by Jed Pressgrove
Nier: Automata concerns a war between androids and robots. Because these battling groups have human characteristics, much has been and will continue to be said about director Yoko Taro’s story as a statement on existence. But the game’s most fascinating, effective, and relevant theme involves something that Taro suggests will survive beyond humanity: discrimination.
You start Nier: Automata as an android named 2B. She is part of a military group charged with taking back Earth, which has been overrun by robots that drove humankind to the moon. Your companion is 9S, who supplements 2B’s great combat skills with hacking. As you guide 2B through the first few missions, it is clear these androids don’t just believe in duty; they hate machines, as indicated by derisive comments.
Eventually, 2B and 9S witness, in a scene both disturbing and fantastic, a horde of machines giving birth to two very human-like characters. After almost killing one of these unusual progeny, 2B and 9S have no idea what has transpired. 9S, unable to focus on his duty, asks 2B why machines would try to look like humans—a delicious irony, given that androids are essentially human-looking beings. But with one of the game’s most politically powerful lines, 2B shuts down the conversation, stating there is no point in considering “unsolvable problems.” Here, Taro illustrates what makes real-world bigotry tick: a cold denial of even exploring the possibility of common ground.
From there, 2B’s discrimination is challenged by a variety of facts, such as a village of peaceful and kind robots, a faction of subjugated robots within a violent machine cult, and, most emotional, her partner 9S being forced to transfer his data, his consciousness, into a robot. After 9S speaks to 2B as a hulking bot, they touch each other with relief, the awkwardness of 9S’s now-huge hand notwithstanding.
At this point, Nier: Automata seems to end, suggesting that 2B and 9S have implicitly realized that they are not that different from those they have been called to destroy. But the game invites you to play again, and you assume the role of a small robot who wishes to restore life to one of his “brothers.” As you try to finish this quest, the focus shifts to the perspective of 9S, who watches and mocks the robot’s sensitivity from afar. In this incredible scene (which carries more power as an intro to a “second game” than it would have as a flashback), Taro has you identify with a machine’s feelings before placing you in the shoes of a familiar, hateful bigot. The hope of the game’s first ending, where 9S looks like his supposed enemy and yet retains his feelings, is unexpectedly dashed.
Playing as 9S, you get to feel the coldness that makes discrimination work overtime. When 2B dies later in the game, 9S becomes even more disgusted with robots, as he partly blames them for 2B’s demise (despite the fact that the android military group made a strategic error in trying to end the war quickly). Because the player by this point has seen, objectively, the similar humanity—the hope, the fear, the drive, the confusion—within the androids and robots, destroying machines as 9S depicts an original vision of genocide, where visually exquisite explosions of nuts, bolts, and parts scream injustice.
9S’s childish fits of anger also show how Nier: Automata functions as revealing camp, especially after 9S learns two things: (1) humanity, what he supposedly fights for, is actually extinct and (2) his kind comes from the cores that power machines. This first revelation might disturb players, as we are human, but that 9S and his victims aren’t biologically human allows us to see how a cycle of ignorance can live without us. The second revelation reinforces how individuals, for generations, may harden their hearts to carry on a legacy of exclusion. 9S, in his stupid rage, cannot accept the implications of these data, so he becomes a comical yet all-too-real portrait of a bigot.
The real kicker is how Taro bravely puts 9S in a sympathetic light. Between the scenes of 9S annihilating robots, he must face personal horrors. In one scene, he is forced to fight against multiple copies of 2B, the android—the woman—we know he loves. One might wince at 9S’s hatred, but anyone can understand the trauma that emblazoned his existing favoritism for those like him. For that reason, Nier: Automata is a cautionary tale that no one of any political persuasion in 2017 can run from once they experience and recognize it.