Being a Switch and Xbox owner means I spent most of 2018 playing catch up with the gaming industry.
Most of my time was spent with games that people had already played and adored on other systems in 2017 (or earlier). The Switch version of Hollow Knight is probably the greatest triumph I’ve played that year, but despite all its greatness another moment in a different game is what struck me as the most impressive one that year. That moment belongs to the NieR:Automata character Simone.
Simone is a boss in NieR:Automata, and one of the game’s more tragic figures depending on how many endings you attempt to finish. The first time, fighting her as 2B is an open and shut kind of affair. You enter the arena chasing after signals from YoRHA soldiers. Shortly after Simone enters with android corpses adorning her like jewelry. This is clearly evil and needs to be defeated. It’s all a matter of fighting the broken machine while she screams about needing to become beautiful. It’s an interesting fight, but it’s just another fight against an insane enemy. We don’t even learn her name yet.
The second time through the game as 9S is where the character is given life. During the fight she trades hacking attacks with 9S, which grants him access to some of her memories. Before Simone ended up as this thing, she, like many other robot women, wanted to catch the eye of Jean-Paul, the android obsessed with philosophy. Rebuffed in her advances she believed that the flaw was in her. However, as a robot, she didn’t have a concept of love, so she set out to discover one and maybe the key to winning Jean-Paul’s affection along with it. During her search an older robot told her this proverb: “Beauty is what wins love”.
This is the moment. A simple phrase to be taken by, but this was such an impressive moment for me due to the amount of nuance it contains and how much it affects Simone’s future. There are two ways to read the phrase: the first, “physical beauty is a requirement to be be loved,” and the second, which I believe is the proper reading, “anything that wins love is beautiful.”
Simone didn’t start out reading the phrase as the former meaning, because she didn’t know what beauty was. Looking into old human records lead her to believe that beauty was physical. Beauty was “pretty skin… stylish accessories… looking one’s best.”
Determined to become beautiful for Jean-Paul, Simone would attempt anything if the reward was beauty. Tales of a precious jewel leads her to scale mountains. Hearsay around the village causes her to devour androids. She took pieces of her friends and fashioned them onto her own body. She even tried eating machines in the hope of becoming physically beautiful. Simone was willing to trade her morality and eventually her sanity for physical beauty.
The difference between a lovelorn robot and a monster is one small misunderstanding followed by some incomplete information. If the proverb the older robot told her was more clear and less up for interpretation, maybe we wouldn’t have had to fight Simone. If she came across information that lead her to understand that beauty is subjective, maybe we wouldn’t have had to fight Simone. But proverbs are often vague and it’s likely much easier to find information about beauty being skin deep.
Adding more weight to an already impressive moment is the fact that NieR:Automata was originally written in Japanese. The dual-meaning phrase leading to a misunderstanding had to be conserved through translation. I don’t speak Japanese and didn’t play the game in Japanese, so I can’t say if that version’s dialog also contains the dual-meaning. Based off how gracefully the rest of NieR:Automata handles stories and character motivations, I think that writer/director Yoko Taro has earned enough credit for me to believe it does. NieR:Automata doesn’t feel like the game that would conjure something like that by chance.
Localization is a tricky subject in games. Everyone can think of a number of examples where meaning is lost in translation. The Cane and Rinse podcasts on Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI both contained sections where the team mentioned the translation leaving a lot to be desired.
Fortunately this wasn’t the case for NieR:Automata. The English localization team were somehow able to either preserve or potentially even enhance this character’s story to the point that it was one of my highlights of 2018.