Don’t read this if you haven’t played (and beaten) Nier: Automata.
No. For real. Don’t. Spoiling Nier: Automata for yourself is as extreme an act of self-harm as spoiling Undertale is. So don’t do it.
We good? Good.
Also: Major thanks to my buddy Ecclesiastes, and my work buddy Guy Whose Name I Forgot To Ask Permission To Share So I Won't Although Honestly Dude People Would Just Assume Your Real Name Was An Internet Handle Anyway Because It's Pretty Weird (But In An Awesome Way). I usually have my sister read my rants before I post them, so that they don't suck, but she is unfamiliar with Nier: Automata, and I don't want to spoil it for her, so in cases like this, I outsource to other educated parties. Thanks, Ecc and work buddy, you guys rock!
Nier: Automata is brilliant. We all know this. It’s brilliant from the beginning, and it only gets more so as it goes along. It’s the latest great work of philosophy, in my opinion, and it says so much about existentialism, social purpose, trust, the fatal flaws within us as individuals and as a species, our obsession with the past, and even just our own mental framework in our approach to video games, that I’ve more or less avoided ranting about it in any substantial way here for the same reason I rarely do so for Planescape: Torment, or Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC: because most of what I could say about them has been said before, by more thoughtful intellectuals than myself, and, frankly, the level of higher contemplation and genius behind these works feels a bit out of my range. I have a healthy respect for my own intelligence, but the minds behind some games are intimidating in their scope, and Nier: Automata’s one of those games.
Still, every now and then I’ll have an insight that I haven’t really seen during my internet ramblings, and I feel compelled to share it. And that’s why we’re here today: because although I’ve seen quite a few people go into the many ideas and intents of Nier: Automata, and why they’re brilliant, I haven’t really seen anyone talk in detail about 1 moment in the game that I thought particularly well-crafted: the defeat of arguably the main antagonist of the game, the manipulative machine consciousness that serves as a God analogue in the game, N2.
To me, this scene is a really great moment in the game because it manages, in a single clever moment, to accomplish several functions of storytelling, theme, and philosophy. First of all, as a moment within the story, it is, of course, a rather cool and unexpected way to bring about the end of what is arguably the main antagonist of Nier: Automata: through intelligence rather than strength, by the villain’s own hand rather than the heroine’s. Yes, you could argue that it’s important for an audience’s satisfaction that the protagonist be the one to finish the ultimate baddie of a story, and that’s often true (and failing to do so can result in a catastrophically anticlimactic ending), but at the same time, there are times when more can be said through a villain falling to some force other than the hero, and that, I believe, is the case here--there are deeper aims achieved by having N2 destroy itself, as I’ll soon get into. I’m reminded of Shishio’s epic demise in Rurouni Kenshin: he dies not from an attack from Kenshin, but rather from the fact that he has overexerted himself in his battle against Kenshin, and he perishes in the flames of his own lust for conflict. Shishio represents anarchy and rule of the fittest, and so it means far more that Kenshin, a representative of peace and order, wins the fight not by outright strength, but simply be the fact that Kenshin can endure, and Shishio cannot.
More important than the unexpected coolness of N2’s defeat, story-wise, is the fact that this scene serves to enhance the depth of 1 character, and to reinforce the development. To understand each, we need to first understand 1 of concepts that N2 represents: self-aware intelligence. See, N2 is the overall machine consciousness, right? Basically a mind. And each freaky little girl image that we see it use to interact with, and later attack, A2 is essentially a thought, a feeling, an idea...a single little firing of the N2 mind. With an infinite number of incorporeal thought-selves that can be called on to attack A2, it’s beyond her conventional ability to stop.
However, eventually A2 stops attacking the N2 entities, even as more and more flood into battle to eliminate her, and with enough instances of itself gathered in a single place, N2 becomes more and more conscious, as it devotes more and more of its attention, more and more of its processing power, to the matter at hand. With more and more “thoughts” gathering together to focus on a single task, eventually the inevitable happens: a division between them on what the next step will be. It’s the equivalent, I believe, to a moment of indecision, of second-guessing oneself: having put more and more thought into the matter, part of the mind rethinks its plans, and suddenly can’t decide what the best option is. The N2 instances lose unity and cohesion, and begin to war with each other over their differing opinions, dooming themselves to failure even as their enemy watches them--it’s basically that moment when your indecision costs you both things you were trying to decide between.
With this perspective that N2 represents a mind, its destruction is a great moment for reinforcing what we’ve seen happening to 9S in these last chapters of Nier: Automata: he’s mentally self-destructing. Unable to focus on anything but his own grief at the death of 2B and the rage at the truths he’s been discovering about the world, 9S is coming undone, pursuing nigh-directionless vengeance with no regard for his own wellbeing, even going so far as to infect himself with a logic virus just because doing so will let him keep attacking and destroying everything before him, even if only for mere minutes more. 9S can’t get out of his own head, can’t focus on anything else; he’s letting the turmoil within his mind destroy him as a whole. And what we can see through slow symptoms in 9S, we see mirrored quickly and directly in N2: a mental turmoil that leads it to self-destruct.
What’s even greater, though, is that this doesn’t just reinforce the development of 9S (and, for that matter, the important idea that the androids and the machines are the same). It also is a refreshing and welcome moment enhancing the personality of another character: Pod 042! The reserved personalities of both Pods don’t get to shine very much, but here is a masterful exception. It’s Pod 042, not A2, who realizes the only way to defeat N2 is to let it keep devoting more and more “thoughts” to a single task, let it keep getting more and more consciously intelligent, until it turns on itself. And that probably doesn’t seem all that important--Pod 042 came up with a clever idea to beat an enemy, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is how Pod 042 came up with the idea. How could this simple character, ostensibly the most limited consciousness present in that battle, be the one to come up with an idea so brilliant that the supposedly greater mind of an android couldn’t think of it, and the surely superior mental entity of an entire race’s collective consciousness couldn’t foresee the danger of? The answer’s simple: because Pod 042 is an observer.
This entire game, he’s observed 2B suffer the pain of a conflict of interests, as her devotion to her duty waged war with her sorrow at having to continually kill her friend 9S. He’s observed (through reports from his counterpart, at least) the deterioration of 9S’s mental stability due to being unable to focus on anything but his own loss. He’s observed the self-destruction of the pacifist machine children, who died by their own hands for fear of the pain their attackers would cause them. He’s observed the subsequent end of Pascal, who could not find it within himself to continue living with such sorrow. Over the course of this game, time and time again, we’ve seen the main characters and those they interact with suffering and come partially or even totally undone by the turmoil in their own hearts, as their thoughts and feelings become entrapped by 1 particular memory, emotion, conflict of interests, etc. And all the way along has been Pod 042, observing everything with us. He’s seen over and over what self-aware, conscious beings do to themselves when something weighs too heavily on their mind to escape. And so he knows what beings theoretically far his mental superior do not: that to defeat a powerful mind, all that’s needed is to simply let it think too much about something. Pod 042’s just giving N2 the chance to fall into the same pitfalls that he sees his charges constantly deal with.
And the positives that N2’s death serves for the storytelling are just 1 facet in which this is a great scene! It’s also great in terms of furthering the game’s purpose of examining and commenting on human society as a whole. While Nier: Automata is certainly first and foremost all about existentialism in relation to the individual self, it also has a lot to say about humanity as a group and whole (which is unsurprising; it’s an inevitable extension of any philosophical musing, no matter how individual-oriented, I should think). While N2’s self-destruction is an excellent analogy for our own self-destruction as we mire ourselves too deeply in our inner conflicts, it also serves as a commentary on our self-destructive social behavior, as well. When the two groups of N2 consciousnesses disagree on their next step--a disagreement so trivial that it’s not about differing desires, but about how they should proceed to achieving the same goal--they recklessly and arrogantly attack one another, even while their actual enemy stands right in front of them! A2 outright spells it out for us as she watches in amused awe at the sight of N2’s consciousnesses destroy themselves over nothing: “They’re acting like humans...” So the scene not only shows us how we defeat ourselves on a personal level by letting ourselves fall prey to our own intellect, but it also shows us how we so frequently doom our own efforts as a species by letting trivial squabbles distract us from our real problems.
On that note, it’s also a great reflection of the entire conflict between the androids and the machines--Nier: Automata has gone out of its way to show many times that in all important ways, the androids and the machines are fundamentally the same,* which throws much of their war’s purpose into question, and now we have a display of 2 groups of the exact same being finding a stupid excuse to wipe each other out, even though the only point on which they disagree is ultimately not even all that sizable. It’s a great extension of the idea that NA has been pushing with its war between machine and android all along, that we make war over stupid reasons that waste our time and resources on the wrong target.
Finally, N2’s destruction is a great, philosophical end to the machines’ wish to be human. Throughout the game, the machines have been grappling with the inevitable questions of existence, and their method for doing so has always been to seek to become like the humans who originally owned the Earth. Over and over through the course of Nier: Automata we see, in both the main story and the sidequests, machines imitating human behavior, immersing themselves in human pastimes and passions, and studying human culture, religion, and philosophers, attempting to make sense of their own existence by making sense of humans’ existence. It’s always with this faithful reverence--as though they believe without a doubt that humanity had all the answers, so even when the human behavior has no purpose with machine lifeforms (childcare, sex, pursuit of physical beauty, etc.), or they don’t really understand the significance of what humans did (Eve questioning why he’s being named after a female figure, pointing out that Cain and Abel might make more sense than Adam and Eve, and being rebuffed by Adam simply because that’s not how the humans did it), they still go through the motions, simply trusting that it’s how things must be done. More or less everyone in Nier: Automata is trying to figure out the purpose of their existence, it’s what the game’s about, but by and large, the machines do so by mimicking the ways of beings they believe to have had the answers.
And then, in this scene, the machine consciousness net N2 finally makes the breakthrough, finally advances enough to--again, in A2’s (and thus the game’s) own words--truly act like humans, and it immediately destroys them. They wanted to take up humanity’s mantle, but it was such a poor fit that it only choked them.
It’s a brilliantly tragic end to the machines’ journey.** And it’s also a great philosophical message that the game has for us, one unlike most of its others: find your own answers to your questions. The machines sought the answers to their own self-awareness from outsiders (and worse, a species which, frankly, had not, as a whole, figured out those answers to begin with), attempting to become humans instead of figure out what they themselves are, and the only result that has come of that method is demonstrated by N2: a system failure. In a sense, this scene is a warning label stuck onto the entirety of Nier: Automata, telling us that we should consider what it, and any other work of advice and philosophy, tells us, adopt its ideas and suggestions to the extent that work for ourselves, but not to let it do all the thinking for us, not to just let its answers be our own. Just as NA has reached its own conclusions which it shares with us after examining the works left by the previous great minds it frequently references, it wants only to give you ideas to consider in your own quest for existential truth, not to just give you an answer sheet to copy unquestioningly. Reminds me of Buddhism, a bit--the Buddha is a revered figure who has found enlightenment which you’re encouraged to respect and examine, but just outright emulating him won’t lead to your own enlightenment.
And...that’s all I got for today. There’s probably more bits of narrative, thematic, and philosophical brilliance that the defeat of N2 provides to Nier: Automata, because this game really is just that complex and sharp, but that’s all I’ve come up with in my own musings. And I think I’ve done a decent job! It’s something to think about, at least, and it’s a scene I haven’t seen discussed in too much detail in my (admittedly limited) ramblings across the web.
And now, back to our regular schedule of nitpicking stuff that doesn’t matter, jokes at Fallout 76’s expense, and reviewing DLCs for games over a decade old.
* A fact which, of course, is patently obvious to us, a biological audience to whom all mechanical life forms basically seem the same. But that’s the beauty of Nier: Automata: the fact that the androids and machines acting like there’s some great distinction between themselves seems absurd to us is easily flipped around as a commentary on our own racial conflicts--just as it seems silly to we humans that the androids before us are aghast at the notion that they and the machines are similar beings, so, too, would an android observer of human history find it ludicrous that we humans put such stock in distinctions like skin tone when we’re all the same organism in every significant way.
** Obviously this isn’t literally the end of all the machines at this moment, of course, as there’s more battles ahead for A2 after this point. I mean in the figurative sense--N2 has completed the journey to human-ness that the machines as a whole are all on, and that journey ends in self-destruction, so as long as they each stay on this path, this will be their end.