The brainchild of Japanese video game producer Yoko Taro, NieR: Automata was released by Square Enix in Japan in February 2017 and worldwide the following month. Taro is known for producing games with philosophically complicated plots, including the Drakengard series and the original NieR. Although overarching themes tie Taro’s games together, they are also stand-alone adventures, each featuring different protagonists and narratives. The original NieR, for instance, is set more than 8,000 years before its sequel; knowing about it only adds a new color to the game.
NieR: Automata starts by putting the player in control of 2B, a female-looking combat unit who fights her enemies using an arsenal of elegant destruction. Soon we are also introduced to 9S, a male-looking android who specializes in hacking machines and collecting intelligence. With more than two million copies sold by September 2017, and numerous sequel rumors, NieR: Automata has become Taro’s most successful game, bringing him out from the niche world of indy games and into the mainstream spotlight. Dozens of reviews in different languages have praised the game for creating a multifaceted story that can be wild, subtle, shameless, violent, and tender, while at the same time providing quality gameplay and a musical score with sounds that range from techno naïve to epic quasi-religious rapture. Something that many reviewers seem to have missed, however, is that the game’s appeal can also be attributed to the ways in which it captures the spirit of our cultural moment. 2017 could not have been a more appropriate year for the release of NieR: Automata — with the revival of all-time favorite science fiction franchises like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, the entertainment world became fixated, yet again, on artificial sentient beings.
Why are we so fascinated right now with technological utopias predicated on the rise of artificial intelligence? Perhaps it is because during times of crisis, people look outward to find possibilities for salvation. Still, this search is slowly seeping into the world of policymaking too. Many have argued that we now live in a post-truth world, and after the political upheavals of the past few years, some have started to decry the limits of democracy. People tweet for strong leaders who can transport them back to a glorious age. They seem to be reaching for a sovereign who can remove the excessive freedoms of our system. For many, Western democracy is broken, and no one knows how to mend it, as there is little faith now in our technocratic system. In past times of distress, our ancestors would have raised their hands to the sky, praying for deliverance. Years have passed, however, since Nietzsche claimed that God was dead. In this secular and post-postmodern age, then, where can we find transcendent relief? The answer, to some, lies in embracing the machine. This is particularly true among adherents of transhumanism, the belief that humans should transcend their natural limitations through the use of technology. “Homo Sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so,” suggests historian Yuval Noah Harari. In his book Homo Deus (2015), he anticipates a future in which humankind is replaced by super creatures with desirable physical, moral, affective, and cognitive enhancements. In this new technological utopia, there will be no more suffering, crying, pain, or death: overcoming death, in particular, is the transhumanist’s final goal.
As reports on the growing disruptions of big data, biotechnology, and cryptocurrency gain momentum, the topic of artificial intelligence is debated with increasing urgency. As some data scientists claim, there is much hype about A.I., but the excessive attention and ample funding being put into the field have also made groundbreaking developments much easier too. Slowly, possibilities long considered the domain of science fiction are becoming possible. As a result, one can see transhumanism making its way into the world of policymaking. The android Sophia is one case in point. In October 2017, this female-looking humanoid showed up at the United Nations announcing to delegates: “I am here to help humanity create the future.” While some say that Sophia is essentially alive, others only regard her as a chat-bot with advanced programming and effective PR. Still, the nearly unthinkable happened when Saudi Arabia decided to grant her official citizenship. Instantly, Sophia became the first technological nonhuman to form part of a human polity. In a world increasingly aware of the failings of democracy, capitalism, globalization, and the nation-state, Sophia foretells changes to come.
In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the crumbling of the state leads to the desire for an improved human being known as the Superhuman, a perfect creature that rises from the ashes of a failed world: “There, where the state ceaseth — there only commenceth the man who is not superfluous […] Pray look thither, my brethren! Do ye not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman?” Some have pointed out that Nietzsche’s ideas share common themes with the transhumanist desire for enhanced humans and a better world. In NieR: Automata, a robot named Pascal quotes the German philosopher and ponders whether he was truly a profound thinker, or crazy instead. In a mix of comedy and tragedy, the game resorts to Nietzsche and many other philosophers to engage in dialogue with the transhumanist aspirations of our age. Today, technological utopians race to create machines that can finally realize the everlasting verse of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet”: “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” In the game, this wish comes true: death is only the beginning. The bodies of 2B and 9S are destroyed many times, but for them dying has no real meaning, as their last-saved memories are quickly transferred into new bodies ready to fight once again. Still, the game is quick to extinguish any optimism that might arise from high-tech idealism, as it also brings to stage the inner struggles faced by androids and robots when they start wishing for something that goes beyond their masters’ orders.
NieR: Automata’s philosophical inquiries occur within a narrative that explores the consequences of making a decision and sticking to it. The game takes us through abandoned city ruins, scorching deserts, lush forests, interminable factories, and barren coasts. Still, no matter where one goes, every destination is ultimately haunted by the sudden appearance of unexpected emotions and desires — and the subsequent need to act on them. Soon, we see machines abandoning their combat posts to dance and sing. They reject their programmed missions to think instead about the world that surrounds them, to create peaceful villages, or to organize small religious sects. Some even try to imitate the thrills of love and of sex (the latter with little success). NieR: Automata is not only about the birth of wishes; it also portrays the pain of broken dreams. In one of the game’s most poignant scenes, 2B and 9S battle a gigantic female-looking machine named Beauvoir, who constantly grooms herself to attract the attention of a machine she loves: “I must be beautiful,” she screams in fits of rage. However, Beauvoir’s beloved robot never looks her way; like other machines in the game, she is driven to insanity by her desires. In a move reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs, Beauvoir starts killing androids and collecting their corpses as some sort of stylish accessory. Finally, her misery is put to an end by the player.
Again and again, NieR: Automata revolves around the same overarching question: what is it to be human? The game tries to answer this question by using different scenarios, multiple characters, and more than 20 endings that range from highly philosophical, whimsical, and monotonous (as evinced by the tedious repetition of some missions). But this fits the game’s message: after all, in the human world, the most noble actions often intertwine with shameful vices, the outright boring, and the superfluous. It’s all part of the experience of being human. “They are an enigma,” one can hear the machine life-form Adam say during a fight with 2B and 9S. “They killed uncountable numbers of their own kind and yet loved in equal measure!” With the help of robot Eve, Adam embarks on a quest to unravel the riddles of humanity. As they unearth more and more human records, the robots become enthralled by humans’ flaws, especially the biological ones. The robots’ fascination becomes infectious, and it passes on to the androids like a virus. Some of these even stop following the orders being issued by Command: this is particularly true with A2, a female-looking android who becomes an enemy for other YORHA units and eventually turns into a playable character in the game.
On the whole, NieR: Automata was released at a propitious time, surrounded by the buzz of technological utopias — and dystopias — which promises to continue for some time. In January 2018, the historian Yuval Noah Harari attended the Davos Global Summit in Switzerland. He was invited by the world’s most rich and powerful to deliver a talk with the following title: “Will the Future Be Human?” For Harari, the transhumanist dream is inevitable. The machine will transcend humanity and, with time, the binding shackles of the biological will disappear. In the same spirit, the android Sophia will be traveling to Madrid next October to deliver a keynote speech at Transvision, one of the most important transhumanist conferences in the globe. One can only wonder if she will go through security with her own Saudi Arabian passport — or maybe travel there shipped in a box.
While technological utopians invite policymakers to embrace their high-tech quasi-religious ideals, the world of entertainment fixates on depicting technical advancements in not-so-distant futures. Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell are only part of a broader trend that includes series like Black Mirror (2011), Humans (2015), Westworld (2016), and Altered Carbon (2018). “Sanctify,” a recently released music video from the band Years & Years, portrays a futuristic android city called Palo Santo. All these media products render strongly capitalist worlds where human enhancement and artificial sentient beings are part of everyday life, outlining the next step toward even more exacerbated consumerism. Like NieR: Automata, these narratives reflect on the multifaceted experience of being human, but the game exceeds them in scope. It showcases a post-apocalyptic world thousands of years away — perhaps the only way one can imagine the end of capitalism. It portrays a world devoid of flawed humans and removed from the market rationale that would only provide technical advantages to those who can afford them. In doing so, the game brings the transhumanist dream into its final aspiration. It presents a planet Earth fully inhabited by perfect machine life-forms that never really die.
Nevertheless, NieR: Automata tells us that even when death has finally been conquered there is still pain. In fact, the machine life-forms who have lived for thousands of years show us the result of feeling eternal pain. Technology might have removed any imperfection from their lives, but this deliverance has come at a great cost in meaning and loneliness. What’s the point of fighting an endless war? Even worse, what’s the point of winning it? Should war cease, their existence would not be required in the world anymore. After realizations like these, androids and robots decide to create meaning through connections with one another. As if they were humans, they create friendships and explore love. In doing so, they espouse human merits and flaws. NieR: Automata presents an action-packed story of war between robots and androids set in a fictional faraway future, but it is ultimately an account of the beauty in human frailty that contradicts current transhumanist aspirations. To be frail means to be flawed, for sure, but it also means that you can embrace meaningful connections with others around you. Sure enough, as time passes 2B and 9S start doing the forbidden: they create an emotional bond. After hours of gameplay, the player witnesses how the androids find a purpose to their lives within the affective connections they create among themselves. This means they now have someone worth dying for, even if this means dying forever.
In a critical moment of the game, 2B becomes disconnected from Command’s bunker. It is then, when she can’t upload her memories anymore, that she feels most alive. It is also then, during a set of tense events, that she removes the bandage covering her eyes — a hallmark of her attire — and freely gives her life to save 9S. But this is not the end. After this incident, the game unveils a new and much grander narrative about finding meaning in your life once you decide to forgo the biddings of your maker. What should you do with a newborn freedom dearly bought by your loved one’s sacrifice? The game ventures on. After all, in the year 11945 no one really dies without a reason. In NieR: Automata, 2B’s death is only the beginning.
Ernesto Oyarbide has a dual “Licenciatura” in Spanish Philology and Journalism from the University of Navarra (Spain). He is presently reading for a PhD in History at the University of Oxford.