Five hours into Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro’s sad robot simulator, I finally gave up on the side quests that clogged my minimap. After picking up 10 'nasty bolts' from the faraway desert for the third time in exchange for some piddling resources and flat dialogue, I dismissed the desperate quest givers around me as pointless padding and proceeded down the main path of androids and explosions, which had hooked me from minute one.
Then a funny thing happened. When I found myself hopelessly underleveled for certain late-game encounters—you know who you are, Drill Assholes—I forced myself to return to the sidequests to score some easy XP. And though the vast majority still left me underwhelmed, I found one that managed to capture the spirit and imagination of the game’s core story: 'The Wandering Couple.' It was still a fetch quest, sure. An obnoxious one, even. But it showcased Nier: Automata's odd sense of humor while bolstering the themes of free will and the nature of existence, the things that first sucked me into Nier's ruined world.
It was so good, it even inspired me to finish each and every one of the game’s 60 side missions. Most of them are a waste of time, but every player should seek out this curious couple.
Spoilers for The Wandering Couple and multiple Nier: Automata endings follow.
It’s very easy to miss them; they’re tucked away in one of the obscure corners of Pascal’s Machine Village. They ask you to fetch an elaborate gadget from the abandoned factory to repair the male’s "locomotion functions." Once you deliver that, you find them again at the flooded city, where the female bot forces the male to ask for a vast sum of money to escape across the ocean for good.
Once you fork over 50 grand, you might just assume the quest is over and forget about it. Upon returning to the flooded city, you find out that the the supposed "Emancipator" has swindled the couple. After some running around to repair the two, the couple argues about their future, with the woman suggesting that they reformat each other, return to the Resistance, and start anew.
Eventually, the man agrees, and 9S reformats him. But when he tries to do the same for the she-bot, she reveals that the whole wild goose chase was a scheme to convert the male into a combat model, so they’ll "never have to run from anything again." When 9S expresses shock at this turn, the woman off-handedly confesses that she’s already done this six times, "and it’s never been a problem." After that, she showers you in gifts and wanders off, presumably to "update" him until he has all the traits of her ideal man.
Throughout Nier, 2B and 9S spill blood, sweat, and oil to fight against a neverending scourge of machines in order to make the planet safe for people again. Much like the she-bot’s plan, however, all their effort is based on a foundation of lies—humans died out long ago. Instead of simply rebuilding him the first time, the woman in the side quest delights in putting together excuse after excuse for her partner to reset himself. Though they both suffer greatly from her schemes, she views it as little more than a way to pass the time, just like how the endless war with the machines is just a carrot to keep the YorHA units going.
Just like the woman and her partner, 2B and 9S are also caught in an endless cycle, and I don’t just mean the game’s looping frame narrative. As the end of the game reveals, 9S has discovered the truth about the death of humanity several times, and 2B was forced to kill him and delete his memories each time to keep the dreaded secret. From the game’s perspective, no one can really do anything about this turn of events. After all, that’s just how they’re programmed. This calls back to one of the questions at the heart of Nier: is the woman choosing of her own free will to reset her partner and make him better, or is she just carrying out her own subroutines, empty of her own thought or will?
At the game’s true ending, the two Pods ruminate on this, with 042 concluding that, even after all the looping that’s already happened, they can't "deny the possibility" that the same tragedies could happen again. But in the face of that, they still restore the data through the flood of fire in the closing credits, confident that the androids deserve a second chance to overcome their nature. Much like the wandering couple, it’s not clear if they’ll ever break through the loop. But, as the she-bot says, it’s certainly worth a try.