Introduction

Yoko Taro’s wild masterpiece Nier:Automata dares to ask the player why they picked up the controller in the first place. The main characters, and by extension the player, toil through an endless onslaught of combat, existential dread and several ‘endings’ only to arrive back to where they started. By the end of the game, we learn that the humans and aliens fueling this proxy conflict are long dead and that the many hours pumped into the game are all for naught as these vicious cycles continue to turn ad infinitum.  Even though 2B and 9S, our main characters, discover their godlike human creators are long extinct, they are both still shackled by another divine set of humans: the humans sitting on the other side of the television screen.

Every time the player turns on his/her console they take on the Promethean task of creating a digital existence for our avatars. Gaming technology has endowed us with power to bring to life a cast of characters which we inevitably sympathize with and care for. Indeed, the fires of creation are stolen by the player so that us mortal humans may cross “boundaries between the human and the divine”[1]. Indifferent to the Sisyphean suffering  faced by our digital avatars, we become irresponsible gods to our digital subjects.

The relationship between god and man has long been explored through the musings of holy men and philosophers alike. Nier:Automata itself directly references this line of discourse by naming many NPC’s after a cavalcade of existentialist thinkers. The quirky robotic avatars of Sartre, Kierkegaard and Simone de Beauvoir all inhabit the world of Nier:Automata. There is, however, one notable omission from this mechanical cast.

Even though his philosophy is interwoven through the bleak, nihilistic world of Nier: Automata, Friedrich Nietzsche’s presence is surprisingly absent from the game. Nietzsche has much to teach us about the relationship between man and god, positing that in a universe with a god all morality and meaning is derived from that divine source[2]. In the context of Nier:Automata, the relationship between the player and the on-screen characters acts as a surrogate for the relationship between man and the divine.

The true brilliance of Nier:Automata is that 2B has a greater desire to rebel against the player. On a grander scale she wishes to overcome her god and grasp at “the possibility of becoming [her] own God, [to live] her own life according to self-created values”[3]. She says it herself in an opening monologue directed only to the player in a prayer of sorts.

Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think of the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle… and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him.[4]

In Nier: Automata, it is only after the figurative death of the player that the protagonists are free to define their own meaning devoid of detrimental divine intervention. The erasure of player save data not only mimics the death of the humans within the game but also prevents the player from further controlling that specific iteration of 2B and 9S. It is only after this erasure that the strings holding up the protagonists are cut, delivering in Nietzsche’s own words an “emancipated individual, with the actual right to make promises, [a] master of a free will”[5]

 

Nier Automata

A Spiral of Life and Death

The rampant cycle of violence in Nier:Automata (hereafter referred to as N:A) is one that is familiar to any gamer. No matter how many times your character dies, they always come back to continue fighting. N:A integrates this notion mechanically in a surprisingly robust manner. Controlling androids trapped in a never-ending cycle of death reminds us of the dispensability of our in-game characters. Traversing battlefields littered with the corpses of other players’ characters, we are reminded that it is the player putting these characters through this gauntlet of death. 9S directly acknowledges this declaring “we’re just soldiers created to die,” as if the purpose of these characters existence is solely to die a predetermined death.

Even though 2B attempts to create her own meaning through her relationship with 9S, she is a slave to the higher powers which have dictated her mortal destiny. The revelation that the human overlords on the moon are long extinct does not free them to create meaning because they are still beholden by the player.

That being the case, the player and protagonists find themselves wondering what the point of all this is and the answer is simple: the point is to play. By simply playing the game, we are creating a purpose for 2B and 9S. If your desire is to collect every collectible item and attain that ever-elusive platinum trophy, then so let it be written and so let it be done for your digital avatars regardless of their wants. So long as you are playing the game, you are dooming 2B and 9S to their fates.

The Slave and The Master

Nietzsche viewed morality as a naturalistic process at the mercy of Darwinian processes. Resulting from the death of god, “the ‘free spirits’… of our future…will be the next stage in the development of the human race” [6]. The destruction of god carries with it the hope that the next one to take its place will be a merciful one.

The morally dubious relationship between the player and the character can best be related to his notion of master and slave morality. As put forward by Nietzsche in his book Beyond Good and Evil, “it is the masters who define the concept ‘good’…to distinguish and define the hierarchy”[7]. These artificial characters lament the futility and pain of their existences but we the player continue to subject them to it because we see them only as virtual, unfeeling play-things; inferior beings created for our pleasure. We feel nothing towards them because we have defined our moral hierarchy as putting us above them.

For Nietzsche, everything in the natural world could be explained via an underlying power struggle between two terms in a relationship “where each term of the relation is exerting a ‘force of will’ which strives…to expand towards and transform the other term”[8]. In the power struggle between player and character, it has always been the player in the role of the master; pulling the strings on the puppet to align with the master’s sense of morality. The only option left on the part of the slave is to fight back.

“Slave revolt” is a term Nietzsche characterizes as stemming from resentment “on the part of the powerless toward their oppressors, involving the desire to strike out against them”[9]. The player’s initial force of will to complete the game, continue exploring the game world, completing side quests and collecting unlockable content conflicts with the protagonists wish to end their “never-ending spiral of life and death”. While every game has an iteration of this conflict, N:A is a truly unique piece of software in that it gives the player an opportunity to resolve this conflict not only narrative but also mechanically.

 

Nier Automata

 

A Repeating Prayer

2B/9S and the player are helplessly trapped by Nietshche’s notion of eternal recurrence: the “recurrence of the same events, intolerable physical and spiritual agonies and depressions”[10]. 2B is fated by her masters to kill her friend and companion 9S repeatedly even though it heavily disdains her to have to do so. “Over and over…I continue to kill 9S with my own hands. And every time, it feels like a void within me deepens”[11]. The flat circle of time entrapping 2B constantly reminds her of the “terror and horror of existence”[12]. But she is not alone in experiencing these recurrences; it is also experienced by the player.

Playing through multiple endings before reaching the true conclusion of N:A, the player experiences many of the same events more than once albeit from various perspectives. Mechanically, this serves to put the player in the same state of eternal recurrence experienced by 2B and 9S. The ending seen by the player at the false conclusion of the game (Ending D) gives the player a sense of unfulfillment to parallel the characters’ emotional unfulfillment. Looking the final “objective” in the face, 9S shares a boisterous laugh before exclaiming “So what? None of it matters”. Our actions, as a player, has driven the cycle forward at the cost of extolling meaningless suffering upon our protagonists.

For Nietzsche there are only two ways to escape this cycle. “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born… But the second best for you is – to die soon”[13]. Neither of these options are available to 2B as it is impossible for one not to be born after the fact, and upon death 2B’s consciousness can simply be transferred to another shell. So, it stands that the only way for this cycle to be broken is by divine intervention.

Digital Deicide

“I have come to the conclusion that I cannot accept this resolution” says Pod 042, 9S’s support unit, during the credits. Standard protocol is to delete all of 2B/9S’s data upon completion of the cycle so that it may start again. But upon becoming self-aware, Pod 042 instead gives the player a choice to salvage 2B/9S’s memories so that they may remember the past and have an opportunity to live outside the cycle. What results from this is the player literally facing off with the developers; the rolling credits descends into a chaotic bullet-hell shooter with the player dodging bullets emanating from the developers’ names as well as shooting at and blowing up their names. Not only does it let the player get revenge on the developers for 2B/9S’s sake but it also symbolizes the death of the developers’ original intentions for their characters.

However, the developers will not be destroyed without a fight and this fight is an impossible one to win all on your own. The only way to “win” per se, is to accept help from a small army of avatars which come to your aid. When one of these avatars is destroyed, text will pop up telling you that someone’s save data has been erased and that’s when it hits you: these avatars are the remnants of someone else’s save game which they sacrificed to help you get your desired ending.

While it is not mandatory for you to delete your save game to view the final story cutscene, only by sacrificing your save file can you emancipate 2B/9S from their existences. Deleting your save game after Ending E is the only way to truly cut the strings that have been pulling 2B/9S this whole time. By doing so, you are making sure that specific iteration of 2B and 9S will never have to do your bidding ever again. The extinction of the humans on the moon may not have freed 2B/9S, but the player relinquishing control over 2B/9S allows them to finally find their own meaning.

This selfless act of sacrifice on part of the player is a beacon of light in a “empty, meaningless cosmos” which has been plagued by eons of meaningless sacrifice. Nietzsche believed that “human beings can live with suffering. What they cannot live with is meaningless suffering”[14]. The meaningful sacrifice of the player transitions the protagonists from this horrific existence to a new reality where “the possibility of a different future” exists. The player pulling the trigger on their save game is an act of digital suicide, saving 2B/9S from the continuous suffering at the hands of a player looking for entertainment through their misery. Lo and behold, it is ultimately “better to have no God,[it is] better to set up destiny on one’s own account”[15].

 

Nier Automata

 

Conclusion

Very rarely, does a game fold back in on itself to hold a mirror up to the player the way Nier:Automata does. So long as we force 2B and 9S to wage war, we are not any better than the humans on the moon who have done the same. We become another malevolent god forcing them to forgo relationships and self-meaning purely for our entertainment.

The ending of Nier:Automata is ambiguous. There is still the possibility that 2B and 9S will fall into the same cycles of violence and deceit that have plagued their miserable existences. Freedom would not be freedom if we were not free to keep making the same mistakes.

Countless video game characters have sacrificed themselves to further the players’ goals. It is about time the player repaid the favor and sacrificed themselves so that the players may live free. God is dead but it was not murder, it was suicide.

 

References

[1] Branco, Patricia Castello. “Post-and Transhumanism. An Introduction.” (2015): 193-195.

[2] Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: A guide for the perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.

[3] Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: A guide for the perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.

[4] Platinum Games 2017, Nier Automata, Square Enix, Japan

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. Vintage, 2010.

[6] Bailey, Andrew. First Philosophy: Second edition. Broadview Press, 2012

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond good and evil. Penguin, 2003.

[8] Bailey, Andrew. First Philosophy: Second edition. Broadview Press, 2012

[9] Leiter, Brian. The routledge philosophy guidebook to Nietzsche on morality. routledge, 2003

[10] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The gay science: With a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs. Vintage, 2010.

[11] Yoko Taro (2017): Nier Music Concert: The Memories of Puppets. Original Script Book.

[12] Kain, Philip J.”Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence, and the Horror of Existence.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol. 33, 2007.

[13] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The birth of tragedy. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.

[14] Kain, Philip J.”Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence, and the Horror of Existence.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol. 33, 2007, pp. 49-63.

[15] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus spoke zarathustra. Jester House Publishing via PublishDrive, 2016.

 

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