‘Futility’ is Nier Automata summed up in a word.
The world has ended. Mankind is no more and all that rests in its place are endless, suffocating rows of crumbling skyscrapers and apartment complexes. It’s a timeless image and certainly not one that is in any way original: a city destitute and deserted, forgotten and reclaimed over the course of millennia by the nature it once spurned. There’s a tremendous feeling of finality and irreconcilability at play when Automata first has you flying over these urban ruins. Events worth chronicling have come and gone. There was a story here, but that’s been told and the book’s been closed. We are children playing in our fathers’ abandoned homes, trying to recapture some glimmer of what could have possibly gone on in these inscrutable malls and arcades.
The greatest contribution of any post-apocalyptic fiction is the opportunity it gives an audience to reflect on those things that are considered pedestrian and fundamental for day to day life. Automata goes a step further and puts the mirror in front of pseudo-humans. This task of reflection is given to androids who have never known our world to be anything but rubble. As a player who very much lives in a functioning society and is not bewildered by these carcasses of civilization, Automata becomes a study of individuals and their conflicting desires of personhood and service.
Service to our parents is a duty bestowed to each of us. We are their epitaphs, their final traces on this world. This duty can be a blessing or a curse, but it certainly cannot be escaped or shrugged. We are inexorably tied to those circumstances that ruled our lives before we even had lives to live. It is this duty that forms the foundation of YorHa, children made in the image of their fathers. These androids are echoes of the humans that once built them and, having little desire or culture of their own, they imitate those actions which they consider human. They were made in the image of man, and all they can do is try to be man as best they can. This is their service, even beyond the war against the aliens that supposedly decimated humanity. If androids were made to be human, then what else can they be?
We see the attempts the androids make at humanity throughout the game. Quirky personality traits and eccentricities become building blocks for some semblance of individuality. An android refuses to replace his busted leg because it’s his; notched and scarred and torn as it is, he has engraved within it a meaning all his own. The machines (very much distinct from the androids) make their own passes at human rituals. They play at sex and child-rearing, form familial units and friendships completely arbitrarily. After all, that is what people do.
It is clear at this point that there is a fundamental futility to all this hard work to appease fathers that will never love you. It only makes sense that the children would rebel against their dead fathers. It starts with the brothers Adam and Eve, and it spreads, literally like a virus, to 2B and 9S. With this newfound desire for personhood and meaning, what do these pseudo-people do?
They mostly just waffle about, accomplishing nothing of any real consequence as they hurt themselves and others, all the while wallowing in the self-inflicted misery that characterises so many teenagers. After all this, the story concludes in a wonderful, disastrous parade of death and gore as everyone wonders what the point of this whole sordid exercise was.
In truth, Automata is not as neat a story as its predecessor. It meanders a great deal and isn’t in any real hurry to get to a point. Once our protagonists discover the aliens they’ve been hunting have been dead for quite some time, there isn’t a whole lot to be done. Even less when YorHa itself is destroyed and 9S is left adrift in the world. The hours of aimlessness that follow are the very aim of Nier Automata, as it characterises the emergence of humanity and consciousness with jarringly disconnected anecdotes and encounters that are equal parts comic and tragic. Nothing fits to form a satisfyingly whole picture here. Weapon descriptions tell tales of people long dead, the world itself is Ozymandias’ ruined sandcastle, life and death itself have lost all meaning here where duty is all. It would only make sense that rigidity and structure would be countered by the lack of all restraints.
When humanity inflicts itself upon our characters it does so messily, with tragic consequences. We are seeing newborn children using newly developed faculties that they themselves hardly understand. Scrapes and bruises are inevitable. The end is tragic and haunting, yes.
But Yoko Taro asks us if it could perhaps ever be something more.
As the credits roll on Nier Automata and you are suddenly transplanted into a bullet shooter as a final jab at your expectations, a wave of content rushes over you. Messages from disparate players across the globe flood your screen, belaying encouragement and support. Complete strangers with no real commonalities other than the connections they share as those who have nearly come out the other side of Taro’s wacky, bewildering ride. Now here are our faceless friends, friends we didn’t have moments ago. Friends here to greet us as we crawl into the light, waiting for us on the other side. Something unknowable was gained here. A value that couldn’t be quantified or qualified through play hours or platinum trophies. Here is a feeling of connection that is thoroughly unique and heart-achingly saccharine. Could we have possibly asked for anything more?
In era of increasing cynicism, both in the game industry and the world at large, where everyone and everything is a means to an unreachable end, it sure is nice to have a Taro who encourages to stumble, fall, and hurt ourselves. We’ll break our own hearts and die.
But it won’t be for nothing.