“The Erotic Death Drive of Nier: Automata,” by Julie Muncy

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During what could be described roughly as Nier: Automata’s mid-point, the android 9S has his mind invaded by a machine. The assailant, a human-like life form named Adam, interrogates 9S, prodding at the android’s digital mind, torturing him and probing for weaknesses. During this sequence, which is text-based, Adam asks 9S a question that echoes broadly across the game world at large:

“You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”

It’s a striking line, one aimed at the title’s assumed audience as much as the character himself. Automata is a game that sexualizes its cast, and it expects the player to notice. In an interview, director Yoko Taro commented that this was simple prurient interest—he likes sexy girls. Whether that’s true or not, and perhaps more importantly, whether or not that’s an acceptable reason, the game’s preoccupation with sexuality in and outside of the main cast constitutes more than titillation. Automata is obsessed with sexuality and its symbology, employing them in a deliberately provocative fashion..

Adam and the machine lifeforms in general are prime drivers of the game’s fascination with sexuality. During one of the first story missions, 2B and 9S come upon a bizarre tableau. The machines, with their rotund, baby faces, are engaged in something like an orgy. Some are banging their featureless metal torsos together in an imitation of vaginal sex; others are simulating oral. As the centerpiece, a lone machine rocks an empty cradle back and forth, chanting, “Child. Child. Child.” as if in incantation. Sexuality is held up, briefly, as a profound creative force that the machines lack, a means of accessing individuality or humanity that the machine lifeforms, created by unknowable aliens, aren’t able to fully access. Here, for just a brief moment, even in the deranged, incomplete erotic fantasy of the crashing of metal against metal, whispers the possibility of birth.

Then death comes crashing down as our heroes, androids sworn to destroy the machines, get to work. The scene turns into a hectic battleground. “I love you!” one of the machines cries out, immediately following it up with a vow of revenge. This is the fundamental juxtaposition of Automata, an inescapable reality highlighted in every moment of sexual expression or titillation the game has to offer. Sex and death are, for Taro, inescapable partners. They overlap and blend together, one fading into the other and vice versa. Sex—and the attendant possibility for the creation it symbolizes, in heterosexual reproduction—is always death’s companion.

It’s an aesthetic merger that occurs from the very first moments of the game. A figure leaps out of a mechanized flight unit, crashing through rubble, sword flashing. As she engages in battle, her outfit is difficult to ignore. She’s dressed in a skimpy black dress, thigh-high leather heels, and frilly white gloves. She’s immediately poised as both hero and fetish object, warrior and model, sex and death personified. A gothic lolita with a samurai sword. 9S, too, is sexualized in a more subtle way, his yielding, childlike innocence painting him as a submissive figure against 2B’s domme. A2 gets in on the action as well; her tattered outfit, the ultimate symbol of sexualized videogame protagonists, is here employed alongside A2’s roles as, first, a disruptive death bringer, swooping in from nowhere to eliminate a babylike machine and threaten 2B and 9S’s lives, and then, later, as a death seeker, wandering the world in search of purpose and finality in Route C. Bound in masks and leather, wielding swords and spears, the androids of YoRHa form a fetishized death cult.

The juxtaposition isn’t original to Taro’s work by any means. It’s specifically a Freudian idea; in Freud’s conception, the drive for sex is a drive for creativity, pleasure, and the future. It’s a basic impulse that forever exists in competition and symbiosis toward a drive toward annihilation and the past. He believed that, on some level, an instinct embedded in the human unconscious longed for death and the peace of unbirth—existence as it preceded organic life with its strife and complexities. The push and pull of the life and death drives, in Freudian analysis, define civilization itself. They’re what makes us human, and the conflict between the two drives the trauma that Freud believed made psychoanalysis necessary.

In Automata, that conflict is specifically used as to articulate lack. The permanence of death, and the creative possibilities of eros, are both situated as fundamentally human experiences. If, as Freud thought, the two define civilization, then the lack of civilization in Taro’s far future is defined as their absence. Nothing new is created, and the final end is constantly delayed. For the machines, real procreation is impossible. The machine network is constantly evolving, but it lacks the individual vitality of typical reproduction. No machine will ever live to see another take on their genetic or ideological legacy in the same way a human does. For androids, death is also constantly deferred; any bodily destruction is responded to by simply uploading their consciousness into a new body.

Nier: Automata could easily be accused of nihilism, and its lack of hope is configured in these terms. Without the driving conflict between the life and death drives, the not-quite-human life of Taro’s characters is stuck with no past and no future. Neither androids nor machines can reproduce in a truly creative way. Adam, notably, is depicted without genitals of any sort. And likewise neither can experience death as a true return to the past. Forces ruling the androids and the machines, now embedded in their very psyches, endlessly prolong the war over the scraps of human civilization, centering it as the only possible existence. Without either possibility open, the present appears senseless, and senselessly cruel.

But it may not stop there. In the continuing actions of the androids and the machines, we find something more than a simple lack of hope. A blind spot in any analysis of the Freudian erotic is queer sexuality, and in general any perspective on sexual drives that doesn’t lead to reproduction. If we disavow sexuality as merely a creative act, and instead focus on it as an aesthetic, personal act, one that emphasizes the present–the purely sensing immediacy of it—we find something different. Sex and death are no longer opposites, but instead become intertwined affirmations of the present, ultimately inseparable.

In this context, Automata‘s death drive takes on an odd metaphorical resonance. It becomes, in essence, a sort of queerness—a means of rejecting the values of heterosexual reproduction, principle among them the emphasis it places on the future. For Adam, 2B, 9S, and the whole of artificial life that wars over the earth, there is no future. In the absence of that hope, new possibilities emerge. This is most explicit in Ending E (the game’s “final ending”), where the surviving YoRHa androids are given a deus ex machina chance to live in peaceful community, failing to save the earth but also refusing to be torn apart by its death throes. And it remains an implicit value in every battle of the game, every clash between beings who don’t see any reason to believe a future is ahead of them. Violence, and with it, even the temporary death available to most androids and machines, becomes a means, paradoxically, not of escaping to the annihilation of the past but of affirming the value of life in the present. It’s described, in a side quest, how for androids combat yields ecstatic emotions, similar to love. Machines seem to feel it, too. When Adam challenges 2B to a fight to the death he does so with an odd, almost erotic glee. Like an orgasm, violence is coded as an ultimate heightening of the present, a purely self-actualizing act for beings born and bred for nothing but war.

There’s no actual sex in Nier Automata; the androids are implied to be capable of the act in some capacity, but there are only allusions to desire and off-screen relationships (most of them, notably, are explicitly queer). In that cacophonous absence, we have this: when 2B kills, she often does so with an embrace. When Adam dies, she penetrates him, her sword plunged wholly through his abdomen as they both pant, faces inches apart. And when she must kill 9S, she straddles him in the shadow of a sexual embrace, her hands wrapped around his neck, choking him until his life is released with a cry. For the tragic heroes and villains of Nier: Automata, “the little death” is just death. A sword piercing imitation flesh, blood against leather, eyes locked in love and hate both. Wholly and entirely in the present. It’s the only moment they can ever be sure to have.

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Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Dallas, TX.  She’s a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. She has very strong feelings about Kanye West.