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.
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.
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.