Nier: Automata and Purpose
A few disclaimers before the actual content.
SPOILER ALERT: This analysis will go into full spoilers follow for Nier: Automata. If you haven’t played the game all the way through Ending E, I highly recommend either playing it or watching it before reading this analysis.
CONTENT WARNING: Automata features intense and disturbing imagery. Some scenes linked in this analysis contain scenes of intense violence. Readers should proceed at their own discretion.
MULTIMODAL CONTENT: This is meant to be a multi-modal analysis. The bulk of the thoughts in this analysis are written down, but I inserted clips from the game with the intent that readers would view them. Watching those clips is critical to understanding what’s being said, so please situate yourself in a place where you can listen to and watch the clips provided.
“Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending cycle 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.”
As a species, humanity’s ability to change and adapt our purpose is remarkable. A human can make almost anything their purpose. Someone could decide their life’s purpose is to eat the best food on Earth, or maybe someone wants their life to be serious and make their purpose to discover the grand meaning of existence. While it may take a significant effort, people are able to adapt and change their identities if they so desire. But what if we couldn’t? If someone was focused on one thing, believed they existed for a single purpose, and didn’t consider other ways of life, what consequences would that have? The 2017 hack-and-slash RPG, Nier: Automata answers that question through several character arcs and gameplay systems that demonstrate the destruction caused by living with a fixed purpose. Though Automata’s characters are just fictional instances of artificial intelligence, they make players consider their own purpose and whether it’s something they wanted define them.
In Nier: Automata, in 5012 A.D., Aliens invaded Earth with an army of self-sustaining machine lifeforms to wipe out all of humanity. The humans that survived fled to the moon, and created an army of androids to fight back and reclaim their homeland.
Seven thousand years later, Automata begins. The elite android force, YoRHa, launches a massive counterattack against the machine army still occupying Earth. Players control three different androids during Automata: the combat unit 2B, the support unit 9S, and the ex-YoRHa unit, A2.
Players start the game as 2B, an android that exists for one reason: violence. As a playable character in an action game, 2B is equipped with different weapons and abilities, all used to kill machines more efficiently. However, unlike playable characters in games like Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid, she doesn’t have a choice as to whether she wants to engage in violence on her missions. Violence is mandatory and often the entire purpose for 2B’s missions.
This is 2B in combat. She doesn’t have any non-violent options: she must fight.
After partnering with 9S for several missions and slowly forming a bond with the chipper android, she’s forced to kill him with her bare hands. After she ends his life, 2B says “it always… ends like this…” This line, that “it always ends like this,” is admittedly pretty on the nose when discussing how a fixed purpose leads to destructive consequences. However, there’s more to 2B’s despair than what players have been shown at that point in the game. Her distressed mental state makes sense when A2 reveals 2B’s true identity: 2E, an android designed to execute other YoRHa androids.
Due 9S’s curious nature, he would investigate his surroundings, eventually digging too deep into YoRHa data and finding classified data not meant to be seen by anyone. To ensure he wouldn’t leak this data, 2B must partner with 9S, befriend him, and eventually murder him to wipe his memory. After each murder, 9S would forget about 2B and anything he learned about YoRHa’s true nature. But erasing memory doesn’t erase curiosity, which leads to 9S investigating his surroundings, starting the whole cycle over again.
2B never fails in these orders and never manages to escape from her sense of duty. And because she never escapes her duty, 2B finds herself killing 9S over and over again.
Though he isn’t trapped in a cycle of violence in the same way that 2B is, 9S’s fixed purpose leads him to destruction, just like 2B. 9S’s purpose isn’t to kill, but rather, to serve humanity. These are 9S’s first words:
Screenshot taken from footage of Shirrako’s playthrough of Nier: Automata.
“I will fight for humanity with all of my strength.” And fight he does. 9S engages in combat in many of the same ways as 2B. However, since he’s a scanner type android, he can hack into machines as well. After a short hacking minigame, 9S takes control of the machine to make it either self-destruct, take direct control of it, or make it attack enemies on its own. Even though 9S has direct access and control over machines, he doesn’t have the choice or even the ability to make the machines peaceful. He has to destroy them, because that’s his fixed purpose: the eradication of all of the machine lifeforms so humanity can return to Earth.
And for two thirds of the game, being humanity’s servant works for 9S. Because he believes that what he’s doing is for the sake of humanity, 9S can set aside any moral ambiguities he encounters in his work. His fixed purpose serves 9S well until he discovers a secret: humanity has been extinct for thousands of years. To give their android forces a purpose to fight and to keep existing, YoRHa lied about humanity living on the moon.
9S… doesn’t take this revelation well, especially because his world starts to collapse soon after discovering YoRHa’s secret. First, a machine virus corrupts almost every YoRHa unit, severing his support structure. On top of that, he witnesses A2 killing 2B after she, too, becomes corrupted by a virus. If humanity existed, he might’ve been able to cope with these events by rationalizing them as necessary sacrifices to bring humanity back to Earth. But, as he knows humanity doesn’t exist anymore, he can’t make any such justification. There’s nothing to bring back and no human civilization to restore. His reason for everything action, every sacrifice… was a lie.
Even after this revelation, 9S goes bloodthirsty, and decides that he still wants to kill every machine. He has no desire to seek out a new purpose in life and instead continues down a warrior’s bloody path. This thirst for violence takes 9S to dark places. His mental state deteriorates quickly, which can be seen when he confronts echoes and copies of 2B.
This refusal to search for any other purpose leads to destruction. Even though humanity went extinct thousands of years ago and he realizes that what he’s doing is pointless, 9S refuses to move on. And because he can’t let go of his anger at having no purpose, he dies, just as he lived: at the cold end of a sword.
9S isn’t the only playable character fixed on his past. Automata’s final playable character, A2, can’t let go of her past either. During one of her first missions, machines killed almost all of her comrades. Though she managed to complete the mission, the death of her squadmates affected her to the point that she deserted YoRHa. Despite not being apart of the military anymore, A2 continues killing machines, but this time, she’s doing it to take revenge for her fallen comrades. While her reasons for doing so changed, A2 still just wants to kill every machine.
Her past is best expressed through one of her gameplay mechanics: Berserk Mode. Berserk Mode increases A2’s power significantly, in exchange for constantly losing health and weaker defensive power. When A2 runs out of health, her systems reboot, and she’s vulnerable for several seconds. She can’t attack, can’t dodge, and can barely walk. The only way to return to normal is to let A2 run out of health and be vulnerable for a few moments. Certainly, using this ability can bring success, but it also brings players to the brink of death, no matter what they do.
A2’s purpose has an inevitable conclusion. After infiltrating a mysterious, machine-made tower, she meets 9S at the summit. A2 wants to stop the tower from launching a rocket intended to wipe out the remnants of humanity’s data (contained on a server on the moon). But 9S’s rage is boiling over. He doesn’t care about anything else besides killing. At this point, players are given a choice: do they want to play as A2 or 9S?
Regardless of the player’s choice, A2 dies. If players choose A2, then she sacrifices herself to destroy the tower to thwart the machine’s final plan. If players choose 9S, he manages to kill her right when a promise she remembers a promise she made to 2B. Either way, no matter what players decide, A2’s obsession with her past kills her. A2’s purpose, informed by her past, leads to death.
While Automata’s strongest depictions of fixed purposes are in the main cast, non-playable characters also help construct Automata’s critique of having a fixed purpose. One of the most obvious examples are some characters that give players smaller quests to do, like the High-speed machine. The High-speed machine loves speed and racing, and thus, wants to race against players to show them the joy of racing. If players complete all three races, they’re treated to this scene:
Once its purpose has been fulfilled, the High-speed machine doesn’t consider doing something else, it just self-destructs because it believes there’s nothing else for it to do. It can’t comprehend living in a different manner, so it kills itself.
One of Automata’s boss characters, Simone, also contributes to the game’s critique. Years ago, Simone was captivated by another machine and wanted to earn his affection. By studying human records, she came to believe that becoming beautiful would earn his affection. She tried everything: adorning herself with jewels, eating the bodies of androids, and learning to sing. But none of it worked. Despite all her efforts, she never managed to make him look her way. And then, she realizes:
Screenshot taken from YouTuber Lemmy’s video
Simone realizes the meaninglessness of her actions, but she won’t move on. Her purpose of becoming beautiful defined her for so long that moving on is impossible. Despite the belief that it’s meaningless, she still screams that she wants to become beautiful. Her fixed purpose remains until her death.
Both playable and non-playable characters demonstrate the danger of a fixed purpose. All these characters, as beings that gained consciousness from code, could just be following programming. The fact that no one tries to find a new purpose indicates that all these characters, and by extension every android and machine in Automata, could just be playing out an existence defined by their code.
Throughout the whole game, Automata implies such a message. But, at the last moment, as the credits roll, one minor character breaks out of his coding to demonstrate the beauty of choosing a new purpose. This character is Pod 042.
The playable characters–A2, 2B, and 9S– are accompanied by pods, small robots that aid androids during their missions by giving them intel and acting as long-range, high-powered artillery. 042 follows 2B for most of the game, though after her death, he assists A2.
As the credits roll, another pod is about to initiate the final step of YoRHa’s secret program, and erase all data relating to the entire organization. However, 042 has some objections.
The programming defining his purposes is low-level programming, which means that it’s fundamental, defining code for 042. Overriding this coding to save the data of the androids isn’t something he can just do on a whim: he’s fighting against the core of his being, and Automata shows how difficult this is in its final gameplay sequence. If players choose to, they are thrust into a two-dimensional shooting sequence, similar to other hacking gameplay sequences in the game, but instead of shooting at grey blobs, players fight against the names of everyone involved in Automata’s development. Name after name, department after department, the names of everyone involved in the making of the game try to stop the player and Pod 042.
It’s an incredibly long sequence. If players play it perfectly, it takes around ten minutes to complete. But, after several attempts and help from other players, they succeed. They break through and save the characters they spent so much time with. Admittedly, 042 doesn’t know if that effort will be worth anything. The playable characters are reassembled of the same parts and run on the same code as they were when they destroyed themselves. But, players are left on a hopeful note with the final words in the game:
“However, the possibility of a different future also exists. A future is not given to you. It is something you must take for yourself.”
Automata features countless characters defined and trapped by a pre-defined purpose. The actions and identities of these characters characters, as androids and machines, might be the result of low-level, unchangeable code. Even so, even if their identities are set in code, one of them was able to escape from that and create a new purpose for themselves.
It’s no stretch to say that androids and machines in Automata serve as an allegory for those who feel trapped by their circumstances. No matter how cornered anyone might feel, purpose isn’t hard-coded into someone. If a silly little robot like Pod 042 can overcome his most basic, fundamental programming, then anyone can change. Even if someone feels trapped by past actions, by expectations, or by a sense of duty, they can always change into whatever they want to be.