This review is segmented into two: a short evaluation without spoilers, and a more detailed consideration choke-full of spoilers. The break between the two will be clearly demarcated.
So much attention is paid to detail in Nier Automata. Director Yoko Taro has succeeded in creating the most atmospheric game I’ve ever played.
Nier Automata is a proud piece of work, and exceedingly confident in everything it does. It is rare for a game to have such an unforgiving prologue (takes about an hour, you can’t save, and if you die you restart the whole game), but Nier Automata doesn’t hold back. From aerial dogfights to hack-and-slash mob battles to seemingly-impossible showdowns against colossal enemies, the game promises epic and delivers with a fluidity that is rare even amongst triple-A titles. It helps that everything is top-notch. The visual and sound direction are both impeachable. Everything, and I mean everything is beautiful – the backgrounds, the character models, the animations, the music, the voice acting – and that’s just the prologue.
However, it’s only when I visited the amusement park that Nier Automata transcended into sublimity. From the shifting soundtrack, to the sheer unsettling behaviour of the robots, to the jaw-dropping gorgeous concept of a castle with a heart-shaped hole fragmented against a fireworked dusky sky, you think the game has reached its peak, particularly when the song crescendos with its dark synths blaring as you descend on the centre of the amusement park weapons-drawn, turning the song into one of senseless slaughter.
And when you get onto the rollercoaster, the game somehow shifts into an even higher gear. As you’re whisked around the park at breakneck speed, you do battle with a horde of enemies, imitating all those spy action movies but with one crucial difference: the fight is but a distraction to the sublime backgrounds – the Disney castle facsimile, the flowering fireworks, the eternal evening’s purple hue – and amidst the exhilaration, you wish this ride would never end.
But end it does, and all I will say about the boss fight that follows is that it was a dark, chaotic, terrifying, adrenaline-pumping bullet hell. I was screaming as I dodged and weaved and hacked and slashed. And suddenly it was all over.
Nier Automata tries to make you feel something, and when you play the game you will find your emotions aren’t always simple things. People, in general, strive for their emotions to reach an equilibrium. But the game’s ostensible goal is to toss that equilibrium out of the window, like any good drama. The wide open expanses that populate the game’s map are but opportunities for reflection on the latest happenings to befall our favourite androids. Through the miniquests and the main storyline, the player gets a real feel for the geist of the game. The player will have the opportunity to look within both the game and themselves, and will likely have plenty of difficulty accepting what they find.
This is because Nier Automata is a game of unsettling self-discovery, and Jean Paul Sartre isn’t a character in the game merely as a gimmick. But as for why exactly …
It’s an amazing thing that despite about six billion human beings living on this planet, we aren’t all constantly plagued by questions pertaining to the meaning behind our existence. Indeed, some of us appear to have never thought about the question at all. Yet, when asked, it would appear that few or even none of us are capable of giving a wholly satisfying answer.
Human beings have no Creator to speak of; we just spontaneously exist. Therefore, for us at least, existence precedes essence. Unlike say, a gun, our free will and capacity to choose means we shape our destiny and purpose. Sartre’s thinking, even if not in specificity, has pretty much become the mainstream for humanists everywhere. Even those who claim to be religious are pretty much living for themselves, so it’s all pretty peachy. No one ever has to ask further existential questions.
At least, until something goes terribly wrong.
I like to use 9S and 2B as an example. When 9S learns about the fact that humans have already gone extinct, thus rendering the entirety of YoRHa’s existence (as an organisation) pointless, he’s shaken but only slightly. The real goal of the reveal is obviously to remind the player that everything that they’ve been fighting for was superficially pointless. But 9S doesn’t really give a shit because he’s in love with 2B and she’s the only thing that matters, even if the entire pretext for them being placed together in the same unit is built on a colossal conspiracy and lies.
Naturally when 2B dies, 9S is thrown into existential turmoil. His life instantly lost all meaning, and he scrambles desperately for a replacement. His rage, guilt, sense of loss, and desire for vengeance and self-destruction are not difficult to empathise with. We’ve seen it in all the side-quests up till now, and now it’s finally 9S’ turn to take up the crown of thorns. For all intents and purposes, 9S is human, and tells a very powerful but ultimately standard human tale as old as time itself.
Far more interesting are the machines and androids that are interested in humanity or seek to imitate humanity. They have virtually no roots save this race of beings that came before that apparently did not seem to have much difficulty (ahem) with existential problems on the whole. Of course, humans had no creators, but if one merely imitated human beings from a historical or anthropological perspective, surely one too could find meaning?
Adam adopted many human practices, but his fixation on powerful emotions, particularly the tight dance between fear of death and love of death, was his theory of humanity and existence. The purpose of existing is the joy of never-ending combat and conflict. We may think Adam was wrong, but it was ultimately Adam’s choice. If, as an intelligent life-form, Adam decided that was the purpose of his existence, who are we to tell him otherwise?
There are many instances of superficially questionable choices made by groups of machines. They tend to really disturb us. To list a few, the machines:
- Kill themselves out of a religious desire to ascend to godhood
- Kill themselves out of fear of living and the unknown
- Seek to avenge their fallen ‘family members’
- Seek to blow themselves up by suicide bombing their enemies
- Beg the androids to kill them
- Scream at the androids telling them they would never forgive them
All of these seriously unnerve the player, purportedly because when we consider the machines through a human lens, the above all seem morally questionable. But no, that can’t be right, because ordinary machines mindlessly attack the androids when they come within a certain proximity, and that seems prima facie morally questionable as a course of action.
No, the real answer must be that these actions unnerve us because they make the player realise the machines are not just human in a superficial sense of being sentient, but human right down to the deepest darkest desires and instincts. When an ordinary machine mindlessly attacks androids, one could say that in its mindlessness, it is engaging in what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’, which is an abdication of moral responsibility and choice. And when a machine charges at you, waving a bloodied knife, screaming like a nightmare come alive, asking you how many more lives you must take before you’re satisfied, you’re in the deeply uncomfortable position of realising that both of you are, as Sartre would put it, condemned to be free, and have made the choices that place the both of you exactly where you are.
As it turns out, the humans planned to immortalise themselves in their android’s minds by destroying all the androids who know about their extinction, and becoming mythical rather than existing beings, thus ascending to godhood. Funnily enough, some of the machines had a similar idea, and whatever godliness is supposed to look like, watching purple potbellied humpty-dumpty-looking robots toss themselves into molten lava in a cultish fashion seemed as far away from godliness as conceivably possible. But it does hint, amongst many other things – like the vicious cycles of revenge and hatred, and the constant refrains to memory resets and history – to the concept of the eternal recurrence.
Enough ink has been spilled on eternal recurrence in the context of Nier Automata, so I want to focus on one overlooked detail: the nature of nature, so as to speak. With androids and machines we have programming, which is something innate bestowed upon them by their creators. But although human beings do not have a creator, we do have our ‘programming’, which takes the form of our genetics. Our innate behaviours that drive us towards fighting, fleeing, forming social groups, individualism, and so on.
In the article above, Kastel correctly notes that human beings have social baggage that androids don’t, hence, transgenderism and homosexuality are not controversial issues for androids, and they are free of the chains that Rousseau speaks of (‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains‘). However, Kastel does not mention that despite our genetic programming, nature being even more innate than nurture, we still believe in the concept of free will and moral responsibility (and can hardly imagine a society otherwise), and can thus aspire to shaping our own existences meaningfully. Androids and machines, whose programming and superficial appearance can both be changed as much as necessary, are essentially even freer than human beings and can arguably shape an even more meaningful existence.
Maybe all that freedom terrifies them. Maybe that’s why androids not only look like sexy humans, but also wear … high heels? And use swords? And have beds to sleep in, to count android sheep? Is it imitation, like I mentioned, or limitation that they’re aiming for?
Maybe that’s why a most common response by androids and machines alike to problems of intractable pain and suffering is memory deletion, which however partial, for all intents and purposes, is basically suicide, but with the caveat that the remainder of your mind and body is just ripe to re-enact the tragedy once more. A tragedy on a grander scale than humanly possible. Perhaps that’s why Camus doesn’t feature in Nier Automata but Nietzsche and his eternal recurrence comes to the forefront instead.
We will never know. Nier Automata is heavy on despair but light on the answers. It is usually unbecoming of games to preach. As humans, that’s our responsibility, after all.