This story contains spoilers about Nier: Automata.
Recently at PAX, Nier: Automata director Yoko Taro was asked why 2B wore heels at all. “I really like girls,” he said simply. But playing Nier: Automata, and hearing this statement from the man who once called his own game “poop,” it's likely a little more complicated than that.
Working from home, I dress “down” a lot. Joggers and a hoodie is kind of my go-to weekday outfit. When I go to an event to cover something, I usually wear a button-up shirt, to show a hint of professional pizzazz. Clothes, as humans use them, are a basis for social signaling. Me in sweatpants is a lazier version of me, one that’s not prone to human interactions for the day. Me in nicer clothes is a more open self, one not closed off to actually interacting with the outside world.
Nier: Automata, a game about a bunch of non-human things struggling with their distant grips with humanity, doesn’t play with clothes in precisely the same way as humans do, but they signal different messages all the same. Clothes, instead of signaling a personal mood as they do in today’s society, signal a broader wish: to show signs of being human at all. Clothes are a small part in the game’s broader reaches to understand humanity, as they're one of the few ties the world’s remaining survivors even have to past societies.
Nier: Automata presents a world with no humans left (or aliens, for that matter). Only machines and androids. The first time 2B and 9S, the main characters of Nier: Automata, skip into Pascal’s Village, the peaceful machine town nearby the amusement park, the player is greeted with flag waving robots. The machines are living out their days in peaceful solitude, tired of fighting others, and longing to just chill out for eternity, basically. There they meet Pascal, a sweet-natured machine who only wants to help the YoRHa units, forging a friendship with them. They’re both hesitant initially, but eventually, they all become friends.
The other machines in Pascal’s village are just as friendly. Some, you find, even adopt clothes. One machine wears a big pink bow atop her head, staying true to her perceived “little sister” mentality. Another, literally named Jean-Paul after the existentialist philosopher, has a pretentious top hat upon his metal skull. For these machines, they wear clothes, hoping it will bring them closer to humanity. And as the game goes on, the machines, despite looking the least like humans, more and more grow to be the most humanlike entities of the entire game.
For 2B, 9S, and later A2, clothes signify their social status: as lessers, subservient to mankind always. The YoRHa motto, “Glory to Mankind,” echoes this solemn truth, that they have no agency over their own “lives.” (Or what life as an android even is.) 2B and 9S wear outfits fit for maids (if maids were a touch more goth, that is). A2, a rogue YoRHa unit who abandoned her post long ago, wears tattered clothes that are hardly there at all. Her “maid” status destroyed as she left her old life behind. A2’s tattered clothes show that she is free, but at a cost.
Partway through the game, 2B and 9S find themselves in an abandoned shopping mall. They muse about the concept of malls, and if they would have spent time here when it was alive and well. Shopping, the great worldwide past-time, was now here only in shambles. Vines overgrown storefronts; escalators rightfully busted. 2B and 9S could only imagine the glory it once was, and even the point of what dressing up was like, and may have been. They’ll never get to experience it for themselves, making the ghost of long-lost fashion feel even sadder.
Fashion in Nier: Automata is only on display for characters trying to look more human, in a world where humans no longer exist. Clothes are one of a few of the last remaining semblances of humanity, scattered in between the desolate apartment complexes and skyscrapers. Two villains, Adam and Eve, only wear pants because not wearing them is “socially unacceptable,” even when they have no genitalia to shield. 2B and 9S are cast as maids to a non-existent mankind, right down to the clothes on their backs. The machines in Pascal’s village (and sometimes beyond), are relegated to slapping on accessories, hoping it makes them appear as peaceful, like the humans they read about in long lost books.
There’s something profoundly haunted about the fashion in Nier: Automata, in ways few games articulate. Clothes are often just set dressing, meant to match a character to its world, like the sexy but practical hair-made outfit of Bayonetta, the dirty clothes in other typical post-apocalyptic fare, or the space-combat-ready suits in something like Halo. Clothes are simply functional, and nothing else. But in Nier Automata, clothes mean something more: another cry for help for its characters trapped in a world lost of humanity, as some quietly wonder if being more "human" is even an ideal worth chasing.