more about the interior lives of the machines he and 2B are fighting, but he’s still frustratingly dense about the fact that the machines have developed sentience.  One particularly heartbreaking example comes from the repeat of the fight with Simone, a machine who has been modifying her body to achieve her idea of beauty.  While 9S hacks Simone, we see glimpses of her memories that show that she was driven to her extreme modifications in order to try to satisfy a machine with whom she was in love (I’m pretty confident the object of her affections is Jean-Paul, a machine who is fascinated with philosophy and a total jerk to his adoring female fans).  Other machines still on the network perceive Simone as malfunctioning, but 9S’s hacks reveal that she’s simply been driven to extreme behavior as she’s tried to make sense of new thoughts and emotions that are so vaguely defined that she can’t help but be baffled by them.

Other, smaller moments continue to reinforce this expanded view of the sentience that machines and androids have developed during their war as 9S has available to him a multitude of side quests that 2B couldn’t have completed because she’s unable to hack.  I don’t think I can emphasize enough how this introduction of a relatively small game mechanic does so much to convey new information and transform the player’s understanding of the world.

9S has a moment of self-reflection after hacking a machine that’s pondering the meaning of its existence.

Everything isn’t great on the second playthrough, unfortunately.  The segments where the player has to recapitulate story quests by traversing the world are extremely samey; enemies have scaled up in strength to match the characters’ power level, but the environment is pretty much unchanged from the previous iteration as the player has to travel between the various areas of the map.  The fact that fast travel points don’t become available until nearly halfway through the main story only underlines this repetition in a way that detracts from any otherwise fun and engaging replay.  Still, I’m looking forward to hitting the section of the game in the last third where 2B and 9S are forcibly separated, because I expect there will be a wealth of new material in that section to make up for the familiarity of the middle part.

Nier: Automata Log 3

After nearly twenty hours of play time, I finished Nier: Automata.  Then the game told me that I had only reached the first ending, and I would have to replay the game and take different story paths to get the others.

I’m having very mixed feelings about this turn of events.

On the one hand, I genuinely appreciate a game that’s been designed so that it can be completed in an intense weekend gaming session.  The ability to drop in and out of play quickly that I mentioned before now makes more sense, because the total experience of a playthrough is so brief.  The ending of this story, where 2B and 9S defeat the machine brothers who were recently born and have escalated the machines’ war on the androids, is pretty satisfying.  You get a nice emotional arc for 2B where she comes to realize that she does appreciate 9S despite his many annoying qualities, and the villains get some solid, if rote, character development as the elder brother Adam becomes obsessed with humanity to the point of risking death and the younger brother Eve goes berserk trying to get revenge on the androids when his brother actually does die.  The machines form a nice tableau of various models of community, both healthy and unhealthy, and the ending leaves open the implication that the war is nearly over and peace between the machines and androids is imminent.

Our protagonist shows some emotion as she mourns the death of her partner. Cue fake out as 9S has just transferred his consciousness into the machine network temporarily while he waits on a new android body.

On the other hand, the credits roll, and at the end you get a message saying that you’ve only seen part of the story, so you need to replay the game to get the full experience.  I know that games with multiple endings were all the rage back in the late ’90s, and I ate them up as a kid, but now I feel so incredibly ambivalent about it.  Nier is a game that I haven’t spent enough time with to get bored of yet, so I’ll probably do a replay, but I’m already wondering exactly how many times I’m going to have to play through to see all the endings, and whether I’ll care long enough to muddle through the repeated sections again and again.  It’s funny how multiple endings in the interest of “replayability” shifts from a selling point when you have all the free time and none of the money to a burden when you have less of the free time and slightly more than none of the money.  Every time I go back now I’m going to end up asking myself, “Is this game respecting my time?” and every time I play a bit that doesn’t help flesh out the world or introduce some new and interesting game mechanics, I’m going to be inclined to say no.

Nier: Automata Log 2

Probably the best compliment I can give Nier: Automata at the moment is that I’ve put off writing another log because when I have free time I’d rather be playing the game itself.  Granted, a large part of that is because the story hasn’t yet given me much to think about, but it’s important to remember that games can be quality experiences in the absence of a compelling or innovative narrative.

In Nier‘s case, what I’ve found is that I’m actually more interested in wandering the world and taking in the atmosphere.  You would think that a game set in the twelfth millennium on a planet that’s been rendered inhospitable to humans would be a dull, lifeless thing, but that’s really not the case.  Yes, the dominant color palette runs towards grays, browns, and rusty reds, and everything is washed out by the harsh sunlight, but the effect isn’t to make everything feel sterile like you would expect.  Besides the YoRHa androids, there are enclaves of other androids living on Earth who have developed small pockets of community (these folks are generally referred to as Resistance, which I still don’t quite understand because they don’t seem to actually be doing anything related to fighting the machines) as well as factions of machines whose AI has mutated a kind of pacifism.  The planet abandoned by humanity because of an alien invasion, while certainly in ruins, has an abundance of, well, not exactly life but something approximating it.

Clearly this is all entirely intentional; from the first time I started up the game, Rachael and I have joked about how it looks like a typical “robots have souls!” story, and the various synthetic creatures running around evoke the idea that sufficiently advanced AI will eventually develop its own form of society.  You have machines mimicking humans in various cutesy ways (the machines, with their ball-shaped heads and high-pitched, slightly mechanical voices, are so adorable that I feel a little bad about destroying the hostile ones); in a derelict theme park that some pacifist machines with a penchant for clown makeup have turned into their personal haven, you can watch a machine production of “Romeos & Juliets” based on an ancient human drama (it’s unclear just how much of Shakespeare’s original survives in this world, because there are some… liberties taken with the machine adaptation).  The machines are far from the uncanny valley, but they’re clearly in the process of figuring out how to bridge that gap.

Of course, all of this abundant evidence for robot self actualization wouldn’t be interesting without someone to express extreme disbelief, so we have the central pair of 2B and 9S wandering around providing commentary on everything they’re observing.  Because 2B falls into the standard Japanese archetype of the emotionless girl, it’s up to 9S to do most of the talking, and he is incessant in his chatter about the machines having no higher purpose to their weird behavior.  I’m running around jamming to the music (the soundtrack in this game is comprised of these lovely, haunting melodies) and then 9S pipes up about “meaningless chatter” and I want to say, “Quit being so down on yourself, my dude.”  It’s comical how long he holds on to the idea that the machines, who have established their own communes, sworn off violence, and engage in commerce with the androids, are just mimicking random bits of human culture.  At some point, the cohesion of the pattern has to be accepted as comparable to human intelligence, but I don’t know where that point is for 9S.

These machines are about to glom together to give birth to a thing because saying “This cannot continue,” over and over while being attacked by hostile androids is totally just random machine behavior.

Actually, 9S’s skepticism brings up an interesting feature of the “robots have souls!” story template.  The talk about souls doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re discussing the metaphysical quintessence of a being; it just serves as a useful linguistic shortcut for describing the concept of artificial intelligence being capable of reaching self awareness that grants it an equal moral value (if ‘moral’ is even the right word) with human life.  Because it is a shortcut though, you’re always going to have a bit of confusion about the soul thrown in for good measure.  What results for this particular philosophical milieu is a spectrum of opinions that end up resembling a horseshoe (I say this with full knowledge that horseshoe theory of ideology is sticky business that often serves to set a false dichotomy between centrism of whatever stripe and ideologies located further at the edges of whatever the set spectrum is) with three primary perspectives: that robots, like humans, have souls; that robots, unlike humans, don’t have souls; and that neither humans nor robots have souls, so there isn’t really a difference between them aside from components.  I say it resembles a horseshoe because the folks who say that robots have souls and the folks who say humans don’t have souls end up arguing the same basic position that sufficiently advanced AI is worthy of dignity equivalent with that accorded to human beings.

Anyway, the point I was aiming at is that 9S says a lot of inane things that are designed to highlight his skepticism about machine intelligence.  And as far as I know, he follows you around for the whole game.

Things get weird pretty quickly from this point forward.

Nier: Automata Log 1

A game that I’ve had my eye on for a couple months now has been Nier: Automata (stylized in production materials as NieR: Automata), but I wasn’t really rushing to get to it until recently when I realized that I was over Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  I decided that I’d keep a look out for a discount since the game’s been out for about a year, and that’s usually around the time that big budget games start to see price drops.  In the meantime, I enjoyed some time with a smaller scale game, and got ready to revisit Life is Strange one last time with the bonus “Farewell” episode that is supposed to be all about Max and Chloe just before Max moved away to Seattle (I haven’t played that yet; it’s probably best left for a weekend when Rachael and I can set aside a big chunk of time to do the whole episode in one sitting).  Because I rarely buy big budget games outside of special occasions, I decided that I’d also check out the demo for Nier: Automata just to be sure I would actually enjoy the gameplay (it’s one thing to find the story premise intriguing, but I learned from Horizon: Zero Dawn that it’s a good idea to be sure you’ll actually enjoy the mechanics you’ll be engaging with for the majority of your play time).

In the demo, you play as 2B, an android soldier on a mission to eliminate a gigantic machine that’s been located by YorHa intelligence.  The machines are all pretty dopey looking, but they were apparently enough of a threat when they invaded Earth that all of humanity has fled the planet.  Supporting 2B is a little satellite assistant called a Pod; this Pod handles communications with other androids, providing cover fire, and helping with navigation of the area.  The gameplay is a mixture of melee combat with 2B’s weapons and run-n-gun action with the Pod in environments that alternate between three dimensional arenas and two dimensional corridors (in both side-scrolling and overhead varieties); also thrown in for fun are sequences modeled after Gradius and Xevious styled bullet hells (though I haven’t yet encountered anything that was as genuinely difficult as dedicated scrolling shooters).  The result is a pretty eclectic mixture of action game genres that all mesh well with the motif of superhuman androids fighting off waves of modularly built, mass-produced enemies (I’m actually most strongly reminded in terms of premise of the old NES game The Guardian Legend).  The demo concludes with a sequence where 2B finds herself fighting a machine the size of the factory that she just navigated before she and her support partner 9S find themselves surrounded by three more of the giants with no hope of escaping alive.  They initiate a self destruct sequence that destroys them and all of the machines in one massive explosion, which is a pretty good way to end a preview for a game.

I found the demo engaging enough that I decided that yes, I would definitely buy this game when the opportunity arose, and lo, a few days later I bought it digitally on sale (huzzah!).  That meant that I needed to download the whole game, which is not exactly a small task when you have a relatively slow internet connection and fifty gigabytes of data to pull over the line.  Fortunately, as is common with most big digital downloads, the game’s designed so that you can go ahead and start playing after a certain point in the download (presumably for those folks who have nothing else to do while they’re waiting for their downloads to finish).  I jumped in on a lazy Sunday morning to get into the game while it was still finishing up the download, and I ended up playing a nearly identical version of the demo level as the opening sequence.  This was perfectly fine; it’s silly to expect demo assets not to be reused in some way in the full game, but what I found after I finished the level for the second time was that I couldn’t continue until the whole download finished.

Philosophical ponderings were not what I expected after the big explodey bits.

Because 2B and 9S are androids, the self destruct was a pretty obvious fake out; it’s easy to presume that their data was backed up somewhere else, so following the explosion the game would carry on back wherever 2B’s bodies are stored.  What surprised me though was the above screen, which if you select any dialogue choices besides “I don’t care,” you’ll quickly find that it’s an infinite loop of meditations on the nature of existence.  If you opt out, the game tells you that it can’t continue yet because it hasn’t finished downloading, but if you want to quit you can always start over later.

I did not want to start over and play the starter level a third time, so I ended up leaving the game to finish its download (which took an additional two hours according to the game’s play timer).  Consequently, even though I’ve played the same content of the game over twice now, I’m finding that I quite enjoy it; I’m hoping that this will be a nice change from the boring gruffness that is The Phantom Pain.