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Android Dreams: ‘NieR Automata’ and the Human (S)oul in Visual Storytelling and Design



flowers for m(A)chines

NieR Automata is a lot of things. Stripped of artistic value, it is a highly pleasing and utterly polished action game that is a joy to play. Even without the playful genre-mashing that helped define both Automata and its predecessor, the minute-to-minute exploration-combat flow is intrinsically satisfying. There’s enough enemy and weapon variety that the game does not overstay its welcome in the thirty-or-so hours it’ll probably take you to reach the final ending(s).

However, Automata is so much more than the gameplay its packaged in. The cast of androids and machines (yes, those are separate entities) are tools for director Yoko Taro to use in a vast exploration of philosophy. Automata questions what it means to live, die, think, and feel. It questions what to do when all hope and purpose is gone. This game is the interactive equivalent to Blade Runner in many respects.

One could argue that the game’s unique story structure, ambitious and unfolding over multiple playthroughs with multiple endings, is too ambitious to tell a tight, character-driven tale. I would disagree–9S’s character arc is one of the strongest I’ve experienced in gaming. However, what Automata excels at is using its visual storytelling, as a vessel to explore what it means… to be (sorry).

If you haven’t played NieR Automata—you should. As this feature may inspire some to pick up the game, I’m going to avoid certain spoilers; however, this feature will contain some major and minor spoilers for the game’s plot. You’ve been warned.

[Spoilers for Paths A and B]

or not to (B)e

NieR Automata initially follows the journey of two YoRHa androids, 2B and 9S, as they struggle against an invading force of alien machines on behalf of the remaining humans, who reside on the moon. 2B and 9S are almost aggressively stylish, all albino hair and black leather. They’re perfect, designed, and hollow; YoRHa units are rigorously disciplined against expressing emotion or from deviating from their mission.

In spite of this, 9S is happy-go-lucky and inquisitive from the outset, filled with a fascination for the world and his mission, much to 2B’s chagrin. 2B is aloof, if not outright cold, to her companion and other individuals they encounter; over the course of the game, her exterior softens. We see, in the very first section of the game, that she isn’t an emotionless terminator; rather, her emotions are something she constantly struggles to keep in check, especially in regard to her mission. All YoRHa androids seem to share this existential anguish, as if they can’t quite believe in the purpose they’re designed for.

One of the visual ties to the game’s themes are the blindfolds that all YoRHa androids wear. Asides from being a metaphor with the subtlety to a kick in the privates, the blindfolds are technically combat visors that relay data back to the Bunker. But what they really represent is the YoRHa android’s inability to know the full truth of their world, thanks to deliberate obfuscation from a select few top-ranking officials, discussed later in this feature.

Whenever a moment of revelation occurs in the narrative, usually, the blindfolds are gone. Yes, it’s like a  punch in the face, but it’s also extremely effective storytelling for those who might not otherwise pick up on it.

meaningless (C)ode

Both the androids and machines in NieR Automata are desperate to find and cling to meaning in their existence. For YoRHa, it is to obey the will of the humans on the moon and reclaim the Earth. For the machines, however, it is to evolve and find their own purpose, taking inspiration from the echoes of humanity long-fled from the planet. Androids are built to follow a purpose designed by far-flung fathers; machines seek to make themselves whole through ancient human culture. Both lack fulfillment and comfort in their existential roles.

Different factions of machine break away from the vast, interlinked machine network that originally united the fighting robots in common purpose. These include the friendly Pascal and his small village of philosophizing machines, a nearby robot kingdom ruled from an ancient castle, a clan of fun-loving robots living in a theme park and a sect of hyper-religious machines based in an appropriated weapons factory. While they have disparate functions and personalities, they are united in their desires to emulate an aspect of humanity.

However, machines lack a complete intellectual and emotional understanding in what made human society and culture thrive. That is why each faction emulates only one or two aspects of human life: Pascal’s village a rural, social lifestyle; the robot kingdom a feudalistic monarchy; the devout machines, inter-religious conflict and extremism.

Even the self-aware leaders of the machine network, Adam and Eve, fail to understand humanity. Each of them represent one side of a whole being: Adam is the super-ego, the critical thinker of the pair, while Eve is the id, driven by emotion and instinct. Adam does not truly understand what it means to be alive and feeling. You can see this in his Copied City, a meticulous white metropolis devoid of color and soul.

Eve, on the other hand, is joy, fury and grief all in one. After the death of his brother, he is visually transformed by his negative emotions, wishing to destroy everything and everyone. His brother was his only guide through the world; now he is alone and aimless. His purpose is dashed. When 2B kills him, too, it is almost out of mercy.

Machines have decided on their own singular purposes, but that purpose is never enough for them to be complete. They lack the capacity to truly develop away from old human ideas and archetypes. In that sense, they are as strongly tied to humans as the androids themselves.

[Spoilers for Path C]

chil(D)hood’s end

By and during the third act of NieR Automata, leading into Endings C, D, and E, vital narrative information has come to light that contextualizes much of the preceding storyline. Humans don’t live on the moon at all; they’re all wiped out. There is no great purpose to the war on machine lifeforms. The lie exists to give meaning to the remaining androids.

9S is the one to find out this truth. It is not the first time; he has figured out elements of the truth about humanity in the past. Every time he approaches the truth, 2B kills him, resetting his consciousness data to a previous version—her real designation is 2E, an executioner model designed specifically to kill other androids.

9S begins to lose his mind. This is due to a late-game personal trauma, compounded with these revelations. He no longer has any purpose; YoRHa ceases to mean anything, and any personal dreams turn to ash as events unfold. By the end of his journey, 9S discovers a personal truth: nothing matters.

the (E)nd of yorha

I could write tens of thousands of words dissecting every specific theme and character arc in this game. I chose to focus on the surface dichotomy between androids and machines, and 9S’s personal arc. However, you can see how Yoko Taro manipulates the visual designs and character animations to portray elements of philosophy and dramatic theming.

I think there’s huge potential for character arc analyses of the main cast, and how Automata relates to the philosophical writings it acknowledges.

If you’ve come this far despite not playing NieR Automata, I urge you to check it out for yourself—then send me a message so I can finally rant with someone who gets it. Here are some additional images I took in preparation for this article:

(All images featured in the body of this article were taken by the author.)

George slumbers darkly in the wastelands of rural Wiltshire, England. He can often be found writing, gaming or catching up on classic television. He aims to be an author by profession, although if that doesn't pan out you might be able to find him on Mars. You can argue with him on Twitter: @georgecheesee