It’s been a pretty great year for open worlds.
We had Horizon Zero Dawn arranging the genres tried and tested hallmarks into a beautiful greatest hits collection, while Breath of the Wild threw a lot of its old tropes in the bin and tried out a fresh sound to thunderous applause.
With Nier: Automata things got a bit weirder. Automata is the alternative artist straddling the line between niche and mainstream. It’ll blow your mind with high-concept, multi-part ballads and then bring a few tropical birds on towards the end of the set and snort lines of coke off their beaks, you know, just to make sure you’re definitely paying attention.
Now if you’d asked the me of late-2016 to guess which of these brilliant open worlds came with a fishing minigame I doubt I would have backed the one where Earth is overthrown by tinker-toy robots quoting Nietzsche and trying to figure out how to properly suck each other off.
But despite the weirdness of its inclusion, Automata’s fishing has grabbed me. I’m just struggling to figure out why.
It’s not even a particularly great mini-game. You press a button to cast out your line, hang around for a catch and then press a button to pull out the fish – job done.
On paper it sounds like the dry white toast of fishing minigames but then your line isn’t a line it’s a floating robot…and it’s thrown in the water by an android in a mini-skirt…to catch fish that can also sometimes be robots…and yes, the whole game is kind of like this.
I think one of the joys of the fishing is that it’s just so thematically consistent. Automata revels in the idea of machine lifeforms struggling to wrap their metal heads around humanity’s fleshy quirks. They muddle their way through love, loyalty, fun and family but do so in a very mechanical way and the same is true of the fishing.
There’s really no reason for your android protagonists to do it and judging by their bored poses they seem to know it. Yes, you can make a bit of money as a freelance fishmonger but it’s an odd sideline for someone making both literal and figurative killings on the battlefield. It feels like a deliberate contrast to the fast pace of the action, a calm break that slows down the pace and lets you soak up the ruined scenery.
But your quiet time can’t last forever.
You’ll inevitably be interrupted by a passing enemy or toddle off to finish some sidequests and suddenly you’ve thrown a spotlight on the problem of Androids trying to escape their intended purpose by aping human behavior. They’re manufactured weapons of war. No matter how hard they try to step away from violence it always tracks them down.
In truth, I’m a little concerned that my enjoyment might be wrapped up some poorly-suppressed completionist urges.
The Fishing Encyclopedia – a codex that holds information on the all fish you’ve caught – tracks the percentage of everything you’ve pulled out the water and seeing that number rise by even a fraction becomes its own kind of depressing thrill. It’s as if each nudge closer to that sweet 100% climax will somehow make the hours of waiting for a bite seem like a sensible use of my finite time being alive.
I’m no dogmatic completionist but there’s a certain romanticism around finishing something completely that I find it difficult not to flirt with. I know full well that progress for the sake of progress is a winding road to nowhere and yet I can’t help myself. It’s like chewing a stick of gum long after the flavor has melted away. You don’t get much out of it other than a sore jaw and a rubbery blob slowly turning to ashes in your mouth.
Thankfully, there is a compelling reason to finish the Fishing Encyclopedia outside of just checking off another completionist box.
Whenever you catch a new fish, the encyclopedia is updated with a small text entry. Usually these are just slivers of information on whatever you’ve caught but occasionally they’ll weave in a little intricate world building.
Allusions are cast of a war between mechanical fish and the indigenous wildlife that mirrors the android/machine conflict holding up the story. It brings to mind the famous item descriptions of Dark Souls and its imitators albeit with a lighter tone. Instead of gleaning information from a cursed piece of finger-bling it’s coming from a robotic manta ray that you’ve yanked out of some scummy amusement park pond. With Automata’s world being one of its one greatest assets, discovering more of it is always a joyful prize.
Automata loves mashing together different genres to keep things varied. In its first half hour you’ll have played a vertically-scrolling shoot em’ up, a twin stick shooter, a side-scrolling platformer, and a 3D hack and slasher that, against the odds, all end up complimenting each other.
With this in mind, the fishing runs the risk of feeling like filler. But it sets itself apart by stepping away from action in favour of quiet contemplation. After a particularly gut-wrenching plot-point or the introduction of a stranger concept I often found myself taking a fishing break to tackle my thoughts and feelings. With a game as off the wall as Nier: Automata It’s no surprise that I found myself on the edge of that water more often than a paranoid lifeguard…in a miniskirt…that’s also a robot.