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Fighting the Forever War in NieR: Automata

[1]3,103 words

“This pain, this sadness! This desperation! You know nothing about it!”

(Major story spoilers ahead.)

NieR: Automata is a critically acclaimed 2017 JRPG from renowned director Yoko Taro, and is an indirect sequel to his previous NieR and Drakenguard games. The game is a niche action-adventure gem, balancing engrossing narrative with tense, challenging combat. It follows the exploits of two Gothic lolita androids, 2B and 9S, in a post-apocalyptic and post-human world where androids are fighting a guerrilla war for survival against self-replicating machines. The game is incredibly long, lore-heavy, and emotionally punishing. The plot, gameplay structure, and themes dance on the metanarrative, and speak directly to Rightist metaphysical principles: 2B and 9S are in a constant struggle to overcome not only their own weaknesses and the manipulations of the antagonists, but the premise of the game itself, in order to live authentically. The game both celebrates and subverts a vast range of ideals, from militarism shrouded in official secrecy to the impracticality of pacifism. Shakespeare is borrowed and taken in a wonderfully ridiculous direction. Kierkegaard, Hegel, Sartre, and de Beauvoir all provide fuel for Automata‘s parody automatons. Taken as a whole, Automata is a Japanese commentary on existentialism and, like another mecha-infused Japanese franchise, Neon Genesis Evangelion, it is a lesson in resisting self-doubt and sentimentality.

NieR: Automata is not an easy game to fully complete for a casual player. It has no fewer than twenty-six endings, most of which are “joke” endings where the player dies in an inappropriate way, and then he is returned to the title screen, but there are several closing scenes before the “true” ending (Ending E) and a “truer” ending (Ending Y). Of course, it is up the player when to quit. The trip onto the ruined Earth to bash robots with giant swords is only meaningful so long as one remains invested in 2Bobs and 9Shota’s tragic romance and tumbling descent into sickness and madness. The game repeats itself in full – after the first play-through as 2B, the player is returned to the start to play again as 9S – and then offers subsequent endings through the A2 plotline and Chapter Select screen. Environmental assets are masterfully reused: a devastated city overtaken with vegetation provides a playground for running races, aerial combat, subterranean exploration, robot-smashing, and moose riding. No area is ever truly cleared of enemies; robots respawn and spring up like weeds and force the player to fight through to each objective. It’s a constant reminder that the fragile android troops are, like us, an embattled minority.

The central drama is dressed in elements that will seem baffling and bizarre to someone determined to judge the work by its superficial aspects. The robots look like rusty versions of the Android OS mascot, and can vary between polished, mechanical spiders named after Chinese philosophers to assemblages of pipes and steampunk knickknacks. On the android side of the battlefield, the finely-dressed YorHa (sic) troops are mainly female, lithe, and possess superhuman strength and athleticism, whilst regular androids appear as a ragtag bunch of rebels with hazy, indistinct faces. Other characters spring up throughout. There is a bishounen pair, Adam and Eve, who are genitalia-free robot humanoids, born out of a sticky mechanical womb of machine evolution. The beautiful Devola and Popola androids are condemned by their makers to perpetual guilt. The enigmatic Emil – a disembodied, spherical head with a charming innocence – is a carry-over from the first NieR game. Originally a teenaged boy cursed with turning people he makes eye contact with to stone, he has been cloned and turned into a “magical weapon.” The overall vagueness and interchangeability of the androids lends the experience a dreamlike quality, like one is interacting with half-remembered phantoms. Throughout the game, characters fight to preserve their memories and sense of self; the real purpose of the war seems uncertain. Only violence seems real, and redemption from it a mirage.

The game opens with a clean, feminine voice, saying:[1] [2]

Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle, and wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to kill him.

The camera flies through clouds to a squad of fighters soaring over the landscape, and Operator 6O issues a mission briefing over the intercom. Her naïve and child-like voice indicates that the androids are ill-prepared to face the ravages of real conflict. Within seconds, 2B’s comrades are blasted out of the sky. The opening quote foreshadows plot and gameplay elements: the androids are disposable fighters, condemned to repeat one short and brutal life after another. The “cycle of life and death” is quite literal in Automata: upon death, the player respawns at the nearest save point, and then has to travel to their previous body to retrieve the equipment they were carrying. Eventually, in order to escape the cycle of reincarnation, the player has to destroy the names of the writers, producers, and so on in the ending credits’ minigame segment, “killing” the “gods” of the metanarrative.

Button-mashing results in the impeccably dressed 9S or 2B performing elegant, sword-swirling acrobatics as a whirlwind of death, but a false move or nervous misstep – a failure to blast an oncoming suicide bomber, or to evade a crushing maneuver – will leave 2B a lifeless ragdoll smashed into the scenery, lost to the wastes of a contested No Mans’ Land. Whilst the cutscenes and character interplay examines the machines’ attempts at civilization and forming societies of their own, the brutality of the combat functions as a useful reminder that 2B and her fellow androids are fighting off racial annihilation. In a slightly predictable twist, both the YorHa androids and the machines they fight are fuelled by the same “black box” technology, which does not change the fact that they have two separate identities, civilizations, and ways of being. The machines, we are told, are created from a plant-like, self-replicating core substance; the original humanoid and outdated incarnations gradually give way to monstrosities that are less and less human: swirling mechanical snakes and bulbous mechanical spiders.

2B and 9S are trapped in a twilight age. They fight with little prospect for redemption and no future to which they can look forward. 9S highlights how bleak their plight is with the distant hope that they could “go shopping . . . when all this is over” in a shopping mall that has been deserted for centuries. He is curious about his makers, the “gods” from the Golden Age of humanity that androids have fallen away from. The conspiracy, as it unfolds, drives 9S into a mad rage; he is told matter-of-factly that humans have been extinct for millennia. The sole purpose for continuing the war is to perpetuate the illusion that humans still reside on the Moon, maintaining the illusion for the sake of the androids on the surface, giving them the sense that their lives have the greater purpose of fighting to restore humanity’s dominion. Upholding the crumbling edifice of the “noble lie” eventually demands the destruction of all the YorHa androids and their space station base. In Ending E, the main cast, consisting of 2B, 9S, and A2, are restored to functionality by their loyal “Pods” (autonomous fire support units) after the “End of YorHa,” and are thus liberated from the “cycle of life and death” imposed upon them. They are free to live, grieve, or rejoice as they please, and so have “become as gods.”

[3]

An ensuing major offensive – a final, desperate strike to rid the Earth of machines once and for all and end the war – assumes the tone of a grand and glorious folly. If YouTube translators can be relied upon, the accompanying “War to War” background music has lyrics that reflect the certainty of spirit and martial valor that every Rightist can be relied upon to revere: “Sacrifices not forgotten; legacies carried on . . .” Naming the track simply “War” was not enough; a second helping of War was required. War in NieR:Automata is ennobling, like a journey from summit to summit. Automata‘s plot riffs repeatedly on the idea that war is sustaining, “For that blood is shed needfully, through conflict we will grow”: all parties involved are consumed or shaped by the war, yet rely on it to define them.

In a climatic fight sequence, bosses Ko-Shi and Ro-Shi deliver one of the game’s most impactful lines: “We are machines. You are androids. Mutual enemies. Doomed to fight. Why do you live? Why do we exist?” For White Nationalists who subscribe to a sort of Vedic cosmology – that we are masks which Being adopts and discards – acceptance of this statement and its implications reflects a principled metaphysical position. For one to have a left hand, there also has to be a right. For every creative and spontaneous impulse, there must exist a contrasting and rationalistic one. Just as the cosmos supports humans and “peoples, in just the same way that an apple tree apples,”[2] [4] or androids aspiring to become as them (to “become as gods,” liberated from pre-programmed servitude), then equal possibility is afforded to unfeeling machines to spawn an opposition. The machines of NieR:Automata spawn both sociopathic humanoids (the previously mentioned Adam and Eve, a beautiful pair of twin brothers) and insect-type creatures driven by a bacteria-like urge to endlessly divide and replicate. The latter parallels the similarly named (yet independently produced) 2014 Antonio Banderas indie science fiction flick Automata, where robot prostitutes and warehouse laborers escape human constraints to start their own civilization, only to produce a battery-powered cockroach.

White Nationalists have been afforded the chance to protect a race characterized by being trusting and principled to a fault. The existence of whites affords an opportunity for a contrasting opposition; a race of perpetual schemers and liars characterized by dropping their principles at the drop of a yarmulke and exploiting every opportunity to prey upon the hapless goyim. “Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment?”[3] [5] NieR:Automata delivers a complex lesson in accepting and even enjoying this crushing inevitability. They Live, and so it is necessary that we must, too. We are Androids; they are Machines. We are doomed to fight. Like the blindfolded 2B and 9S, our survival relies on “seeing” and building our lives on a bedrock of truth. If whites, despite living the lies imposed upon them, are creatures of truth and aspire to beauty, then we must also acknowledge the possibility, existence, and influence of creatures of the lie. Why do they live? Why do we exist? In a conflict between two factions of Automata, there is very little else. 2B dryly comments, “We’re here to fight – that’s all.”

The character and his visual design is clever and consciously elaborates on the overall plot and narrative of self-discovery. All the YorHa androids are physically modelled as either young adults or pubescent teens; the surface androids seem to be fully-grown adults. Unlike the YorHa troops, it’s unclear whether the surface androids are trapped in the remanufacturing cycle of reincarnation. They fight and die as ragtag guerrillas, and their deaths are permanent. Friends and lovers of dead androids struggle with their loss and vow to enact vengeance. Similarly, when the player fails to protect a runaway “child” machine, the “mother” is devastated at her loss. YorHa Battle and Scanner units who operate on the surface are blindfolded; free to speak of their experiences, but captive to an illusory cause. Operators like 6O are not blindfolded, yet veiled; they survey the battlefield from above, yet are forbidden to talk about what they see. Operator 21O icily warns 9S to “be careful” after asking too many questions. Only the Commander, Chief of the YorHa units, and A2 (Assault-2) – a broken, exiled veteran – have uncovered faces, and so are free to see and speak as they please.

Automata is filled to the brim with bitterness, loneliness, and angst. The NPCs are tragic figures, leading broken and disassociated lives; one character is desperate for assistance in restoring her memories in order to trace her friend’s killer – only for the player to discover and reveal to her that she is the murderer, an “Executioner”-class android, sent to eliminate anyone problematic to the chain of command. Another is crippled, yet unwilling to replace his leg, the sole remaining part of him from his original manufacture. Bamboozled machines cheerfully commit suicide by jumping into pools of molten metal or from high places. Their painful, paranoid thoughts condemn themselves as “defective” machines for being manufactured without human masters or human purpose.

In a dark and hilarious segment, the many Romeos and Juliets of a robot stage play murder each other: “O, Romeo, let us cull thy numbers!” “Have at thee, wench!” “I have slain my Romeos, each and all!” This foreshadows the reveal that 2B (Battle), who is in love with 9S, is in fact his designated executioner, “2E.” She has to dispatch him each time he learns of the conspiracy. Beauvoir, a “broken machine” and dungeon boss, loosely shares the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, and is similarly infatuated with Robot Sartre. Robot Beauvoir is hysterically obsessed with becoming beautiful, contorting herself into whatever she imagines Robot Sartre will desire, and destroying her sense of self in the process. Robot Sartre is as laughably offensive to sentimentalists and romantics as real Sartre; he chucks away trinkets from his female followers as “worthless junk.”

The experience of NieR: Automata is designed to be one of constant missteps and painful resolutions. Sidequest stories are written so as to have no right answer, or to make the player an unwitting assistant of evil. One such story involves a surface android struggling to cope with being a sentient imitation of a race long since extinct; he enlists 2B to find some useful intelligence chips. When he is later found, he has used them to activate a kidnapped YorHa scanner unit, a “boy” unit identical to 9S, of whom he has previously denied all knowledge. If the player pursues the quest to visit the quest-giver later, the android introduces the boy as a “new addition to my family. I know it’s not right, but I wanted someone I could live with. Someone I could protect.” The scanner unit simply begs, “P-Pleeas-ssee . . .” The scene is one of the most harrowing in the game and is heavy with overtones of alienation, futility, child exploitation, and despair.

The joy of the game comes from the elation of combat and the solace of being built for war. A2, the third and final playable protagonist and a towering ballerina of swordsmanship, has an incredibly fast sprint mode and berserker function, turning invisible with evasive dodges. Throughout the game, the experience of running at high speed, performing nimble acrobatic flips, and slicing robot foes six ways to Sunday is invigorating and liberating. In a bleak landscape amidst shifting alliances, questionable allies, and pervasive enemies, the androids’ conflict is embittering, and yet creates needed challenge and points of honor or betrayal. It provides for dark humor, and imposes strength and purpose upon its victims. The steel blades that the YorHa troops carry – modelled in a quasi-samurai fashion so as to appeal to the Japanese love of neotonous characters struggling with adolescent angst – all have “Weapon Stories” associated with them, which are progressively unlocked. These are blank verse poems of strangled hopes, all with ambiguous moral messages or simply none at all. They underscore the guided player experience of Automata as a masterpiece meditation on loss, conflict, and futility, raising many questions and offering few substantive answers, and are worth reading even if one never picks up the controller.

The few rays of solace and endearment can be found in Emil, a character who was once human but is now something much worse. This disembodied head has assembled himself as a travelling merchant, trundling around the wasteland atop a petrol trike, selling essential bits and bobs to the player and singing a ridiculous earworm of song. When the player finds a particular flower (a lunar tear), he implores the player to collect and gather the others dotted around the landscape to help remind him of his past. Eventually, he can be double-crossed and stolen from. He will retreat to the desert to find and confront his “clones,” giant grinning heads with eyes that fire lasers that are able to carpet-bomb the area in an attempt to annihilate the player. Having endured an eternity of pain and loneliness, the clones “sense of self has deteriorated” . . . they “don’t need this world.” If they are not fully defeated, Emil’s clones will detonate and reduce the Earth to a cinder. “Even when our companions died, we kept fighting,” he insists, speaking of a war against an alien race revealed early on to be extinct. The Emil clones’ dialogue is a genuine and sincere portrait of depression and psychosis: “Our eternal pain screamed at us. It told us there was nothing of value to protect in this world. The world had no meaning. It screamed at us!” But Emil comments, “No matter how hard or painful, they never gave up. They kept fighting because they believed they could overcome someday.”

[6]

Emil

In Emil’s final moments, he sees his long-dead friends again. Then his death is announced by a flat tone from his broken mechanical body. Emil achieves what no other character does in the game: He accepts his past trauma and builds a life around beauty and friendship in spite of it. In his case, his secret underground home has a garden of luminescent flowers, and he remains in it to contemplate his memories peacefully. When the impeccably voiced Pod 042 (pronounced zero-four-two) and Pod 153 restore functionality to 2B and 9S after “The End of YorHa,” the destruction of their space station (the “Bunker”), and with it their previous lives, they are afforded the chance to do the same and start anew. To overcome someday, one has to believe in a greater value and meaning beyond simple conflict. “A future is not something given to you . . . it is something you have to take for yourself,” intones Pod 042 in the game’s tantalizing final line.

NieR: Automata tells a story of “denizen[s] of a new and far harsher world,”[4] [7] and from it we can gain insight into what it means to be trapped in a never-ending spiral; a Forever War of self-assertion and racial survival.

Notes

[1] [8] Voiced by Kira Buckland, giving a stellar performance.

[2] [9] Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Publishing, 2002), p. 7.

[3] [10] 2B’s opening dialogue.

[4] [11] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), p. 92, again.