“Back and Forth on Nier: Automata,” by Astrid B and Ed Smith

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Ed Smith and previous Bullet Points contributor Astrid B disagree about Nier: Automata. We asked them to state their cases.

Astrid B: Do you like anime, Ed? I think it’s important to clarify this upfront.

Ed Smith: I am not versed in anime. From what I’ve seen of it and how I see it discussed, I don’t like it. But frankly I don’t know enough to comment.

I’ve seen Akira. I’ve seen Metropolis. I think they’re both moderately good. I like Killer7.

Astrid: I only ask because Nier tells its story like an anime. It doesn’t bother with much setup, ostensibly, but in hindsight the entire first two playthroughs are setup (signaled by the absurdly late title card that I got a full 30 hours in). Like Evangelion or From the New World (yep, I’m doing this) it spends a lot of time stringing the audience along with a slooooooowly widening understanding of its world, until the rug is pulled out. It assumes the player will see its story through to the end, so it backloads a lot of its plot movement.

But I don’t think it is nearly as cynical in its use of philosophical allusions (“allusions” in the sense that “John Locke” on Lost was an allusion) as you suggest. It’s a little unfair that you’ve written a piece and I haven’t, so I’m going to be picking at that while you flail helplessly to defend yourself against my logic blitzkrieg.

To get into the game’s cynicism or lack thereof I have to ask one more thing: Did you play through to the final ending?

Ed: You’re right that it’s unfair I’ve already had the chance to articulate in 1,000 plus words, so rather than expect you to reply to that article, I’ll sum it up and use that summary as my jumping off point: By speaking about basic human experiences in saccharine terms and making more complex ones seem frightening and damaging, by featuring a cast entirely comprised of robots, which as they become more “human” also grow more insane, and by revealing that humanity itself is, in the game’s idiosyncratic sense, a lie, Nier: Automata is much more nihilistic than it would have us believe.

I got the final ending. I thought it was cheap and did little to redress an imbalance between optimism and pessimism in regards to humankind. I’d certainly concede that relinquishing their immortality and in doing so finding something like peace is, as Reid observed, a hopeful moment. But I’m unconvinced as to what that tells us about being and feeling human. We are mortal and, like the protagonists at the end of Automata, fully aware that we will die, but we are certainly not at peace. To have the characters freed from a dilemma, or even mildly relieved of it, through their accepting the inevitability of death seems directly contradictory to the existential crises throughout the rest of the game—the very thing that is implied to make a human human in the first place.

Astrid: What strikes me about the game is how it handles cycles, specifically the cycles of imitation-cum-evolution that run in descending spirals, from humanity to androids to machines to, in the end, the pods. They’re all enacting behaviour they’ve seen elsewhere, but I think the mantra of “machines can’t feel” is fully disproved by the end. When the pods decide to revive 9S, 2B, and A2 they are allowing them to live for the first time without the illusion that they are weapons being used for a greater purpose. Whatever choices they make after that point will be theirs alone, not enforced by dogma from above. They may well fall back into the patterns of violence that defined them before, but I don’t think that’s an outlandish or pessimistic notion at all considering human history.

I don’t think the game is nihilistic about humanity; it explores free will and existentialism at a sort of remove, by showing us humankind’s various vices and virtues embodied in a cast of nonhuman characters. The metafictional business with the ending credits says a whole lot: it asks you to sacrifice your save file, which in the context of a game is akin to your “memories”—it is the sum of your experience with this thing—for the chance to help a single other person make it through. It felt to me like a sort of openhearted gesture, a sincere, maybe corny proclamation that people need help to make it through life.

One of the strangest moments in the game to me is the gap between the . . . um . . . third and fourth endings, I think. In one, A2 sends 9S to safety, while in the other they kill each other, predicated on who the player chooses to control. The rest of the endings can be plausibly read as continuations of the game, but this one is an alternate version of events. Overall the way the game uses endings as a storytelling device is fascinating, but I don’t know if you want to talk about that as much.

Ed: I’m beginning to think I may have a problem with this game beyond what it does and what I think it is saying. Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but I can’t help feeling that the language we’re using, the language a lot of people are using, and the language the game itself uses to describe itself betrays an interest less in people and more in concepts pertaining to people. I think it is wide yet shallow. Certainly, in the end, when the protagonists are freed from their false purpose (though I still find it typical of games’ cynicism that humanity in Automata is quite literally a lie) the game seems optimistic. Rather than merely imitate our behaviour, the robots are liberated to act how they like, and that independence, whether it produces human-like action or not, is, the game insists, human-like in and of itself. I’d argue it’s a simplistic hope—we people are not free from influence, pressure, or assumed responsibility; we take essence from our surrounds and are not liberated to the extent 9S, 2B, and A2 seem to be by Automata‘s end. But it comes down on the side of people, I would say, by impressing that machine-like minds of any kind are not truly human.

What concerns me more is what you describe at the start of your second paragraph. The cast of non-human characters. Exploring at a remove. The themes of free-will and existentialism. Ignoring how extremely patronising Nier: Automata is (free-will and existentialism seem like the most basic philosophical questions, which we all explored and decided upon when we were smug adolescents reading Kierkegaard for the first time) I struggle to think of one truly compelling exchange between its characters. 9S, 2B, A2, and the rest seem like vectors for a cool exploration of ideas. Bluntly, this game feels more the product of book reading than face-to-face, emotionally open experience. I don’t think it’s unfair to expect a game that purports to explore human nature to contain at least one human character; similarly, I think it’s right to feel condescended to when that game doesn’t and is also lauded for its depiction of people and their feelings. I find myself asking: why aren’t there people in Automata?

If the makers of this game really set out to look at people and human experience, why did they make a game not just about robots, but lacking entirely in human characters? I’m perhaps being obtuse, but discussing its finer points seems almost redundant—when it so expressly avoids the topic it also claims knowledge of, when it expects me to be amazed and awakened by philosophical notions batted around by teenagers, I don’t know why I should take Automata seriously. It’s a game that very much wants the credibility of a great story about humans, but also is afraid to take the risks of flawed protagonists or subjectivity.

It seems to me—like Journey, like Papo & Yo, like Brothers, like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture—like a game written by people who haven’t spent enough time outside the game and technology industries, who conflate common emotional pain with urgent experience and which everyone involved in games, from critics to fans, praises in their own defence. Describing, in the sense Automata does, what it means to be human and what it means to die is like showing us pictures of the pyramids and expecting us to feel edified. People will disagree with this. They’ll talk about the idiosyncrasies of [Director and Co-Writer] Yoko Taro’s artistic style, and wrongly conflate his individual way of drawing and writing with him being honest. But I don’t see any bare personality in Automata. I see a practised, deliberate videogame with the unpleasantness of being a human either sanded down or made palatable using academic language. The ending asks us to make a sacrifice, to throw away the many hours we spent playing in aid of another person—the fact videogame save data is used to represent altruism, kindness, and selflessness tells us all we need to know.

Astrid: OK, so: I can’t argue for the profundity of Nier: Automata because it’s just not there, on a writing level. Yoko Taro’s games straddle the same knife’s-edge of absurdity and cogent depth as Hideo Kojima, and it may just be that Taro’s stranger, somehow more idiosyncratic fixations resonate with me more than Kojima’s. Automata‘s philosophy is, as you say, predicated on basic concepts familiar to anyone who’s taken a philosophy class; I don’t think that renders them meaningless, or off-limits, but I take your point.

The game is circuitous and meandering in the way games tend to be, and it only started to resonate with me toward the end of the second playthrough, where the side missions gain some personality and the narrative diverges from the first run. I’m unsure how this multiple playthrough device does not take the risk of subjectivity; it first presents a world that the protagonist seems to accept at face value, then undermines that understanding at every turn. This, the save file business, and squirreling away important narrative details in “weapon stories” or optional bosses are of course tremendously game-y conventions, but I can’t fault a videogame for making use of the fact that it’s a videogame.

I can’t speculate on why the designers made a game about androids as opposed to humans, and I don’t find this to be the sticking point that you do. I think Ghost in the Shell, for example, has only grown in richness since the 90s and it’s not about humans either, semantically speaking. I think it allows for recontextualization of what we both agree are standard philosophical notions. Is it somewhat abstract and removed? Yes. Does that preclude it from meaning? I don’t think so. In fact I think the game continually undermines the “inhumanity” of its characters, from the copious amounts of blood that spill from the androids’ wounds to the myriad ways in which the machines have carved out societies. Even 2B’s idle animations give us a glimpse of her personality, which otherwise she has to keep bottled inside to fulfill her ostensible purpose. There is pain and longing and anxiety and fear and love here, amplified by the game’s tremendous score, which is so exploratory and wondrous and emotional that it feels like the characters’ subconsciousness splayed open.

Sure, this is all academic language. I may just find that more rewarding than you do, in which case we have no recourse but to fight to the death. I really can’t put Automata on the same level as Papo & Yo or Brothers, which each have one trick intended to gutpunch you emotionally; compounded by the “childlike” metaphors at work.

Ed: I love your points about the soundtrack and 2B’s animations. You’re certainly right that the game is evocative in ways besides its writing. By that measure it appeals to our humanity more than some of its contemporaries. I also agree about the save file flourish right at the conclusion—why not use the form’s peculiarities? I feel that writers without anything left or substantive to say (Kojima particularly in his later games) resort to such post-modernism. Discussing the medium within the medium is the artistic equivalent of a get rich quick scheme. But Automata isn’t that basic. You’re right.

Particularly after you mention the bloodletting, I find myself asking: why the half measures? This game does go to lengths to make its characters human. It also resists going the whole way. For all its sexual imagery I can’t think of one meaningful, or lustful, physical embrace in the whole thing. For all their emotions, we are constantly and deliberately reminded (9S’ ability to hack “telepathically”) that the protagonists aren’t people. It’s as if Automata has escape routes prepared in case it’s called out for being only fleetingly humane—it can retreat to its science fiction and anime backdrop. And I have to wonder why. Why does this game seem timid around its characters? Why is its discussion about people simultaneously couched in a story about robots?

This is the same concern I have with Brothers, et al. A 1:1, reality to game ratio isn’t what I’m after, but these works seem allegorical so as to avoid too rigourous an appraisal.

Astrid: I agree that work that “speaks to the very nature of the medium itself” or whatever tends to eat its own tail real fast, and I’m glad Automata stays away from banal self-reflexivity.

I think the game’s sexuality is abstracted into the penetrative act of hacking; this is a deep rabbit hole, but I would argue the androids’ loligoth outfits and deferential demeanour reflects their status as servants/dolls, and thus they are dehumanized even beyond being “androids.” And to me the game tells its story the way it does because it is interested in exploring those broad philosophical ideas, in the way that (bear with me) directors Jean-Luc Godard or Michelangelo Antonioni or writer J.G. Ballard use characters and formal elements as absurd or alienating or blackly comic symbolic markers of larger thematic preoccupations.

Yoko Taro strikes me as a much more emotionally involved writer, and his primary fixation through his career has been that human (or android) life has value, and to enjoy or justify killing is repulsive and morally wrong. Automata‘s cast of machines, then, makes us rethink, or reexamine (however successfully) how we employ violence to ostensibly just ends. The characters that look most human, the androids, are the most warlike, and have the least capacity for empathy and self-reflection. The characters that look least human, the machines, have formed villages and engage in all the social behaviours of humankind save for war. This is a simple dichotomy, but the game explores it sincerely, I think.

And that’s what strikes me about Nier: Automata overall. You say you don’t see any personality in the game, but from the writing to the combat (a large debt to Kingdom Hearts aside) to the character designs to the music I feel it is brimming with honesty and an almost termite art-like specificity of vision. It is finicky and prickly the way PlayStation 2 RPGs were; it does not cater to the buffet of conveniences and content you might expect from a modern, big-budget game put out by a studio at Square Enix’s level. That’s not an airtight argument for its quality, but it is what made me fall in love with the game.

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Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.

Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.