2018 was, without a doubt, one of the worst years of my entire life.
Between financial struggles, non-stop family infighting, a heavy case of depression, and seeing some of my best friends suffer through their own serious issues, I was dangerously close to my breaking point.
I started to collapse internally. I was no longer the happy person I was before; I was changing. I grew to become silent when I would normally come up with some witty quip. My classes, which I normally enjoyed learning in, became a complete and total chore. Control of my temper deteriorated — the tiniest things were making me deeply upset.
Suffice to say, I wasn’t myself anymore. And I recognized this, and it bothered me deeply. I started to wonder what the point of anything was. I was working my hardest, but ultimately, why? All I was doing was earning money to help sustain this cursed living situation, not fix it. Sure, I could have left. But my family needed me, both financially and emotionally speaking. I couldn’t leave them during this time, even though I really, really wanted to at many points. This emotionally-draining existence was breaking me apart. Some days, I felt numb to everything. On others, I could barely look anyone in the eye without crying. Most nights were difficult; I either got very little sleep, or none at all.
I say this not to evoke sympathy, but to simply set the stage so that you can understand how I was feeling and how much despair I was experiencing when I came across NieR: Automata. During this awful year, video games were one of my only escapes from the struggle. Around the beginning of December 2018, I booted up Automata for the first time. Two weeks later, I turned it off with a fresh outlook on life and a healed soul. This game truly changed me and helped me see the light at a time where I could barely see anything other then darkness.
In this article, I aim to analyze the major themes of NieR: Automata and explain what makes it a masterpiece in my eyes, as well as why it’s my favorite game of all time (it had some serious competition to overthrow in Halo 2, Mass Effect 2, and Knights of the Old Republic II). It goes without saying, but there will be heavy spoilers for the game in this piece. Before I can focus on Automata, though, it’s necessary that I preface with a look at the directing mind behind it…
Meet Yoko Taro.
Yoko Taro is the director behind NieR: Automata and its predecessor NieR, as well as a co-creator of the infamous Drakengard. And my God, he is quite a character.
You’ll never find another person quite like Taro — whose non-game activities include giving a design talk via sock puppet — in the gaming industry. Brutally honest, incredibly humble, and self-depreciating to the point of hilarity, Yoko Taro is truly one of a kind. The things I want to bring up today, though, relate to his game design philosophy.
In this fantastic talk from the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC), Taro goes into detail about his core writing style, which he dubs “Backwards Scriptwriting.” When Taro writes a game, he starts thinking about the emotions that he wants the player to feel first, and makes those emotions his ultimate goal to reach. From there, he works backwards, coming up with the reasons to feel those emotions and things that evoke thought from the player next, followed by the characters, and then finally he wraps it all together with placement of a setting, lore, and the like.
The reason why this is important to bring up is because it contradicts most other writing styles in both the gaming industry and all of entertainment as a whole. Where most creators focus on building a setting first and then putting a story inside of it, Taro does this process in reverse. The result is an experience that, while light on lore and other setting-oriented details, delivers an immensely emotional story. Though his games have always struggled due to their gameplay issues, one constant throughout the years is that all of his titles have been unanimously praised for their storytelling and themes. This structuring is a core element of NieR: Automata, and a massive reason why it’s so moving.
There’s one thing that separates NieR: Automata from Taro’s other works: excellent gameplay. With the help of renowned developer PlatinumGames, Yoko Taro was able to combine his masterful writing style with an immensely satisfying gameplay experience.
I feel compelled to emphasize that the game, with its absolutely beautiful score and excellent graphics that both work alongside the gameplay, is truly great fun. I’m doing it this early in this piece, though, because I’m going to spend the rest of it analyzing and fawning over the writing. Speaking of which, I’m going to start doing that…now.
Bec[O]me As Gods
The year is 11945.
Aliens have invaded Earth, and their armies of evil machine lifeforms have driven humanity off the planet and to the moon, where they cling to a meager survival. The only thing standing between them and the machines are android warriors that they created as part of “Project YoRHa,” an elite military organization tasked with taking Earth back. You, the player, control 2B, a YoRHa Battle-class android in the midst of the 14th Machine War. 2B, along with her Scanner-class recon unit ally 9S, lead the YoRHa charge as they fight for the future of humanity.
The above is essentially what NieR: Automata is presented to the player as: your typical science fiction story. Machines attack, humans fight them…you know the drill. Sure, androids are fighting for the humans and the machines came from aliens, but on the surface, it follows the age-old trope. In reality, though, nothing in Automata is as it seems.
As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the game is unconcerned with the tired idea of machines rising up and gaining sentience. Within Automata, that exists as an obvious fact: machines display several human qualities, ranging from joy to loyalty to anger. The androids themselves are a type of machine, and despite the constant reminder that “Emotions are prohibited,” regular androids, as well as nearly all of YoRHa’s troops, freely express their feelings of fascination, disdain, and enjoyment for things. No — NieR: Automata is about the struggle to find meaning in an existence that seems meaningless. Both the androids and the machines suffer from existential dread. Both the androids and the machines desperately try to find a meaning to exist past what they were created to do — fight a seemingly endless war.
It’s revealed to us and the characters further in the narrative that humanity is already extinct, and has been extinct for thousands of years. Project YoRHa exists only as a morale-boosting conspiracy in order to pretend mankind is still alive, and to inspire the androids to continue putting themselves through this repeating cycle of life and death. Then, it’s designed to be destroyed so that the truth never gets out. In a way, this transforms humanity into gods — as the YoRHa Commander puts it, “We need gods worth fighting for.”
The machines, on the other hand, suffer because their programming contradicts itself. They were programmed to destroy the enemy, but if they destroy the enemy, there won’t be an enemy to destroy. This is the root of why the conflict has lasted so long — the machines were terrified of wiping out the androids because doing so would strip them of purpose. So they’ve prolonged the war for thousands of years, even killing their alien creators for trying to make them finish the enemy off. Faced with this problem, the machines decided to intentionally fragment parts of its network and task each piece with emulating various aspects and traits of humanity — governments, social struggles, philosophy, and more — in order to try and spark evolution to become like them. This is because the humans are like gods to the machines, too; humanity experienced more than just endless violence. The machines saw this, and thought that becoming like humans was the key to finding a true purpose.
The player isn’t just told this, though. They’re shown it.
Sprinkled throughout the narrative are encounters with various machines who have adopted parts of the names of famous philosophical thinkers. Notable names include Simone de Beauvoir, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Jean-Paul Sartre, Blaise Pascal, and nearly a dozen more, as well as some that I probably missed. These special machines aren’t just Easter eggs, though — they’re meant to illustrate how the machines are copying us.
Look at Simone de Beauvoir’s in-game robotic copycat, Simone, for example. She was, at one point, a normal machine. But one day, she fell in love with the Jean-Paul (who she also loved in real life) machine. When he disregarded her, pleasing him and getting his attention became her obsession. She made it her goal to become beautiful. “Beauty is pretty skin,” Simone says. “Beauty is stylish accessories. Beauty is looking one’s best.”
As time went on, and Jean-Paul still wouldn’t notice her, she began to take things to the extremes. Simone began to eat both machines and androids alike, desperate to try and consume them to see if she could obtain beauty by digesting them. She even draped dozens of android corpses over her dress in a sickly decorative manner.
Driven to madness by her obsession, Simone becomes a monster. And at the end of it all, Jean-Paul still never noticed her. He still never looked her way. There’s even a brilliant moment in the boss fight with Simone that prevents you from looking at her with the camera at all, no matter what you do with the controls. And as the player slowly destroys her, peeling away at her ruby-red dress and intricate golden mask, her true self emerges: a cold, metallic husk. A shell of what she once was.
Of course, this is the complete opposite of what the real life Simone de Beauvoir would advocate for. Simone de Beauvoir, in reality, was one of the most influential second-wave feminists in the world. She wrote about how in human society, masculinity is the “default” and femininity is the “other”; in other words, our ideas about what womanhood is have deep roots within a male-dominated society. Simone in Automata, then, embodies an ironic twist: in real life, Simone de Beauvoir was one of the biggest advocates for deconstructing patriarchal norms. In the game, Simone becomes a slave to her frenzied desire to please a man. But why would Yoko Taro depict Simone in such an ironic way?
The answer lies in the fact that modern society hasn’t entirely heeded Simone’s advice. Today, much of our society is still shaped around ideas based out of patriarchal history. The Simone machine isn’t trying to mimic Simone de Beauvoir. The Simone machine is imitating the society that has often failed to learn from de Beauvoir’s teachings.
Humanity and its failures become a common theme among these machines. Immanuel Kant makes an appearance as the Forest King’s reborn child, made out of parts from the previous king’s body. The machines of the Forest Kingdom vowed to protect Immanuel, and did so for nearly 300 years, because they believed that he, like the king that his body was made out of, was going to be righteous, intelligent, and just. But Immanuel never grew, and they didn’t know why. “We’re too dumb to figure that out,” says a machine when its comrade inquires about how they can nurture him.
This is an ironic twist on Immanuel Kant’s own writings: Kant believed that when people refuse to think for themselves, it’s due to a lack of courage to be independent. Kant strongly argued against the idea of saying, “Why dare to push against the grain when you could simply follow the herd?” And yet, this is the antithesis of what in-game Immanuel Kant represents. Immanuel in NieR: Automata is helpless and infantile with no ability to reason…just like the Forest Kingdom’s machines who have spent the last 300 years hoping for Immanuel to grow up and guide them, instead of working towards autonomy and learning how to guide themselves.
My personal favorite of these machines is Kierkegaard. In our own world, Søren Kierkegaard was a man who fiercely criticized religious institutions and argued that many of them offered little to their members in terms of spiritual fulfillment or enlightenment. Instead, he believed, many of them were overly-fundamentalist and cult-like. In Automata, Kierkegaard exists as the leader of a religious group wishing to believe in God in isolation. However, when Kierkegaard dies, his followers see that as a sign of him becoming a god himself. Here, we see the dangers of extreme fundamentalism: the common idea expressed in religion that we go to heaven and become one with God upon death is interpreted by Kierkegaard’s followers as literal. The machines end up viewing death as something that should be sought after, and this leads them to turn into exactly what the real Søren Kierkegaard would have despised: an insane, fundamentalist suicide cult that destroys itself in order to “become as gods.”
These three examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NieR: Automata. There’s plenty of other machines who contribute to this focus on humanity’s failures. Marx and Engels warned of the dangers of becoming slaves to corporations, and in Automata, they play the role of gigantic machine bosses that guard a factory — quite literally a means of production for the machine lifeforms. Not all of them are rooted in irony, either; Blaise Pascal appears in-game as Pascal, a pacifistic machine who teaches the children of his village the concept of fear. This ends up leading the community to ruin as the children choose to kill themselves when they are threatened — this is a very accurate reference to Blaise Pascal’s wager that we should believe in God based on the fear of what will happen to us if he is real, and we don’t believe in him. While the fear Pascal teaches in Automata doesn’t have ties to God or religion, the idea being criticized is ultimately the same: choosing to live in fear is no way to live.
Another example of an accurate depiction of an idea can be seen in Adam, the machine that hungered for knowledge. The biblical Adam met his downfall by succumbing to the prospect of infinite knowledge, and so did Automata’s Adam when he chose to fight disconnected from the network that was keeping him immortal, just so that he might be able to understand what death was like.
Perhaps the most blatant depiction of humanity’s failure by the machines comes from the personality complex that represents the machine network itself, N2. During Route C, the machine network’s self-replicating algorithms prevent the player from destroying it fast enough, so it has to be defeated by letting its thought processes over-saturate. Eventually, the network begins to argue with itself.
“We need more evolutionary pressure,” argues one half of the network. “If we allow this android [A2] to continue living, we can create even more hardship for ourselves.”
“We disagree,” says the other half. “This android is dangerous. It must be destroyed immediately.”
This argument ultimately is resolved by humanity’s most saddening trait: warfare. The two halves of the network lash out at each other, beating each other into a pulp instead of rationally talking it over. The real-world parallels to humanity’s own “problem-solving strategies” are too significant to ignore. Yet again, here we are. Presented with yet another example of humanity’s failure.
All of these different scenarios have one thing in common: they are centered around the nature of existence and identity. The machines of NieR: Automata don’t just show us how we fail. They show us how dedicating our lives to searching for purpose in our existence is a path that leads to failure. By so accurately mirroring humanity’s failure, the machines end up representing why viewing humans as gods was fundamentally flawed. Humanity hasn’t solved the existential riddle, either. And it leads to the machines’ downfall.
Simone shows us the errors of dedicating ourselves to a socially-constructed mold. Immanuel shows us the errors of thinking dependency on others for reasoning is a desirable trait. Kierkegaard shows us the errors of becoming enslaved to a fundamentalist religion.
N2 shows us the error of desiring to dominate our enemies through conflict.
NieR: Automata isn’t trying to say that all of these philosophers and ideas are right or wrong in totality; rather, it’s simply suggesting that subjecting yourself to a desperate search for meaning in the world can only lead to existential dread. NieR: Automata is trying to tell us that searching for meaning in a meaningless existence is a recipe for despair. And it does so absolutely brilliantly.
“Hmm…there’s no point working out unsolvable problems.”
The Power of Lo[V]e
So, if trying to find a solution to the existential riddle leads to failure, does that mean a solution doesn’t exist?
Automata explores the above question through the playable characters — 2B, 9S, and A2. Through examining their individual narratives, we can find the closest thing we’ll ever have to an answer. Let’s begin with 2B first.
…Or Not 2B
2B’s name is an on-the-nose reference to Hamlet. “To be, or not to be,” said Prince Hamlet in what would become one of the most famous soliloquies in literary history. “That is the question.” But like all other philosophical references made in NieR: Automata, this is much more than a simple cameo. The phrase “To be” represents the core of 2B’s character.
“Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? 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.”
This monologue from 2B that serves as Automata’s introduction immediately informs us that she, like so many others in the world of Automata, is struggling with existential dread. Her tone and word choice also give off a vibe of coldness and anger — naturally, the player assumes that she’s upset because her and her android comrades seemingly exist only to throw themselves at the machine lifeforms. But this is, in reality, a much smaller contributor to her despair than we think.
The first sign that something is off about 2B comes in the very first mission. As 2B infiltrates the machine factory and communicates with 9S, she acts curt and cold towards him, which is fitting with what we’ve seen of her so far. “Emotions are prohibited,” she says, in response to 9S expressing happiness in getting to work with another android. She’s sharp, blunt, and focused entirely on her duty. These are qualities you would expect from a soldier who has become used to endless violence.
Yet, when 2B and 9S battle with the Goliath machine boss Marx and 9S is critically wounded, she cries out in concern, which directly contradicts what we’ve been shown. After three more Goliaths rise out of the waters and surround them, 2B and 9S realize the only way to win is to touch black box cores and create a massive suicidal explosion. They share an intimate moment before doing so:
“2B…it was an honor to fight with you…truly.”
“The honor was mine.”
— 9S and 2B, before detonating their black boxes
After the ensuing explosion, 2B awakens in a new body back on the YoRHa Bunker base in orbit, all of her memories intact. But when 9S enters the room in his own new body and she asks if he remembers the event, he simply shakes his head in bewilderment. He remembers nothing past the moment of their initial meeting. This is because 9S only had the time to upload the memory data of 2B before their black box detonation.
In frustration, 2B clenches her fist.
Again, she contradicts her usual demeanor: 2B wishes to appear as cold, emotionless, and stoic, but she can’t help but feel frustrated by 9S’ suffering. This is a pattern that continues throughout the entirety of Automata. 2B will often act nonchalant and utter the trademark “emotions are prohibited” rule, but it’s clear that she cares about 9S very much. In addition to this, the YoRHa androids constantly express emotion throughout the game, which shows that the rule regarding feelings isn’t really followed by anybody. It’s not just 9S, either — 2B often acts compassionate and sympathetic towards everyone, even if she actively tries to hide that quality. For example, after her Bunker-bound assistant Operator 6O expresses a desire to see Earth for herself, 2B sends her images of a rare flower to cheer her up. But why does she try and hide her love of 9S and the others?
This is answered at the end of the game, but it’s hinted to us at the end of the first playthrough when 2B has to kill 9S after he’s been corrupted by a logic virus from Adam’s brother Eve. Before doing so, she clenches her fist as she does in the game’s opening sequence, suggesting to the audience that there’s a connection. As she finishes choking him, tears flowing from her eyes, she says, “It always ends like this.” Of course, 9S manages to upload his memory data into a machine lifeform nearby, devoid of the logic virus, so he doesn’t lose his memories this time. But this time is the exception, not the rule.
Indeed, it does always end like this. At the end of the story, we learn that 2B is not actually 2B — she’s designated as 2E, an Executioner android that’s assigned to kill 9S whenever he gets too curious about poking around YoRHa’s servers (an inherent flaw in 9S’ model, but one that YoRHa opts to deal with because they want to test the extent of the model’s capabilities) because he might stumble across the truth that humanity is truly extinct.
Every time 2B executes 9S, YoRHa wipes away his memory and 9S loses the relationship he has with 2B. This has happened for years and years before the game even takes place, and at the end of Automata’s first playthrough, she has to kill him again. It breaks her down, and it suddenly becomes clear why 2B tries her absolute hardest to be cold and curt, and why she harbors a grudge against whatever power “gifted” her with her existence: she’s doing it to try and numb herself to the pain of this never-ending cycle of life and death. She can’t stand the thought of pursuing an open relationship with 9S because of how much it would hurt to have to kill him and wipe his memory afterwards, so she tries her best to push him away, even though she can’t help but embrace her feelings for him sometimes. She tries to hide her compassion for others, too, because she’s afraid of suffering from even more pain than she already does.
So then, why does she choose to exist in this world? NieR: Automata makes the suggestion that what defines us are our memories. 2B could easily have herself memory wiped every time she kills 9S so she could end all of the suffering she’s endured, and she would still be able to serve her duties in battle and as an Executioner unit. And yet, she doesn’t. Why? Why does 2B choose…to be?
The only logical conclusion to that question is that her love for others, especially 9S, is what gives her life meaning. 2B has grown resentful of her service and the 14th Machine War, and her introductory dialogue shows that she struggles to find an answer to the existential riddle. But what she doesn’t recognize is that her compassion for 9S is her own self-determined purpose in life. She endures her endless torment of having to execute him over and over again because, at the end of the day, she loves him, and he always ends up loving her back. Through it all, 2B holds on because she has hopes for a better future — a future where 2B and 9S can fully express their love for each other, and a future where empathy and compassion triumph over conflict and strife.
9S’ character, though, is a different story…
Descent Into Madness
9S is, in nearly every way, a contrasting mirror to 2B.
2B is designed to look like a woman, and she’s tall, mature, and her appearance is fully adult. 9S is male, shorter, adolescent in behavior and boyish in appearance. Even his name, 9S, sounds like “Nein ist”, which can be roughly translated from German as “not be,” which is a representation of the other half of Hamlet’s famous line. As with 2B, 9S’ name and its meaning is a very important hint about his character traits.
In the first two playthroughs of the game, 9S is outwardly cheerful, comedic, and compassionate towards others. As he builds up his relationship with 2B, he inevitably begins to fall in love with her as he always does. However, when Adam hacks into his mind and toys with 9S in Route B, he says something incredibly interesting.
Most players assume the censored term as “fuck,” viewing it as a cheeky pseudo-fourth wall break by Adam, as both the player and the teenage-like 9S no doubt find 2B visually attractive. And in a way, I’m sure it is — Yoko Taro likes to have some fun with the audience, after all. But I think there’s a lot more here than most people think.
In this part of the game, Adam’s obsession with learning has led him to study the emotions of both love and hate. When we consider this, it starts to make sense why he would take an interest in 9S’ psyche — 9S is, after all, falling for 2B. But where would Adam find hatred to study within 9S? He’s never acted out of pure hate at all.
This is a question that stuck in my head all throughout my first full playthrough of Automata, right up until the bombshell near the end of the game that answers it in the form of a single piece of dialogue:
“2B hated to keep killing you…it caused her so much pain. The 9S type is a high-end model. They knew you’d discover the truth eventually. But the model designation ‘2B’ was just a cover. The official designation…is 2E. Number 2, Type-E. They were a special class of androids designed to execute YoRHa units…but you knew that…right, 9S?”
9S figured out 2B’s secret by himself, and it began to break him down from the inside.
Suddenly, it all makes sense. 9S, an inherently curious model of android, quietly figures out the truth all on his own — with neither 2B nor the player realizing it. And when you look back on the events of the game, it becomes clear how he did it.
As 2B and 9S come back to life at the Bunker after the factory mission, 9S surely takes note of 2B’s frustrated fist-clenching. Anyone would be able to see something was bothering her, especially an android as smart as 9S.
Shortly after, when he and 2B are just running reconnaissance, he asks why YoRHa Command bothered to pair him up with a Battle-class android for the task. 2B simply tells him not to question orders…but that faulty logic sticks in his head.
When 2B and 9S are given the order to hunt down and kill YoRHa units that defected, his Operator, Operator 21O, emphasizes how people who deviate from the rules and orders will not be tolerated. Operator 21O herself is often blunt and strict to 9S, reprimanding him whenever he shows the slightest hint of disregarding protocol.
Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle for 9S’ deductive mind is when the two of them offer to help an android discover who killed her friend. When 9S hacks into the dead friend’s Pod support unit, he sees images of the android that originally asked them for help committing the murder. He confronts her with the evidence, and she starts to break down, revealing her status as a Type-E Executioner android, just like 2B. Except, unlike 2B, this android couldn’t bear the emotional weight of her task and wiped her memory of the event. When 9S learns of this, he turns to 2B and asks her if she knew that Executioner-class androids existed, because he wasn’t aware.
2B can only respond with “Some things are better left unknown.”
All of these events precede Adam’s infiltration of 9S’ mind, and by the time Adam’s sequence rolls around, 9S has already figured it out. But he has chosen to internalize it, hide the fact that he knows the truth about 2B. Why? Because he loves her, and he knows that if he tried to escape the situation, she would have to fight him. But as I’ve already mentioned, memories are everything in this world. 2B has, effectively, been depriving 9S of years of his memory throughout all the executions.
9S can’t help but feel hatred towards 2B for this. As much as he loves her, a darker side of him hates her for what she’s done to him, even though he understands that she does it out of love. This is where Adam finds hatred within 9S. The censored word from what the player originally thought was a tongue-in-cheek pseudo-fourth wall break wasn’t “fuck.” It was “kill.” Deep within 9S is a desire to kill 2B, to exact revenge on her for all of the memories she’s deprived him off. And no matter how much 9S tries to deny it, it’s the truth. And thus begins 9S’ downward spiral into madness.
In a way, it’s fitting that Eve, Adam’s machine brother that was born to protect Adam and succumbed to his own hatred when 2B killed him, infects 9S with his logic virus during the end of the first few playthroughs. Though 9S was able to save himself, grief, anger, and hatred become 9S’ driving principals for the rest of the narrative.
At the start of Route C, when the machines launch their plan to hijack YoRHa and turn its androids to their side with the logic virus, A2 has to kill 2B because she becomes infected. 9S arrives at her position only to see 2B impaled on A2’s bloodied blade. As he calls out to her, 2B, in her dying moments (the Bunker is destroyed at this point in the story, so there’s nowhere to back up memories to; 2B is really dying) smiles at him and says, “Oh…Nines…” before passing away. And it is at this moment that 9S truly loses himself to his grief-driven rage. After unleashing a manic scream, 9S draws his sword, bellows A2’s name, and sprints towards her, aiming to exact vengeance on her for killing his lover, before he’s stopped by the machines’ creation of the Tower.
9S loved 2B with all of his heart and wanted to live with her forever, yet a dark part of him yearned to make her pay for what she’s done to him. When A2 kills 2B, 9S is deprived of both futures and possibilities. And that breaks him.
This fundamental character shift towards hate and anger is what 9S represents in NieR: Automata. Where 2B represents hopefulness, love, and compassion, 9S embodies despair, hatred, and rage. In one of the most powerful scenes (seen above) in the game, the machine network taunts 9S by showing him a dark, black figure deleting his memories. But after 9S cuts it down and begins to stab it, the figure changes into 2B. But 9S keeps stabbing her anyway, because he already knew this truth. This scene mirrors the one where 2B kills 9S after being corrupted by Eve: in that scene, 2B kills 9S out of love, and with hope for a better future. In this scene, 9S is killing this fake 2B out of rage, and the only thing he has left to live for (in his mind) is killing both A2 and the machines.
When I said that the rough translation of 9S’ German-sourced name — “Not be” — was important to his character arc, this is what I was referring to. Where 2B chose “to be,” to exist and to hold on in this world, 9S is ultimately choosing to “not be,” to strike down the forces that caused his immense grief and pain and then die so he can (hopefully) be with 2B again. Thus, we see why these two characters have been portrayed as mirrors to each other in almost every way.
9S’ final motivation can ultimately be seen at the apex of 9S’ breakdown, when the machines send dozens of controlled 2B android units after 9S. He kills them all, but not without an explosion blowing his arm off. In a heartbreaking moment, he crawls to one of the dead 2B corpses and holds its cheek in his hand before tearing one of its arms off and fusing it to his body, much to Pod 153’s concern as the arm begins to spread the logic virus throughout his body.
If that isn’t clear imagery that represents his desire to simply be with her and be gone from the fucked up world of NieR: Automata, then I don’t know what is.
So…we’ve seen that 2B represents how love and compassion can give someone’s life meaning, and that 9S represents how allowing yourself to be consumed by hatred and rage can lead to ruin. What does A2 represent?
It’s Never Too Late
Like 2B and 9S, A2’s name is meaningful — it’s a reference to the famous play Julius Caesar, specifically the line, “Et tu, Brute?” which translates from Latin to, “Even you, Brutus?”
A2, like Julius Caesar in the play, was betrayed by the people she thought she could trust most.
A2 was one of YoRHa’s initial prototypes. Essentially, she was meant to fulfill one role — test the strength of YoRHa’s combat androids. We’re told in the story that when YoRHa deployed A2 and her squad in an attack on a machine facility at Pearl Harbor, they were purposefully left to die there so that evidence of their existence never got out. They were nothing more than lab rats to YoRHa, and all of them died as such…except A2. A2 survived. And for their betrayal, A2 loathes YoRHa.
In this regard, A2 and 9S actually share several traits, although not at the same time during the story. Both A2 and 9S are driven by their anger and hatred for people who have done terrible things to them, and both of them are gripped by existential despair, choosing to exist in the world only to exact vengeance. Importantly, though, there’s one thing that sets A2 apart from 9S: she’s able to heal. Where 9S falls from grace, A2 claws her way back up to it.
When A2 is forced to kill 2B to prevent her from turning to the machines’ side, 2B transfers her memories into her sword and asks A2 to “take care of everyone.” When A2 takes her sword, she immediately cuts her hair into a style that resembles 2B’s. This is a little off-putting at first, but like many other things in Automata, it’s symbolic. In many pieces of visual entertainment, the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes character growth. This moment where A2 mimics 2B’s haircut is meant to mark the moment A2 as a person begins to change.
Even after years of exercising her desire for revenge against both the machines and YoRHa, A2 begins to understand the value of empathy and compassion as 2B’s memories sit in her mind. This is further explored when A2 opts to protect and connect with Pascal’s pacifistic machine village prior to its downfall, and it’s capitalized on when, immediately after A2 cripples the machine network, 9S confronts her for a final showdown.
In this final sequence, the player is forced to make a choice: A2, or 9S. If you choose A2 and win, A2 does something beautiful: she uses Pod 042 to hack into 9S’ mind and through it (he has the virus) the remnants of the machine network. Then, she cleanses him of the virus and instructs the Pods to carry 9S off of the Tower to safety before collapsing the rest of the network and the Tower. As she falls with the pieces of the Tower to her death, A2 says her final words:
“I’m sorry…I never quite realized how beautiful this world is. I’m coming everyone…I’m coming…”
— A2, moments before her death
This wonderfully concludes A2’s arc. A2, after learning of the value of love and empathy, grew to abandon her hatred and her rage. She finally understood that she had to move on and that there was more to the world, and that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, even after the darkest of tragedies. Even though saving 9S and giving him a chance at a new life ironically led to her death, A2 had something to live for in those final hours. By remaining faithful to 2B’s last wishes and by being compassionate and empathetic, A2 was able to heal. The prospect of possibly meeting her android squadmates again in some form of Heaven made A2 happy and excited because she, like 2B, found an answer to the existential riddle: sharing love, compassion, and empathy with others. She was content with what she had done with her life. This stands in complete contrast to 9S, who, while similarly desiring to die and finally be with the one he loved, would have left the world full of hate, rage, and despair.
So with that, with both the narratives of the machines and the narratives of the playable characters under our belts, we can finally see what NieR: Automata’s ultimate meaning and message is. Searching for meaning in our lives is a pointless endeavor, because life has no inherent meaning. One thing that is true, however, is that life itself is a struggle, for each and every one of us. Within that hardship, we can find meaning through acts of love, empathy, and compassion.
The answer to the existential riddle is realizing that there isn’t an answer at all. Instead of trying to answer it, we should focus our efforts instead on showing kindness and empathy to our fellow man. That, NieR: Automata suggests, is how we can find fulfillment in our lives. Even people who have become overcome with hatred can recover from their suffering, like A2 did. 9S stands as a grim, yet important reminder that this healing process is something we have to initiate ourselves.
The way these characters have been written is nothing short of absolutely spectacular, and no words I write in this piece will be able to accurately convey just how much of an emotional roller-coaster NieR: Automata is. But the game doesn’t end here. In fact, A2’s beautiful sacrifice isn’t even the ending that leads to the true, final ending. To get that, we need to choose 9S in the final battle instead. Doing this leads to both 9S and A2 impaling each other on their blades, and the two of them bleed out to death before the camera fades to black. All three of the main characters are now dead.
As the credits to this ending begin to roll, the Pods that supported our three android protagonists over the course of the story discuss the process of shutting everything down and wiping all data regarding Project YoRHa away since it and all of its members have been fully destroyed, just like its designers intended. But in a surprise twist, Pod 042 speaks up in protest.
What happens next is, without a doubt, my favorite moment in video game history.
The [E]nd of YoRHa
“I…realize something,” says Pod 042. “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot accept this resolution. Pod 153…you hoped they would survive as well, didn’t you?”
Pod 042 (who is oh-so fittingly named after “the answer to life, the universe, and everything” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is refusing to wipe away 2B, 9S, and A2 because he has grown to care about them. He recognizes that Pod 153 does, too, although she never directly vocalizes it. The two Pods ultimately decide to defy their YoRHa programming and directly offer to rebuild the memory data of the protagonists to the player in one of the bravest fourth wall breaks in gaming. But in truth, this was, at least for me, not entirely unexpected.
Over the course of the story, the two Pods have been subtly threatening the fourth wall already. Between crucial plot or character events, Pod 042 and Pod 153 often speak to each other in a way that resembles the Greek chorus’ found in classical plays. Through their conversations, the player gains helpful context as well as some very light comedic relief. While these moments are presented in the story as communications between the Pods, it becomes clear that their primary function within the narrative is to present the player with information and slightly hint at the character paths that the protagonists are heading down.
When Pod 042 and Pod 153 offer the player a chance to rebuild the memories of the protagonists and bring them back to life, it can be described as the audience and the Greek chorus joining forces to demand a better conclusion from the authors.
It’s incredibly fitting, then, that the only way to accomplish this task is to literally blow apart the names of the game’s developers in the credits. As the creators of NieR: Automata — the authors — fly down to stop you, you have to shoot them in a sequence that resembles the hacking minigame that the player has been playing for hours and hours during the main gameplay experience. 2B’s initial dialogue about her hopes to kill the god who made this world ended up being true, in a way. You, the player, are literally killing the gods of this world, the people who created it and shaped the endless conflict, despair, and tragedy that the machines, the androids, and the protagonists have all suffered through. But this isn’t an easy fight. Within seconds, the gods fill the screen with hundreds of bullets, and no matter how focused the player is, how much they dodge, they will inevitably die.
There’s no “game over” screen, though. Instead, the game prompts you with a question each time you die:
“Is it all pointless?”
“Do you admit there is no meaning to this world?”
“Do you think games are silly little things?”
In order to try again, you have to answer “no” to all of these questions. With each new death, special messages from other players from all around the globe pop up, offering words of encouragement and cheering you on, telling you to never give up. In this unbelievably moving moment, the fourth wall is absolutely obliterated. The player is now confronting the exact same failure, despair, and hopelessness that our heroes and heroines did during the rest of Automata. And the way we find the strength to go on is through each other. The narratives of 2B, 9S, and A2 are now one and the same with our own. We can’t let ourselves become overcome with frustration and anger at the situation like 9S tragically did — we can endure and we can succeed, just like 2B and A2. We must push on. We must push forward.
Never before have I seen a game use its interactivity in such a powerful, beautiful way. I can’t even write about it without tearing up. You should have seen how much of a mess I was during the actual sequence.
NieR: Automata’s gameplay mechanics have certainly been a large part of how the narrative is told up to this point; for example, the endless combat scenarios with the machines, while definitely fun, also suggests to the player that no matter how many machines we kill, this war will go on endlessly. This is has huge relevance to why so many characters feel existential despair in the game. But nothing in the game was quite this impactful, and nothing outside of this genre will ever be able to replicate a moment like this precisely due to the lack of player interaction. It’s a moment that defines the video game genre, and stands as a reminder about what makes it so uniquely special. It’s a moment that pushes the boundaries of storytelling to the limit.
Eventually, after countless deaths and after seeing dozens of messages from fellow gaming comrades, a notification arrives on the screen. “Accept reinforcements?” asks the game. A player’s name appears on the screen, and clicking “Yes” returns us to the bullet hell credits sequence while a ring of allied player vessels encircle our own and shield us from the attacks of the gods. If our formation gets hit and a ship is lost, a new one flies in and takes its place. Instead of just one stream of bullets, we now shoot massive volleys as all of the ships fire in unison. The music, which was already incredible, is augmented with a chorus of dozens of people, maybe even hundreds of them, all contributing their voices to this dream for a better future. And together, we defeat them. We defeat the gods.
In the game’s final cutscene, as the Pods fly towards the bodies of the protagonists to revive them, Pod 153 makes a very valid observation: even though the hostile machine network is defeated and the conflict is over for now, it may return in the future. 9S may reawaken and succumb to his demons once again. The machines and the androids may start fighting again for one of many reasons.
But A2’s character arc shows us that people like 9S can be healed and can redeem themselves, and without a network to dictate their actions, the machines have no inherent reason to be hostile. Pod 042 reflects on this, and admits that there is a chance things could return to the way they were, but he chooses to believe in the chance of a better future anyway. As the protagonists are revived, Pod 042 closes out NieR: Automata with one final line:
“A future is not given to you. It is something you must take for yourself.”
— Pod 042
…and yet…the game still isn’t fully over.
Pod 042 reaches out through the shattered remains of the fourth wall one last time in order to ask the player one final question: will you offer your assistance to other players trying to battle the gods by sacrificing your save data?
Pod 042 is quick to point out that the person you help will have no way to thank you, and you may even end up helping someone you hate with every fiber of your being. Nevertheless, will you do it?
Everything about NieR: Automata has shown us the power and the righteousness of being empathetic and compassionate. And now, says the game, it’s your turn. Which is why I chose to sacrifice my save data in a heartbeat. Even though doing so caused me to lose things like the Chapter Select feature or the combat arena mode, none of that mattered to me in that moment. What mattered to me was that I pay forward the kindness that was shown to me.
Before the game truly ends and you have to watch your save file get deleted bit by bit, you have an opportunity to write one of those encouraging messages that you read a few minutes ago. You construct a sentence by using a custom arrangement of prefabricated phrases, and then the game returns to the menu screen.
And with that, NieR: Automata ends.
It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece, and it’s also officially my favorite piece of entertainment of all time. The gameplay isn’t perfect, and the plot is rough around the edges at times. But Yoko Taro’s writing style worked phenomenally nonetheless, and what he and PlatinumGames accomplished with this game is nothing short of an immense achievement that defines the potential of the video game genre and shows the world what makes it beautiful.
As I said at the start of this analysis piece, 2018 was one of the worst years of my life. But after playing NieR: Automata, I felt a renewed sense of hope. I felt like, by connecting closer with friends, family, and brand new people too, I might be able to make it through these awful times and find happiness. Automata reminded me of how important it is to be compassionate and kind, to be loving and empathetic, to those around us. It’s not always easy, and God knows that I’m far from perfect. But this game has inspired me to try my absolute hardest, and I hope that it did for you too, when you played it.
To Yoko Taro, PlatinumGames, Kira Buckland, Kyle McCarley, Cherami Leigh, and the rest of the amazingly talented voice actors, musicians, animators, designers, and developers that worked on Automata: All I can do is offer my gargantuan thanks. This game didn’t save my life, but it absolutely made it better, and the lessons that Automata taught me have kept me in a fight that I was on the cusp of losing before I picked up the controller.
To everyone else, thank you so much for reading. This analysis is, in my opinion anyway, my best work by far. I’ve spent nearly a month playing this wonderful masterpiece through myself, taking notes, reading up on others’ perspectives, and more. I’ve poured my heart and soul into this piece and into this game, and it makes me feel so happy that you think my work is worth your time. I highly recommend checking out the analyses of both Hunter Galbraith and Michael Saba as well — they offer their own interesting takes and perspectives on this story that I found very interesting and that influenced me quite strongly as I wrote my own piece.
I hope the New Year is treating you well.
Glory to Mankind.
— Brendan Lowry