The Uncomfortable Humanity of the Robots That Inhabit ‘Nier: Automata’
Come for the combat, stay for the existential questions about reasons to live.
Editor's Note: There are early Nier: Automata spoilers in this article.
There's a moment in Nier: Automata a few people had given me a heads up about, and all they would tell me is that it somehow involved robots and sex. Oooh! A few hours into Nier: Automata, I reached a pit where robots littered the grounds, in the rubble of a once-populated city. I figured the robots were offline, but as it turns out, they were moving around a tiny bit. The robots had hobbled on top of one another, a poor attempt at simulating human sex acts.
"Child, child, child," mumbled one robot, as they rocked an empty cradle.
Prior to coming across the scene, I'd been working out a snarky tweet to send, but as I took in everything around me, a desperate attempt to grasp humanity, it wasn't funny—it was sad.
Sadness is everywhere in Nier: Automata, set on a version of Earth where said humanity has fled to the moon, after aliens, using their own machines, invaded. To fight back, humans built a set of automated weapons, which fight on their behalf. (It's complicated.) Though artificial intelligence, free will, the subjugation of technology, and machines in humanity's image have been part of countless sci-fi stories, Nier: Automata internalizes that history and spits it back at, asking players to directly reckon with the notion of being a machine. And though I'm certainly having fun with the Platinum Games-developed combat, it's my own journey of understanding, and the uncomfortable questions I don't have good answers to, that keeps me coming back.
Pretty early on, it becomes clear that not every robot wants to fight, even if that's your literal mission: robots are bad, kill the robots. The game imbues killing robots with purpose, too; to level up, find loot, and make money, you kill robots. In the kinds of beat 'em ups that Nier: Automata is modeled after, you're meant to become numb to these endless waves of enemies.
When I approached an amusement park in the game, I naturally started beating the crap out of the machines around me, as fireworks rhythmically exploded overhead. But that's when I noticed they weren't fighting back, nor were they coming after me. It also seemed curious that some of the machines had names floating above their heads, designating them as something beyond a mindless enemy. My heart sunk when I became clear I'd just slaughtered a robot dubbed "father." In fact, not only had I taken out the robot dad, I'd killed the whole robot family.
When I returned to the same area later, the family was there. It's unclear if their consciousness was transferred to new bodies or if the game simply didn't give their death any permanence. Either way, they didn't hold my actions against me. "Let's be happy together," said the robot father, while the mother encouraged me to "throw down" my weapons and "surrender to love."
Punctuating this moment was the revelation that a slice of robots, the very ones crafted by the aliens to destroy humanity, have taken up residency in the woods and hoped to declare peace. Their understanding of the politics of war were naive but nonetheless profoundly earnest.
"We will not fight," declared one robot, waving a white flag back and forth in the breeze.
"We are not your enemy," mused another.
If you hit them with your weapons, they will not fight back. They'll just die.
The woodland machines, programmed by aliens to kill, want peace from other machines, programmed by humans to kill. In most stories about artificial intelligence and robotics, it's framed in comparisons to humanity—the closer an artificial being is to humanity, the better. Human experience, its values, are the gold standard. In Nier: Automata, it's robots talking to fellow robots about the necessity of such standards, as humans—and human-centric viewpoints—take a backseat. Maybe robots need to figure out what's important to them.
What does it mean to die, when consciousness can be transported to another body? If you disconnect yourself from the network, removing the ability to inhabit a new body, does that give life meaning? Or is the cycle of life and death, a construct of humanity, flawed? This takes on a ponderous connotation when the only human in the equation is the one holding the controller.
It's suddenly clear to me why people have been shouting about Nier for so many years now. Though I read up on what happened in Nier before booting up Nier: Automata, it's something else entirely to sift through the revelations yourself. It's clear why these games provoke fanaticism from the people who play them—it's territory most games don't get anywhere near.
I'm shocked Nier: Automata has, at least for a little while, pulled me away from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But the unsettling world that designer Yoko Taro's built has me playing with rapt attention. I've only finished the first ending, which fans have told me is better thought of as the game's first chapter, and I can't wait to see where it goes. My guess is it's going to be a bummer, but one that, unlike most games, will stay with me long after the credits.