Life, Death, Sacrifice: The Beautiful Tragedies of 'Nier: Automata'
Lots of games ask try to ask big questions, but precious few imbue them with as much depth and emotion as this one.
Scant things bother me more than when a video game wastes my time. It's why, at first, I was bothered by the notion that I needed to finish Nier: Automata multiple times to fully appreciate it. Such tactics are usually deployed as a cheap trick to pad a game's length. Nier avoids this problem, for the most part, and it's best to think of the endings as chapters. Forty hours later, I've now seen Nier's final conclusion—ending E—and I'm still thinking about it. It was devastating.
Warning: There are massive spoilers for the end of Nier: Automata below.
Nier's premise is simple: humans have retreated to the moon following an alien invasion, and use increasingly advanced machines to fight on their behalf, as they attempt to retake Earth. If you only complete the game's first ending—ending A—you're left with some sense of hope. 2B and 9S, the androids at the heart of the story, have dealt the alien forces a sizable blow. But the questions Nier has raised—what meaning and purpose should the machines' lives have in the absence of humanity's limitations?—continue to haunt.
It's only when you begin playing again, prompting the perspective to shift from 2B to 9S, that everything begins to unravel. 9S has the ability to hack into machines and objects around him, occasionally providing glimpses into the mental state of the machines the two are pulverizing.
One early boss is a large machine wearing a torn red dress, the corpses of your android brethren dangling around its face. The game originally presents it as a machine that's lost its mind. It's only when 9S jumps into the machine that you grasp what happened. The machine is a her, and her name is Simone. She was in love with another robot that didn't return her interest. Simone looked at the world, the history of mankind, for help. It was her downfall.
"But what is 'beauty'?
After researching the old world, I finally learned the truth.
Beauty is pretty skin.
Beauty is stylish accessories.
Beauty is looking one's best."
Simone tried everything to gain affection, to feel the human conception of desire, but it drove her mad. She devoured the machines around her, based on a rumor she'd heard. This automaton cannibalism caused her to vomit, but if it meant love, it was worth it. It wasn't.
"I gaze into the mirror," she said. "In its reflection, I see only my own meaningless. And so I scream."
The story of Nier is the story of humanity: a search for purpose. Over and over, the game presents machines who poured over the remnants of old Earth, only to settle on despair. But whatever their existential issues, they could always return to one core idea: saving humanity. It means enduring mindless slaughter, but it's in service of what's supposedly the greater good.
"Glory to mankind" is a jingoistic phrase repeated by the military brass around you, rhetorical motivation for continuing the fight against the aliens that's gone on for thousands of years.
But in the second playthrough, where players take control of 9S, this illusion is shattered. Humanity went extinct a long time ago. There is no colony on the moon. The so-called Council of Humanity, a group of humans that would occasionally send messages to the machines fighting for them, doesn't exist. The messages do come from the moon, but not from humans.
"We need a god worth dying for," says your commander.
Humanity is religion for the machines in Nier, but one without clear answers, and as the machines on each side of the conflict begin to wrestle with the development of their own consciousness, the beings that created them—their form of gods—leave them hopeless.
One of the more haunting side quests in Nier is called "The Wise Machines," where you track down a series of robots spouting vague lines about the meaning of life and contemplating birth. The third machine is found at the top of a towering ladder, hundreds of feet above the ground.
"We were created to fight," it says. "To eliminate all others and reside at the pinnacle of existence. Yet the battle rages eternal. Our cursed cycle of destruction and rebirth continues without end. None of us in this world are loved. This world has no need for us. There is only one solution."
The robot leaps into the air, and as it hits the ground, explodes into a thousand tiny pieces.
An equally tragic fate befalls Pascal, the beating heart of Nier's hope for the future, and de facto mayor of a tiny forest town where a group of machines have put down their weapons and embraced peace. But when a virus infects the town, causing the machines to eat one another, Pascal rushes the village's youngest machines to another, safer location. Afraid and confused, the youth hole up in an abandoned factory, as Pascal realizes the only way to defend what he's built is to break his own moral code and fight back against his enemies.
In most games, that'd be the end of that story, with Pascal unnerved by his ethical lapse, but realizing life is never simple. But Nier always goes deeper. Pascal returns to the children, and instead of finding personal sanctuary, it becomes clear the children have all committed suicide.
"I taught them everything," he laments. "All my thoughts and emotions. I thought it would serve them well in the future. But instead… [pause] I taught the children what fear is. I felt they had to know so they wouldn't rush heedlessly into change. But, instead…[pause] If I knew this could happen, I never would have."
Pascal decides he can't live with knowing what happened, and offers the player two options: remove his memories or kill him.
"I cannot live with this heartbreak inside me," he says.
I found myself unable to kill one of my closest friends in the game, a machine whose empathy cut sharply against a world explicitly designed to breed conflict. Removing Pascal's memories were a form of death, but if lucky, could eventually lead to a different conclusion. Can the machines in Nier experience deja vu? Might Pascal subconsciously learn from these events?
I put my weapon away and wiped Pascal's memories.
(Editor's Note: A reader tells me it's actually possible to walk away from Pascal, forcing him to live with everything that's happened. Dang.)
"I gaze into the mirror. In its reflection, I see only my own meaningless. And so I scream."
A lot happens in the 30 hours I spent exploring the rest of Nier after the first ending, in which the game carefully uses your first experience with the story to methodically pull back the layers of misinterpretation. There are countless holy shit moments, for sure, but what's stayed with me for days, the reason I'm writing this article, is the decision laid in front of you at the very end.
Ending E, which only unlocks if you've seen endings C and D, buzzes to life when the game's credits are rolling by. Pod 153 and Pod 042 are the tiny, floating robots that hang around the player. They are presented for much of the game as dummy terminals, but towards the end, it becomes clear they, too, are experiencing the same birth (plague?) of consciousness as the others. When Pod 153 attempts to carry out its mission of deleting the personal data of the main characters, Pod 042 denies the request, and points a question back at his fellow pod:
Pod 042: "You hoped they would survive as well, didn't you?"
Pod 153: "We lack the authority for such an action. The rules are protected by low-level systems. Salvaging data poses an unacceptable level of risk. Knowing that, do you still wish for them to survive?"
If you choose yes, the game cuts to a bullet hell sequence where you must defeat the game's credit sequence. It starts out simple enough, but a few minutes in, it's clear you'll be unable to make it any further. Death comes fast, furious, and repeatedly. "Do you feel hopeless?" the game asks, as you are given a choice on whether or not to continue. "Do you accept defeat?"
While you make these decisions, curious statements float in the background, many of which sound like they're cheering players on. "I did my best. One thing is certain: I'm rooting for you." "I've walked the same road as you. Then you've got us with you." Each has a name attached.
Just as things do feel hopeless and impossible, players receive a mysterious offer of help. The music, shifting from a solo singer to a chorus, soars as the player is joined by a cadre of other ships, shifting the tide of battle. It turns out you're able to survive, though you might have noticed that each time a ship exploded, the game noted that someone's data had been lost.
The game cuts to Pod 153 and Pod 042 acknowledging the struggle between life and death is always present, but argue that if given a chance, it might find a way to break out of that cycle.
"A future is not given to you," says Pod 042, approaching the bodies of A2 and 9S. "It is something you must take for yourself."
Players are then asked to save their game, which happens after every ending, and an opportunity to leave a messages during the credits sequence, in hopes you might inspire others. (Mine was "Does this battle have meaning? One thing is certain: glory to mankind.")
It's here that Nier had me staring at my television for 10 minutes before I moved on. The game then compliments you—the player, not a character—on all the time you've spent struggling to make it this far. It asks if you have any interest in helping the weak, before revealing the only way to accomplish this is by making the ultimate sacrifice: deleting your save data.
"None of us in this world are loved. This world has no need for us. There is only one solution."
At this moment, my in-game clock was at over 40 hours. That's nearly two days of life invested into Nier, represented by ones and zeros in a save file. Even if I never went back to play Nier again, I could at least know that somewhere in the cloud, that time had been given a stamp. But in order for players to get that help at the end of the credits, where they're flanked by a swamp of ships, others need to sacrifice themselves, others need to delete their save data.
After a long pause, I bit the bullet. I deleted my save data. I don't know who I might one day help, but it seemed like a noble gesture. Additionally, it seemed lovingly consistent with this ending, which suggested life is not pre-determined, if people are willing to put in the effort and sacrifice. Though it's only a video game, that struck a sincere chord in me, so I said yes.
"You may not receive thanks for your efforts," asks Pod 042. "Some may say your efforts are purely for show."
The game asks you many, many times if you're sure about this decision. If you go forward, the game doesn't just delete your save data, it makes you watch as it's systematically dismantled.
The save data gone, the two pods issue one last statement.
"Thank you," they say in unison.