Square Enix’s anime-inspired sci-fi adventure tells us a whole lot about its fictional world—and our own.
By a landslide, one of the most overlooked Game of the Year contenders in 2017 is Nier: Automata. The experience is rife with robots, androids, anime tropes, and cute waifus. It plays like a dream, and has an interesting world and cast of characters. Yet Nier also holds a handful of metaphors, real-world analogies, social commentaries, and takes on isolation, complexes, and delusions of grandeur. Although some may touch on slight spoilers, these details also provide a fascinating lens into the world of Nier: Automata—and our own.
Very early on, Nier establishes that you (2B, 9S, and their fellow androids) have emotions. You can think. You’re real. However, the normal robots are your enemy. They can’t feel, can’t think for themselves, and don’t have a proper agenda. They’re just evil, no questions asked. Nier glosses over any and all explanations and tosses a “fact” into the open, without giving the player time to parse it. The game doesn’t want you to ponder on the difference between robots and androids. It doesn’t grant you the blessing of wondering what makes one lifeform different from the other.
This appears to be an intentional and clever narrative trick, as we see when the characters within Nier: Automata peel back the layers on the world around them. “Robots don’t have feelings….right?” they ask, as the machines around them cry out in agony and pain. “These are definitely the bad guys!” they shout, hacking the screeching metal entities to bits. It’s a dire scenario: despite not having much evidence, these soldiers must remind themselves that the enemy is different. Difference is bad and scary, and must be eliminated. If the bad guys were truly the same as the good guys, they wouldn’t be bad, right?
In one scene, 2B and 9S set out to destroy every enemy in a desert, only to have the robots band together to create an even scarier force. In a later chapter, 2B tries to negotiate peace with a sect of machines. Minutes later, the tribe’s leaders attempt to murder her, and their fellow robots, screaming that they “will become as gods.” These are very on-the-nose parallels to real-world problems. However, they drive home Nier‘s point: isolating yourself makes everyone look like a mindless enemy.
Yet as the duo androids discover, many robots show fear, anguish, and even compassion. They build communities and lives, try to negotiate peace, and attempt to learn about humanity’s past. Despite all claims otherwise, the enemy robots and machines are real. This fact only becomes painfully obvious after the protagonists have destroyed countless units. And with each new tragedy that the truly bad machines inflict on the world, the perceptions of the good robots are affected.
This thread is woven through every moment of the game, and Nier: Automata brings up a heavy-handed argument: it’s easy to feel that you’re the only one that matters in the world. It’s so simple to think that you’re the one doing everything, making a difference, and truly contributing to the world. You can feel your own emotions without even trying. How hard is it for you to feel someone else’s?
Nier shows the dangers of a rigorous dose of isolation, both in a social and political sense. The abandonment of fellow man is a slippery slope to a true superiority complex. Whether constructed naturally over time or fed by an environment, the idea of isolating oneself from others will often lead to the idea that the world is “us v. them.” One day, people are either “androids” or “robots”—two similar concepts, both being automated life. Yet the next, they’re “good” and “evil”, each despising the other over the smallest inherent difference they can find and refusing to compromise.
Nier: Automata plays with perspective and “sides of the story” in its subsequent playthroughs. It toys with the fact that viewpoints, environments, and obfuscation of facts can alter experiences and emotions. Perhaps one character knows more or less about the current situation than you do, hence their different reaction. Nier showcases how people need both stories to fully assess a situation. With only one commentary, facts and truths become distorted. The third play alone makes no sense if seen only from the eyes of 9S.
Most of all, Nier emphasizes the importance of simply not being alone. Whether it’s in a single pairing or with a small group, companionship will keep one sane. The game shows us this time and time again: 2B and 9S, Adam and Eve, A2 and her attack squadron, Devola and Popola, and Pascal and his village. Interaction is healthy, but isolation can lead to a complete loss of oneself. A nagging feeling that you’re alone in the world, and that everyone else just doesn’t get it. That everyone else is the enemy, and that you’re the sole hero. At this point, it’s easy to claim yourself holier than others. Not because you think you’re amazing, but because you think everyone else is awful.
At its extreme, isolation will suck all emotion from you. We see it in 9S, Eve, and Pascal. That severe void can destroy a person. You want to cause pain, misery, and suffering on the world. You want to risk your life, or end it completely. In some grand attempt to feel anything at all, you hurt those around you and become desperate to regain the emotions you’ve lost. The world means nothing, and at the center is you: the only existence that still makes sense. When even that self-imposed importance begins to slip, what’s left?
Nier: Automata attempts to paint robots as what many androids see: a primal, evil band of soulless monsters. Yet it also gives you the other side of the story. It tries to convince you that enemies are both garbage awaiting disposal and friends worthy of vindication. The game illustrates the imaginary line in the sand that both fictional androids and real humans draw. Nier beautifully captures the harshest dangers of the isolation movement, showing the realities waiting at its end. By comparison, it also depicts the benefits of being surrounded by people you love and trust. Is the enemy truly the enemy, or are most of them normal people looking for a friend, just like you? The verdict is yours to make.