*Spoilers for NieR: Automata*
Without a doubt, NieR: Automata was the most memorable game I played this year. The brainchild of the eccentric game developer Yoko Taro, this game hit all the right notes for a philosophy nerd like me.
All in all, Automata is a sad game, about sad people, doing sad things – precisely like its predecessor Nier. The player is given control of an android called 2B who, along with her trusty companion 9S, are part of an android organization called YoRHa. Together, their purpose is to kill all machines who are left on planet Earth and make sure the remaining human population on the Moon stay safe.
While action never ends, the story reveals its true self very slowly. After all, you actually have to finish the game four times before you get to experience the true ending. But all throughout, we get subtle hints as to what is really going on.
For instance, the very first level of the game ends with 2B and 9S seemingly sacrificing themselves to destroy Goliaths, which are gigantic monsters named after famous philosophers. However, it turns out that the duo can’t really die, since their consciousnesses can be uploaded to YoRHa servers, where they can be downloaded into new bodies.
In other words, they’re stuck in an eternal war against machines.
The machines, meanwhile, are first shown to be soulless enemies, whose only aim is to destroy humans and conquer Earth. Slowly, however, that fantasy starts to fall apart. As 2B and 9S go through the world of Automata, they encounter more and more machines with different quirks.
For instance, they encounter a group of machines in the desert area engaging in a massive orgy, for instance. It’s a very bizarre experience when you stumble into that for the first time. But what’s more interesting is that once they discover that 2B and 9S have infiltrated their compound, they get agitated. They attack, all the while begging 2B and 9S to leave them be.
It’s at this point that you start re-thinking the backstory you’ve been told. These machines are not just mindless killers. They have sentience. They are trying to deal with the burden of existence, just like any other conscious being. What does that mean for 2B and 9S, then? What is their purpose?
The story doesn’t hide the fact that it’s heavily themed around existentialist philosophy. Heck, there is a machine called Jean-Paul (called Sartre in the Japanese version) in a forest village, whose philosophizing has gained him a large following. Then, of course, there is Simone, named after Simone de Beauvoire, who just like her namesake is kinda more interesting than Jean-Paul.
Our second encounter with Simone is where we truly find out how it feels to be a machine in Automata’s world. During this fight, 9S is able to hack into Simone. This then allows us to see into her memories from days past. Here, we see that she had fallen in love with Jean-Paul, who did not reciprocate. Completely lost and without hope, Simone then turned to human history and discovered that becoming more beautiful would lead to her happiness.
Of course, the problem is that she is a machine. No matter what she does, she cannot become any more beautiful than she currently is. She is stuck in her form for all eternity.
Machines like Simone spend their entire lives seeking some sort of meaning – often following humankind’s lead. There are father machines, mother machines, even child machines! But machines can’t reproduce, or small machines can’t grow old. They are trapped in an infinite loop, in which they must go through the motions of the life they have chosen for themselves, lest they lose all meaning forever.
To be honest, if that isn’t existentialism in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
Basic existentialist theory posits that existence precedes essence, meaning that all of us are born without any particular purpose and that we must discover our own meanings all by ourselves. At all moments, this involves a choice that we must make. No one else can make that choice for us. Every second of existence requires a choice to continue being who we are, which is what Kierkegaard called anguish or angst.
The matter of choice is the key theme of Automata. 2B chooses to continue with what it is she must do and so does 9S. All the same, the reason why most machines lose reason is because they are plagued with the option of choice. A machine doesn’t normally have to deal with choice, but without a higher power commanding it to do something, it must make the decisions by itself.
Not to mention the shocking twist at the very, VERY end of the game, where the game forces the burden of choice onto you in a very real way.
All this philosophical and emotional depth is why I think Automata was the most memorable game of this year. To be fair, the fighting and the actual action were also pretty darn fun! But it was truly the story that grabbed me.