[This article contains spoilers for the entirety of Nier: Automata.]
When I first entered the area of the Copied City in Nier: Automata I was transfixed by the visual story it told. You walk in to the light touch of piano, you see the city streets unfurl as pure white facades and delicately detailed spires, balconies, windows. It felt like walking through a dream. Being set in the far future this game’s cities up until this point have all been broken, shattered skeletons sitting in heaps in the over world, cracked and overgrown with greenery. But seeing one so beautifully displayed here was startling. Why, I thought, would they recreate the intimacy of city streets? And why did seeing it make me feel so lonely?
I did not think Nier: Automata, a game that has got a lot of ass shots and scantily clad sexy robots, would be one of the prevailing properties of my 2020 experience that would invoke a gratefulness of living in me.
But that’s exactly what it did.
You start out the game with a relatively simple premise: destroy all machines. These alien-created robots have been ravaging earth for far too long, meaning that your creators, the group of remaining humans calling themselves the Council of Humanity, are stuck on the moon after having had to abandon the planet to its invaders. And you, the android servants of that human legacy, under the organization of YoRHa, must root out the problem by destroying the machines— and, if you can find them, the aliens — in order to pave the way for humanity’s return.
Fair enough. Machines vs. androids. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi set up. You play as 2B and 9S for the majority of the game — the former a combat model and the latter support — along with little pods that help relay messages, shoot things, and protect you as you set out to destroy the machines, support the android resistance on earth, and eventually do odd jobs for a peaceable machine village that exists as an outlier in the ravaged overworld. But during your missions you encounter increasingly alarming situations involving the machines and their developing “societies.” Manic cults seeking spiritual enlightenment, forest dwelling-monarchies in support of an eternal child-king (which establishes a ghostly motivator for their purpose that directly reflect ours — ah, I get ahead of myself), to an amusement park filled with jester-esque attired machines shooting balloons skyward. Even the music in this game is largely nonsense, composed of faux derivatives of existing languages. As if the machines themselves were creating music based on human language. And it’s achingly beautiful.
The glimpses you have of the world itself are desolate if lovely— often it’s overrun with idling machines and wildlife (that you can ride!) such as moose and boar. Birds flutter in the trees and you hear the birdsong even in the midst of some of the most troubling moments in the game (or, er, maybe that’s just the birds outside my window). It’s idyllic in how realistic it can feel, in how the world still exists despite what you are experiencing, and it grounded me in a realization for these characters that all of it is laid before a patchwork of place outside of themselves.
We discover pretty early on that the machines we are bent on fighting are actually trying to mimic the humans that once lived on the planet because — drum roll — their alien creators are actually dead. There are no more aliens. We find the aliens’ corpses in a hidden, subterranean lair during a fight with the evolution of the machines in the forms of the very apropos “Adam” and “Eve”, who attempt to convince 2B and 9S to deliver them humans that they can analyze and obsess over because they are simply fascinated by the human capacity to love and hate in equal measure. Here we learn machines apparently evolve — it’s how Adam and Eve were created in the first place — and are learning how to act human or, well, using the blueprints of human existence to find their own.
But this is already something we see presented throughout our journey. We see machines raising children, creating societies, mimicking standards of beauty, reading philosophy books and — in a weird sequence that precedes the creation of machine lifeform Adam— trying to fuck. It’s all very strange and uncomfortable at first, because these are funky little robots with round eyes and jerky movements that look as far from human as possible. And the androids, which look exactly like us, are staring at these crude imitations of life and murdering them with little remorse in order to salvage the planet so the humans can return.
Sure, mostly it’s for self-preservation, as they are prone to attack us, but later in the game after completing most of it I circled back to the amusement park that at one point housed machines trying desperately to create an illusion of human enjoyment only to find that they had all been “zombified” and were lurching around with their masks of smiling jester faces torn off, doing nothing but uttering nonsense and aimlessly wandering. And when you attacked them they did nothing in return. They just took the damage and with each hit puked up machine oil, making the attack I’d initiated resolutely pointless and more horrid. So I left the park to its own horrible, broken, endless machinations to continue the story elsewhere.
And it left me wondering if that lack of action had granted the machines inside of it mercy or damnation.
It was one of the truer personal glimpses of understanding what story, exactly, the game is trying to tell. It isn’t simply in the narrative itself. It’s in the context of the world and its music, the constantly shifting geography based on the occurrences in game, the knowledge that familiarity breeds a palpable fear whenever you realize the things and places you had begun to form attachments to are under threat, or whenever you realize the places you’d imagined as always existing in a certain form are suddenly and irrevocably changed.
The machines we meet that do seem to have a peaceful existence are lead by a leader named Pascal, who has a kind voice and is very much an ally to us throughout the bulk of the game. We encounter this village and 9S initially acts concerned by the white-flag waving machines but eventually softens to their existence. Much like we, the player, do too. We help them in various side quests that further strengthen a new kind of purpose. We help a robot find her lost sister, we help deliver love letters, we grab supplies from the android resistance camp — which has a good relationship with the machine village — to give to them. We find supplies to build the “children” of the village a slide. In a way, it seems like we’re taking care of them as friends and all these odd, robotic but very human actions endear them to us. They’re peaceful. Maybe they’re even conscious, as Adam suggested, due to constantly mimicking particular human habits — childhood (a perpetual childhood, in a way, which is also a tad disconcerting), sibling relationships, teachers, shopkeepers, builders, entrepreneurs, philosophers — or, at the very least, attempting to become so.
There is a particular sequence in the first half that involves us, as 2B, infiltrating a suicidal cultist machine organization that has grown in the abandoned factory — one of our first vistas — and effectively destroying them. Because of course in their mimicry of humanity they come across our extremism and tendencies towards tribalism with religion, often, as the mask upon that particular phantom. They attempt to kill us and so we kill them, but not before and after witnessing some of their shaking, frightened followers all but screaming that dying won’t make them Gods.
Nier: Automata constantly asks a question that’s central to every single combat-oriented game — will you fight this enemy? In a room full of scared followers and fanatics cannibalizing them, you have the option to kill all of them. You almost always have the option to attack a machine that’s doing nothing. And even knowing this was a game, I couldn’t bring myself to do that more than a few times, even while playing as A2, an android who detests machines. It felt too cruel. It felt inhuman. Even though I know I’m supposed to think these machines are merely enacting the puppetry of human emotions.
Whether that fear is real or a play on the dynamics that form in these sorts of groups — between those who are too afraid to leave and those for whom their fanaticism fuels their stay — is really a matter of your own interpretation by the time you reach the quest. But kill these cultists we do, and we even find out in the process that the singular religious leader they worship is long dead in a sequence that feels wholly chilling in its revelatory truth. And yet having a dead leader the whole time doesn’t dissuade these followers. They seem to believe firmly that they will join that God or ascend in some way to become Gods, and thus suicide themselves into the factory’s molten pools of super heated metal in hopes of achieving that goal. Or, at least, pretending to.
When I first finished this mission I thought it sad, in a way, that the machines were drawn so inescapably towards humanity. When you begin the second route, playing, this time, as 9S, you begin to see the backstories of these places, of these facades of societies, and you begin to understand and pity these machines their desperation to become human. We you return to the Bunker, our orbital base, we report these findings to our command and it feels like Nier: Automata is trying to tell us something about gaining autonomy and understanding empathy for things that are not like us. We begin to view the machines not as an all but as individualized things, and I played the rest of the game remembering that transition. But that sense of, for lack of a better word, superiority to these beings? That we have a purpose while they have nothing? That’s something that I thought through the first half of the game as quintessential to its narrative. Oh, look at these little robots, mimicking human life. At least we, the androids as proxy for the players, are the products of humans. Beloved by them, made in their image, sent on a mission. Imbued with the life that the humans saw fit to give us. In a sense, we were living.
When you make it towards the end of your route as 9S you discover something shocking about the origins or YoRHa the upends the entire direction of the game: the organization pre-dates the established Council of Humanity on the moon. This leads us to the discovery that the fate that befell our machine enemies is actually shared: we, too, have lost our creators. There are no humans on the moon. There’s just a dummy server acting as if there are, and the supplies that get sent there are largely empty. It’s a show. A grand theatrical event in order to give meaning to lives of androids because humans have been dead for thousands of years. They were extinct before the aliens even arrived. And so this convoluted war that we’re a part of — that we’ve been programmed to be a part of — is suddenly thrown into a hideous new light. We were created to fight because there was nothing else for us to do. And 9S, the android we actually spend the majority of the game playing as, is the model most consistently killed for coming into contact with the truth because they’re too high-functioning to only follow directions. They question orders, form their own conclusions, and are inclined to curiosity and developing personalities. And 2B’s true purpose is revealed to be the executor of these models, ensuring YoRHa’s lies are perpetuated until the machine war is at an end and YoRHa itself can also be eliminated.
It was like being suddenly too vulnerable. The rug pulled out and our truths gutted. Our purposes lost. That we, as the androids, were so certain we had better meaning to their lives than the machines feels farcical. To discover it all an illusion, an elaborate, internal performance in which we are destined to die due to our programming: it felt desperately lonely. And then I realized the machines I had pitied as poor mimics of humanity were essentially doing exactly what we were. That all those YoRHa units we chased down as deserters were essentially leaving to live lives that had nothing to do with war. That we were all trying, trying so desperately to become something more. To become like humans.
And it was then I began to see the unraveling of the narrative like a tightly wrapped box inside of another. This game wasn’t making me question the autonomy of machines and whether drawing meaning from life was essential: it was making me realize that humans,were what these lifeforms were trying to mimic. That the humans written in the histories and legends and music that they had analyzed and imitated and coveted — they were the ghosts of this world.
The complicated, hard, wonderful lives of humans were what they wanted. To be able to choose. To be able to live.
Humans had had it all.
Nier: Automata’s final few hours see 9S going bastshit insane after witnessing the death of 2B, learning the truth of YoRHa and the fact that android black boxes are composed of machine parts, and coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his own terminations and revivals. His descent into madness is offset only by our frequent transitions to A2’s route — our third protagonist — who maintains a level-headed approach and is largely imbued with 2B’s will after killing her when she is taken over by the virus. At first alarmed by the new acquisition of a pod, which offers increasingly unsolicited advice and observations, A2’s journey runs parallel to 9S’s directly in the end down to the bosses they fight together. But its the final showdown during which they turn their swords on each other. And we can choose to fight as either A2 or 9S against the other, with either route revealing different endings. And Nier: Automata has a lot of endings.
But the true one — the one that most fans consider the best one, at least — is ending E: The [E]nd of YoRha. In this you control A2 in the final battle and hack into 9S in order to save him only to realize it’s all going to be terminated anyway. That all of their data is going to be deleted, that all of it meant nothing. And the pods who accompany us, who we find out have formed attachments to the androids, ask us — the players — a question: do you accept this ending? Or will you resist it?
We then end the game with a credits sequence like no other. It’s a bullet hell sequence. At first, I wasn’t sure would have any effect if I failed to beat it. And I did fail. Many times. But the thing about this credits sequence is that when you die you start seeing words cross the screen that say (mostly) encouraging things. Keep it up! We’re with you! This game sucks, but you’ve got this! I had been spoiled slightly and knew precisely what this was, but seeing it play out on screen made me stand up and take note. You start the credits bullet hell as a single little arrow just like in one of 9S’s hacking mini games. And it devolves into a clusterfuck of dodging and shooting with me largely failing at both.
But what happens the more you fail is that you are asked numerous questions about giving up, the nature of existence, and whether or not you see this as just a game. I kept going. And other players I’d never meet helped get me there. Eventually you’re joined by them and you play as a little squadron shooting your way through the credits, steamrolling it in a way you couldn’t before. Even the music crescendos to many voices joining together. And each hit you take tells you that a player’s data has been deleted. That means that somewhere out there in the world someone had given up their 30–50 hours of hard work in order to ensure that I might be able to get through this ending and see the other side. And I cannot tell you how much harder I tried to keep them all alive as a symbolic resolution of determination even knowing the data was gone anyway. I just couldn’t fathom seeing another name appear on that side bar as being deleted.
Now I’ve witnessed many media properties that celebrate humanity and the lives that we live in this messy, convoluted world. But I have never had the chance to look back on that through the eyes of beings that want desperately to have the things that I so often take for granted. Sure, we reflect on the ability of AI’s to become human but it isn’t often done with such fondness for the corruption, the killing, the love, the gentleness that bundles humanity in its great, breathing compendium. It’s very often in service of one side of us or the other. Either they consider us corrupt and seek to kill us, or find us worth saving. It’s not often presented to us that we might one day not be here and that others might look at our lives as wonderful, glorious things that bleed passion, aggression, love, and hate. That we are the very stories that Gods are born from. And in that realization I was suddenly so grateful for that gift of living.
At the very end of the game we’re asked if we want to give up all of our achievements, all of our equipment, our money, our progress, our data — in order to see another random player through to this end. You select a series of words to send out into space and you never even get to know if it helped someone, if it mattered. What if you delete your file for someone unworthy, someone you hated, someone you’ll never meet? Are you doing this for the sake of being “good” like that, to brag about it? What if you did it pointlessly because it might never reach anyone at all? Isn’t this just a game? Does your choice here really matter? All of these questions are asked of you and you get to decide what to do.
When you get to the end of the bullet hell sequence of credits you’re asked if we should bring them back — 9S, 2B, and A2 — using their stored data, and allow them to live lives we aren’t sure will be good or bad or everything in between. If you want to see a different ending, one that you, the player will never be privy to knowing, will not have a say in. Do you still choose to let them live?
I almost laughed at that question, even though I was crying, because, really — what other answer could I possibly give?