“Breaking the Cycle in Nier: Automata,” by Reid McCarter

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There’s no guarantee that long after humanity has died off, we won’t still exist. Immortality beyond the destruction of our bodies is a contradictory, but preoccupying, idea: religions, ancient and new, promise to answer what will happen when we inevitably go. The Abrahamic religions detail an afterlife where our souls, severed from the fleeting confines of the flesh, carry on to supernatural realities and exist forever, blessed, punished, or stagnating as non-physical continuations of the self. Hinduism and Buddhism understand the soul’s journey as cyclical—a process of death and rebirth that ends only with a further understanding of the universe and full knowledge of the individual’s place within it+.

Nier: Automata’s hyper-sophisticated androids and artificially intelligent robots aren’t human, but close to it. In the game’s version of the far future, humanity exists as a godlike presence—never seen, but assuredly existing just out of view. The android soldiers controlled by the player, 2B, 9S, and A2, are warriors for this humanity, tasked with wiping out vicious machines responsible for an apocalypse that’s left the planet unsafe for human life. But twist after plot twist, the characters learn the humanity they’re ostensibly protecting is actually long since extinct. The war the androids fight is pointless. They repeat the same battles over and over again without significant change and when during each cycle they come too close to learning more about their nature, one is ordered to kill the other, essentially rebooting his memory.

Automata imagines a future where organic, animal life (aside from some moose and boars) has been supplanted by robots which approximate humanity to varying degrees. The android characters—more physically “evolved” than the tottering wind-up toy machine army they fight—look like people and act, in their particular, deliberately stilted way, like people, too. It’s only when they die that they forcefully remind us they’re something other than human. Since their personality and memories consist of quantifiable digital information, the loss of a body doesn’t mean much. The android’s consciousness is uploaded to a server and downloaded into a new frame. They’ve become more than human by cracking the problem of death. Their thoughts and memories, recorded as data, can live forever. They represent the next step in intelligent life, evolved beyond death itself.

Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell comic, serialized from 1989-1990 and adapted as an animated film by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, explores this idea, too. Like Automata, many of Ghost in the Shell’s characters are essentially a technologically evolved version of humanity; the essence of who they are (a consciousness or “soul” that the comic and movie dub their “ghost”) can be transplanted from cyborg body to cyborg body. Where Ghost in the Shell ends with the eerie realization of completely non-sexual, non-physical digital reproduction, its protagonist merging her ghost with that of an artificial intelligence, Automata wants to understand what comes after this milestone has been reached. Given the complete establishment of a functioning society where individual and collective intelligence has become immortal, Automata is interested in showing how evolution continues even after humanity has been largely discarded.

The science of digitized consciousnesses ends up colliding with theology—even with enormous technological advances, Automata‘s cast finds itself needing to look back at the same existential questions humanity has always grappled with. Where a game created in the West like Frictional’s SOMA finds a terminal point even in posthuman existence (the infinite black void of the ocean depths swirling around a single robotic person, their consciousness potentially surviving in a pastoral digital heaven of humanity’s own making), Automata is couched in the cyclical understanding of consciousness that comes from a culture informed not by Judeo-Christian thought but in large part by Buddhist theology.

The character of 9S, the boyish android who must be killed by his partner when coming too close to learning the truth of humanity’s extinction, makes this clear. He’s trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth not unlike the central Buddhist++ concept of samsara—a ceaseless form of reincarnation, ended only with the achievement of the profound insight and enlightened release of nirvana. As 9S discovers the truth of his manipulation he begins, little by little, to come to a realization. Alongside knowledge of his futile, endless mission, he and the player watch the machines, their nominal enemies, fumble toward a human-like “evolution” characterized by a suicidal embrace of religion, pointless sex, and the horror of loss. 9S, a stand-in for advanced androids who have supplanted humanity, is filled with rage.

Automata suggests that long after human extinction, a digitized version of our consciousness will be trapped in cycles that make literal the metaphysics of samsara. The same patterns repeat again and again, with new forms of intelligence searching for answers through war, an endless drive to reproduce, and philosophical simplification of organized religion. They, too, find only existential despair. As Caty McCarthy notes in an excellent look at how death is presented in Automata, the androids are “. . . forever tethered to [a] never-ending cycle: of death, resurrection, eventual death again.” It’s only in the game’s “True Ending,” when the androids accept the pointless struggle of their rebirths and destroy the server whose consciousness uploads and downloads allow them to live forever that “. . . they, for the first time, experience freedom.” 9S, 2B, and A2 are shown, now mortal, to live in a peace established by their breaking the cycle of an eternally recurring life and death.

This, Automata’s True Ending, is markedly different from the four circular conclusions that precede it. Rather than ask the player to yet again move through variations on prior storylines (the first two iterations of the narrative repeat the same events only with the player reborn in two different, parallel roles; the second set are different ends to the same plot), the story’s “complete” ending puts a stop to every cycle experienced by the androids, machines, and the player herself in its lead-up. Both audience and cast have seen the futility of not just the in-game narrative’s reincarnations, but this cyclical plot structure, too. The only way to break free from it is to destroy all notions of immortality. The androids see the machines “evolve” into disappointing reiterations of humanity and themselves as facilitators of an order that traps them in a pointless, never-ending war filled with horror. They respond by destroying the server that enables this. The player responds by deleting her save file, the sacrifice turning their lost data into a glorified power-up that helps other overcome an otherwise impossible endgame challenge.

Both within and outside Automata itself, from 9S’ rage to the cast and players refusing to enable a terrible cycle, it’s only through an echo of dukkha (“life is suffering”), the foundation of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, that release can be found. Far from an outright prescription of a religion, the game only suggests a universal truth to one of humanity’s enduring philosophical understandings. It sees that technology borne from our species will still contain our imprints and, because of this, fall victim to the same problems that have always plagued us and likely always will. The digitization of consciousness only makes literal and measurable the basic questions of life and death that have obsessed humanity since our beginnings as a species. Automata’s answers make sense, imperfect though they might be, because they understand that coming to terms with our potential future requires an acknowledgement of the lessons of our past.

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+ These descriptions and examples are by no means comprehensive.

++ Again, this is shorthand. Samsara is also a central aspect of other non-Buddhist major Indian religions, including Hinduism.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.