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 about the God who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle
and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.*
*The line originally means: When will we be able to rebel?
Condemned to be free, the automatons in NieR Automata roam around without a meaning once ascribed to them eons ago. Humans were their gods who gave them meaning and rules and the automatons, especially the androids, worshipped them. But humans have long been extinct.
So how should we make of these automatons? Are they as conscious as their human masters? Or are they just meaningless pieces of metal that will someday decay?
Let’s take one small step at a time examining the automatons.
There are two distinct races of automatons in this post-human world: the androids and the machines (機械生命体 — literally biological machines). The androids are modeled after humans who are supposedly sent to the moon for purposes of safety. They are tasked (or rather programmed) by the humans to eradicate the machines that terrorize the Earth. Meanwhile, the machines have detached themselves from the network and are trying to live independently.
Throughout the video game, the player “controls” three androids: 2B, 9S, and A2 (more on why I put “control” in quotation marks later). They are destroying the machines left and right. As the player progresses through the game, there seems to be no reason whatsoever to destroy the machines. It seems meaningless to pursue this holy crusade against them. Yet, for 2B and 9S, this is the only thing they are meant to do. It is their belief that justice will prevail and the humans will come back.
However, A2 knows better. In the YoRHa play, she learns that the humans have all been wiped out by the failure of the Replicant/Gestalt project and the androids are sending no more than the Replicants to the moon. She lives with this existentialist angst that she knows will never be resolved. To her, the God she believed in is dead.
9S finds this out near the end of the B route and he wants to tell this to 2B, but he hesitates and is unable to tell her. The religious fervor he has once held means nothing now. 2B’s death by the hands of A2 crushes any shred of hope that 9S may have had. All he can think now is to kill A2. Revenge is the only thing he can live for, even if he later understands that A2 has no intention to kill 2B.
The goals of these androids are utterly meaningless, but it is far worse for those who do not know. These automatons are placing in their faith in something delusional, strung up by threads of a convoluted plan. It is revealed in the end of the game that all the actions the androids have taken, especially 9S, are meant to destroy the moon, thus hiding the extinction of humanity. This will allow the androids and machines to believe that the humans have died and thus “become as” gods in their own right. This is the true meaning of the YoRHa project: they are creating a religion that will be holy and infallible.
So the first thing we have to ask is: Why does the concept of religion matter to these automatons? They probably have never heard of the word “religion” anyway. Yet, their worship of humans seem close to how we worship gods and deities in our side. We humans may not worship the same way as they do nowadays, but we do find solace in studying the classics. The ancient civilizations of Greece, China, and more are mystical and exotic to us. We see them as times full of wisdom. Spiritualism lingers in their words. The automatons may have found artifacts of the humans’ past and their curiosity has been naturally aroused by them. They must have wondered how the gods — the humans — created them, much like how we wondered how the Christian God created the world in seven days. They know they are programmed by humans too who they study and appreciate deeply. Anthropology is a religious undertaking that allows them to be closer to their Gods as one sidequest asks 9S to dig up some treasures from humans’ homes. Examining how the humans had once lived let them understand their masters more. This is what makes them believe in religion.
This is especially true to the androids who are in a holy crusade against what they believe are the infidels. It is easy to draw comparisons of their war against the machines to the holy crusades that have happened in the Middle Ages. Both movements’ leaders interpret literally the meaning of the God who tells them constantly to take back their holy land and start a holy war. Knights and soldiers participate in battles we now consider meaningless and silly, but their deaths are remembered. They are martyrs, people who have died for a great cause. The Latin Church and the YoRHa space bunker are also solemn places of worship, the latter appearing in its full monochromatic glory. And much like how the Latin Church asked the restless knights to capture Jerusalem, the leaders of YoRHa orders the androids to capture the Earth. This makes them not have the time to question their faith and begin doubting their beliefs. It is worth noting as well that the music that plays in the space base is titled 偽リノ城塞 or “Fortress of Lies”.
The lies/偽りof their religion are the pillars that hold up their society. But they are poor lies that can be easily proven wrong. To tell the androids that humans have died out long ago will shake their core beliefs. Their foundation will crumble the more they learn as we see in 9S. So the androids have never doubted their God or asked for more knowledge (with the exception of 9S) because they want to be in good faith with their God — or in Sartre’s phrasing, bad faith: They lose their freedoms to be at ease, escaping from the horrors of living and taking responsibility for their actions.
Some groups of the machines are more conscious than the androids when it comes to religion. In the middles of routes A and B, 2B and Pascal find themselves trapped in a factory filled with cultish machines who believe killing themselves is a way to become God. Similarly, when you play as 9S, the player may encounter robots on rooftops and towers. Hacking into their mind shows these robots have brooding thoughts about their existence and meaning. They allow themselves to be killed by 9S or they may also choose to plunge themselves to the ground, leaving 9S confused on what he has saw.
There are many ways why these robots would have come to this conclusion. They may have misinterpreted as going to Heaven in the monotheistic doctrines as a godly way or Buddhists reaching a state of nirvana. But I believe it has more to do with their development of existentialist selves. Early forms of existentialist philosophies like Kierkegaard’s in Fear and Trembling have come from doubting religion. How does Abraham, for example, have the strength to follow God’s orders to kill his sons? Surely, he must have doubted. But he overcomes this doubt and becomes a knight of faith. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard looks at the tyranny of choice. The fact we can choose to jump and die at any moment scares us. Yet, if you look at the absurdity of life as Camus says, maybe suicide is worth contemplating.
For those machines who cannot choose to be the knight of faith and overcome their despair over meaninglessness, this is one way to fight against fate.
When you talk to the machines that didn’t commit suicide in the factory, all they do is whimper and ask to be spared from this. It takes great courage and delusional strength to jump into the lava and die. Few machines who do cry out regret; they seem prideful that this is their decision as conscious beings to choose death over living. It is their freedom of choice that lets them do it, not fate or faith. That is why they have no regrets, even if the player may find their actions disturbing.
For the machines that choose to live and be at peace with the world, they are free to do what they can. They are considered primitive, the Other in the eyes of the androids who believe they should be colonized, and inferior beings with no technological capabilities.
Yet, like the many forgotten Mayan, Incan, and other Native American empires that were vanquished under colonialism, the machines possess a wealth of knowledge that could rival the understanding androids have if they are allowed the chance. In one sidequest, the player is asked to invest into a mad scientist machine who wants to invent something spectacular: a space elevator. When it is all said and done, the machine laments he has only built up to Mars and it is useless.
Near where this mad scientist machine lives is Pascal’s little village. Home to pacifists who want to rear the children machines up, the village is built on top of and around trees as if complementing technology and nature together. These robots have some understanding of war and peace as shown by the opening scene where they wave white flags to the android protagonists who are unaware that this is a sign of peace.
We can also examine Pascal who serves as a mediator for the androids. Pascal is an amiable machine and helps out the androids whenever they can because Pascal believes peace is the way to go. Even 2B who is skeptical of Pascal’s actions becomes friendly and barely criticizes 9S for asking Pascal to help them out. They must have been interested in how Pascal is trying to develop a communal, familial setting. For Pascal, that seems to be the goal: to make one large family as opposed to the androids who serve as legions of a network. Pascal is later seen to be reading Friedrich Nietzsche who boldly claimed God is dead and pondering the depth of the philosopher’s observations in the eternal recurrence, a scene copied from Yokoo Tarou’s ongoing manga 君死ニタマフ事ナカレ to a tact.
It is not difficult to see Pascal as one of the smartest characters in Automata. Because of this, Pascal is named after Blaise Pascal who says a rational person will still believe in God anyway because mathematically even if God doesn’t exist, you don’t really lose anything. Meanwhile, not believing in God when God exists puts you in hell (an infinite loss) while believing in God lets you go to Heaven (infinite gain). The Pascal’s wage as it is known is sound in its reasoning since you don’t really lose anything. We can assume then the machines in Pascal’s village are thus extremely rational but also believers of humans as gods.
They are living the way they wanted, much like we humans do. Of course, they are trying to understand what their human masters once did. They emulate human behavior by reading books about them, creating video games in their spare time, and performing plays by Shakespeare. They are trying to develop a sense of culture.
It doesn’t matter if their recreations aren’t what Shakespeare intended either for they are interpretations based on the remnants they have and their own understanding. In the Romeo and Juliet adaptation, they have three Romeos and Juliets who cry out the famous “wherefore” lines. But in the midst of the play, they get angry at each other and kill themselves on stage. A machine then comments, “So this is a piece of literature from the old world? Hmmm, I believe it speaks the cruelty of mankind.” We the players know that the machine is bluffing. No one is supposed to understand this is a tragic love story between a playboy and a delusional woman. But this battle royale is a version that now exists, immortalized in the memory of the machines who have seen it.
These kinds of reinterpretations are common, especially with Shakespeare plays. I’ve seen King Lear performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Barbara Gaines, the director, has found connections between Sinatra’s music, how we interact with technology, and the play itself. The play begins with the titular character sitting on a couch in the middle of stage; he has a remote and points it to the audience. He laughs but gets bored. So he switches the channel. Laughs again. Gets bored again. Switches. The ennui of his decrepit life and the shows he watches are accompanied by the melancholic singing of Sinatra. He wants to find the show with the right Sinatra music that catches his attention. This depiction makes Lear look like he is any grandfather we know. It is the version I remember most of the Lear, even if it has “little” to do with Shakespeare’s vision in the text.
The play now has to do with how we experience our own lives. These kinds of modernizations are needed and the Shakespeare play in Automata, while ridiculous, must have meant something to the machines who watched it. A machine spectator says it is beautiful. Surely, our aesthetics don’t match with that machine — but it must be something.
Yet, developing a sense of culture based on the automatons’ understanding of humans have caused some interesting problems. It becomes clear when it comes to gender and sexuality.
Unlike animals, automatons don’t have sexes and therefore no gender. They do not have any gametes that differentiate them as male or female nor they do need to reproduce. Sexual organs are only apparent in androids because they are modeled after humans. But they do not seem aware of their sexes and genders; 9S is once asked to turn around when Pascal and 2B change the clothes of a woman android. Pascal is also voiced by Aoi Yuuki and Aoi’s cute voice makes Pascal sound feminine and she has the aura of a concerned mother; however, Pascal is referred to by the kids as an uncle (おじいさん). Similarly, we also have 2B’s operator who mails 2B about astrology and how in love and admiration she is with 2B and the commander. In our human understanding, she would have been called a lesbian — and a very accurate representation of one too. But knowing that machines do not have sexes, it might be peculiar to call the operator a lesbian as much as we are tempted to.
It is stranger too that romantic and sexual feelings can form in both races of automatons. 9S’s despair comes from falling in love with 2B and there are several lesbian relationships in the YoRHa play, one of them with A2 herself. Father and mother machines are everywhere in Automata. These are automatons, but they have developed some sort of conscious that allow them to have feelings for another.
The machines are also aware of humans forming gendered societies, with characters wearing clothes that define masculine or feminine features. A bowtie and a cap signifies a man while a ribbon suggests a little girl. In the quest where you have to search for a little sister, the big sister is small but has a commanding voice while the little sister is gigantic but sports a cute ribbon. Since robots do not age physically nor mentally — the baby in the forest kingdom has never aged one bit for example — we can assume that these sister robots are “programmed” to have and maintain genders and age so they can have their own identities. Maturity and gender are programmed here. A literal social construction of reality, if you will.
So how can we explain this bizarre absence of “real/human” sexuality and gender while the machines go on with their lives assuming gender roles and the automatons in general can have passionate romantic feelings? It is hard for we humans to grasp in our own terms because the automatons have their own logic that they have developed. Maybe it might make more sense to see that everyone in Automata should be considered transgender and transsexual.
The opera boss you fight in the amusement park, Beauvoir (or Simone in the English localization), serves as a great example. The machine falls in love with a “masculine” playboy robot with a top hat named Sartre. Yet, he never sees Beauvoir. Beauvoir, believing itself to be a woman, becomes a she and decides to adorn herself with precious jewels (actually, machines) and beautiful dresses (actually, even more androids). In her madness to make him fall in love with her, she tries to be more feminine and murders more machines and androids to “build” herself and become prettier. Her conception of femininity is linked to how much makeup and clothing one puts. Sartre who concerns himself in finding existence while dipping his toes in various relationships is revealed in a sidequest to be an uncaring being, leaving his friends and lovers behind to search for his meaning in life. Beauvoir becomes insane, finally to be killed by 2B and 9S when they find out the distress calls from the Resistance robots emanate from her.
There is a plain irony in naming this boss character Beauvoir and the “masculine” robot Sartre. It is Simone Beauvoir who examines women not as a gender but a “situation”. Beauvoir the boss character is also a classic example of Simone Beauvoir’s examples of bad faith mentioned above: the Woman in Love who submerges her identity into her male object. “One is not born,” she writes in The Second Sex, “but becomes a woman”. Using Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, she tracks down the history of women with various lenses and establishes that becoming a woman is almost like subjugating oneself. A woman is not as equal as a man because “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” She rejects the notion of the “eternal feminine”, the immutable concept of being a woman, because it is not true. Acting feminine is how women become an inferior “situation” while acting manly makes people, both men and women, raise their eyebrows at this woman.
In her first chapter to The Second Sex titled “Facts and Myths”, she lists the quotes regarding women from philosophers like Aristotle (“The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. We should regard women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness.”) and religious leaders like Saint Thomas who says women are an “incomplete man”, an “incidental” being. This incompleteness of man that define women is what the Story of Genesis symbolizes: the woman is not an autonomous being. She is a relative being. She is a dependent weakling (依存スル弱者), worthless without her complementary part. Without Adam, Eve is useless. This is the story of Adam and Eve in the Holy Bible.
It is difficult for many people to go away from the stereotype that shows women as weak, emotional beings. Women deserve to be protected; they are princesses who need their knights to live. This is the power of gender roles in our human society. But gender roles don’t actually exist in the automaton societies. They are emulating us at best. Yet, the sad tale of Beauvoir and Sartre does serve a reminder of this Adam and Eve interpretation.
Until we remember Adam and Eve in Automata.
Born out of the machine collective in the desert, Adam evolves as the androids fight head-on with him. He levels up and becomes more of a challenge. Once the player whittles down his health enough, Adam falls down and out of his ribcage comes Eve, another man who resembles him.
Adam and Eve have a close relationship as brothers, sometimes so affectionately the relationship seems romantic. Adam is the maturer of the two, knowledgable and fashionable. Eve, on the other hand, is more dependent on his bigger brother and often complains about being bored. Once, Eve asks Adam why they are not named Cain and Abel who are brothers but Adam says it is more fitting this way. They eat apples and wear clothes as Adam answers Eve’s silly but cute questions.
But this paradise ends when 2B kills Adam. Eve goes berserk in the end and 9S hacks into Eve, realizing that his feelings for Adam are more than just superficial. 9S sees a house and inside that house is the table Adam and Eve eat in. He hears Eve crying about how he misses Adam. Thus, in route B, the player now realizes the catalyst of the battle: grief. Grief makes Eve weak and sad. The supposed inferiority of women — the “incomplete man” Saint Thomas noted — is now in Eve, a man.
Eve the man is a dependent weakling, much like Eve the woman is. Dependency and incompleteness are not constricted to genders as history — the “perspective of men” as Beauvoir once said — once assumes. Men can be weak-willed too, desperately in love, and extremely emotional when it comes to grief. The qualities we deem “feminine” can be found in men and vice versa with “masculinity” in women. What this shows is there is no difference between men and women. It is just that philosophers before us have attributed arbitrary qualities to masculinity and women. There may be no such thing as masculinity and femininity.
The automatons don’t think about sexuality and gender roles. Indeed, we can call it “purer”, “naive”, and “adorable”. But maybe it is our definitions that we have grown up with that are screwed up. “Homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality,” Beauvoir writes, “the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” There should be no differentiation between sexualities whatsoever. 2B’s operator having feelings toward other women androids is normal, but we do pay attention to that and find that refreshing. Humanity has put artificial limits on itself. The world of Automata has no gender or sexuality. Everyone is free to love one another and be anyone they want without limits and restrictions. It is thus best to revise our understanding of them from transsexual and transgender to not just asexual and agendered but having no gender and sexuality at all. Gender and sexuality are limits we have placed on ourselves.
The automatons can have true freedom — like they do with gender and sexuality — if they understand that they are not limited to their human masters who they believe are gods. They must unshackle the chains of religion and accept they are sentient, conscious beings who have to face the tyranny of choice.
Emergence means killing the symbolism of humans. They have to kill God. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
The machines and androids feel guilty of what they have to do and they realize they are also trapped in this state of what various philosophers including Nietzsche and Eastern religions call the “eternal recurrence”. It is a cycle of life and death. Creation and destruction. Apollonian and Dionysian.
Nietzsche sees a dichotomy in art as Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollonian is logical and individualizes characters. It is all about form. Sculpture is the highest Apollonian art. Dionysian is the drunken excitement of chaos. It is about instinct and emotion. Think music because it appeals to our irrational emotional thoughts and is the most abstract of all the arts (you can’t see it). The best tragedies in plays therefore are a fusion and interplay of both Apollonian and Dionysian ideas. They clash with each other because we want to think rationally and feel irrationally as well and this makes us involved.
And so, the automatons themselves (and we humans) are living in this tragedy of a never-ending play. This play causes everyone to go insane — one is reminded of Masada’s Dies Irae — because all they see is meaninglessness in their actions. They are aware they are just actors in a terribly staged play and despair from how small they seem in the aspect of the eternal. Fate can throw them into each other, take away their loved ones, and entertain its “audience” with their demise. This is the nature of the automatons’ existentialist angst.
How can one overcome this angst when one is aware of how little they matter as characters in a play? The narrative has already been written. The video game is already designed. All you can do is move forward and cause more destruction and despair. This is what Yokoo Tarou’s games have become: nihilist experiments. In Drag-on Dragoon/Drakengard 1, our completionism makes the game’s endings worse and worse until it affects our own world which creates the NieR world. In NieR itself, the protagonists have effectively separated mind and body, thus dooming humanity faster (the mechanism in the Replicant project has been flawed in the first place, so the destruction if the project succeeded would only be slowed down by a bit). And in Drag-on Dragoon/Drakengard 3, the player unwittingly aids the protagonist to suicide and makes their action in the hero’s journey utterly meaningless. There seems to be no end to the nihilism.
No matter how much progress we may claim to make, we end up destroying ourselves somehow. To move forward is to lose yourself bit by bit.
It is impossible to escape the truth of this antihumanism.
We are living in a world where reproduction is valuable. The more games are made, the more TV shows are created, the more films are released, the more books are written, the better everyone is off. At least, that’s what the invisible hand in the market seems to say.
Artists know this. Andy Warhol finds delight in painting what we see as superficial. For him, there is depth on the surface. Warhol is aware of how market value is important in establishing what is art and if people can buy his paintings of Campbell Soup, that is art. His whole catalogue of paintings include reproductions of famous portraits and scenes from movies in various styles. He merely paints the same picture repeatedly, in different qualities and colors. “The reason I’m painting this way is,” he says in Art News 62, “I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.”
We see this talk of creators as reproducers and machines throughout history. William S. Burroughs admits in Naked Lunch “there is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing… I am a recording instrument… I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’… Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function… I am not an entertainer…” Artists are nothing but typewriters or word processors as far as Burroughs is concerned. There is no explicit meaning in their processes — Burroughs cuts up his text and rearranges to allow new images to form through associations seem unlikely — and we the viewers place meanings ourselves, the same way market value is placed onto Warhol’s paintings.
Roland Barthes goes further: in Mythologies, he comments on a Le Figaro series of writers who have sent pictures of themselves on their vacations to the newspaper. Barthes observes that “during those famous vacations, which [the writer] fraternally shares with workmen and shop assistants, he never ceases, if not working, at least producing.” The writer cannot fully enjoy taking a break. They must always write and create — a “natural” assumption — in any situation howsoever. “The writer is on vacation,” he writes, “but his Muse is wide awake, and gives birth nonstop.”
Creators are forced to create as much as they can. They can never stop thinking because they are always in a creative mode, believed to always be inspired at any moment. We want more out of these creators and beg for more, even if they aren’t in the mood to say something. They cannot ever take a break.
This rising demand puts a toll in many creators, including Yokoo Tarou. In various interviews, he comments how exhausting game development is (he inserts this frustration in Automata through a game creator quest chain) and wants to quit. It is hard to tell whether he is joking or not — Square Enix supposedly asked Yokoo to make a Love Live manga which somehow became 君死ニタマフ事ナカレ — but in his Game Developers Conference 2014 talk (Japanese version), he displays genuine frustration with the video game industry.
Yokoo asks the audience to imagine going to a GameStop today and see the catalogue of games sold right now. There are many good games being developed and published today. However, no title excites him like the old days. This isn’t him seeking nostalgia because he understands that retro games are badly developed and technologically inferior. No, everything feels too safe. Even in the indie gaming world that is supposed to be revolutionary and different, Yokoo sees the market doing the same one-dimensional theme over and over again.
He must have seen this as an eternal recurrence of sorts. Publishers and developers fear making something unconventional or plain different now. There are formulas now established in video gaming. As one gaming trend rises, another falls. Markets prefer the same, safe work over and over again because the audience never complains. It gets boring to play the same “beautifully crafted” games quickly and it helps that creators are expected to reproduce the same work no matter what.
It is like seeing the same picture of Marilyn Monroe carefully reproduced by Warhol again and again. Sure, it is art but it is the same art multiplied. This machine-like conception of art makes it meaningless to create and consume. No sense of excitement or sadness comes from the same work.
So the potential of video games — and art — is limited by an invisible wall built by the forces of marketing. Creators are discouraged to explore beyond the boundaries. Granted, there are things we will never be able to do no matter what the circumstances are. However, artists feel censored on what they can do because of marketing. They are pressured to only create the same work forever and ever. This is the state of the video game industry Yokoo is critical of.
Yokoo wants to make different video games. He wants to elicit emotions not typically found in video games. In his Glixel interview, he would rather talk about the taboo subjects:
The world is filled with lies and desires in the first place, but I feel like it has a tendency to hide and forbid taboos. We write about the love between a man and woman and family, but we can’t write about sex. There are stories about beauty and growth, but not about aging and perishing. I think that those are lies and I’m not good at writing lies. I just want to be honest to myself.
This means going beyond the invisible walls that refuse games (and art) to talk about taboos. It takes special courage to attain this goal, especially for a mainstream game like NieR Automata. But this honesty could also amount to nothing. A video game with that much honest could be nothing but a footnote in the annals of history. Yet, it is something worth the belief according to many staff members in Square Enix — a S-E producer threatened to quit if Automata was not made.
Why are people trying to create something different for once? They can play it safe and make another simple action RPG that meets the audience’s expectations. Yet, they are ready to make a game that can make genres obsolete — action elements blending into shoot ’em up mechanics.
Is there meaning to their actions in this eternal recurrence of art?
When the player gets ending C and D, the androids 9S and A2 are destroyed and their fates unsalvageable. But if the player so wishes to continue, they can reach ending E by accessing the staff roll once more in any ending. Pod 153 says that the data will soon be deleted and the YoRHa project will execute soon. But Pod 042 (possibly named after Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) has an epiphany from cross-referencing data between the pods and refuses to delete the data out of its volition. Pod 042 doesn’t believe this is right and you are given the choice to continue resisting, revealing that the players are actually controlling these pods all the time.
The final true boss now appears: it is the staff roll of the game. You have to shoot the credits out of the way with one tiny triangle. It seems like a long and drawn out match. The player also hears Pod 042 admitting that the pods are created for the YoRHa project and they shouldn’t have emotions. But Pod 042 says, “When we six were connected and exchanged information, something happened. I cannot deny the feeling of something resembling consciousness and emotions being born.” When Pod 153 says it is unable to reply, Pod 042 continues, “Perhaps, we now understand that not everything has to have an answer.”
The player is left alone to shoot out the credits while “Weight of the World” and 壊レタ世界ノ歌 (lit. The Song of the Destroyed World) play. In the English version of (i.e. “Weight of the World”), the lyrics sound like they are coming from 2B’s feelings and she has trouble holding up the weight of the world. In the Japanese version (i.e. 壊レタ世界ノ歌), the lyrics read like 9S grieving over 2B’s deaths.
The final boss is easy up till the player reaches Square Enix Co. Ltd which shoots out complicated danmaku patterns, similar to those found in CAVE games and Ikaruga which is Yokoo’s favorite game. The player will die and the game gives you the option to give up. But the player continues. They die again and words start popping up. These words come from players around the world cheering the player on. The player dies a couple of times and the prompt asks the player if you think “games are silly little things” or if there is “meaning in this world”. The player refuses even if there is no answer why and there is a message prompt that says a player is requesting to help them. Choosing yes brings all the players with the messages to help this player and defeat the final boss. The songs “Weight of the World” and 壊レタ世界ノ歌 now play with background vocals resembling choirs — signifying that the weight of the world is not being held by one person anymore but shared with everybody.
It is impossible to express the catharsis I had playing through Ending E in mere words. Fighting a video game might be one of the most ingenious final bosses of all time.
The pods, conscious of their actions, have repaired all the androids. Pod 042 admits that fixing everything might make the same situation occur again, but it also doesn’t deny that there may not be a different outcome. There could be a new future. And Pod 153, a pod named after 042 with its three digits added by one, agrees: it is up to the automatons to have their own futures.
There is reason for the pods to believe automatons can be as conscious as them. 2B has violated the commandment to kill other androids since she is a combat machine and has killed 9S many times without any help. 9S wants to kill A2 as his goal in life while A2 chooses to live amidst existentialist crises. These automatons have acquired emotions, wants, and needs. They are emergent.
Just like anyone living in this world.
There is no need to find meaning. We can say our goals in life can be to read books, create a beautiful family, make video games, or even say the meaning to life is 42. There is meaning to producing something new, even if we can’t explain it.
That is of course paradoxical: meaning needs to be stated. To search for meaning and then finding your position as absurd is the definition of a paradox. You could say Nietzsche’s whole philosophy is paradoxical and contradictory too. But does that matter?
In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence — Yokoo has said this book is influential to his writing process — we find that Ricci has written a book titled Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man in Chinese but the Italian translation has rendered it to just The Paradoxes. The nuance is lost, according to Spence, because a paradoxical man is how the True Man behaved. Quoting from The Book of Zhuangzi:
The True Man of ancient times knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death. He emerged without delight; he went back in without a fuss. He came briskly, he went briskly, and that was all. He didn’t forget where he began; he didn’t try to find out where he would end. He received something and took pleasure in it; he forgot about it and handed it back again. This is what I call not using the mind to repel the Way, not using man to help out Heaven. This is what I call the true man.
Having faith in something that might not exist is paradoxical and that’s why it matters. The true man is the paradoxical man. And the paradoxical man is the ubermensch, the overman who goes beyond man because man is meant to be overcome.
That much is true for the automatons who are going into their new future, but we humans too have to overcome men. The state of man has forced us to conform to the restrictions of gender, sexuality, and even how we define ourselves. Therefore, we have to reject the simple tenets of the humanism and the human condition, love our fate and ourselves, and be transhumanist ourselves.
This means we will have to be like the automatons: we humans need to learn how to be human and not take everything for granted. We have to go beyond the limits and see our meaningless actions meaningful.
We have to go beyond our own invisible walls and veer into the unknown.
44 thoughts on “Yokoo Tarou’s Eternal Recurrence: Transhumanism in NieR: Automata”
Good article, I really enjoyed it! Though question, when the Pod says “we six”, that would be the two Pods, A2, 2B, 9S and the player, right? I thought that was what he meant.
I believe it has to do with the numbers of the pods as well. 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are not just numbers but the characters of Drag-on Dragoon/Drakengard 3. The doves at the beginning and end of the game make that connection.
EDIT: Moogy also reminded me that 042 says “我々6体”, 体 being the counter word. You can read it as “we six units”.
Hmm, okay, thanks!
if you look at their exchanges beforehand, each of the pods has 3 versions of itself. 042a, 042b, 042c, 153a, 153b and 153c. when they converse, different ones light up, so even if you have it under 042, any one of the three will light up at any time.
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First I’d like to thank for being so thorough and handling such a large number of the game’s central themes it helped me piece together a good number of things that I didn’t see before due to some lacking in my analysis or simple lack of playtime and information The story of Adam and Eve for example went completely past me and I had a hard time interpreting it meaningfully and this post helped me a lot in placing them within the game’s narrative so many thanks for that. I’d like to apologize beforehand for the length of this comment but I assumed the author of such a passionate piece would be appreciative of comments on a somewhat deeper level. Also please excuse my English, it’s not my first language and it’s gotten pretty rusty over the years xP.
You mentioned that as we progress killing machines feels like a meaningless action to the player as he discovers more about YoRHa and the machines’ nature. I disagree with that assumption for two reasons. The first is due to the degree I sympathized with 9S’s blind hatred for machines (which I believe was shared by many players). I don’t remember ever feeling a desire for revenge to the extent I did while on 9S’s path. The raw hate and lust for destruction hit too close to home… The 2nd is related to a theme that I feel is important but seems to have escaped you, or that you interpreted it differently. I believe “programing” in this game is a device Taro uses to reflect on human nature and tendencies. I think that even in an ideal “post-God” world built on Nietzchean ideas, Taro believes that human nature will always be something inescapable (which is where I see his disagreement with Nietzsche and the uniqueness in his philosophy). That is to say, that even if the human escapes the shackles of values (the whole system of ethics and assumptions that Nietzsche sees as being ultimately derived from God, at least symbolically), he won’t escape his own nature, there is no other choice for the individual but to accept it’s existence and forge his way bearing the burden of fighting and compromising with it. An idea which builds on this notion is that machines are a reflection of humans while androids are closer to the Übermensch. Machines are unable to escape their existential dreads without clinging to a certain value (whether it be loyalty, religion, or something else) and building their entire Weltanschauung around it, something which most of us do, even if ours is deeper and more diversified both qualitatively and quantitatively. The androids on the other hand are indeed confronted with the shock of the “death of God” but are still able to somewhat maintain their willpower and thought, things which I believe Nietzsche values strongly in the Ubermensch. I think the fact that the notions of gender and sexuality being in a territory that is “post-human” in contrast to machines which still emulate them is also a strong sign that this is the case. What would Taro be trying to tell us assuming all this is true? I believe he is trying to show his disagreement with Nietzsche on the ideal nature of the Übermensch, in the sense that even the Übermensch still isn’t completely free and his nature is his “shackle” ( I say that because I believe Taro tries to portray it in it’s complexity, both as subconscious driving force that exerts some control over us, as well as potential source of genuine meaning) thus making the entire game narrative conclusion both more tragic and more hopeful.
I was planning to write something on every critical aspect you touched upon in the article (and there is quite the number of them indeed!) but this point alone ended up being quite long and I didn’t even give my own opinion on Taro’s messages so there’s that xD. I would still very much love to somehow discuss more aspects in depth if you’re interested though.
Hi, thanks for the long comment.
1) Maybe this is my biases coming into video games but I actually don’t like “killing” enemies. Even with fantastical depictions, there’s something wrong about it. That’s the whole concept of Drag-on Dragoon 1: who in the world would enjoy these Musou/Dynasty Warrior games? Caim would.
Throughout the Yokooverse as I like to call it, I sort of see killing enemies as a necessary evil. When you roam around NieR killing the 魔物 (no idea what the English localization is — they’re the enemies who are later revealed to be Gestalts), you are basically killing children. The items they drop are kids’ toys. Later on, B route reveals that you are actually killing even more children and making the conflict between Gestalt and Replicants worse. Then finally, you end up separating the Gestalt and Replicant forever by killing the 魔王/Shadowlord out of your human completionism. A pretty bad idea since you make the human race extinct.
Drag-on Dragoon/Drakengard 3 also has soldiers running away from you and they scream how vile you are as a monster. I still remember how angry One was when she said how wicked Zero was to kill all of her sisters at D route.
It’s hard to sympathize with any of the protagonists in the Yokooverse as much as I do find myself emotionally invested in them.
Regarding 9S, his revenge is actually meaningless and later “neutralized”. If you go to the sunken city, 2B leaves a message in her Ikaruga ship. The flowers quest in CD route also shows that 9S is aware how meaningless his quest is. But that doesn’t matter because he believes that he has no choice but to kill A2.
2) Human nature (or at least the concept of Man as Nietzsche puts it) will of course return to the automatons. We see this in various sidequests; I recall talking to a friend about how this animal-loving bot tells you to go kill this stag that has killed animals. Of course, that’s a hilarious contradiction and it is later revealed that the stag is hostile because it wants to protect the animals. It is these contradictions that actually define humaneness in automatons.
I don’t believe there is a dichotomy between machines and androids. The androids are clearly not the ubermensch because they are the ones inciting the crusades. They need the crusades to have meaning. In fact, 9S actually suffers from knowing that humans are dead. The whole idea of YoRHa is to make that “religion” of humans be infallible. They believe they need religion, just like humans.
So the machines and androids are one and the same — hence, the colonialist connotation I am implying. They are different ethnicities, but they are the same thing: an automaton. The pods make this clear by saying “we six units” at the end, putting them together with the androids.
The automaton is the “new human” so to speak. Well, they are literally transhumanists because they are beyond humanity. Emergence is very closely related to being the ubermensch who Nietzsche describes many times and quite interestingly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…
“Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.”
He succinctly describes the state of “man” or the human condition as such here too:
“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss…
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under…”
Of course, what does it mean as you asked when the machines are emulating humans with all their weird societal behaviors? Could this be a return to the human nature that causes defeat? Is it a repeat of history ala eternal recurrence? That might be so, but we can at least find solace that there might be a different future — even if “human nature” returns. The ubermensch may never exist in its entirety and history might repeat. But hope is what Ending E preaches. Hope that the automatons can transcend humanism and the human condition that is so flawed and caused our destruction.
At least that’s how I interpret it.
There are some other themes I wish I can talk about — I consider this post as one of the introductions to Automata — but hopefully, there will be more opportunities to talk about. I’ve been thinking about the themes of suicide in DoD3 and Automata lately.
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You won the fucking internet today, sir/madame.
If only I can trade the internet for something better … like more books.
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I may be projecting here, but I read the proposal at the end of Ending E to be Yokoo Tarou’s idea of meaning in a meaningless world. You’re asked to sacrifice your save file to help out others. What you sacrifice, other than the time you spent playing the game, is the game itself. A game of Yokoo’s creation, his message, his themes. His game is a massive arrow, an arrowhead built out of the metal from thousands of dead machines… And at the tip is nothing more than a request to use it, to sacrifice it, in the name of helping others.
That’s what got to me the most.
That’s an interesting idea. Lately, in Japanese media, there has been works “sacrificing itself” to be a commentary on the industry and audience.
I don’t really think of Ending E as inherently messianic though. You are given the choice this time to delete your save data or not. Choosing No won’t hurt anything and you are free to finish the sidequests you haven’t done, do the other endings like Y, and play with the debug room. Choosing Yes of course means you do sacrifice your data for others and it seems like that’s what he wants you to do. But there’s nothing barring you to do that.
Why you choose Yes is an individualistic thing. As the pods give you situations where your sacrificed save data, you have to keep on saying “Yes” because you believe in whatever reason you have. At one point, Pod 042 says that doing this might just be a way to think yourself as a 偽善者. That question actually stopped me for a while and I wondered if I really should delete my data. But I did.
My reason isn’t to help out others but rather to believe in Yokoo. Whatever he chooses to do, I will support him. I suppose that’s why I have written this post; it is a way of showing that support. I want to carry the weight of the world with him. He truly inspires me as a person.
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I wanted to choose no, there were sidequests I hadn’t done, endings to experience… But choosing No means invalidating someone else’s Yes. I’d have to play through the credits again, which means I’d have to get help again, and if I read it correctly, you only get to help one person. Two people would have to sacrifice their saves for me to help out once. The cycle is made to decay, which kinda mirrors the gestalt program itself, doesn’t it?
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The act of killing and how people justify it to themselves was what really got me in NieR:Automata.
When you start the game you just kill the machines because you are told to. They are “enemies” after all, even if the first ones aren’t even hostile. The combat is even pretty fun and it encourages to build your own optimized killing machine.
The more I saw the world and different machines (e.g. Pascal’s village) the next step was to start thinking that there’s good and bad machines. But somewhere around route B finally the realization that all the machines are basically the same came to me and the concept of “good & bad machines” was just my own arbitrary distinction made to justify killing them.
And then it hit me. Is this why people are able to wage wars on other cultures? Not trying to understand the other side, just label them whatever appropriate enough to justify the meaningless slaughter. Unconsciously even.
After that kind of personal revelation Automata became kind of painful to play and it got worse and worse when everything you do becomes more and more meaningless the farther you progress. I almost hated myself for playing through the resource collectors.
What a powerful game.
If you enjoy questioning killing people, check out the original NieR and Drag-On Dragoon/Drakengard 1 and 3. A friend once said of NieR that he feels really bad killing animals because they are actually, you know, animals. Yokoo Tarou’s games basically make you question why you are doing this in the first place. The dog-eat-dog world is meaningless and you have to struggle through it. I think it’s quite fascinating.
I do wonder what Yokoo would think of Spec Ops: The Line, if he ever played it.
Absolutely fantastic write-up! I love your analysis and depth of interpretation. Thank you for putting in this much effort.
It was fun writing it and then reading up the dialog afterwards on various places like Reddit. It’s interesting to see people disagree with me on the ending’s lore and even Pascal, so I hope people write counter-responses to my essay soon. I also want a post that hones in on gender — I have lately been thinking about how the machines are literally “performing” gender too — but I am not too experienced with the subject.
There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t touched on, so it’d be cool if people can write even more in the future. That’s one of my hopes with this write-up: to inspire more people to write stuff on Automata.
Wow, congratulations, it´s a really nice essay. I would like to ask you for your permission to translate it into spanish and post it in a spanish forum. Of course, i would credit you as the original author and will place a link to this page.
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Sure, I don’t mind it.
I’m not sure how to say it but this was a great article. I just finished E and when it came down to the choice of sacrificing myself for another I was unable to with the poor reasoning of “I still have more to complete”. Yet now I feel the crushing weight of responsibility to do so. Wouldn’t it have been better to done it then and there? Is there a point in completing the quests that make the world a bit worse just to be able to experience the game more? It feels as though making the choice to delete later won’t make the regret at not making the “right choice” when it mattered the most go away.
Well that’s just a bit of what I’m feeling and your thoughts have definitely resonated with mine. Maybe if I were more articulated and educated I could write something as a proper response to this. Anyway I feel Yokoo Tarou did achieve something I haven’t felt or experienced from other games, and it definitely feels like small hole has been poked through that invisible wall.
Automata may be that one small hole in the invisible wall in the future, but the fact the hole exists lets people remember they too can make holes in that invisible wall.
And don’t worry: I don’t consider myself articulated and educated either. I have reread the article recently and thought I should have cut down the synopsis in the beginning and added more stuff on the gender part — I recently learned Judith Butler is inspired by Simone Beauvoir.
Any kind of response will do to a silly essay like this.
Thanks for the thoughtful essay. That’s interesting to read. I find it interesting in regard Adam and Eve case, that they choose to present what so called the weakness in women through a young child personality and in sibiling relationship with Eve. Since I can relate a lot with their interactinon as me and my younger brother in our younger days. I’m kinda suprised to see how similar Eve’ s dependency is to how my younger brother used to.
Of the characters in Automata, Adam and Eve are probably the most memorable to me. Maybe this is me being a fudanshi, but the relationship between them is fascinating when you think of the Biblical connotations and how we always treat Eve as the “problematic” one.
Adam and Eve in Automata are merely brothers, but they need each other. Eve’s dependency is rather, for lack of a better word, organic and seems to have evolved from his trust in Adam. This more-than-human response shows how AI can not just learn how to depend but also find to learn how to trust one another.
After all, trust and dependency would mean Eve knows he is weak. A robot that knows it is weak is a peculiar one, but a human that knows they are weak isn’t. Weakness is part of the evolution in AI, it seems. No one will be a perfect machine with total independence. Instead, they will have to depend on other machines to make the world happen. I’m thinking of that forest kingdom with the baby king actually.
It is fascinating to see you parallel with them. I’ve only had elder sisters and I was very dependent on them as well. I knew it was “weak” of me, but that’s how the relationship of power and affection goes.
You may have seen that tweet between a hypothetical conversation between Yokoo Tarou and David Cage. Cage asked if a robot could ever be a human, but Yokoo asked if a human could ever learn to be a human. Cage was confused why would anyone say that. However, Yokoo’s Automata is teaching how humans learn to be humans by observing machines become human. This part is especially apparent with Adam and Eve who learn to be human and Eve finds himself in despair and cannot grieve properly, hence the final boss fight in A and B.
Eve not being able to grieve and be independent is something I am sure many of us saw in ourselves. And that’s part of the magic in Automata: it shows who we are through what are supposed to be lifeless robots.
Thank you for this excellent thesis
And thank you for reading this!
[…] wouldn’t do a very good job of it, and because Kastel’s already written an interesting article that you should maybe check out. Instead, I’ll just ramble about some of the things that […]
Thanks for making this beautiful essay
For me at least.. Lol.. You can tie so much nice reference which expand the game itself into a deep novel philosophy
I hate spoiler, but after I erased Pascal memories this game struck me hard in the heart, I cant help but to seek knowledge, anything deeper about this game
Then I stumble upon your writting and kinda feel it filled my hole a bit
I am devastated for all the tragedies on 3rd chapter, and havent even reach the ending yet (and I saw 9s and A2 lies on pool of blood above lol), but the spoiler matter little for me now
I have to play this game to 5th ending, even if it means I have to borrow my office usb modem and connect my virus ridden PC to internet
I want to feel the hope to humanity myself
This game is beyond beautiful, it ends full circle in grim eclipse, but the silver lining it creates all speak about hope and fulfilling dream
Thank you Kastel for this essay, and thank you Yoko Tarou for this classic masterpiece
I am in awe
Wow, thank you! I hope you enjoy the game as much as I did!
Hey, small note:
in a never-ending spiral of life and death.
We are perpetually trapped
Is closer to the correct annotation, I believe.
I decided to keep the localization change because it’s more readable that way.
In that case, I might have printed the translation all together under the Japanese, otherwise it makes it seem like the English is a translation of the line that appears above.
This is how the Japanese and English lines come out and it is normal for comparison.
Also, I’m getting the sense that the literal translation of the last two lines in the opening is,
“I wonder whether we will ever draw a bow (fight) against the God who hands out these insoluble puzzles.”
No, that is a common figure of speech that means to rebel.
Why does it mean to rebel? I remember lots of Chinese phrases originally come from some literary source or other. Does it originally come from a context that has to do with rebellion?
But the whole sentence, anyway, is
“I wonder whether we will ever draw a bow (rebel) against the God who hands out these insoluble puzzles.”
a correct literal translation?
I actually like the localization better than the original — it’s more shocking and seems to better fit the terseness of 2B.
It’s the definition found in the dictionary. There is probably an etymology for this that shows how it is related to rebellion.
That part is written in passive tense, so it would be difficult to write it literally. Hence, the localizafion breaking it into two parts.
Sorry to keep peppering you with questions. I’m starting to learn Japanese after studying Chinese for awhile, so i’m just trying to piece things together bit by bit. I’d love to hear if you have any advice.
Great piece by the way — it’s a wonderful game. I really love how all the robots are named after philosophers.
Just read a lot.
[…] Anything we do can lead us into trouble. However, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We will inevitably end ourselves and nihilism with a dose of absurdism seems to be the only philosophy that makes sense in this kind of world. That’s almost a given. However, we can still see something beyond the beautiful but dangerous fire. I can’t tell you what it is, but Yokoo’s Automata did that to me and forced me to write a long ass essay about it. […]
This is the first piece I’ve read in a long time to truly make me feel stupid. Not only because of obvious things I missed like Adam and Eve’s thematic relevance (beyond reflecting 2B and 9S’ relationship), but because of how well thought-out and put together your essay is. I hope to one day reach this standard with my analyses and plan to read more from your blog. While Yokoo Tarou has inspired you to write, your work has done the same for myself. I realize this article is quite old but I felt I needed to share.
Hey, thanks for the comment. I nowadays blog at http://mimidoshima.wordpress.com and my writing account is @kastelwrites on Twitter. Glad I inspired you to write!
[…] ink has been spilled on eternal recurrence in the context of Nier Automata, so I want to focus on one overlooked detail: the nature of nature, so as to speak. With androids […]
What a great read.
[…] 2017, Yakoo Tarou’s Eternal Recurrence: Transhumanism in NieR: Automata, Tanoshimi, https://tanoshimi.xyz/2017/03/21/violet-evergarden-spoilers/, consultado a 27 de Janeiro de […]
I’m more than a little late to the party but this is an absolutely fantastic read and reflection on Nier: Automata and the themes within. Thank you for this!