“Emotions are prohibited” barks elite combat android YoRHa No.2 Type B (2B) at her recently assigned partner YoRHa No.9 Type S (9S). 2B’s all business attitude is our first exposure to the culture of the androids, her statements forming the basis of our early understanding of their nature. A contradiction arises immediately, if emotional capacity undermines an android’s purpose why were they designed with the possibility? Why the need to forbid something that ostensibly should be a feature with an off switch? The early relationship between 2B and 9S mirrors that of Snake and Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, one a larger than life battlefield veteran effortlessly quipping about the realities of The Mission unfazed by anything the world throws at her; the other a starry-eyed boy unable to keep his immediate attachment and hero worship in check. If YoRHa truly is the institution of serious committed androids keeping their emotions in check under threat of reprisal 2B conjures up then it would seem someone forgot to tell most of the rest of the cast.
The illusion of the emotionless fighting machine is broken almost immediately as 9S can’t contain his giddiness at getting to work with a partner and subsequently the scolding cold 2B falls into a string of emotional outbursts about 9S’ apparent death. Outside of action game protagonist 2B’s repeated insistence otherwise every single android is deeply and openly emotional on a constant basis. 2B’s handler 6O at no point even displays any pretence of suppressing herself. 6O makes up a relatively small part of the game comparative to its length but she represents a vitally important look into what androids are actually like. She is deeply emotional and frivolous, emailing 2B about her love life and her attempts to fix it through astrology (before more emails chirpily expressing how above astrology she is when it doesn’t work). What makes 6O so important is that the game allows her to be these things, she isn’t presented as an annoyance and while she obviously is something of a comedic character nobody makes a joke of her. Calling up 2B in tears after being turned down by a girl serves to show her as a vulnerable and real person, further highlight the dissonance between 2B and other androids and finally makes as clear as possible that lesbian relationships are just the norm here. Aside from being genuinely touching and strikingly casual, the often goofy and messy (which in itself is great to see in portrayal) relationships the androids form highlight a priority in storytelling that existed in the original Nier too, a focus on the stories of the marginalised. Where Nier portrayed a group of outsiders struggling to find their way in a world that fears and maligns them, Nier: Automata shows us a world where, despite emotions being allegedly prohibited (a directive assumed to come from humanity itself), it would seem people are free to be and love who they please. All it took, argues Automata, is the complete removal of human society from the face of the planet.
As outlined by an enlightening GameFAQs post thats been passed around twitter, for Nier: Automata image is an important lead-in to its world, outwardly the game is an action game about an attractive female android fighting robots, much of the reputation and the hype in the build up to release focused on 2B’s sex appeal. The game itself however doesn’t pay this all that much mind, the character designs are obviously no accident but in terms of its plot content and cinematography the game does not display much interest in parading them about to this end. 2B in a way represents an ideal of the kinds of people who think modelling a butt is some sort of guerilla culture war, she is an attractive, relatively revealingly dressed woman who doubles as a powerful and stylish action game protagonist, initially stated to be free of complicated personal desires and emotional content she exists as seemingly a product, a tool of humanity. The comparison to MGS2 is important here, while embodying different archetypes both Snake and 2B represent a commodified ideal, selling an audience heroic power fantasies, a chance to be or a chance to leer at perfect bodies unattached to the messy realities of life as a human. Both also ultimately reject their fate and the people that created them.
GIVE UP HERE?
The story of MGS2 is that of Raiden, a confused, young soldier raised on video game simulations of his hero and tasked with resolving, alone an incredibly delicate, labyrinthine and deadly situation. As MGS2 pulls back its layers it reveals that the world of the game is itself another simulation, designed to be a replica of its prequel in which Raiden is a test subject to see if one can produce desirable assets such as Solid Snake via the artificial reconstruction of the circumstances that forged him. More than just being a commentary on the demand for sequels and the effect that takes on the characters, MGS2 stands as a kind of manifesto, it asks us to question the reality of the characters we idolise and to examine what impacts media may have on us and to understand that inevitably ideas are being passed on that we may not be aware of. The AI behind all this explains itself as being a kind of american socio-political consensus perpetuating itself via controlling the context people are able to parse information in; this simulation and the transformation of Raiden into an artificial player avatar persona were carried out to test how far this manipulation of context can function. To MGS2 games are a tool through which the creator can manipulate the player into doing or believing anything and further still the nature of media in a capitalist industry means that ultimately every MGS must produce and MGS2, a hyped product sold on brand recognition, sold on the fantasy of inhabiting the life of heroic figures worshipped for dubious qualities. The AI system in the real world, a set of ideological demands given perpetuity by their integration into the fabric of the nation’s values and “common sense”, is the economic pressure that demands more of the same, the creator is powerless to resist and becomes another tool of this ideological force, his game becoming another space in which its values are universalised, another space in which the subtle procreation of its values can be tested on a new consumer base.
Raiden, out-of-his-depth, starry-eyed hero worshipper, recreated from the ground up to be the perfect consumer of the MGS2 experience, so much of his blood replaced with nanomachines it may be accurate to call him a humanoid machine, is a mirror to 9S. Both taking on the role of the re-contextualised recreation of the first act of their respective stories they shift from being passive observers along for the ride to being the focus of the narrative. Unlike Raiden however we experience 9S as being seemingly more aware of some things than even 2B, demonstrated to be an active participant in the events through his hacking abilities he provides a great deal of assistance and accidentally becomes more and more aware of the inner workings of the machine lifeforms they are sworn to fight. Raiden’s story ends with an explicit rejection of player control, tossing the dog-tags bearing the player-input name away, choosing to become his own person and not to live on as another avatar of power fantasy and hero worship, seeing this as their only recourse against the ideological construction that controls them. 9S in his initial stint as protagonist however makes no changes to his plotline, his escape from his role begins after this second cycle through the game ends. Taken as markings to the beginning and ending of their story 2B’s opening spiel about being cursed to an “endless cycle of death and violence” and her pleading “why does it always end this way” cries at the end mark the standard video game plot, actors cursed to live out a cycle designed for them by forces beyond their understanding or knowledge, a force she identifies as a god she wishes to kill.
One such cycle has already been broken in the course of the game, the save system being tied to an in-fiction server ties the mechanic into the character’s reality, your body can die but your mind will be restored to the last state you uploaded it in. At the outset of the game the player is warned that you have to play the game to find out how to save and until completion of the prologue the function will not be available due to the machine enemies blocking signal access. The consequence of this is that until successfully passing the opening of the game every death entails starting over from the beginning to hear 2B bitterly commenting on the inevitability of death and everythings entrapment in a “never-ending spiral of life and death” and a repetition of her desire to kill the god responsible. In completing the opening of the game the player breaks free from this microcosm of the cycle even if only briefly enough to progress forward that small amount more. More specifically 9S breaks the cycle by sacrificing his own data upload to ensure 2B is uploaded to the server ahead of him.
Even upon reaching the apparent end of the game things do not end at 9S’ death, even on the first cycle 9S is shown immediately afterwards as having copied himself over to the machine bodies around him. The extra context provided by the second cycle shows 9S having spent a fairly large portion of their adventure poking around not only inside the brains of their machine opponents but of himself and 2B. 9S messes with 2B’s interface settings, re-enables his own functions, reactivates his consciousness, experiences memories of those he hacks and has his own head poked around in by the machine administrator Adam, a machine in the guise of a human. In Adam and his brother Eve the lines between what distinguishes “machine” from “android” blur beyond recognition, as designed beings that stand in the guise of a human being with a full range of emotional capacities what distinctions can they still claim from one another? This question informs the context of 9S being capable of transferring and restoring his consciousness into the bodies of machines and it is at this point the true story of Nier Automata begins.
DO YOU ACCEPT DEFEAT?
Having escaped the fates authored for them 9S fails to die and 2B fails to kill him, things no longer have to end the same way. Their blindfolds having been removed by the conflict with the machine intelligence Eve and 9S now literally waking in the shoes of his enemies the pair are for a brief moment free from their own limited and planned out natures. It isn’t long however before the YoRHa base contacts them and they are returned to combat duty, both repaired and restored to their original forms, blindfolds and all, sent out to wipe out the machines once and for all. The game continues, the lessons learned from the repeated experiences of machine social organisation, emotion and intelligence are cast aside, the connection of minds represented in 9S’ ending manifesting the growing understanding of machines that wish to be human is overturned for the war to continue. Despite this reassertion of the primacy of the video game narrative the game does not believe beings can come into contact without changing one another, just as 2B and 9S have become much more adept at fighting their opponents and their opponents have in turn grown to counter them; the machines have grappled with more and more human ideas and social constructions, forcing the knowledge and experience of these things onto the duo. Forced to confront the intellectual capacities of the machines 2B and 9S come to understand them as individuals with wills of their own even if they won’t admit it, and like many of the deserting androids of the resistance they begin to question their own natures and social roles. This dialectical process ultimately positions them back in a war of escalation resulting in 2B’s death at the hands of a virus designed by the machines to undermine the minds of androids.
Dialectical conflict can be compared to debate, a form of oppositional discourse that concludes not with the victory of one idea over another but instead with the synthesis of the two forces in conflict into a newly adapted form. It is a theory outlined by Hegel, later deployed by Marx and Engels in defining a progression of resolutions to contradictions in human society, a statement that the very crises society produces result in changes in its character reflecting the conditions of their creation. All three of these philosophers appear in Nier Automata as boss fights, their names revealed on the second cycle as they are seen from 9S’ perspective (Engels appearing wonderfully as a weaponised factory). In making war with humanity the machines could not help but incorporate humanity into their own being, playing out the history of human civilization right down to its cultural output again and again, forming a mechanical recreation of humans whos history has become the script of a grand program to be played out. This process leads Adam and Eve to become the embodiment of what Adam sees as humanity’s most unique features, their ability to fear and hate, in turn leading to a massive escalation in the conflict between android and machine. By the end of the game the governing intelligence of the machines, a conglomerate consciousness know as N2 reveals that the continued existence of androids is their doing, stating directly the belief that the androids could not be wiped out as it would leave the machines unable to fulfil their directive to “defeat the enemy” and without a confrontational force to test themselves against and grow from. In other words to continue their grasping at humanity the machines have created an endlessly replenishing artificial humanity that can continue to create scripts from which they can learn.
IS IT ALL POINTLESS?
This labyrinthine conspiracy is revealed piece by piece to 9S after the advent of the renewed conflict with the machines following the death of Eve. His experiences hacking his enemies leads him to send his consciousness into the YoRHa base’s servers seeking knowledge on the machines, potential backdoors to be exploited and the humans that androids are proudly sworn to defend. 9S pulls back layer after layer never again losing his blindfold until he finds himself in direct contact with N2. 9S is unable to grow from the knowledge he obtains from the YoRHa servers, that humanity has long been extinct, immediately following his revelations the bunker is attacked by the virus that destroys not only 2B but all of YoRHa along with her. Left with the triple hit of the loss of the his most treasured person, the newfound knowledge that their entire existence had no meaning and the destruction of the organisation he has spent his existence with 9S’ mental state becomes highly unstable.
Enraged over 2B’s death at the hands of the machines and (in his view) the deserter android A2 to whom 2B trusted her memories and will to protect 9S, 9S launches into a rampage, deserting the lessons he has learned and reverting being a weapon of machine annihilation. Stating repeatedly his desire to wipe out every last machine 9S becomes almost a replica of the now-playable A2, their quests both leading them ultimately to the same end, the top of the mysterious machine spire that has arisen from the artificial city of Adam, instruments of God out to tear down the tower of babel. Along the way 9S comes to embody everything Adam believed humans were, violent and hateful beings of passion growing ever stronger and wrathful against the machines pushed to his limit with psychological warfare and the knowledge of his newly created mortality. A2 meanwhile proceeds through the arc 2B and 9S had previously found themselves in, learning from peaceful machines and ending up the defender of a group of pacifist machines. Holding within her the experiences of her disillusionment with YoRHa combined with the history of 2B, A2 embodies everything the original duo learned before being drawn back into their blindfolds, the final conflict between A2 and 9S is a conflict between the 9S who distributed himself across the machine network and the 9S who became infected with the ideology of Adam and Eve.
The relationship is complicated further by recent revelations from N2 that A2 served as a prototype version of 2B, actually known as 2E, an android designed to Eliminate deserters and those who get too close to the truth of YoRHa’s nature such as 9S. 2B and the other E unit discovered in the game both grapple with the knowledge that their memories have been wiped multiple times and as A2 states to 9S “2B hated killing you”. 2B existed to put down 9S whenever he became too aware of the world, when the synthesis formed by his capacity to interface with machine life inevitably resulted in his encroaching upon inconvenient truths 2B was there to strike him down. Including the repeated cycle of the first two endings we have seen 2B’s actions result in the death of 9S 3 times, 2Bs rejection of her role comes after her despair at things “ending the same way” and her relief to see 9S return to life retaining his memories. The conflict between 2B and 9S along with the internal conflict within 2B over her role result ultimately in the transformation of 2B from emotionless android killing machine to an emotional being who destroys herself to save her loved one. By extension the drawn out conflict between YoRHa and machine has produced beings indistinguishable from human life. The grand conflict between A2 and 9S is the culmination of the machine-android war, neither escaping their respective roles as tools, A2 is forced to carry out the execution of 9S and 9S has been utterly compromised by the nihilistic hatred Adam desired, no matter who wins the war will come to an end and a new state of reality will come into being.
Relying as it does on engineering conflicts for the sake of growth, N2 creates a contradiction in its own order that ultimately results in its destruction as beings grown from the conflict force its central system into its own process of change, creating so many instances of itself in the process of overcoming A2 it begins to form fractured distinct identities that turn on one another, adopting finally the individuality of humanity. The struggle for identity is the thread tying the majority of the machines plots together, machines disconnect themselves from the network in order to establish themselves as distinct selves, some help others to do the same, through contact with human history and social construction machines learn to exist as individuals. The machines of the forest form a protective order around their “King”, the original machine that helped them all disconnect; the machines of Pascal’s village renounce war and fighting in all its forms and the machines of the amusement park latch onto the concepts of fun and performance throwing endless parades and putting on dramatic productions harvested from human history. Though it is said of machines that they merely reproduce human culture again and again making no attempt to patch up failures the actor machines of the amusement park prove otherwise with their comedically inaccurate rendition of Romeo and Juliet, an adaptation for machine audiences. The new Romeo and Juliet depicts a group of Romeos and Juliets, none of whom are sure which one is the real thing, their tragedy is the same mutual death but now motivated by each wishing to reduce the numbers of both to one, in other words they must fight to make themselves individual, but in doing so rob themselves of companionship.
DO YOU THINK GAMES ARE SILLY LITTLE THINGS?
The machine’s struggle for self-identification and attachment to human culture is omnipresent, machines simulate the motions of sex, they position themselves as various members of family units, they raise children that can never grow up, some even become animals. If they all are putting on their own small performances then the embodiment of the machines desires for individuality can be found in Simone, an opera singing machine who attacks 2B and 9S from a stage, adorned with the bodies of fallen androids obsessed with taking their beauty for themselves. Representing Simone de Beauvoir she calls to mind the social construction of identity, the Otherisation of classes of people via their being made a mystery and by extension the nature of identity and gender as a performance. Simone the machine is obsessed with making herself more beautiful as her understanding of human companionship is that this is how it can be acquired, she leads a life doomed to act out a social role defined for her in pursuit of acceptance. The machines have absorbed human history into themselves, they are led by a consciousness that has taken on an identity it itself found amongst the archives of the human preservation systems of the previous Nier game. As such the machines largely find themselves trapped in the same social constructions as humanity, while most of the machine family units that arise even amongst the disconnected machines mimic the nuclear family unit, the androids form relationships the majority of which are seen to be gay couples. Free as they are from the direct influence of human culture and given the ability to view and comment on it as outsiders (9S and 2B talking about the bizarre nonsensical economic organisation of human society etc.) the concept of Othering differing forms of relationships doesn’t occur, whereas to the machines it seems they can only grasp the standard norms of the failed world they build on. The androids exist to evolve beyond the confines of the human-machine lifeforms and in turn to force the evolution of them, in other words the androids exist specifically to be Other to machines, to suffer and live differently to function as a renewable resource of new experience (so long as they don’t truly threaten the longevity of machine life). Androids are designed specifically to have certain personalities or feelings and dropped into the world to see how they function. Others to android society are created from the Popola and Devola android models, the administrators of the human preservation system that fell in the previous game become outcasts. In placing the blame for the extinction of humanity on their shoulders and even having a constant sense of guilt programmed into them Popolas and Devolas themselves become a marginalised group and thus are ensured to never somehow undermine the YoRHa plan of presenting androids with a false humanity to fight for. As Jackass says “For hundreds of years, we’ve been fighting a network of machines with the ghost of humanity at its core.“
The choice between 9S and A2 in the final confrontation is functionally a choice of whether machine life continues on or not, A2’s victory results in the preservation of 9S and her destruction of the tower believing it to be a weapon for destroying the last remaining vestige of human data on the moon. 9S’ victory entails the death of both himself and A2 and the reveal that the machines have repurposed the tower-cannon to fire themselves off the planet as a large server containing all their consciousnesses, the Tower of Babel becomes an ark, fleeing the dual gods of the moon humans and N2 leading the way to a new existence for machines, even offering 9S the chance to come along. Neither of this conclusions represent the true ending point of Nier Automata’s story nor the final moment of a machine intelligence gaining a sense of self. As the credits roll the support pods that have acted as the ranged weaponry and spellcasting arsenal of the player characters begin a conversation, by their programming and following in the footsteps of the previous game system they are to delete all data on project YoRHa. 2B’s pod, Pod 042 cannot bring itself to actually go through with this having developed a fondness for the main characters and an identity and will of its own through its conversational connection to its 9S supporting counterpart Pod 153.
Pod 042 becomes the player character at this stage and is offered the choice to risk itself to save 9S, 2B and A2. Not accepting the outcome of this script, another break in the chain of narrative, Pod 042 launches into a battle with the credits themselves literally taking on the pantheon of gods responsible for the creation of their world and the plot the find themselves in. Pod 042 has taken up the goal 2B stated at the very beginning of the game, it fights an almost impossible battle against the scrolling names and titles of everyone responsible for Nier Automata. The inherited will of 2B by 042 plays out the references of both of their names, 042 representing Douglas Adams’ answer to the question of the meaning of life, with 042’s context 2B’s “to be” becomes as simple and intimidatingly unfathomable an answer as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s “42”. Every defeat offers the chance to give up or continue, the screen filling with more and more voices telling you to persevere, that they believe in you, that you can overcome anything. Set in its horrifying forever-war post-apocalypse world Nier Automata suggests that while we are swept up in forces beyond our recognition, forces that would have us destroy one another, care and love struggle on always and endure. As the characters of both Nier games endure worlds hostile to their very existence and attempt to find themselves and each-other even still, the majesty of their writing is in their capacity to use that misery and oppressive darkness as a means through which to make what is touching and heartfelt into something truly beautiful. Yoko Taro does not have much faith in the structures of human society, but in the connection between people, the struggle to understand eachother and ourselves he sees the potential to be truly caring.
DO YOU ADMIT THERE IS NO MEANING TO THIS WORLD?
As Raiden rejected the player and the main character of Nier deleted himself from existence to protect his friends and give them a chance to live, Pod 042 is assisted eventually by the intervention of other players of Nier Automata having allowed their save files to be used as shields for 042 against the assaults of the development team and its associates. The words of encouragement form into a real stake in the protection of another, the backing vocals forming into a triumphant chorus and 042 defeats the credit scroll and seizes the data of its friends back from the narrative refusing to allow things to end in a manner of its writer’s choosing. In reviving the cast Pod 153 asks if things will not simply turn out the same way, Pod 042 believes that not all questions have answers and that while the possibility exists, “a future is not given to you, it is something you must take for yourself”. Nier Automata finds beauty in endurance, in sharing ones suffering and ones dreams but it doesn’t hold these things as something to be sustained in perpetuity as the human-machine ghost does, things don’t have to turn out this way. While we may be caught up in labyrinthine systems, experiencing the disastrous consequences of systems that came into being before we were even born, we are still able to struggle on and make a future free of them.