"Every consciousness seeks the death of the other." - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I struck down Hegel in a desert, a sandstorm obscuring my view. I was A2 now, not 2B (who A2 killed at 2B's own request after a virus corrupted her); nor 9S, who was out for A2’s blood after witnessing the murder of his friend with zero context. Here A2, a fresh perspective for me to infiltrate, stood. The remnants of A2’s assumingly once-Gothic lolita maid outfit still tattered. Her long hair newly chopped off. The centipede-like boss Hegel now just sand in the wind. As if Yoko Taro, Nier: Automata’s director, had said 'be gone!' to the ideas once pontificated by the other Hegel—the philosopher—and this was his response. As if surviving was paving their own path, separate from the musings of old men of centuries past.
In 2011, Stephen Hawking spoke at the Google Zeitgeist conference and said the boldest of claims: “Philosophy is dead.” According to Hawking, philosophy is dead in today’s age because philosophers don’t follow science as closely anymore. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge,” he said. After playing Nier: Automata, I’m left with the feeling that Taro would agree.
Hegel’s not alone in being given lip service in Nier: Automata: Blaise Pascal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Immanuel Kant, and others join the ranks. Some are evil, some are kinder, some are just weird. Pascal, the friendly robot sometimes at your side, is arguably the most positively recepted philosopher-bearing name in the game. Blaise Pascal, the philosopher, happened to be a mathematician—a more practical thinking philosopher by that stretch. Pascal in the game reads a lot of books; the few relics of humanity's past, the fruit of philosophers from thousands of years prior. Pascal teaches the other kind machines in the village how to read, how to respect others, and mostly, how to be more human.
This ends tragically. Having enlightened the machine children with knowledge—the emotion of fear and thus a sense of what death is—Pascal marches the children to their very death, upon leaving them alone in one instance. Pascal’s Village finds itself in turmoil, and Pascal flees with the children, seeking to defend them alongside A2. They return to the desolate factory room to find the machines coiled on the floor, spears sticking through their chests. Pascal breaks down—they committed suicide, because they lived in fear of the idea of their murder. A2 has the option to wipe Pascal’s memory—leaving them to be a shell of what they once were—or kill Pascal, as Pascal can’t live on regardless. In Pascal's doomed quest to feel alive, they can't survive, no matter the outcome.
Hegel, along with other philosophers, are sort of the antithesis to Taro's ideology; where knowledge isn't the answer even with its good intent, instead it's a constantly recycled, ill-fated zero-sum battle. In an interview with Game Informer in 2015, Taro explicitly spoke of the imbalance of painful consequences in games. "I think it’s more realistic to have a character defeat or kill an opponent and then sit and have to struggle with the realization that they took someone’s life,” he said, rather than the alternative: a smile and wink about the fun of killing enemies.
Nier: Automata is a complicated game beyond its slick, Platinum-betrothed action-RPG surface. You start the game’s initial playthrough as 2B, the silver-haired, short-skirted heroine at the forefront of the game’s advertisements. You come to learn that 2B is actually from a line of androids called 2E, a special class designed for killing other YoRHa units who go rogue, get infected with a virus of sorts, or worse—find out the truth of their existence. The truth that their kind is being punished, by being shoved into a never-ending war with the machines to perpetuate the propaganda of a still-living string of humanity.
You play the game again on another playthrough, this time adopting the perspective of the sweetly naive and far-too-curious 9S as he’s granted a new lease on life, back into the apprehensive arms of 2B but rid of the memories that once clouded him. 2B remembers everything, from the times she’s likely had to murder 9S when his curiosity got the best of him—she always remembers. Yet 9S is only semi-aware, or more aware than he lets on, pushing away the embedded knowledge that one day his friend will probably have to kill him again, recycling the process.
Death is an archaic concept in Nier: Automata. When a YoRHa unit 'dies,' 2B and 9S are able to send their information (mostly with memories intact) to the Bunker (their homebase in… space) before it’s uploaded to a new vessel—like 2B’s and 9S’ at the start of the game after they sacrifice themselves by detonating their black boxes. In that instance, 9S missed out on uploading his own memories, but 2B finds herself wholly saved. But this idea raises the question: are they really being reincarnated when their livelihood is just data and their throwaway bodies are always born anew?
"Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the God that blessed us with this cryptic puzzle, and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him." - 2B
In Nier: Automata, survival is an illusion—and not just because the idea of humanity residing on the moon is just a myth. 2B and 9S hardly fear death. In most instances, because given 9S’ razor sharp hacking and network-navigating reflexes, their data-bound souls can be preserved. In essence, though, that’s all that is. Just data. 2B and 9S don’t live and breathe like the humans that once walked the Earth before they were eradicated. They can only pine for those human-like emotions, a human-like consciousness, and hope that those feelings tether them closer to the remnants of humanity—the humanity they think they’re protecting, but in reality doesn’t even exist.
This is not because they respect humans as their gods—in fact, quite the opposite—but more because it's the only thing they can grasp, the only influence in sight. Like kids who want to learn how to be adults. Like spiritual people who want to be closer to their creators; the dastardly beings that created something in their own image, because they’re unable to look beyond or imagine anything else.
But God can be many things. A religious deity. An omnipresent being filled with scorn, or alternatively, love and understanding. God can be an all-encompassing creator, only able iterate beings in their own image. God can even be a philosopher, preaching the many facets of existence. Human beings, in Nier: Automata, are God. They created the YoRHa units, just as aliens created the machines. Then the humans 'fled' to the moon, leaving the two technologically superior species to battle it out until Earth was safe again. Or so they thought.
There’s a side mission in Nier: Automata that sent me again to the vast desert. I was searching for a friendly machine—another robot’s 'little sister'—who had gone missing. When I found her, the only thing differentiating her from the machines I slaughtered on my path was a pink ribbon plopped atop her head. She was scared, but I vowed to return her home to the sanctuary of Pascal’s safe village. An escort of fending off evil machines later, the bow-adorned machine turns to 2B and 9S, and poses an odd but familiar question, "Where do babies come from?" It’s an awkward question, often feigned by adults from kids, but here we were: androids and a childlike machine, left to wade through the awkwardness that humans once faced. Except, of course, babies don't exist anymore. With the extinct human race, babies are an outdated concept.
Nier: Automata, like its predecessor NieR, wrestles with the idea of humanity, when there’s only the ghosts that haunt a world bereft of actual living beings (aside from the occasional moose). Like a decrepit school bus, conveniently abandoned and rusted over as a platform to get onto an equally-decrepit highway overpass; no giggling children in sight. Or an abandoned mall, left for YoRHa units to muse about the "shopping" they might have done if it was still inhabited. Nier: Automata is a game about what machines are left with when all other remnants of humanity are mere haunting reminders, a drip that’s slowly evaporating.
Everything is quietly purposeful in Nier: Automata. When you start your second playthrough and go to wake 2B up as 9S, you watch your past self fiddle with the brightness and explore the menu. The world map is bad because, well, satellite reception is poor, and androids have to "deal with it." Currency is the remnants of the machines you destroy. The clothes 2B and 9S don on their backs are maid-like—forever subservient to mankind, even in uniform. Pascal teaches the machine "children" of the village how to read philosophy, leading to the machines committing mass suicide, in fear of being murdered.
When Nier: Automata comes to a close in Ending E, with 2B, 9S, and A2 rebuilt and their data preserved for a final time, the player is left feeling uncharacteristically happy. The Pods reunite, themselves developing a sense of will (and one noting that they’re a bit embarrassed about the turn of events), as they seek to give the world another chance. "A future is not given to you, it is something you must take for yourself," they say, almost adopting a philosophical outlook themselves.
And here are three androids, plagued by hardship and existential woes, now given a second chance (or more accurately, millionth chance), even if the potential for them to not learn from history still stands as a real worry. Meanwhile I sacrificed my own data—the save files that floated me to this point—in the hope that others, when struggling with the in-credits bullet hell minigame, would find themselves with aid.
There is no chance of survival in Nier: Automata until the very end. 2B, 9S, and A2 were forever tethered to this never-ending cycle: of death, resurrection, eventual death again. When the Bunker finds itself destroyed, they, for the first time, experience freedom. A2, already rogue and hellbent on destroying all machines. 2B, embedding her memories into her sword as her dying wish. 9S, illuminated by the knowledge of the extinction of humanity. For the first time ever, if they die, they truly die. And by Ending E, they're given another chance to weather their chances for survival, and not an antiquated, recycled version of it.
There’s an early moment in Nier: Automata, in playthrough A, where 2B and 9S frolick in a familiar meadow, and no machines have any qualms about it. The machines mind their own business, just as we mind our own. There are no bullets fired or swords thrown here. The machines do not act aggressively toward us unless we show signs of hostility. It is a revelation: soon after we realize that some machines, like the friendly Pascal, are evolving—either by simply imitating human behavior or actually growing a human-like conscious. Just like us, they didn’t want to fight at all. The idea of survival, in this fleeting moment, is relishing the peace and quiet.