A cheap appeal to teenagers who have never read his work, when Nier: Automata introduces a robot called Sartre, and gradually reveals the machine to be cruel and narcissistic, it stakes a claim against philosophy. In life, Jean-Paul Sartre declined his Nobel Prize in Literature, explaining a “writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.” In Nier: Automata, the machine Sartre is an egotist which dismisses and refuses to reimburse gifts from his adoring fans. Perhaps this is illustrative of a humanistic story. A mere robot, which has ostensibly downloaded the writings of its namesake, Sartre is unable to comprehend that intelligence, prowess, and superlativeness might also be concordant with modesty, humility and deference. If Nier: Automata expressed a clearer liking of people—if it contained a single truly human character—one might concede that its derision of the robot Sartre is in praise of the human’s more nuanced mind. But a game about computers killing other computers, which makes only token and confused references to our experience, can’t help but seem sinister. When Nier: Automata jokes about Sartre, it is inviting its audience to distrust and think venal the philosopher’s pursuit of truth, and regard instead its own trite and self-serving review of human nature.
Videogames are afraid of people. Although there are exceptions, considering the pervasiveness of games’ cowardice and the rate at which they are becoming artistically redundant, it is worth making a sharp, blanket statement. Videogames are afraid of people because people are complicated and difficult to write. We are ugly and contradictory and games are afraid of that because they are mass-market, and so endeavour to be as acceptable and non-threatening as possible. The audience for games is still assumed to be teenage. Videogames’ commercial direction is taken from cinema. And although cinema has proven that people want good art and good drama and are willing to pay millions of dollars for it, it has also proven that what people want more is spectacle. Videogames like Nier: Automata, which are 30 hours long and filled with items, levels, and sub-levels, actively denigrate the value of less. Size is important to videogames. In its pursuit, the truth of nuance, the prescience of smallness, are both lost: an almost imperceptible flicker behind the eyes might tell us numberless things about a character, but games are congenitally, boastfully disinterested in such subtlety.
What constitutes humanity, or what we are encouraged to believe constitutes humanity, according to Nier: Automata, are obvious and adolescent experiences. At first, the machines and androids are vaguely risible figures and their emulation of human behaviour is presented to us as ludicrous—watching them uselessly rut against one another, in an attempt to have sex, is denouncement of the idea that to know human experience is to also understand it. In moments like these, Nier: Automata, like its balletic, sword-spinning protagonist 2B, is a graceful attacker. Quickly and starkly, it disassembles videogames’ general infantalism. When the two prodigious androids, predictably, condescendingly named Adam and Eve, argue about the usefulness of reading books, Nier: Automata makes known its ardour for our nature and biology.
“Can’t we just transfer all this data instead?”, asks Eve.
“Into your head perhaps,” replies Adam, “but not your heart.”
Should it continue in this vein, with the machines’ inability to comprehend or acclimatise to the human condition used to impress the same condition’s pre-eminence, for better or worse, Nier: Automata would stand practically alone as a videogame which not only places people in high regard, but disparages magic, insouciance, and the implication that pleasant feelings are preferable to hard truth.
Throughout, the game is in conflict with its better self. The tension in Nier: Automata‘s writing, between trivialising and embracing what it means to be a person, is perhaps illustrative of how we try throughout life to signify and find meaning for ourselves—wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in 1943, “l’existence précède l’essence.” But rather than celebrate that truth or attest to the significance of that process, Nier: Automata eventually comes down on the side of nihilism, and insists that the search for humanity is both false and destined to end in despair.
Prior to its third act, Nier: Automata recharacterises its robots—the same ones found, in the first part, attempting to have sex—as adorable, sensitive and explicitly funny. Particularly during a sequence within an old castle, in which they are housing their “king,” a tiny, baby-like robot infused with the memories of a former leader, we are encouraged to find the robots endearing. Flashbacks show us the king’s history. With affected, child-like delivery, the other robots describe it as a “cutie,” “so tiny and cute.” Thus, its subsequent destruction, at the hands of a rogue robot called A2, which has broken from its programming, becomes an extended metaphor for loss of innocence—the fairytale surrounds of the castle and the adorable, childish robots playing kingdom, contrasted with their demolition at the hands of a more sophisticated and freer-thinking machine, implies that knowledge and the outside world are dangerous, and naivete is beautiful if not outright aspirational. A2’s eventual “death,” and the gradual maddening of another android, 9S, who contracts a virus after spending too much time communing with other machines, serve as further warnings against leaving one’s shelter to seek perspective and experience.
In short, the more Nier: Automata‘s protagonists learn of their world, the worse their mental and, in the case of 9S, physical conditions become. Having developed an understanding of fear, a group of child-sized robots, when faced with danger, kill themselves; on discovering their remains, the elder robot Pascal, which taught them about fear, asks that its memories and personality be erased. Seeing Pascal in its default state, bereft of the idiosyncrasies that previously delineated it from the other robots, is one of Nier: Automata‘s most melancholic moments, tempting one to concede that, at its core, the game espouses experience and knowledge, no matter how bleak, over obliviousness. But given how it ends, with 2B, 9S, and A2 degenerating into various states of chaos before finally dying, encouraging us to mourn Pascal feels like a mere bump in Nier: Automata‘s otherwise simple polemic. The destructions both of the king and Pascal’s “children” are presented much more gruesomely than Pascal erasing its personality. So ultimately, Nier: Automata states that rather than the true human experience, wherein pleasure is always in conflict with pain, ignorance is bliss.
And when it is revealed that despite 2B, 9S, and all the androids fighting on its behalf, humanity has in fact been wiped out for hundreds of years, Nier: Automata‘s pessimism toward Mankind, albeit occasionally well-disguised, is complete. Quite literally in this game, service to Mankind is a lie. To fight for the species—to try to kindle human life, and establish human society—is, so far as the game would have you believe, to be manipulated. The androids’ battle cry, “glory to Mankind,” starts to sound sarcastic: when the characters in Nier: Automata espouse Mankind’s dignity, the game snidely reminds us they are reciting propaganda, and so we are led to feel cynical about the value of our species.
The robot Sartre is a simple, unkind machine; the human Jean-Paul Sartre was a complicated living person, who via his life’s work encouraged the betterment of his kind. And it is a great sadness, indicative of videogames’ grossly disordered artistic priorities, that Nier: Automata should essentially side with the former.
Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.