Robots and Men

Spoilers for Nier Automata.

I was saddened and frustrated to read Olivia Joseph’s NieR Automata: The [W]orst game of the year, and the frustration is a culmination of something that’s been building up for quite some time. It’s not that I feel that a highly successful and critically acclaimed game needs defending from its detractors – although Automata has been such a personally intense experience for me that I can’t help but feel an instinctual need to defend it. I had resolved not to act on that impulse, and now I’m breaking that resolution, because I believe that this article represents a widespread and especially unfortunate misreading of the game.

The charges against Automata that I’d like to address here are twofold: that it wants to manipulate you into feeling bad; and that it centers 9S both as its main character and its moral core, favouring the resolution of his arc over the lives of numerous women in the story. The first is, in a sense, true; the second I strongly disagree with. Before I get to my comments on 9S and masculinity in Automata, I’d like to make a few preliminary points about the nature of this manipulation.

Automata is a consciously metafictional game – that is, in some sense it reflects on its own form, genre, relation to other genres and to a wider cultural context. Much like videogames try to teach players their own mechanics, metafiction tries to train us in a particular method of reading and understanding stories, neither complete immersion nor complete detachment. A practiced reader of metafiction says: I know you’re lying, but I’ll play along to learn what these lies can tell me about you, and me, and our situation in the world we both inhabit.

It’s true that Automata, like probably all of Yoko Taro’s output, has a quality of escalating hopelessness and despair, made all the more intense by how it succeeds at bringing its unlikely worlds and characters to life. It’s difficult to feel any sense of loss or grief at the death of barely realized non-player characters in games such as Skyrim or World of Warcraft, unless they were providing some kind of indispensable gameplay convenience, like selling valuable gear. The death of 2B – itself mirroring the death we inflict on Adam and Eve in earlier playthroughs, and reinforcing the idea of a cycle of retaliation and suffering – hits us hard, because we’ve grown to like her and want to spend more time with her. The game knows this.

In a sense, like I said before, this is very much a conscious manipulation to make us feel bad – but no less than the insights we are given into Raskolnikov’s feverish introspection in Crime and Punishment are a manipulation to put us in that same obsessive, cyclical and hopeless frame of mind. I find it impossible to consider this an argument against Automata, unless we accept that games shouldn’t make us feel bad. I see no reason to accept such a proposition; doesn’t it enrich and expand the medium if it is able to connect with as full a range of human experience as possible?

The spiral of despair and tragedy is what makes the cathartic resolution of ending E possible in an emotional sense. If we aren’t drawn into it, through the relationships we formed with the characters, through our experience of who they are and how lifelike they seem, then ending E will completely fail to land, because its payoff consists in throwing our emotional investment in the narrative back in our faces, not to deride it, but to say, “what you felt was valuable; you weren’t alone.”

The experiences of downfall, loss, grief, suffering, bereavement, emotional crisis are integral to tragedy understood as a literary and artistic form. As TWGOTY observes, the escalation of loss and suffering can have a numbing effect on the player. We learn to see it coming, and start fearing for all of our favourite characters, but in the end, we are powerless to prevent it. Instead of experiencing catharsis, we may become numb to the pain, bored or angry with the game, or begin to focus purely on the mechanical side of it without following the story – which, incidentally, is also a passable description of what ends up happening to 9S. I would suggest that the seemingly endless accumulation of tragic, emotionally taxing events makes us think: what if there is no catharsis? What if it’s just this, forever?

To which ending E replies: well, even if it is, we still have each other. As I was playing through the final bits of Automata, I was excitedly messaging a friend about it every few minutes, and in bringing other online players into the ending – people you have almost no way of contacting throughout the rest of it – it appeared to make a nod towards that fact of simple human connection. In terms of drama, we could say that it invites the audience onto the stage, breaking down its own convention and revealing its nature as “just a game,” but at the same time, asserting the meaningfulness of these connections and experiences.

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The charge that Automata deteriorates into 9S’s revenge quest is much more serious, and worth careful consideration, but I would like to demonstrate that this interpretation doesn’t hold up against the text. Many of the points I’d like to make with regards to this have already been raised in, or been informed by, Ashley’s piece on Automata.

First, who is 9S? He is a “scanner” model android, designed for reconnaissance, information gathering and electronic warfare. He’s pretty rubbish in combat, but has access to “hacking,” by means of which he attempts to breach the internal systems of mechanical enemies and destroy them from the inside. Design-wise, he is made to look like a teenage boy, with decidedly non-military shorts; he’s also outwardly cheerful, chatty and eager to please. His entire appearance and demeanour evokes immaturity.

The running theme of 9S being incredibly wrong about the world is introduced early on, as he and 2B head out into the desert for what will become their first meeting with Adam. They encounter talking machines for the first time, seemingly terrified for their lives, and it’s 9S who keeps insisting that anything they say is “just noises” with no meaning behind it, possibly a glitched playback of some ancient archived message. He will keep saying that the machines are just going through the motions of sentience long after the player decides that’s nonsense – which will be almost immediately, as drilling that into our heads is the entire purpose of the first half of route A.

9S isn’t hung up on this point because he’s stupid or innocent. He’s trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance of “just following orders” with the mounting proof that the orders are unethical and pointless, and this dissonance within him will end up being responsible for what he does after 2B is gone.

It’s difficult for me to accept the idea that Automata doesn’t problematize gender and merely repeats a cliched narrative of a man’s righteous revenge. It’s made clear very early on that most of the YoRHa androids are women, and yet the organization’s motto is “glory to mankind.” There is a fair deal of confusion on this account: encountering machines enacting human gendered behaviours, 2B and 9S act baffled and uncomprehending, but at the same time, 9S seems to instinctively find a stereotypical gendered explanation at the resolution of one particular quest, summing it up as “girls are scary.” (Incidentally, that resolution foreshadows/parallels many elements of the main plot, and 9S’s inability to put two and two together is both characteristic and almost definitely meant to throw the player off track.) Both android and machine societies are built from the detritus and rubble of human culture, and gender finds a way to reassert itself as a logic of structuring these societies, albeit in unexpected ways that draw attention to their own strangeness.

The pertinent question is: is Automata, as a text, structured according to the logic of male dominance and misogyny, or does it expose (if not always consistently oppose) it? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Very early on, we encounter the existentialist machine Jean-Paul (who, in case we don’t catch on, quotes Sartre pretty much verbatim), and three machine women who pine for him desperately, in spite (or perhaps because) of his open contempt for them. The fourth is Simone, one of the early-game bosses; when we re-encounter her on 9S’s route and get a glimpse into her thoughts, they are a disturbing account of the pursuit of femininity and beauty in order to “earn” Jean-Paul’s attention and admiration. 9S, of course, doesn’t appear to learn anything from that glimpse, but it’s not really meant for him – it’s for the player. The point can be made that this is a side story, a bit of quasi-feminist window dressing in an otherwise uncaring or objectionable text; nevertheless, it’s there, and I maintain that the early appearance of Jean-Paul is meant to encourage us to think in terms of what roles women play in the game – which surely would mean that if those roles are wholly instrumental or negative, it would have been better not to draw our attention to it at all.

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Most of YoRHa, and particularly all of the combat android models, are women. They are larger and stronger than the scanners, and there is a noticeable gameplay difference between 2B and A2’s fighting ability and that of 9S. As far as the playable characters go, there is also a stark contrast between 9S’s effusive, people-pleasing nature and 2B’s cold, stoic exterior, or A2’s anger and hostility. I would say that, according to our current socially conditioned understanding of gender, none of them are performing it “properly.” Is it possible to argue that in spite of this, they end up drawn into a narrative structured by male wishes and desires? Certainly. I don’t find it to be a satisfactory explanation, however.

9S does not sit comfortably in some kind of ideal masculinity. YoRHa is, after all, composed of “women and children,” and the idea of immaturity is commonly wielded as a weapon against those who fail to meet cis-hetero-patriarchal expectations. At the outset of the game, the question of what kind of person 9S will become is still very much open, and his arc depicts him resolving that problem in a negative and destructive way.

There are two other important men in Automata, the machine brothers Adam and Eve, and on the first two routes, they appear to be the main antagonists. On route A, I found them funny more than anything, with their tight leather pants, chiseled bare chests and open declarations of villainous intent. Adam, the more cerebral of the two, like seemingly all of the machine lifeforms – including the ones disconnected from their overmind network – is fascinated with humanity, and concludes that its greatest strength was a drive to dominate and destroy, a will to power, and the ever-present threat of death. In short, he discovers fascism. Neither the reference to the biblical first man, nor the connection between his “mature” masculinity and the hateful and nihilistic ideology he arrives at should be treated as a coincidence.

To be perfectly clear: what I believe Automata is saying through the character of Adam is that, having built a “perfect man” through some reconstruction of long-forgotten human cultures, the machines have replicated a very specific set of biases and beliefs rooted in historical male dominance, one that values aggression and raw power over nurturing, interdependence and vulnerability.

The machines are a networked intelligence, and Adam’s ideology ends up propagating itself even after his destruction. I contend that the virus the machines use to destroy YoRHa is nothing else than the full realization of this ideology. 2B is killed by it. 9S, on the other hand, embraces it – something he’d already been shown to be fully ready for, through his willingness to carry out orders and disregard the suffering of others. His inability to reach 2B is not just a convenient plot contrivance: it is consistent with how, from the very outset, despite his supposed purpose being observation, he has trained himself not to see or hear what was right in front of him, so well that he doesn’t even need the regulation blindfold anymore. There is nothing positive, redeeming or uplifting about his subsequent rampage, and the game takes this opportunity to switch our perspective to A2, and show us a mirror reflection of 9S. She’d been angry and hateful for most of her existence, but her encounter with the pacifist machine Pascal and witnessing his selflessness halts her descent into pain and aggression, and allows her to make a final stand against both 9S and what he has come to represent.

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The nonsensical final stages of 9S’s vengeance take him to a series of featureless floating boxes, where he is presented with a series of fights against hordes of machines, punctuated by jumping puzzles, and rewarded for his “progress” with shiny boxes of loot, while a pleasant announcer’s voice congratulates him on all the types of enemies he’s killed. This is a game-within-a-game segment that serves multiple purposes; plotwise, the machine network is taunting him to sustain his uncomprehending rage, as he has by now become the fullest realization of its purpose – either as an enemy to test itself against, or as an asset to be assimilated. As metatext, it equates him with a player who is more interested in completion, winning or collecting all the achievements than they are in connecting with the world and the characters, or reading the text with a critical eye. It hardly needs to be said anymore that a virulently hostile attitude towards the very notion of self-reflection, criticism or “bringing politics into it” is a fundamental element of the far-right demagoguery that has taken root in nerd culture in recent years.

Automata, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is categorically not a game that equivocates. Routes A and B show us the harm and destruction wrought by Adam (and Eve on his own grief-fueled revenge quest after his brother’s death) as completely negative, something that must be opposed. The parallel to 9S’s later murderous spree is clear, and there is no reason to claim that just because 9S is a point-of-view character, we should apply a standard to him that is any different. Either both he and Eve are sympathetic, or neither of them are, and in any case, they are only two among many other rival perspectives presented to us by the game. After the breaking point, playing as 9S was a very uncomfortable experience that I wanted to avoid, and I hold that the game does this deliberately. I think we are meant to be taken out of the experience, to stop identifying or sympathizing with him, if we ever did in the first place.

I also don’t agree that we spend an inordinate amount of time as 9S, compared to the other characters. Route A is 2B; route B is 9S, the third route alternates between 9S and A2 in more or less equal measure up until the choice between endings C and D. This gives us very little time to get to know A2, which I was none too happy about; still, 9S’s presence is hardly as dominant as TWGOTY makes it seem.

I hope this clarifies my position. Automata is both a rich and complex game, and one deserving of thorough and critical scrutiny; it is also, often, very uncomfortable. However, I find it impossible to agree with the assertions that “there’s no subversion, no critique, not even catharsis,” or to call it just another male power fantasy.