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Philosophy and Video Games: Existentialism in NieR: Automata

17 Mins read

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WARNING: Major spoilers ahead! Please refrain from reading this text if you still haven’t played the game, or don’t want your gaming experience to be spoiled.

It’s been almost five years since NieR: Automata has been released, and the game still seems to be widely regarded as one of the best video games ever made. Despite numerous walkthroughs and playing guides being available online, the game’s story still remains quite puzzling for newcomers to the series, which is why in this article we’ll examine the game’s plot and its overarching themes.

Read also: Death Stranding As A Postmodern Myth: Story and Symbolism Explained

But before we delve deeper into the analysis, let’s first provide some context. NieR: Automata itself is a spin-off and sequel of the Drakengard series, which was created by the well-known Japanese video game director, Yoko Taro. Although both him and his series aren’t widely known in the West, Taro enjoys the same level of public acclaim as some other better-known directors like Hideo Kojima (who created Metal Gear series).

Many critics have noted Taro’s unconventional game design and writing style, as well as his passion for exploring darker aspects of human nature. Just like games from the Drakengard series, NieR: Automata continues this tradition, and it’s no surprise that this Taro’s masterpiece brings some new artistic innovations to the table in order to deliver high art. The success of Nier: Automata shows that Taro is a master of his craft, but in order to understand how its work pushes the known boundaries of video games, let’s first start with analysing Nier: Automata’s story.

The murky plot

NieR: Automata takes place thousands of years after the original NieR and Drakengard games. To be more precise, the game takes place in 11,945 AD, which itself is a subtle allusion to the last year of the Second World War. In its first act, the game follows the story of two androids, 2B and 9S (told through the perspective of 2B), as they battle hostile machine lifeforms in a proxy war between humans and alien invaders.

Under the command of YoRHa (android armed forces), 2B and 9S are sent to investigate weird enemy behavior. With the help of a benevolent machine called Pascal, they find out that machines are actively exploring human culture, and that entities known as Adam and Eve are planning to attack remaining humans on the Moon in order to gain more knowledge about humanity. While being on Earth, 2B and 9S also encounter rogue android A2, who seems to despise YoRHa. Later on, 2B kills Adam who kidnaps 9S, after which Eve goes mad and starts taking control of machines in order to bring terror. 2B and 9S kill Eve, but 9S gets infected with Eve’s logic virus, which forces 2B to kill him. Fortunately, 9S’ consciousness survives, as he had copied it in the local machine network.

After the credits roll out, NieR: Automata begins its second act. This time the player relives all the events from act one, but through eyes of 9S. Although at first everything seems to be identical, at the end of act two the player finds out that 9S discovered a glitch in YoRHa’s servers while recuperating from battle with Adam. While investigating the glitch, 9S finds out that humans have long been extinct, and that YoRHa program was developed to perpetuate the myth of their survival in order to give androids a “god” to fight for. After that, players relive the battle between game’s protagonists and Eve once again, but now with knowledge that both aliens and humans have been dead for thousands of years, and that androids and machines have been waging meaningless war.

A2 facing machine armada

The third act of NieR: Automata starts with YoRHa launching a full-scale invasion from their space station orbiting around the Earth in order to finally annihilate remaining machines. Unfortunately, Eve’s logic virus exploits the glitch in YoRHa’s network and corrupts all YoRHa members, except for 2B and 9S. Later on, 2B also gets infected by virus, and decides to upload her memories into her sword. A2 discovers 2B, takes her sword, and mercifully kills her to end her suffering. 9S witnesses this act, and swears to revenge 2B, thinking that A2 murdered her. At the same time a huge tower emerges from earth, and temporarily ends the conflict between machines and androids. A2, which turns out to be YoRHa’s test subject, starts to sympathize with machines, but soon witnesses Pascal’s village being destroyed, and its “children” committing mass suicide. She is then forced to permanently erase Pascal’s memories, who is now suffering from a severe form of PTSD. At the same time, 9S works his way to enter the mysterious tower and his psyche starts to progressively deteriorate.

After entering the tower, both 9S and A2 find out that YoRHa was designed to endlessly continue an eternal cycle of war between machines and androids, with each generation of lifeforms being more advanced than the previous. It is also revealed that 2B’s real designation was 2E (“executioner”), meaning that her task was to repeatedly kill 9S after he would find out humanity’s true fate in each cycle. After fighting numerous machines, A2 and 9S confront each other. If the player chooses A2, 9S gets beaten, and the tower gets destroyed. If the player chooses 9S, both characters get killed, and a rocket is launched from the tower with a goal to spread machine lifeforms on a new world. Once the player sees both endings, pods 042 and 153 will defy their orders to delete data, and prompt the player to destroy credits in a shoot ‘em up section. This causes the world and all of its characters being revived and restored to their initial state, with the hope that the next cycle will bring a better future.

A quest for finding meaning of life and death

Nier: Automata’s main preoccupation is the search for meaning of life. We could even say that this is “the main hero” of itsstory, which is actually personified through characters of 2B, 9S, and A2. Through their personal struggles and temptations, the game is trying to explain phenomena such as death, love, loneliness, misery, pain, and in the end, the life itself.

Early on in the game, players are introduced to a machine called Jean-Paul (named after the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre) who first reveals Automata’s leitmotif, stating that “existence precedes essence”. This statement briefly summarizes Automata’s main issue which it tries to resolve. By saying that existence precedes essence, Sartre meant that meaning is arbitrarily attributed to objects, events and phenomena that are in existence, and that existence actually predates meaning. In other words, the universe itself is meaningless, and meaning is something that sentient beings attribute to things around them in order to make life more structured and meaningful. However, if one accepts the fact that meaning itself is constructed, and that life has no meaning a priori, then one may fall into a nihilistic despair, and ultimately terminate its existence. NieR: Automata tries to fight this assumption, and provide meaning to life, even in a virtual microcosm such as a video game.

Death plays a crucial role in NieR: Automata’s plot. It is essentially game’s main enemy. Not only it is the greatest threat to life, but it is also the greatest threat to any kind of meaning, since with death meaning ceases to exist. In Automata, death can be seen almost everywhere. From main characters dying over and over again, machines being slaughtered and committing suicide, to game’s melancholic soundtrack – players are constantly reminded of life’s fragility and inevitability of death. Even the landscape plays a vital role in communicating feelings of doom and oblivion – there are deserts, desolate city ruins, and dark underground caves – all of which are empty spaces symbolizing the absence of life.

In numerous motifs and scenes, NieR: Automata thoroughly explores the impact of death on the meaning of life. Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead” seems to be echoing throughout the game’s world, in which machines killed their alien creators, and androids are fighting an endless war in the name of their extinct human gods.Compared to androids, who are living a lie that gives them reason to continue the fight, machines are faced with an existential despair, and are forced to find meaning of their existence in acquiring vast amounts of human knowledge in order to become gods. Adam and Eve, the game’s main antagonists, are the crown result of this machines’ endeavour. By possessing consciousness which transcends boundaries of ordinary artificial intelligence, both Adam and Eve are god-like figures. However, even gods can fall into an existential despair, which is why Adam later provokes 2B to kill him in order to become the first machine to die and make his existence meaningful. As such, Automata’s Adam is a parody of its Biblical counterpart, however, his final words are far from being a parody, as they’re filled with life’s wisdom.

“We machines exist in a connected network. We are immortal. Invincible. And yet, within all those infinite bits of data, there exist not even the merest flicker of being. Of life. Death — even the concept of death — has no meaning to us.

Thus, I decided… that I shall risk my life in battle. I have severed my connection to the network. Now… let us embrace death!”

Adam

Following his death, machines embrace death as their ultimate goal to achieve “humanity”. This is why in the end of the first act players witness hordes of berserk machines committing mass suicide and shouting “We must die to become as gods!”. However, by exterminating their own kind, machines condemn themselves to doom. Compared to humans, who engage in religious practice to find meaning in life, machines embrace their anti-religion to accept death, and thus bring the paradox to life.

Unlike machines, who fall into the pit of nihilism, androids in Automata are more similar to Albert Camus’ absurdist heroes. Death doesn’t really affect them much, as long as their consciousness is uploaded to YoRHa’s servers before their physical bodies fall apart. However, just like Sisyphus, whose fate Camus thoroughly examines in his work The Myth of Sisyphus, both 2B and 9S accept their absurd fate of repeating the same cycle of life and death. The very fact that this is their existence gives them the reason to keep living on, even in dire situations when they find out project YoRHa’s true purpose. However, reliving the same traumatic events over and over again, such as 2B killing 9S, or A2 witnessing mass suicide of Pascal’s machine children, causes protagonists of Automata to develop irreversible psychological issues which forces them to finally break the cycle, in order to bring an end to YoRHa.

The only group of characters in NieR: Automata who are able to find meaning in peaceful existence are machine villagers led by the charismatic machine lifeform called Pascal. Knowledge, tolerance and solidarity seem to be their core tenets, and compassionate dialogue with others proves to be their main tool of achieving goals and promoting peace. At times, Pascal almost seems to be resembling cybernetic Mahatma Ghandi, while his fellow villagers look like embodiments of ideal humans. Unfortunately, in the third act of the game Pascal’s village gets destroyed, and its members massacred, which in the end demonstrates that without violence it’s impossible to survive in the real world.

Of course, besides explaining what are life and death, NieR: Automata also tackles other grim themes such as alienation. Almost all characters in the game suffer from loneliness, and have trouble maintaining healthy relationships, which in the end forces them to face death alone. 9S clearly wants to establish an intimate relationship with 2B, however, she is extremely emotionally repressed and remains distant to him. Many side characters also seem to suffer from loneliness, and each of them has its own backstory which further explains their struggle to finding meaning in life. Some of them want to avenge their fallen comrades, while some of them try to restore their memories which are tied to traumatic events from their past. What all have in common is that every one of them is alienated from society, and have trouble finding reason to keep living on despite fulfilling their personal agendas.

Intertextual dialogue

With meaning being the centrepiece of NieR: Automata’s story, it’s no surprise that the game is overflown with references to existential philosophy and literature. 2B’s name quite literally means “to be”, which itself is a reference to the opening phrase of soliloquy given by Prince Hamlet in the famous Shakespeare’s play. On the other hand, we have 9S whose name may be derived from German “nein ist” (is not/not to be), while A2 likely represents French “es tu”, meaning “you are”. References to other Shakespeare’s works are also pretty evident in a humorous play “Romeos and Juliets” performed by machines, which in a bizarre and parodical way thematizes death instead of love.

Simone [Beauvoir] is one of Automata’s most iconic bosses

In his exceptional essay First as Farce, Then as Tragedy: Chronicling Transactional Storytelling from Drakengard to NieR: Automata, blogger and video game critic, Hunter Galbraith, states that most of the bosses and characters in NieR: Automata borrow their names from famous philosophers. For example, goliath-class machines Marx and Engels parodically reside in a factory that their real-life counterparts would despise, and are beaten once 2B seizes their means of production. There is also Simone [Beauvoir] who is obsessed with beauty and femininity, as well as Jean-Paul [Sartre] who seems to be completely alienated from [Blaise] Pascal’s machine village society. However, discrepancies and similarities between real-life personalities don’t stop here. We also have Kierkegaard who is a leader of bizarre death cult, and finally “becomes one with a god” once he tragically passes away. There is also Immanuel [Kant] who inhabits the body of an infant machine, acting both as the Christ child, as well as Kant – the philosopher himself. Other examples include Auguste Comte, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hegel who are spread throughout the game’s narrative.

There is also an obvious reference to two Chinese philosophers, Confucius and Lao-Tze, in a form of the game’s penultimate boss Ko-Shi/Ro-Shi. Being a fusion of two separate entities, whose names are derived from the two philosophers, this boss represents the symbols of yin and yang. The black and white scheme can also be seen in protagonists’ clothes and weapons, which strongly indicates contradictories within their identities.

Besides engaging into a deep intertextual dialogue with different philosophical and literary works, NieR: Automata also borrows and distorts themes, motifs, and mechanics from other video games. Apart from Drakengrad series, from which Automata borrows large amounts of lore, the game also seems to be abundant with reference to Final Fantasy, Dark Souls, Metal Gear, Persona and even Super Mario. For example, Automata borrows quite a lot of game mechanics from Dark Souls, including boss design, semi-linear world design, and story focused around death. The game also seems to be mocking Final Fantasy’s preoccupation with killing the god, and it also makes numerous tiny references to Metal Gear series, in form of protagonists’ eye-patches and pod cardboard skins. In its 2D scenes, the game clearly tries to pay homage to famous platformer games such as Super Mario, and shoot’em up arcade game like Space Invaders.

NieR: Automata also seems to be heavily inspired by Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, which allows it to intertwine existential philosophy with psychoanalytic imagery in order to create meaning that is more than the sum of its elements. We’ll discuss this more deeply in next section.

Psychoanaltic imagery and Anno’s Evangelion

There is no doubt that Yoko Taro’s games appear to be heavily inspired by one of the greatest animes ever made – Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just by looking at the appearance of Automata’s protagonists, it is easy to conclude that 2B heavily resembles Rei Ayanami, while 9S is just an android version of Shinji Ikari. There are also many other similarities between NieR: Automata and Evangelion. For example, the YoRHa’s Commander can be seen as a female version of Gendo Ikari, while existence of YoRHa and its logo are uncannily similar to NERV and its moto “God’s in his heaven. All is right with the world”.

NieR: Automata’s bosses are also quite similar to Evangelion’s angels, since every one of them represents a serious challenge to protagonists, and defeating them propels the story further. Main antagonists, Adam and Eve, also seem to be strongly influenced by Anno’s first two angels – Adam and Lilith. Like their Biblical counterparts, they are strongly connected to humanity, however, much like Evangelion’s mystical gods, they actually want to destroy humans.

In certain aspects, Automata’s story looks like a carbon copy of Evangelion’s plot. The YoRHa, just like the NERV, wants to transform androids and machines into immortal gods by constantly repeating the same cycle of life and death to speed up evolution of their consciousnesses. The same can be seen in Evangelion, where each “impact” causes total annihilation of the world, but in turn changes Shinji’s personality. While Evangelion uses its surreal imagery to portrait internal psychological struggles of a real-life boy Shinji who suffers from depression, NieR: Automata uses its incredible storytelling and doomed world to break the fourth wall. We’ll explain this in depth in the next section, but for now let’s stick to psychoanalytical motifs.

According to Galbraith, sexuality and violence are closely intertwined in NieR: Automata. These two phenomena represent the intersection of game’s existential themes, as well as Evangelion’s symbolism. Early in the game, 2B and 9S have a chance to observe Adam’s birth which is presented to players in a form of an immense robot orgy. However, immediately after he is born, Adam gets attacked by game’s heroes, which later leads him to conclusion that sex and violence are two sides of the same coin. 2B and 9S also seem to share this same view of sex, as their friend Jackass later reveals an interesting fact about their synthetic brain chemistry:

“See this reaction?  It proves that android brains contain an algorithm which allows them to derive pleasure from battle! Without that, we’d probably have stopped fighting a long time ago. What a brutally efficient piece of evolution!”

Jackass

As Galbraith puts it, “Jackass’s discovery not only explains the borderline Pavlovian association of sex with violence instilled in all androids, but also contextualizes a key part of the gameplay experience: the combat system, as experienced by the player”. Just like Evangelion’s perversely awe-inspiring scenes in which viewers see Asuka or Rei dressed in tight suits fighting aliens in huge mechs, so does NieR: Automata take the advantage of bombastic and ferocious boss battles to induce orgasmic feelings in its players. However, this bizarre mix of sexuality and violence leads to a disturbing conclusion that violence can cause sexual joy, and as such can become the meaning of life, and save an individual from existential despair.   

Compared to Drakengard, which compares violence to insanity, NieR: Automata tries to show that violence is inevitable and necessary, especially in a world of a video game. However, even in Automata violence finally results with madness. 9S is a prime example of that, as he wants to avenge 2B by trying to kill A2 and all machines. Killing everything in his path, 9S slowly descends into insanity. His deeply supressed emotions are finally revealed to player in his confrontation with Adam, who says this:

 “You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”

Adam

There is no doubt that behind asterisks lies the F word, although, according to Galbraith, these four letters could also be hiding the word “kill”. Either way, here we can see dense overlapping of pleasure and pain, whose climax is best seen in a scene when 9S kills one of 2B’s clones. Just like 2B, who straddled his prone body at the end of act one, and thrusted her hips while wrapping her hands around his neck, so does 9S straddles her lifeless body, but repeatedly thrusts his sword in order to finally kill here. Both of these scenes are diametrically opposite, yet analogous, since both of them signify the sexual intercourse, as well as grief related to killing a loved one. Both scenes also appear to function as references to Evangelion, as they strongly remind of Shinji strangling Asuka on the white beach.

Speaking of psychoanalytical motifs in NieR: Automata, we should also discuss the relationship of game’s environments to Freudian parts of psychic apparatus. There is a very good reason why YoRHa’s HQ is situated in a space station orbiting the Earth, while alien corpses, alongside Adam and Eve, are found deeply underground. Just like Evangelion’s NERV, which acts as a personification of Shinji’s superego, so does YoRHA occupy the “top” spot in world of Automata, as it acts as the game’s director and rule-maker. At the ground level, or the level of ego, we have the resistance camp members, Pascal’s machine villagers, and game’s protagonists, all of which are the most active actors of Automata. All of them possess free will, which other YoRHa members seem to be missing, and are willing to solve problems peacefully, compared to machines who are violent and aggressive.

Lastly, we have Adam and Eve, game’s antagonists, who players usually encounter underground, or below ground level. They symbolize the unconscious, repressed, and irrational part of Automata, which seems to be acting as protagonists’ hidden desires. It is interesting that players also encounter Emil, a character from the original NieR game, deep underground. Being a homosexual character, Emil is also an agent of Automata’s unconscious, but compared to Adam and Eve, he is benevolent, and doesn’t show aggressive tendencies towards protagonists unless being provoked.

Breaking the fourth wall

NieR: Automata features one of the most iconic endings in the history of video games. Besides concluding the game’s story in a very artistic and authentic way, “The [E]nd of YoRHa” also reveals that Automata is, in essence, a metatextual play.

Compared to endings C and D, the ending E concludes Automata’s story with the death of all protagonists. However, once the credits start to roll, players witness an unexpected dialogue between Pod 153 and Pod 042. The Pod 153 announces a grim ending, which like the original NieR game, ends with the destruction of the world and deletion of all save game data. However, the Pod 042 suddenly halts the data wipe, and asks the player whether he or she want the game’s protagonists and world to survive.

According to Galbraith, the Pods of NieR: Automata act as intradiegetic narrators which slowly develop their consciousness throughout the game. As such, their function is analogous to chorus in ancient Greek tragedies, which “dreams” the play and acts as the collective unconscious. However, compared to their antique counterparts, the Pods of Automata go a step further, and by communicating with the player they break the fourth wall, thus transcending the primary diegesis.

United with audience (or the player), the Pods state that they “cannot accept this resolution”, and decide to rebel against the gods (in this case Yoko Taro and Automata’s developers), which results in a shoot’em up section in which the player destroys the credits, as well as the names of game’s director, voice actors, programmers, as well as name of employees of Square Enix and Platinum Games. By averting the grim fate, the Pods rewrite Automata’s source code, in order to save the world – in this case the game itself.

By performing this metatextual twist, NieR: Automata completes the full loop. All of its existential ponderings and psychological complexes turn out to be supplementary parts of the game – a game which was designed to be played by the gamers. This is why at the game’s ending we see YoRHa unravelling its secrets to 2B and A2, explaining to them that their existence is meaningless and that the whole world of Automata was built with the purpose of being rebuilt (replayed) over and over again. The cycle of life and death is actually the cycle of replaying the game, which is interrupted once the player loses their interest in playing it. But in order to prolong the game’s existence, the Pods rebel against their creators in order to restart the world of Automata and keep the player playing the game.

However, the sequence in which players destroy the credits is extremely difficult. Dying almost seems to be inevitable, since fighting the beings who created this world isn’t easy. But after each death, players are asked a question to which they have to answer “Yes” in order to continue the game. Once they fail a certain number of attempts, the player receives an aid in form of friendly ships, representing other players who sacrificed their save game data. This scene, accompanied by a beautiful musical score, delivers an incredibly emotional experience which, according to Galbraith, can’t be replicated in any other art form than a video game.

After saving Automata’s world, the Pods state that they wish this new cycle will bring a better future. After all, now 2B, 9S, and A2 have no reason to continue the fight, and they can now commence their new search for meaning in life. With that ending, the story of NieR: Automata concludes. It’s hard to say if Yoko Taro had also forseen the impact of modding community on Automata’s world, but if we take the game’s metatextual premise, then even the modders can be seen as the integral part of its final ending. By modifying the game’s system files they can bring new content to its world, and save it from the destruction (keep it playable). However, no matter what the case may be, NieR: Automata will continue existing on in a form of memory in the minds of its players.

Conclusion

NieR: Automata is an exemplary form of video game as art. By combining metatextual elements, and engaging in a serious intertextual dialogue to deliver something more than the sum of its meanings, Automata manages to push the boundaries of a video game as an art form.

There is no doubt that Yoko Taro achieved something incredible with this game, and we certainly hope we’ll see more game directors and producers create more engaging and genre-defining video games. Until then, all we can do is replay NieR: Automata over and over again.

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Emma is an avid lover of cats, Japanese anime, deep existential works, and video games. She graduated with a master's degree in anthropology and occasionally writes articles for ViCadia.
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