Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Many triple-A JRPGs rely heavily on suspension of disbelief to carry their narratives. Titles like Nier: Automata overload the player with so much immediate emotion that they’re not given any time to think about the massive inconsistencies. These plot holes are explained if the player spends a long time searching for collectibles like notebooks or diaries that explain what is happening, but this process tells a story through text rather than showing it through play. What if this didn’t have to be the case?

WARNING: Massive spoilers for Nier: Automata.

9S and Hacking

Since plot holes need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, I’m only going to focus on one of them, which bugged me for a long time until I figured it out. It’s not actually a real plot hole, but the game does a poor job of conveying this, and I think it’s a great opportunity to use gameplay rather than blocks of text. The sequence I will cover lasts for about an hour, starting with the logic virus corrupting 2B, continuing through the destruction of YorHa, and ending with 2B’s death at the hands of A2.

Route C begins with a machine invention called the logic virus which corrupts the YorHa androids, even the ones in the Bunker in space. This happens so swiftly that the YorHa organization is completely annihilated. 2B is slightly more resistant to the virus because 9S stopped her from pulling the suspicious git commit he found in YorHa’s server, which was a backdoor designed to make the androids vulnerable to the virus. Meanwhile, 9S is completely immune because he unplugged himself first.

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When the virus is first introduced, you play as 9S in a squadron of other androids, including 2B, as they all begin to scream in pain as they become infected. You hack into 2B, just like you would hack into any other enemy, and play a very basic minigame. After this is done, 2B is perfectly fine and virus-free. If you didn’t do it to 2B first, you can hack into any of the other androids and remove the virus from them as well, although it doesn’t make a difference.

This scene teaches the player that 9S can remove the logic virus from any android very easily. Hacking minigames are roughly sorted into levels from easy to difficult, where the easiest ones have only a single enemy and the hardest ones can take up to thirty seconds. Unique hacks can happen in special story situations, such as hacking Eve or A2, but removing the logic virus from 2B isn’t a unique hack. It’s not even a hard hack. It’s one of the easiest hacks possible.

2B and 9S return to the Bunker to warn the Commander that the logic virus is destroying all of the androids deployed to Earth. However, the virus spreads to the bunker and corrupts the androids there as well, forcing 2B and 9S to make an emergency escape. They try to save the Commander as well, but she stays behind, revealing that she was also corrupted.

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2B says that 9S can hack into the Commander to remove the virus, but the Commander refuses, saying that there’s no time. How can there be no time? It takes two seconds for 9S to do it! You cured 2B in less time than it takes for the Commander to deliver her dying monologue!

If the process for curing the logic virus had been presented as being very arduous, this scene would have made perfect sense. But it wasn’t, so it doesn’t. Instead of feeling like an epic loss, it feels like a forced story moment.

The player knows that the logic virus is very easy to remove if 9S is nearby, because they played through that exact situation. So it becomes illogical that the logic virus would corrupt the entire Bunker and destroy all of YorHa with 9S present the whole time. Why can’t he just hack everyone and remove the virus the same way he did for 2B and the other androids he fought with on the ground?

It seems to me like dramatically increasing the difficulty of hacking a YorHa android would immediately fix the dissonance. This wouldn’t even need to be a unique hack, all it has to do is be a hard hack. That way, the player realizes that removing the virus takes time and effort, neither of which are available when the Bunker goes down.

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There is a unique hack on A2 which I think would be perfect to be repurposed for removing the logic virus. In this hack, you enter the game’s UI as a diegetic space. When you’re fighting A2, this is a jaw-dropping moment but it does not carry any narrative significance. If this were to be the hack for 2B’s logic virus, it would fulfill many functions: it would be decently difficult, it would be very time-consuming, and it could represent how you’re clearing out the virus that is entering 2B’s programming, all the way down to her UI.

Once the player understands how difficult it is to remove the logic virus, the final scene with the Commander in the Bunker would feel all the more powerful. You desperately want to hack her, but the android UI hack takes around two minutes to complete, and you don’t have two minutes to spare.  So you leave, feeling helpless and frustrated, knowing that the solution was available but the situation prevented you from doing it.

Gameplay and Narrative Context

Another important note about the logic virus that the game glosses over is that 9S’s fix is only temporary. Even though he hacks 2B, she still becomes corrupted again on their way back down to Earth. Later, when 9S hacks himself to remove the logic virus after attaching 2B’s arm, his fix is also temporary since the virus resurfaces just before fighting A2. In both cases, the virus came back after about thirty minutes of narrative time (the way the characters perceive it, not the way the gameplay progresses).

It’s a detail that might be missed since it’s not told explicitly or mentioned in dialogue. That’s the way it should be. But I think that this temporality could be conveyed through gameplay. What if, as you’re fleeing through the Bunker, the virus intermittently resurfaces in 2B and you need to do the hack again? As 9S, you would have to get 2B and the Commander into a room and try to hack 2B again before enemy YorHa androids attack you. This could even be a choice between deciding “do I want to spend time to get 2B functional as a combat partner, or should I grit my teeth and rush to the hangar as quickly as possible?”

This idea came about one day as I was wondering, what would 9S actually do if he had successfully escaped with 2B? Would he just spend the rest of his eternal life by her side, hacking her every thirty minutes to keep the virus at bay? Of course he would. Doing the hack over and over would be repetitive, but to 9S, that doesn’t matter. It’s far better than the alternative.

Like this, it would give even deeper meaning to 2B’s decision to die. As it stands, her death has plot holes that don’t make sense. First, the virus can spread regardless of distance, even into outer space, so isolating herself will prevent nothing. Second, if she wanted to stop the virus from spreading to the Resistance members, they weren’t connected to the Bunker’s server so their backdoors weren’t open anyway. Third, 9S is already immune, and he is the last android who could have been infected through the backdoor (except 4S).

But if 2B died despite knowing that 9S could cure her, it would mean that she did it to save him from that endless burden. If she had been more selfish, she would choose life, knowing full well that 9S would be perfectly happy to hack her every thirty minutes. Instead, she chose to set him free. There might even be a darker interpretation: 2B doesn’t want 9S to keep hacking her even at the cost of her life, because eventually he would uncover her secret 2E designation.

As 9S, you would have to live with the uneasy feeling that you are somehow relieved that 2B is dead. Your primary emotion would still be despair, but somehow, somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re glad that you won’t have to spend the rest of the game hacking 2B every half hour. That’s the nature of death: we always think of it as this deep tragic tear-jerker, but we don’t want to confront the feelings that aren’t normal.

This cognitive dissonance would build up slowly, twisting inside the player just like how it twists inside 9S, shedding new light on scenes such as 9S stabbing his 2B memories. Then, at the very end when you’re fighting A2 and you run into the same UI hack, it evokes all the memories of 2B and the time you spent at her dying moments. These would be things that the player has personally lived through, not exposition dumped through a cutscene or a journal.

With all of this in place, the scene where 9S sees A2 kill 2B would be filled with mixed, conflicting emotions. There’s no reason for 2B to die, because 9S can just hack her and keep doing that forever. All 9S had to do is tell A2 to stop, and everything would be perfectly fine. But secretly, 9S has an uncomfortable sense of relief that he no longer has to care for her. 2B is sad to leave 9S alone, but also glad because she thinks that her secret will die with her. And A2, having inherited all of 2B’s memories, stands in the center of this tension.

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In that cutscene, A2’s actions make no sense. Does she not hear 9S screaming at her from fifty feet away? She just stares sadly at nothing while an earthquake knocks her out. Why doesn’t she even try to move? With this new narrative context, maybe she would recognize 9S and flee, not knowing how to confront him about all of the emotions she just inherited from 2B. Should she tell him the truth, or should she obey 2B’s dying wishes?

Like this, you can have a narrative that patches its plot holes by providing exposition not through explicit narration, but through gameplay. This forces the player to confront the same emotions that the characters are going through to create a greater sense of unity. Many of the game’s most powerful moments already operate like this: 9S’s self-sacrificing hack on Eve, or A2’s unspoken camaraderie with 9S against Koshi and Roshi. Gameplay can do a lot to give narrative an extra boost.

Still, all of this is worse than a theory, it’s flat-out wrong. 2B explicitly states that she wants to isolate herself to stop the virus from spreading. Even though all of this is how I would have started designing the logic virus sequence, there’s a reason why I’m not in Yoko Taro’s position. There must be some reason why the virus hack is so easy, and why 2B doesn’t think about her death logically, and why A2 just stands still in the middle of an earthquake. Maybe it’s a lore reason, maybe it’s a pacing reason, maybe it’s a programming reason, maybe it’s a production reason. Or, true to the Nier: Automata experience, maybe there simply is no reason.