Saturday, September 28, 2019

Nier: Automata's Moments of Self-Deprecation

I extend a giant and heartfelt tahnks to my friends Ecclesiastes and Angel Adonis for their generous and intelligent assistance with pre-reading this rant and sharing their thoughts with me on it. It's always a great source of reassurance to know that other, greater minds can confirm that my ramblings on more intellectually complex RPGs are reasonably on the mark. You blokes are the best, you truly are!

As I and countless others have stated before, Nier: Automata is filled to the brim with existential philosophy. An absolutely brilliant RPG that examines in a gaggle of ways the search for meaning to one’s existence, both on the level of individual and species, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about everything in this game is there for a reason, has a purpose in the grand scheme of Nier: Automata’s search for truth. And I daresay there are probably many who would agree with me on this point. As any creator does through their philosophical treatise, Yoko Taro wants us to think, long and hard, about ourselves.

And yet, at the same time, there are moments in Nier: Automata of self-awareness that seem to warn us--or perhaps it’s more accurate to say reassure us--that there are downsides to going too deep into this thoughtful realm. While Nier: Automata wants to make us question our existence and help us to find new perspectives through which we can arrive at our own truths on the matter, I think that it also, in at least a small way, wants us to confront the question of whether all these philosophical musings are even worth it.

This relates a little to some of what I spoke of in my rant about N2’s demise, so let’s start there. Recall that N2, the summation of the Machine consciousness and an otherwise unassailable opponent, is defeated by itself: once N2 has focused enough of its mental processing on the fight with A2 thanks to her following the Pod’s advice not to attack N2’s instances, N2 finds itself at odds with itself, split by indecision about how to proceed with its goals to the point that its different opinions destroy one another, just, as A2 points out, like humans destroy one another over differing viewpoints. Now, in my rant, I made the argument that this is way of NA telling us of the danger of unquestioningly following another’s path to enlightenment, and I’ll stick by that, but it’s also a tangible representation of a mind being undone by having mired itself too fully in a single matter. Becoming unavoidably preoccupied with this single battle has caused the mind that is N2 to fold in on itself, just as becoming too focused on his own pain and loss causes 9S to behave in self-destructive ways.

Now, this by itself doesn’t really act as an argument that getting too serious about existential philosophy, specifically, is a bad thing--9S’s deterioration can easily be seen as primarily emotional in nature (though I would, myself, argue that it’s half that, and half his continuing to learn the truth of YoRHa’s existence), and you can view N2’s downfall to be more of a commentary on human nature’s tendency towards indecision, and social in-fighting over trivialities of method. But it does act as supporting evidence if there’s already a case to be made for Nier: Automata possessing the intent to argue against the necessity of taking these questions of existence too seriously...and, indeed, that case is made in the game.

There are times in Nier: Automata in which the creators of the game outright poke fun at how seriously we take the questions that they themselves are exploring so diligently. I first noticed this during the sidequest involving the machine entity Jean-Paul. The gist of this venture is that Jean-Paul is a rather self-important philosopher, pondering and attempting to find high meaning (or an equally snooty lack of meaning) in existence, which has, peculiarly, made him something of a rockstar in the machine community, and it’s 2B and 9S’s job to act as courier for him, delivering to Jean-Paul love confessions from his groupies, and subsequently returning with the news of his rejection to each. While it’s a somewhat tedious sidequest, it’s also kind of amusing, because Jean-Paul has his round head so far up his shiny metal ass that his reaction to each admirer’s gift is to try to judge it on its merits as some representation of some higher purpose of thought--he seems actually incapable of viewing a basic, emotional purpose of these items, even though that would be the most obvious perspective to take toward them. Likewise, his enamoured followers are all too ready to read utter brilliance into his rejection. 2B and 9S come out of this sidequest thoroughly nonplussed at this weirdo and the nuts that hang on his every word,* and the overall purpose of this sidequest seems to first and foremost be to have a chuckle at the fact that these characters have taken their desire to contemplate existence so far that they’re actually missing the basic, overt facts of what’s in front of them.

When I played this quest through to the end, I was amused, and honestly, I respected it for being a little bit of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation on the part of Yoko Taro and his posse, a little admission from them of perhaps taking the questions of our existence too seriously. I’ve always personally held the belief that it’s an easy pitfall for a thinker to get so wrapped up in finding deeper or grander meaning that they start to miss the obvious and find things that aren’t there, like the populists may have done with The Wizard of Oz, or as fans do for Rick and Morty to make themselves feel smart for the first time. But after feeling amused and appreciative, I simply moved on, assuming it was a one-off moment.

But it was not. There’s also a moment in the game in which we see Pascal reading one of Nietzsche’s works, and witness him reflect aloud that Nietzsche either was quite profound...or just drove straight past Profoundville and wound up in Crazy Town instead.** Additionally, there’s the post-game research report written by Jackass, in which she briefly details the now fully-revealed lore of the game, its events, and ends with a hilariously disgruntled and blunt summary of it all that points out that the whole conflict and everything they’ve all been doing is completely stupid and frustrating. It’s a remarkably straightforward, down-to-earth reaction that’s such a supremely stark contrast to the serious, earnest approach that Nier: Automata has otherwise taken with its complex and thoughtful story, that it winds up being hilarious, and even, in a way, a relief to the player, after having been caught up so deeply in the game’s conflicts and meanings for so long.

And then there’s the endings. Nier: Automata has 26 endings (sort of; A and B are actually halfway marks), 1 for every letter of the alphabet, and the substantial majority of them are joke endings! Much like several of Chrono Trigger’s alternate endings, Nier: Automata has various quick little conclusions that more or less just toss away all the weighty heft of the plot, and end things on a mildly amusing and insubstantial note...ending the game because 9S decided to just wander off in curiosity when he was supposed to stick to the mission, or because you had 2B gum up her inner workings with a fish like that scene in AI where the robot kid breaks down from trying to eat spinach,*** or because you decided in your infinite wisdom to do your own tech support and accidentally uninstalled A2’s operating system...little joke endings like these are scattered throughout NA at every turn. At practically any time, there’s an opportunity to just drop all this high-falutin’ philosophy BS and end the whole adventure on silly, surface-level terms.

That, in my estimation, is enough occurrences to warrant consideration--particularly since Jackass’s report is sort of the final words the game has to share with us, which lends them great importance. Even as Nier: Automata plunges headfirst into the greatest depths of our search to understand the meaning of our existence, it also has no problem with some lighthearted ribbing to cut through all the heavy, even at times excessive, philosophy stuff. There’s a good-natured self-awareness to it...and that might even make it better as a work of philosophy.****

I mean, look at something like, say, Dragon Ball Z Abridged. DBZA is a work by fans which founds itself upon pointing out the amusingly dumb shortcomings of DBZ and its characters, a work for comedy, and yet, it’s made by hardcore fans of the original anime who also seek to communicate the parts of the show that made them love it in their parody series, and the result is a genuinely enjoyable interpretation of DBZ that a great many people (myself included) actually, legitimately believe is the better version. The rational, self-aware humor of DBZ Abridged allows it to be a far better vehicle for the anime’s story, cutting out the endless tedium of DBZ’s original narrative methods, acknowledging the incomprehensible stupidity of so many of its devices and characters, but asking, reasonably, that we allow ourselves to admit the parts within that stupidity that are actually kind of good as a basic concept.

Yoko Taro is doing the same thing, essentially. He seems, to me, to be showing a gracious, wry humility by allowing for the possibility that this is all an unnecessary bunch of hoopla, allowing us a reliable, universal access point, humor, through which we can enter into Nier: Automata’s depth, and likewise through which we can duck out for a moment of fresh air to get a joke ending for stupidly blowing up our home base, or appreciate the fact that even these possibly superior machine consciousnesses also wonder if maybe this whole business is trying to make too much of nothing.

I’d also like to say, lastly, that this occasional bit of poking fun at the intensity of our collective pursuit of existential truth is, in itself, actually a beneficial part of that very question. When your point is to question purpose itself, it’s only right that you be thorough enough to question the purpose of your method itself. Does exploring our own existence really even mean anything, have any value, when it doesn’t change the fact or nature of the world and events around us? Jackass is no philosopher, but her blunt, crude, surface-level summary of the existence portrayed in Nier: Automata might very well be the most honest and undebatable perspective in the whole affair. The machine Jean-Paul is a tenaciously dedicated devotee to finding the hidden truth of all he experiences, yet it is clear even to our protagonists that this is the very reason he misses the point, that he can’t see the forest for the trees. For all the penetrating, far-reaching intellectual paths we explore in a search for that which defines our purpose, there are some ways in which the more down-to-Earth perspective of most people, whose concerns are with living their existence rather than mercilessly interrogating it, does have the advantage. Within Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro offers us his own perspective on existentialism, he incorporates and provides others’ famous takes, as well...but he also provides the rejection of these quests of the mind as an alternative, and, interestingly, lends this approach legitimacy through the appealing power of humor.

* Although it probably would have done 9S some good to have given Jean-Paul’s “existence precedes essence” idea some more thought, considering how things go later for the guy.

** I especially like this scene, because Pascal’s next thought is that he’d best put away the books and go out and see the world for himself, which I believe is another major intention of Yoko Taro’s: to urge us to give the works of others their due consideration as guides (even including Nier: Automata itself), but ultimately to elect to find one’s answers about existence on one’s own.

*** Insert cliched 1950s joke about kids not wanting to eat their vegetables here.

**** I should note that the many alternate endings are not necessarily only intended for humorous purposes. 1 of the 2 fine gents I had proofread this rant, Angel, believes strongly that they also represent a take on free will, in allowing one to essentially walk off the stage rather than continue to play the rigid role assigned. I rather like this idea, too, as it squares very well with the concept behind the ultimate end to this game. But the minor endings would not need to be by and large amusing to accomplish that goal, and yet they are, so I do still feel that they fit with my interpretation in this rant, too.

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