Nier Automata: Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

Nier creator Taro Yoko is particularly fascinated with death: not only the concept itself, but also how different people respond to it.

Yoko’s interest in the subject, as we’ve previously discussed, stems from a traumatic experience in his youth when he witnessed the accidental, easily avoidable death of a friend and discovered, to his surprise, that there was something oddly humorous in the moment as well as it being horrifying. Someone’s existence had come to a premature end, yes, but there was something fundamentally ridiculous about how it had happened; how sudden it was; and how everyone was powerless in the moment to prevent it from happening.

The inherent ridiculousness of death — particularly accidental death — is something that gamers have been familiar with for many years. And so what better medium through which to explore the concept itself — and what better characters to do so with than those that can’t die through conventional means?

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Nier: Automata opens with a dramatic sequence that involves android 2B infiltrating an abandoned factory that has been taken over by the game’s antagonistic forces, the “machine lifeforms”. Supported by “scanner” unit 9S, she battles her way through the installation only to find herself face to face with some enormous mechanical enemies — and to make things worse, as soon as she and 9S successfully knock one down thanks to their combined efforts, several more come to take its place.

The situation is hopeless, it seems, until 2B and 9S come to an arrangement to detonate the “black box” devices that they hold within themselves. This is a last resort that will create a blast significant enough to defeat their foes, but also apparently take their lives in the process. Indeed, we’re led to believe that these two characters are about to meet their final moments less than an hour or so into the game, what with them sharing fond farewells and “it was a pleasure to serve with you” platitudes with one another.

It’s not to be, however. We rejoin 2B and 9S on the orbital space station “The Bunker” and discover that androids have the ability to “back up” their important information — including their memories and the things they have learned — and download this backup into a fresh body if they are ever “killed”. Thus, so long as they remember to back up their information on a regular basis — and there’s a suitable supply of bodies on hand — they can effectively live forever, transferring their consciousness from one body to another as needed.

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This, of course, raises some interesting questions that the game does eventually come to answer in its later stages. Most notably, what happens if the facility simply isn’t there for an android to transfer their consciousness into a new body — either through there being no body available for them, or no means for them to access their backed up data? Does this mean that they really die, then? Since they’re mechanical beings — arguably in some ways not so different from the machines they were created to battle against — were they ever really alive in the first place?

It becomes clear early in the narrative that androids have a certain amount of “humanity” about them. Most notably, they are capable of feeling emotions, though 2B notes to 9S early in their initial mission together that “emotions are prohibited”. 9S doesn’t take this “rule” to heart, however, and indeed throughout the entire narrative it becomes increasingly clear that 2B is very much in a minority by attempting to follow this directive where possible, even breaking it herself on more than one occasion.

When we join the story of Nier: Automata, the war between the androids and the machines has been raging for a very long time indeed, while the humans, we’re told, are safely ensconced on the moon, waiting for the day when they might be able to return to their ruined world. Consequently, we can infer that the androids, having been effectively forced to fend for themselves for so long — ten millenia, in fact — have naturally “evolved” their own systems of social conventions in the meantime, including feeling emotions and developing attachments to one another.

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This development is mirrored in what we gradually come to learn about the machine lifeforms that infest the planet’s surface. In their case, however, the fact that they start to show what seems to be “emotion” and an awareness of how “society” works is largely drawn from an attempt to ape human conventions and customs that they have discovered in archives and other relics of a long-forgotten world. That said, like the androids, they, too, have been left to fend for themselves for a very long time indeed, so it’s easy to argue that their development has moved beyond simple parroting of things they read in books or digital archives and onto their own unique twist on things.

It’s interesting to contrast the androids and the machines throughout Nier: Automata, because in almost every respect, they’re represented as undergoing similar developmental processes, just being at markedly different stages. In particular, while the androids are virtually indistinguishable from humans, right down to their variations in appearances and mannerisms, the much more obviously mechanical machines all look as if they have been made to specification.

This disparity between the developmental levels of the androids and the machines extends to their respective societies, too.

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While the androids operate with almost ruthless efficiency, they nonetheless follow human conventions, most notably with regard to chains of command and established procedures. YorHa, the organisation to which both 2B and 9S belong, is a military outfit, and everyone involved with it behaves accordingly.

The machines, meanwhile, are much more chaotic and disorganised — itself something of a contrast to the order and uniformity with which they are manufactured. The first machines we encounter in the story seem to be largely mindless, though one might argue that the aggression they show towards 2B is sign of at least rudimentary cognition. However, once the prologue is over and we find ourselves in the ruined city that forms the centrepiece to the game’s overall setting, we discover that not all machines are mindlessly obsessed with killing. Some simply wander around doing nothing more than “existing”, for no discernible purpose other than to just “be”.

As the narrative progresses, we come across machines with more established senses of society, though these have sprung up in a disorganised, chaotic manner, largely inspired by the relics of humanity they found left behind. In the desert zone, for example, the machines wear fabrics and furs that bring to mind traditional imagery of tribal, nomadic societies — and, indeed, as it becomes apparent that the desert region was home to the city of Facade from the original Nier some ten thousand years previously, it becomes understandable that the machines would have come to base their “customs” on those who had come before them.

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Elsewhere, we find machines that have drawn inspiration from other sources. In an abandoned amusement park, we find machines that have repurposed their weaponry to fire confetti and balloons, and painted themselves to resemble clowns. In the forest, in which stands a huge ruined castle, we find a society of machines that models itself on medieval Europe, believing themselves to be “knights” who live to protect their “king”.

And, most importantly, we discover a village full of pacifist machines who became self-aware as a result of disconnecting from their central controlling network. As the story reveals around the midpoint of the first two playthroughs, the unnamed alien race that brought the machine lifeforms to Earth in the first place are long dead,  and thus there is nothing really stopping machines from disconnecting and becoming “individuals”.

It transpires that different machines coped with their new-found individuality to varying degrees of success. Pascal’s village of friendly pacifists arguably have the right idea — living an inoffensive life isolated from the troubles of the world, but engaging in dialogue and trade with others when circumstances demand it. But it’s also understandable to see cases like “Simone”, a boss fight we discover a considerable amount more about in a second playthrough.

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In the first playthrough, Simone is monstrous, animalistic, chaotic. She eats androids and appears to have no remorse for her actions whatsoever. Only once we reach a second playthrough and 9S is able to hack into her do we uncover the truth about her: she has spent her “life” in the ultimately futile pursuit of both love and beauty, two things that, as a machine, she does not really have the capacity to understand fully. Her desire to become beautiful in an attempt to woo the object of her desire led her to take increasingly drastic measures to modify herself, ultimately culminating in her resorting to what is effectively “cannibalism” and losing her sense of self in the process.

“I can find no indication of the machines creating new cultures or values,” muses 9S later in the story as he investigates how the machines came to rise up from their mindless origins. “They only imitate human behaviour. The strange thing is, if a unit fails, it fails in exactly the same way the next time. They keep performing the same behaviours. They don’t ever learn. When it comes to combat, the machines show overwhelming adaptive behaviour and evolutionary speed. So why do they insist on imitating humanity? And more specifically, why do they imitate their failures? It’s almost as if the objective is failure itself.”

The way the machines developed mirrors that of the “Replicants” from the original Nier: artificial bodies created with the intention of one day reuniting with the “Gestalts” — effectively the “souls” — of Earth’s original occupants. Unfortunately, no-one counted on the Replicants developing a sense of self in their own right, leaving the Gestalts with no place to go. Indeed, it is the actions of Nier himself in the original game that effectively dooms humanity to extinction; without the Gestalts, the Replicants will eventually die out, regardless of their own desire to live their own lives in their own right.

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If there’s a message to this aspect of both Nier and Nier: Automata’s story, it’s that nothing that resembles a living thing can truly be relied upon to be completely flawless and free of distinctly “human” desires. As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and indeed we see this concept explored repeatedly over the course of Automata’s overall narrative, most notably with 9S’ character arc.

9S, we discover, is particularly good at his job as a “scanner”. He is good at digging for information and finding things out, and, during our time with him, we stand alongside him as he discovers the horrifying truth: that humanity actually did die out a long time ago, and YorHa has been perpetuating a lie to the androids in order to give them a sense of meaning and purpose to their existence.

We also discover that it is not the first time 9S has discovered this information, and in fact 2B is the one who has been forced to repeatedly hunt him down, “kill” him and wipe his memories of his discoveries before the cycle eventually repeats once again. It’s not until 2B finally, truly dies once and for all in the third playthrough — thanks to the destruction of The Bunker, her subsequent infection with a logic virus and consequent inability to restore her consciousness from a backup — that the cycle is finally broken and 9S is able to move on with his life. Grief-stricken at the loss of someone who has become particularly important to him, 9S attempts to put an end to the lies on which his “life” has been based up until this point.

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The parallel storyline with third protagonist A2, who becomes playable after 2B’s death in the third playthrough and beyond, also explores this theme of “all good things must come to an end”. Aspects of the game and setting that we have taken for granted are abruptly snatched from us, most notably in the case of Pascal’s previously peaceful village burning down, with many of the machines turning on each other in cases of mechanical cannibalism. Pascal himself manages to escape with the children from the village, but, having previously taught them the concept of fear, returns from a battle alongside A2 to discover that they have all committed suicide out of terror.

With every end comes a new beginning, though, and we also see this idea explored on a number of occasions over the course of Nier: Automata’s narrative. The end of humanity brought about the beginning of the age of the androids, for starters, and the end of the aliens brought forth the beginning of the machines being able to think for themselves, ultimately culminating in their creation of “Adam” and “Eve”, two humanoid machines who take control of their “people” in the stead of their former masters.

Subsequently, the eventual end of Adam and Eve at the hands of 2B and 9S marks the beginning of the androids’ final hour; it’s after we’ve seen these events from both 2B and 9S’ perspectives that we move on to the third playthrough and the overall climax of the story. And, of course, this also marks the part where the end of 2B marks the beginning of A2 having a new sense of purpose to her existence, rather than living in hiding.

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Ultimately, although pretty much all the endings of Nier: Automata conclude with someone or everyone being dead, there’s always a sense that “life” will go on. Indeed, a running thread in the background concerns the androids’ support units, the Pods, developing a sense of self-awareness and sentience in their own right, ultimately culminating in their desires not to see each other die — and to help the world rebuild following the uncovering of the truth. Indeed, the conclusion of the “final” ending to Nier: Automata sees many Pods — far more than that which we’ve seen throughout the rest of the game — apparently collecting android parts with a mind to reassembling their former “masters”.

One of the last shots we see is 2B lying next to 9S on the ground. Whether or not they will wake up from the blissful slumber they’re depicted as enjoying at this point is something that can doubtless be debated, and most certainly either outcome brings up its own questions. Were they to wake up, for example, is there any guarantee that things won’t unfold in exactly the same way as before? And were they to remain beyond the veil of “death”, was there any real purpose to everything that came before? Was there any meaning to everything that unfolded? Are they actually any better off than they were at the outset of the story?

The fact that Nier: Automata inspires such questions, much like its predecessor, is one of the things that makes it such a fascinating and enjoyable work. A great deal is open to interpretation, and doubtless Yoko has his own vision in mind of what is the “right” way to read it — but as anyone who has enjoyed an interview with him or interacted with him on social media will attest, he’s not the sort of creator that will force a particular viewpoint on others, either in person or through his work itself.

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Instead, the rewarding thing about Nier and its sequel in particular is that you, the player, feel like you’re trusted to make your own mind up about what you’ve just seen and what it means. If you enjoyed it purely as a story about pretty robots chopping up machines, great. If you enjoyed it as a nihilistic reflection on the utter meaninglessness of existence, that’s also great. And if you choose to believe that there’s a happy ending waiting for 2B and 9S after the end credits roll… well, that’s great too.

However you choose to interpret the ambitious narrative of Nier: Automata — not to mention its even more ambitious context as part of the broader Drakengard series — it’s a fascinating, compelling and moving tale that is, for my money, one of the greatest achievements in interactive entertainment to date.

Taro Yoko is an incredible auteur with a clear vision for what he wishes to accomplish with his work, and I sincerely hope that Nier: Automata, his highest-profile game to date, brings his entire body of work the attention that it deserves. Here’s to hopefully many more bleak, depressing but fascinating hours in the company of his creations in years to come.


More about Nier Automata

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