The Philosophy of NieR:Automata – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of NieR:Automata!
Written by: Rebekah Sinclair
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of NieR:Automata – Wisecrack Edition
Hey wisecrack, Jared here and today we’re talking about a game that was seemingly made for us. Perhaps the most overtly philosophical game ever- “It seems this Nietzsche was quite the profound thinker,” Nier Automata. Nier Automata is game about 3 androids the standoffish 2b, as in or not 2B, the moody 9S, and the jaded A2. Along the way they fight adorable but lethal machines, and eventually each other, on a futuristic earth where the line between right and wrong has taken a vacation and is never coming back. The world of NieR: Automata is crawling with machines named after philosophers whom you must befriend or behead- mostly the latter. But these wisdom loving death bots aren’t always just throwaway characters, they often point toward the complex philosophy at the heart of the game. At its core, NieR automata challenges players to consider how we make meaning and truth, who we are as gamers, and why video games matter.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of NieR Automata, and watch out, major spoilers ahead. The story takes place on earth more than nine-thousand years in the future and follows two groups of automata. There’s androids designed to hold human consciousness but who eventually developed independent thought, and machines: who were created by the aliens that invaded earth. Androids and machines fight a genocidal proxy war on behalf of their masters. Though the player mostly controls android characters, choosing sides is not that easy because by the game’s halfway point, we learn both humans and aliens have been dead for millennia. “Humans were already extinct when the aliens attacked.”
Absent their creators, Androids and machines are forced to make meaning for themselves, and, if possible, stop seeing each other as enemies. The fact that both humans and aliens are dead is not only a central plot twist: it encapsulates the game’s existential philosophy. In fact, 2B’s opening line: “I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle, and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him,” might as well have been pulled right from Friedrich “Porn-stache” Nietzsche, who wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Now, I know, the phrase “God is Dead” gets thrown around a lot by internet edgelords, but what did Nietzche actually mean? Before Nietzsche, many thinkers constructed reality in a similar way: God, Truth, and Reason were all infallible, unchanging, and universal concepts, which stood above or outside of humankind, like supernatural forces animating the world and moving it toward progress.
In this view, humans don’t make and control meaning themselves, it’s some unreachable deity or universal principle which gives human action meaning. When Nietzche declared god dead, he criticized any system that locates the source of meaning outside human lives, and popularized the idea of nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that there is no great metaphysical force propelling us through the world and making our lives special. Existence can be shitty, and there’s no grander meaning to comfort us, no puppet master to save us. Now, I know we can find Nietzsche in a lot of pop culture, but no piece of media embodies it quite like NieR Automata. Androids and machines THINK their God-like masters are literally above them, on the moon and in space, BUT those Gods are actually dead—like, rotting for millennia, dead. As we learn from Adam and Eve, machines killed their alien overlords because they were static and unchanging — much like the unchanging deities and morals Nietzsche criticized. “Oh, there’s no need to fret about them. They were simple, infantile, like plants I guess you’d say.”
Humans died after the mainframe holding their consciousnesses collapses—guess nobody made backups. If ‘the death of god’ is really about ‘the death of a grand meaning,’ then our dead aliens and humans are only one element of the game’s greater message about meaning. You kill some of philosophy’s biggest heroes, some characters lose sight of a purpose in life, and the game repeatedly builds meaning around certain characters or plots and then kills them off, usually by the player’s own hand. Each time this happens, the player has to reevaluate where their new meaning, mission, and direction is going to come from. Even YorHa, the android organization, eventually dies. But YorHa’s less like a god and more like a seedy government.
They know humanity’s dead but hide it from the other androids. Pretty fucked up, right? YorHa perfectly exemplifies the Nietzschian point that, even once god’s six feet under, society doesn’t just reboot. Political, social, and psychological norms are left over from prior belief systems, and we continue imposing these meanings on one another and ourselves. 2B and 9S, spend much of the A and B playthroughs reassuring one another that machines don’t have emotions or personhood, “They don’t have any feelings. They’re just imitating human speech,” even when all evidence points to the contrary.
No need for human masters to promote this idea, they do it to each other. For Nietzsche, the best response to a meaningless universe and a dead God is to create meaning for ourselves, or what he referred to as self-making. In Nier: Automata, we encounter different machines named after philosophers engaged in this kind of self-making –each with their own responses to the meaning or meaninglessness of life. There are quite a few existentialist machines to be found: Jean- Paul, as in Sartre, Simone as in De Beauvoir, Pascal as in Pascal, and Kierkegaard as in Kierkegaard. Each philosopher machine offers us a glimpse into one way of pursuing meaning. Take Jean Paul, the avatar of Jean-Paul Sartre.
In the game, JP is basically a dark parody of his real life self. Just like Sartre loathed institutional recognition, Jean Paul is kind of an asshole who ignores his devoted followers except for the pretty ones and eventually fucks off to the wilderness to find meaning. Nobody misses him. But before leaving, Jean-Paul highlights the game’s themes when he throws around one or two famous Sartre-isms, like the existentialist slogan, “existence precedes essence.” Essentially- rather than some innate nature determining who we are before we’re born, each individual first exists in the world and then develops meaning and purpose. It’s all about radical freedom to become who we are through our actions and choices.
In the game, we see this everywhere, as machines transcend their intended purpose and find new meaning. Even the pods prove that their nature comes from existence, not a predetermined essence, as they develop self consciousness. In fact, most of the characters in the game are, as Sartre once suggested, condemned to be free. That’s right: condemned. Because without a higher power or innate nature controlling our actions, we bear ultimate responsibility for our decisions, even as morality becomes super ambiguous. And that’s a tough place to be. Just look at machines like this sad Engles boss who, like many of the game’s characters, is crushed beneath the weight of figuring out what’s right, and he knows he bears full responsibility for those decisions. The Simone boss, named after Simone de Beauvoir, a French feminist philosopher, holds a mirror to another aspect of meaning-making. Beauvoir famously suggested “one is not born a woman, but becomes a woman.” As the Simone boss realizes, one way we create meaning in our lives is by constructing certain gender norms like beauty and femininity.
She literally becomes a woman by constructing herself and cannibalizing other machines to improve her beauty. Both Beauvoir and her demented avatar teach us to watch out, lest we become monsters in our attempt to make meaning through gender norms. Simone’s existential quest for connection through beauty is highlighted in her obsession with Jean Paul, which has historical roots, since Beauvoir and Sartre were life long lovers. The character of Pascal packs one of the biggest Nietzschian punches. Though he’s the avatar of Blaise Pascal, a mathematician, philosopher, and regular renaissance man, he couldn’t be more different than his real life counterpart. As the pacifist leader of a machine village, Pascal puts a lot of faith in the ultimate goodness of machines and androids.
But the real Pascal was a bit of a downer. Unlike his idealistic avatar, real Pascal thought humanity was prideful, arrogant, and unredeemable. Without god, our lives are filled with anxiety and despair. In fact, we have only one redeeming trait: “The greatness of human beings consists in their ability to know their wretchedness.” But game Pascal comes around to the IRL Pascal’s viewpoint. In maybe the game’s darkest twist,the peaceful villagers suddenly start eating each other and when, even after setting aside his pacifism to defend the children, they commit suicide anyway. Game pascal finally understands the wretchedness of himself and the machine. When he despairs and asks you to kill him or delete his memory, the player has to face their own wretchedness too and make a tough choice. Some characters in the NieR universe try to make meaning through new religions. Take the Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, who makes an ironic appearance as the worshiped leader of a small cult. Kierkegaard believed the ultimate expression of one’s freedom is to commit to certain meaning and make it true by manifesting it in one’s life, which he calls taking a leap of faith.
Unfortunately, when some of Kierkegaard’s followers take literal leaps of faith, it doesn’t turn out so well for them. There are so many other philoso-bosses we could talk about: Karl Grün, Kant, Engles and Marx, Ernst Bloch, Hegel, even the brothers Friedrich and August Schlegel. Ro-shi, Ko-Shi, Boko-Shi, and So-Shi, are the Japanese pronunciations of Chinese philosophers Laozhi, Confucius, Mozi, and Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi was a Daoist philosopher who was into existentialism way before it was cool. He claimed existence is full of cycles of light and dark, life and death, joy and sadness. Only by accepting these cycles, including all unpleasant stuff, can we find contentment in life.
NieR Automata, taking a cue from Zhuangzi, bakes these cycles right into the gameplay. As an extension of the game’s existential themes, the mechanics emphasize the role of cycles and repetition in creating meaning. Cycles are everywhere: androids are caught in the cycle of life and death, repeatedly uploading to the mainframe and getting new bodies. 2B is stuck in the cycle of killing 9S, and Pod 153 gives a sad spiel about cycles of life: “Everything that lives is designed to end,” It’s all about returning to the beginning. According to Nietzsche, cycles dispel the myth of “progress.” Progress only makes sense if you have a clear aim, and if you’re cool staying on a path someone else laid out for you. But Nietzsche hates that notion of progress. Instead, we should be critical of claims to progress that rely on external meaning or our unquestioned notions of right and wrong. The cycles in Automata disrupt this false idea of progress and meaning not only within the game universe, but also for the player.
In automata, there is no clear goal, or rather, goals change throughout the game, and the whole point is that none of the characters are on a predetermined path. Plus, there’s no straightforward game progress, players literally repeat certain actions or stories, rather than moving linearly from one event to the next. The game even ends with the suggestion that A2 and 9S will be reborn to fight this battle all over again. “They are perpetually trapped in a never ending spiral of life and death.” In fact, relationship between cycles and Nietzsche are most obvious in the game’s multiple playthrough structure. In Automata, the main playthroughs A, B, C and D and E are like chapters, carefully sequenced, and building on one another, often repeating parts of the same plot, but through the eyes, knowledge, and powers of different characters, and sometimes moving on to the next plot stage. You must the complete A through D to get to the main ending, E, with the credits, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Automata uses this structure to strip meaning from the players themselves, and to fuck with the idea of game progress, engaging players in their own nihilist quest.
Consider the difference between the first and second playthroughs, where you play as 2B and then 9s in parallel stories. In the first play, as 2B, you learn the aliens are dead and the machine’s we’ve been killing are actually sentient and emotional. Of course, they could have just told us this straight out, but instead they make us relive every shitty thing we did to those poor bastards and now, we feel terrible about it. The real importance of the first run is to set up meaning—here’s who you are and why you’re fighting the bad guys–and then snatch it from us. The point is really driven home by the beginning of the second playthrough, where you play from the perspective of machine red shirts.
This opening seems designed to trigger the player’s compassion, and rob us of the meaning we used to make sense of our entire first quest. Instead of creating a grand narrative to explain away pain or loss, or instead of just giving up, Nietzsche suggested we say yes to life. Yes-saying is an attitude oriented toward the future, that affirms everything from the past without trying to change it. Imagine you had to live the same life over and over in what Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence. This would be super crappy if you thought life was about avoiding pain and suffering. But yes-saying embraces suffering and the lessons it brings us, without glorifying them. The game’s final, Nietzschian middle finger to progress and ultimate meaning comes in ending E. Here players literally have to kill their gods and make a difficult choice between progress, which lets them save all their data and advancement in the game, and yes-saying, which entails accepting their mistakes and be willing to start over.
As the credits role, and you battle the names of the game’s designers and creators, which are somehow shooting shit at you, messages from other players around the world encourage you until you’re finally joined by their avatars, who sacrifice themselves for your success. And I don’t use sacrifice lightly: as you discover at the end when you’re asked to do the same, all those avatars are there because in some other time and place, maybe before you even started playing, other players finished the game and chose to delete their data and game saves for the ability to eventually help you, a total stranger, complete the game. Here we’re asked: what makes gaming meaningful? Do we believe in the myth of progress, that what makes themmeaningful is completing them, saving our data, and having achieved something once and for all? Or are we yes-sayers, willing to start over, from the beginning, and make the same choices and maybe even the same mistakes, again?
Are we individual automata, who only fight for ourselves, or is gaming about the lessons we learn and engaging a community? Does one player deserve the sacrifice made by others? And should we sacrifice ourselves for people we don’t know or might not even like? What makes gaming meaningful is truly up to the player. If you affirm progress, nothing happens. But if you say yes to suffering and loss instead, all your saves and play get deleted, and you return to the beginning, to do it all again. Or maybe you’ll do it differently. “A future is not given to you. It is something you take for yourself.”
See? Cycles! As a game, NieR Automata itself embraces suffering, both of its characters and it’s players. But only in order to tell a powerful philosophical story, as only an interactive game could, Does it pan out like they hoped? Is the game worth all the feels (and maybe tears) it elicits in an attempt to make its point about meaning? Well that’s up to you. But if you’re one of the yes-sayers whose sacrifice made my journey possible, you should know it means something to me.