Human consciousness required tools that let it produce abundant resources so people could transition from simple survival to prosperity, which allowed humanity to further discover the world and find a place in it. Tools advanced into machines given more sophisticated logic, motor, and communication systems through developments in electronics, networking, and artificial intelligence. But a world is like a person- the more it becomes one thing, the less it’s like something else. Nier: Automata examines how machines are becoming the new owners of our world but will continue a tragic human legacy, by using videogames to give us a glimpse at how machine logic is coding its own soul.
Yoko Taro’s first Nier was a game about the separation of the body and the soul, disconnecting the spiritual from the material, in the face of great tragedy. It was about a shrinking human population looking for meaning in the face of viral destruction. Taro’s follow up is the mirror image of this narrative, using its structure to tell three stories, each building a layer onto the previous’ theme. Automata’s endless war between the YoRHa androids 2B, 9S, and A2 and the machines depict empty bodies evolving their own inner selves, with conflict the central emotion.
As our increasingly automated devices and systems network our cities into single unified organisms, Marshall McLuhan’s important words only ring truer: “Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world…The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.” What’s fascinating is how we are developing two machine worlds at the same time: while our natural world is being replaced by machines, we create digital videogame worlds constructed by virtual machines.
The difference between a robot and an android is one of dressing, but we perceive them differently. Both can have sensors like cameras and microphones, comparable to human eyes and ears, but robots have traditionally been represented as human-shaped but personality-less machines where android’s synthetic skin and human facial features naturally humanizes them, affecting us differently psychologically.
Automata’s themes are beautifully expressed in the opening mission to assault a machine factory that runs the player through action game history. Within a few minutes, you’re taught how to move the ship around the screen then fire straight ahead at enemies a la Space Invaders – it then seamlessly transitions into a Robotron 2084-styled twin-stick shooter before smoothly moving the camera behind the ship for a rail scene inspired by Space Harrier. The ranged combat changes to melee as you unleash sword attacks and hit R2 to evade incoming fire. The assault ends when your ship breaches the factory and 2B simultaneously executes smooth melee attacks and rains fire on a room full of robots, using the combat framework that Platinum Games has refined since Hideki Kamiya’s Bayonetta.
This sequence systematically shows how videogames have evolved ranged and melee combat design over the last fifty years, teaching you how to survive in its worlds, ones overwhelmingly filled with conflict. Nier: Automata expands on the small act of moving until you are fully controlling an android capable of fluid, complex movement; it’s an amoeba evolving into a human in a few minutes. After all, you gotta learn to walk before you can annihilate enemy armies.
Just as babies’ perceptual abilities develop as their brains do, allowing them to identify general objects then discern facial features, 2B’s faculties and awareness expand. By buying chips that add HUD elements including HP totals, damage values, and dozens of others, she is becoming aware of her internal regulatory systems. Her consciousness rises. Her experiences are rewarded with money that can purchase upgrades that add more bits of memory, allows her to process more data, which lets her equip more chips to keep growing. The full range of chips let her fine tune her playstyle into player profiles, essentially building a mindset that lets her overcome any situation. This is significant for how it supports one of Automata’s strongest themes- death and rebirth
A save file is a portable data log that gets constantly updated with character and player stats. Since every player will go through the game in their own way, every character save is a one of a kind record, and will never be written in the same way ever again. The save file is a snap shot of a life, the condensed memories inserted into the character that is created every time the game is turned on. That the character you see on screen had to be born into the digital world when the game booted up and only exists until you turn it off, it effectively dies and is reborn hundreds of time. But save files allow that player-specific data to be transferred to any machine running the game software, letting it retain a single identity across different bodies. It means the androids can be reincarnated.
While most games use save files to simply let players reload after a death or game over, Nier: Automata bakes the idea of character death directly into the story in two ways: the corpse running gameplay and fast travel system. The first example is obvious enough; die and you have to retrieve your equipped chips from the empty physical husk. Where it gets interesting is that since you respawn at the very boxes that let you teleport quickly around the world, this shows that they are actually assembly stations to mass produce bodies- teleporting uploads your data file ‘consciousness’ to the network, recycling your physical parts for the next android that gets downloaded.
Distribution and networking are routes of exchange, either physical or memetic. Since data is replicable, it can be transported, perfect to send over global communication lines including the internet. As more and more processes have been moved server side, the world increasingly becomes one massive organism of connected individual machines that exchange data through hard-wired electrical impulses or broadcast over the air as frequencies such as the ones used for radio and Wi-Fi. This networked ‘Internet of Things’ is a large version of concepts that apply to smaller machines, each piece a part of the whole.
In addition to analyzing networking, Automata looks at mass production in simple but interesting ways. Society is filled with mass produced goods, from shirts, to phones, to cars, with millions of identical models manufactured and shipped all over the world. When you look at it, Automata is a game with only a few in-game character models, repeating the same small, medium, and gargantuan enemies throughout the game, just like how the YoRHa characters are part of their own mass-produced A, B, and S, model series. But the mass production angle gets bent when you consider that the chip profiles actively differentiate them from their brother or sister models, helping them be unique individuals.
That differentiation happens with the machine life forms too, just in a different way. The factory assault was an attack on the robot’s figurative birthplace, a large artificial mother that cranked out soulless machines. But within a few missions, your view on the machines changes when you meet the small cluster of robots in the desert that has developed basic communication skills, simple personalities, and adorn themselves in primitive garments, showing the first signs that they were developing a culture. An error in their system code allowed them to diverge and begin to develop self-awareness, a basic consciousness. When you stumble on them mimicking sex and care for non-existent babies, it’s obvious that they’re imitating a familial unit. You see more soon after at the village of pacifists united around the friendly Pascal, indicating a social structure with hierarchical leadership.
Automata’s plot runs the player through a series of scenarios that show the machine life forms beginning to build out their own societies after leaving the factory and occupying more territory. Pascal’s village is followed by the forest kingdom, a monarchy held together by a king and protected by machine armies led by mounted commanders. The concept of a society united by a shared cause is expanded on with the religious sect centered around a religious leader and intangible afterlife; the expanding world shows how societies and their views on the nature of existence have developed over time. That your efforts ultimately destroy these societies let the main characters witness YoRHa’s brutality up close, affecting them bit by bit.
2B’s focus on combat is smartly-contrasted by 9S’s own gameplay. Her heavy attack is replaced by a charge that initiates a hacking twin stick shooter mini-game that lets Nines breach an enemy’s defense barriers and assault their internal systems directly. He is essentially engaging in psychological warfare, leaving their psyches vulnerable. Through his eyes, the carnival boss goes from simply being a malfunctioning machine to one that twisted itself in pursuit of love. His perspective gives us a deeper look at characters’ inner thoughts, humanizing them by exposing their developing emotional state.
2B and 9S’s experiences built bonds between them, slowly altering their programs and evolving their emotions to develop feelings of friendship, anger, love, and hatred. These are further advanced by the appearance of brothers Adam and Eve, the androids birthed by machine consciousness who seek to carry on human memory by rebuilding their world, and, ultimately, continue their legacy of endless conflict. The conflict gets stronger on both sides, loss turning into anger into animosity. Soon, hatred and revenge sweep through the world like a virus.
Emotions have a logical use for living beings. Emotions are complex reactions to stimuli used to motivate certain behaviors. Love drives beings to mate and start a family, anger drives them to engage enemies, fear perks up their senses and motivates them to leave harmful situations. Over time, people’s experiences encode patterns into their minds and emotions are bursts of data to quickly respond to these patterns when they occur again; they create subconscious biological reactions based on memories that trigger automatic actions.
Since society is a network of individual consciousnesses that circulate information through language, they become emotion distributors. Thus, a person’s pain spreads, either by story or more destruction, from person to person. Nier Automata’s endless war didn’t start endless, but after violence turned to hatred in the cultural memory the momentum pushed the two sides past a point of no return. In that way, anger is mass produced and locks everyone into battle. Automata’s narrative progresses by layers, expanding on its main theme every step of the way.
Over the course of the game, the android’s save file has mutated into data that resembles a soul, an essence. Not only does this mean it can be uploaded into an empty body, but it can be uploaded into one already installed with its own save file, letting memories be merged into another consciousness that changes both into something new.
That all these themes are told through a videogame reveals how thoroughly the machine world has taken over. Humans are so good at making machines that not only are they actively making their own environments synthetic, they make virtual ones packed with artificial life that they can visit but never exist. Virtual worlds, with no concrete physical parts, exist on a data-driven, almost spiritual, plane. In creating videogames, humans became better at programming, networking, A.I., and behavioral analysis, and our every technological advancement allows machines to get a stronger grip on our world.
But perhaps Automata uses videogames to reveal something important about our reality. When the final credits have rolled, Nier gives the player something special: a debug mode where they can edit the parameters and world, breaking open the internal reality so you can reform it as you like. You are given access to the digital machine, made free to flip its switches. But as humans are biological machines rather than metal ones, we have already gone through this evolutionary process and become conscious. Maybe one day, we will discover the source code for our reality’s own operating system, because as Nier: Automata points out, once humanity has expanded its consciousness, we can transcend our program and become as Gods.
DEVELOPER: Square-Enix, Platinum Games
PLATFORMS: Playstation 4, XBoxOne, PC