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Endless Playlist: NieR: Automata Raised the Bar for Video Game Soundtracks

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Endless Playlist: NieR: Automata Raised the Bar for Video Game Soundtracks

Glory to mankind.

[Endless Playlist is a series of monthly articles where we pick a video game soundtrack for discussion, try to provide a critical analysis of how it performs within the game it’s from, and decide how it holds up on its own. This month, we’re breaking down NieR: Automata’s soundtrack.]

Before we go any further, I should warn you that this article will be delving into major spoilers for the plot of NieR: Automata up to the opening credits in route C. Although we’ll be discussing its soundtrack for the most part, the music is so deeply embedded into Automata’s DNA that it’s almost impossible to talk about one element without the other. I mean, even some of the track titles are spoilers on their own. But that’s precisely what makes the music of NieR: Automata so special. While you might think of a soundtrack as a mere accompaniment to a movie or a game – the ambient music that sets the mood – this game is different. NieR: Automata’s story wouldn’t be complete without its soundtrack.

Composed by Keiichi Okabe and the talented team at MONACO, Automata’s soundtrack is the gold standard of video game soundtracks, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s not just because the tracks themselves are memorable and melodically pleasing, either; it’s the way they’ve been weaved into the game.

When you’re first introduced to the game’s open world environment, you’re greeted with a quiet overworld theme titled City Ruins. The very first version of the song you hear is soft, punctuated with errant piano notes that make it sound more like ambient music rather than a proper theme. But as you progress in the story, and the stakes get increasingly higher for 2B and 9S, you begin to hear the song in its entirety. Bit by bit, more instruments are layered on top of each other. First, you’ll start to hear the deep vocals of J’Nique Nicole. Then, you’ll hear the acoustic guitar kick in as the piano notes pick up to form a more discernible melody.

When you return to the overworld as you approach the climax of route A, the song undergoes a complete transformation. Now, there are drums. The guitar and piano and vocals are in harmony. This particular version of City Ruins is named Rays of Light, which we’ll talk about in a second.

Now, there is an alternate version of City Ruins that doesn’t play till much later in the game. In fact, you won’t get to hear this version until you’ve reached route C. The next time you return to the overworld, the song changes again. This time, the guitar takes the lead and J’Nique is replaced by NieR veteran vocalist Emi Evans. This variant of City Ruins is named Shade.

While the beats and melody of both variants are identical, the changes in the vocals and lead instruments play a big part in determining the tone. As the titles suggest, the Rays of Light variant is meant to be a much more hopeful tune. It’s a musical representation of the relationship between 2B and 9S, and the hope they have in overcoming the machines together. It’s also a subtle nod to a completely missable dialogue in the game where 2B mentions that the time she spent with 9S filled her with light. In contrast, Shade only starts to play when 9S goes on a warpath to seek out A2 and get his revenge. It’s a really obvious titling choice in hindsight, but this is just one of the most in-your-face examples of NieR: Automata changing and layering its music to match what’s happening in the story.

While we’re on the topic of vocals, it’s also worth mentioning that the language you hear from the singers is completely made-up. Dubbed the Chaos language, Emi Evans herself invented it when working on the soundtrack of the original NieR. The language is made up of sounds and vowels from existing languages like English, French, German, and Japanese, which is why the words might sound familiar, but not quite. The idea was to come up with a language that humanity might use many years into the future, where our languages have melded into each other to create something cohesive and inclusive. This is a concept that’s much more important in the context of the first game, but in terms of how the soundtrack works, having a made-up language actually works to the game’s benefit.

Creating music with lyrics is always a tricky business because of how easy it is for recognizable words to become a distraction in the song itself. But despite the vocals being such a key part of bringing City Ruins to life, the unknowable nature of the Chaos language erases that problem. The vocals themselves end up being a great driving instrument, not just in City Ruins, but in all of the voiced tracks in NieR: Automata as well. The majority of Automata’s tracks feature vocals, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself distracted by the lyrics because they’re simply there to drive the song forward, not bombard the listener with words. It’s an emotive way of making a song feel powerful, as we’ll see in A Beautiful Song.

Arguably the best track in the entire Automata collection, A Beautiful Song plays during the game’s most impressive boss fight. Simone (or Beauvoir, as she’s referred to in the Japanese release) is a female machine who tries to make herself beautiful by eating other machines and androids. Y’know, all to impress some dumb guy machine who’s too caught up in his own philosophical preaching to even notice her. Sigh.

Anyway, everything about Simone’s design adds to her story. The red dress, the elegant opera screeching, the long hair. And of course, her theme song. A Beautiful Song is one powerhouse of a track, featuring vocals from both Emi Evans and J’Nique Nicole. After a powerful choral intro, Evans leads the track with a verse that simply drips with sorrow and longing. The chorus is led by J’Nique, whose deeper voice serves as a nice contrast to Evans’ lighter style. The vocals are accompanied by an intense background choir, and a beat that just won’t let up. On a purely musical level, this is exactly how a boss fight theme should sound. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s just epic.

But that’s not the only thing that makes this track stand out. The rhythm and beats of A Beautiful Song are perfectly timed with Simone’s move set during the fight. Her movements are in sync with the song, the laser balls drop on the ground with a ‘thonk’ sound that matches the beat. As J’Nique launches into the bridge and sings her heart out, the camera pans away from 2B dramatically, eventually adopting a top-down angle where the fight basically becomes a twin-stick shooter. As the bridge ends and the second verse kicks in, the camera reverts to normal, and you’re back to dodging projectiles, side-stepping to the beat of this incredible track.

The surprises don’t stop there either. A twist in the fight occurs when Simone hacks 2B and you’re suddenly forced to play a shoot-em-up mini game, trying to stop the machine from hacking into your mainframe. The music then undergoes a beautiful and almost unnoticeable cross-fade into a chiptune version. As soon as you complete the mini game, it transitions smoothly back to the regular song, and you have full control again.

Later on in route B, as the hacking mini game becomes a much more key part of Automata’s gameplay, it becomes easier to appreciate that seamless cross-fade. While they’re not available on the official soundtrack (which is a real shame), there are chiptune versions of many of the songs in this collection.

I’ve literally talked about just two songs thus far, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how deeply integral the music is to the Automata experience. That’s what makes this game so unique. There are little quirks like the overworld theme of City Ruins gradually fading to make way for a different song once you complete certain side quests. It doesn’t serve any gameplay purpose, but something as simple as a song change can enhance the effect that a particular subplot might have on the player.

In hub areas like the resistance camp or Pascal’s village, the vocals of a track don’t fade in until you talk to a specific NPC. This was a neat little trick used with Song of the Ancients (Devola) in the original game, where you would only hear the vocals if you didn’t talk to Devola, but they would disappear once you interacted with her. The idea here was that Devola was actually singing the song in-game, as you’d see her strumming away in town. And talking to her would be interrupting the song, causing the vocals to go away. The trick works in reverse in Automata, where the full song comes to life when you’re properly engaged with the game.

Automata looks back to its predecessor and improves upon it in several ways. Rearranged tracks like Emil (Despair) and Song of the Ancients (Atonement) are lovely throwbacks to the best songs in the original collection. Wretched Weaponry is like the musical sequel to Wretched Automatons, where it employs the same metallic percussion and similar rhythms that have been altered ever so slightly to fit Automata’s more mechanical tone. If you were hoping for a remix of this particular track, the Medium variant of Weaponry is basically it, though I personally favor the Dynamic variant as linked above.

It’s so rare to come across a soundtrack for a JRPG without a single dud in it. After all, every game has a track that’s kind of bad. Persona 5 has tons of them, and Final Fantasy X is absolutely riddled with weird tunes. It’s perfectly normal to listen to a video game soundtrack and pick out a few songs that you like, and ditch the rest. That simply isn’t the case with NieR: Automata. The closest thing to a dud you could find would probably be the Quiet variant of City Ruins, and that’s because it’s deliberately structured without any of its key instruments. That speaks volumes to how much thought and effort has gone into soundtrack production during the game’s development.

We haven’t even talked about the sheer range that this soundtrack has. From quiet ASMR-like tracks that’ll make you feel lucid late at night, to rousing tunes that sweep you off your feet, NieR: Automata’s soundtrack has so much to offer. Like the game’s writing, the music and its execution are so perfectly self-assured. Love or hate the game, it’s impossible to walk away from this one without feeling something about how emotive and confident this soundtrack is.

The music serves as the lifeblood of NieR: Automata. Without it, the game’s story and writing simply wouldn’t shine as brightly as they do now. It’s an easy soundtrack to fall in love with even if you haven’t played the game. In fact, you’d probably have an easier time convincing someone to play NieR by letting them listen to any track on there. The music of NieR: Automata scales itself back when the story demands that gameplay and onscreen action take precedence over anything else. And the music truly comes to life and amplifies everything a thousandfold when the game calls for it.

NieR: Automata’s soundtrack is the embodiment of everything a video game soundtrack should be. Keiichi Okabe and MONACO have trumped their work from the original NieR, and now there’s a new bar for composers in the industry to strive to surpass.

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