There was a part a few hours into Nier: Automata where I got actively angry at the game. I was going through the desert, the robots were telling us not to hurt them, and 9S was telling me to ignore what the robots were saying: they were just repeating words without any meaning behind them.

To which my reaction was: seriously? I get it, we’re going to come to the realization that we’re actually the bad guys here, but can’t you be a little less heavy-handed about it? And maybe, you know, don’t force us to engage in mass murder while we’re coming to that realization?

Fortunately, the next two segments of the game helped me get past that point: the amusement park showed robots that weren’t attacking me, and while 9S was dubious about that, he was willing to accept that maybe slaughter wasn’t necessarily required. And after that comes Pascal’s village: robots who are explicitly and thoughtfully actively seeking out peace. So yeah, 9S’s behavior in the desert was heavy-handed, but the game at least made it past that fairly quickly.


It’s more subtle than that, though: the behavior of the robots in the amusement park and in the village are really quite different. The robots in the amusement park are peaceful (or, when not, are explicitly coded as broken by the other robots), but they’re peaceful in a creepy way. Most of the amusement park robots are repeating the same moves over and over, they’re acting, well, robotic. In contrast, the robots in Pascal’s village feel like people; or at least Pascal does, and the others at least feel like they’re moving in that direction.

So if the robots in the desert are as far away from the amusement park robots as the amusement park robots are from the village robots, then maybe 9S is actually correct: maybe they really are just saying words without having any idea what those words mean? Also, 9S has seen a lot of robots, so maybe he does have reason to believe that meaningless recitation is the norm for them.


Looping back one more time, though: in the real world, wars do indeed happen. And the people on the other side are people like you; people who believe that they’re fighting for the right thing, people who are scared. Or people who aren’t even fighting, but the war has come to where they live, and there they are.

Yet fight them our soldiers do. I can say that 9S’s behavior is ridiculous, but I live in a world (in a year!) where social structures (and not just in the military, not just in the police) evolve to emphasize seeing people not just as others, as different, but as Other.

So 9S’s behavior isn’t the unrealistic behavior: what’s unrealistic is me thinking that I can avoid that, that I can just choose not to take part. (That has certainly been a lesson of 2017: for example, how much the United States has been built on white supremacy, how present that legacy is, and how you can’t simply choose to step away from it even if you benefit from it and would rather not.)

Which, in turn, raises the question of how to model this concept, this mindset? Except that, of course, the answer is: video games model a mindset of othering, a mindset of the soldier following orders, all the time, they do so as their unquestioned default behavior. They tell you you’re the good guy, they tell you who the bad guys are, they present information to justifying that labeling while not actually letting you interrogate it, and then they put a weapon in your hand and tell you to use it. If you do, you’re a hero; if you don’t, you’re worse than not being a hero: you simply can’t play at all. So what made me uncomfortable about Nier wasn’t that it wasn’t letting me behave morally, it’s that it was making that question explicit.


I appreciate how Nier’s looping encourages me to rethink as well.


The robots show gradations of thought and consciousness, reflections of what it means to be human; the androids do as well. The extent to which they’re following orders versus responding to the details of the situation, for example: we see the Resistance members on Earth versus the soldiers based in the station, and even the various androids who have struck out on their own.

But also their range of responses: 2B in particular is not great at responding to social cues at the start of the game. Which, at first, I interpreted as her not having the same range of emotional responses (which then translates into a narrative of her learning to feel); but I’m now much less sure that that’s the best way to interpret her behavior. I think it’s a mixture of her being a soldier combined with her not reacting so fluently to certain interaction modes and cues.


You can imagine a lot of games made out of the aforementioned elements: in particular, you can imagine a game that would use this world to focus on different aspects of what it means to be human, and that either takes that in an anthropological direction or in an optimistic direction.

Nier didn’t make either of those choices, and I kind of wish it had. Instead, it gets more and more nihilistic as you progress from endings B through D; ending E holds out more hope, but ultimately it’s a very grim game. Admittedly, it’s been a very grim year, so maybe it’s the game that we deserve in 2017, but I don’t feel like the thoroughgoing bleakness of Nier’s outlook was teaching me much.

Maybe that’s me, though. There are, after all, bleak structural forces in our world: so perhaps Nier is illuminating them in a useful way? I could see that in the individual tragedies in the game, but I had a harder time seeing that in its structural bleakness.

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