Nier: Automata – the power of video games and thoughts on existentialist sci-fi in general, I suppose

by e_e_evans PhD student

Dredged from the archives of the “draft” box of my blog, a completely off-topic musing on a video game I first played back in August last year and which still gets me thinking even now. I’m likely to do this a few more times where I dig into the “notebook” of half-formed or simply unpublished blog posts just to get the thoughts finally out there. In this case the text is almost unchanged from August but the images have been added in today.


I like Philip K. Dick’s books…. well, ok, I didn’t get past half way with Lies, Inc. (The Unteleported Man) because I was not willing to endure reading about an LSD trip for no reason for a good chunk of the book (seriously, P.K.D. what were you thinking?!) but I like his works all the same. Partly because they are weird, see Counter-Clock World as the most extreme example, but within the weird are some excellent sci-fi concepts mostly to do with the nature of the self and being, the apex of which needs no introduction, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or (in film form) Bladerunner (Which is one of my favourite films of all time).

I mention all this because I have just finished 3 of the 5 ending paths of Nier: Automata, Square Enix and Platinum Games latest sci-fi existentialist, android hack-and-slash JRPG offering and I have a lot of feelings.

The original founders of Electronic Arts once asked the question “Can a video game make you cry?”. If the question had been about music or film or literature the response would naturally be an indignant “yes!” but for video games it’s taken a little while longer for such a question to be properly considered as well as examples of such emotional response realised.

The first game I remember crying at the end of was Final Fantasy X. I had already experienced the story via YouTube but somehow playing the game gave me such a connection to the characters that the emotions were so much more raw. I don’t remember if I cried at the end of Bastion but the fear and terror of the final moments of the last level were extremely emotionally draining. Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide left me in something of a dark pit of sorrow for a good few days (I did cry, yes) as I suffered through a brutal look at what it means to create, be understood or, damagingly, misunderstood through your work. (I realise that this paragraph makes me out to be a wet blanket but as there is no shame at crying while watching Forest Gump there should be no shame in crying because of a video game).


At the start of “The Beginner’s Guide” the game’s creator, Davey, tells us, the player, that we are going to be playing a series of games designed by his friend, Coda. This screenshot makes up part of the moment in the game where some sort of level beyond the 4th wall breaks as “Coda”, the creator of the games within the game, addresses the game’s creator, Davey directly via our, the player’s, screens. 

In the final few scenes of the 3rd “act” Neir: Automata you are presented with a choice, a choice that no other medium can present you with (besides chose your own adventure books, I guess). I sat at my computer, with my hand over my mouth, heartbroken. I didn’t know what consequence my choice would have. Should I side (i.e. play as) a character I have got to know over 3 game cycles and hope that will lead to a positive outcome, or, because of their fractured mental state should I side with the other character who I don’t really know and cannot trust to spare a life or do the right thing? After my choice and the final moments of the story the end credit music struck up and tears filled my eyes.


This is the moment that made me pause and not want to continue…. this image still gives me chills because you must make a choice to continue the game even if you don’t want to.

The notion that a fiction work can instil such emotion is, logically, absurd. The characters and events do not exist. In the case of Nier: Automata not only do the characters and events not exist but the characters are androids with no human emotions, only the illusion of such. And yet through fiction we gain such incredible moments of empathy that logic is no longer considered. These characters have invaded our consciousness and have become real.

Parallel to this pathos is the characters struggle with their own sense of identity and existence, hence my references to P.K.D.’s work at the start of this piece. Blackrunner‘s replicants, for all intents and purposes, could be biologically human if they had not been so heavily modified to strip them of human traits such as physical frailty, longevity, self-determination, childhood and family. (Yes, I consider physical frailty a human trait, super strength and resistance is inherently superhuman and therefore, not human. Where the line is drawn is naturally up for debate but if a fiction character can do what even the strongest real human cannot, that’s inhuman). Neir: Automata‘s “replicants”, YoRHa units, are full-blown androids, mechanical beings made in humanity’s image but without a scrap of biology at all.

Bridging this gap could be character’s such as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, a cyborg with a human brain but an android body. All of these examples, replicants, cyborgs and YoRHa struggle with a fundamental question, what does it mean to be human? Or perhaps more accurately, what needs to be added to make something or someone human?, or what needs to be taken away to strip a person of humanity?

Now if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be writing a blog about it, I’d be off in my fancy Professor of Philosophy house drinking single estate Darjeeling tea but all I can say is that Neir: Automata succeeds in the footsteps of Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell, presenting us with questions of existence and unflinchingly making you look into the dark heart of the results.

So what is this piece about? A recommendation to play a video game? A justification for spending 35 hours of my life playing said video game? An outlet of emotion? A way to name drop classic sci-fi to sound clever? The ramblings of a decongestant fuelled, mad-person? (In order, yes, no, yes, I hope not, and possibly). Ok, here’s a takeaway then, I once saw sci-fi described as being about mad-scientists, robots and space, but I think what sci-fi actually is, is the canvas to explore fundamental questions about humanity through the fantastical but plausible.

I therefore commend Nier: Automata for your approval for being a great game, with great visuals and great music with philosophical themes that turns around and stabs you in the heart with all the emotional force of a katana.


Addendum (that is even more off-topic):

As I was looking for images for this post I remembered an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern in London called “No Ghost, just a shell” which was based around several artists re-imagining and expanding upon the life of a minor character from the “Ghost in the Shell” Manga (may have been TV show, I forget). The image below includes one of the pieces of work which was a cold reading of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” that you could hear with the headphones and see being read by the avatar on the screen. I vaguely remember the bit I heard which I think was the moment when Deckard first meets Rachel in the book (I hadn’t read it at the time).


The next image is something that is still an avatar that I use on a gaming website, although I’ve not been active, according to the record I checked today, since 20th June 2015. It’s funny that I have a digital self that, a little bit like that art expo’s name has no ghost (no soul) but is a shell left by my prior digital footprint in the net.


The whole project culminated with the artists who had expanded this minor character’s life and likeness signing the rights of the character back to herself, giving her freedom but dooming her forever to silence. No Ghost, just a shell.

Anyway, just thought it was something interesting to share at the end of this.