Existentialism and Androids: The Philosophy Behind NieR Automata

Walker Jesse looks at the story and philosophy behind NieR Automata, unsurprisingly, the following contains *MAJOR SPOILERS* for the game

When it comes to philosophy, Nier Automata wears its heart on its sleeve.

References are scattered throughout the game with a blatant enthusiasm for the subject that I’ve never seen in a video game before, there being so many names thrown in, it becomes a who’s who of famous philosophers. Furthermore, Nier Automata really shows its teeth when it comes to existentialism.

2B’s constant struggle, the discovery of the true purposelessness of their own existence, the way the robots have now grown tired of fighting since the alien threat has been long dead and decide to seek various primitive attempts at finding a meaning in the world. This is the blunt end of French existentialism doing everything but assaulting the player; so much so that a robot named Jean-Paul Sartre flat out says “existence precedes essence” to our protagonists.

In fact, nowhere is Sartre stronger than in the true end of Nier: Automata.

Depending on who you ask, Sartre is best known for one of two things: His famous bottle episode play “No Exit,” or his famous speech “Existentialism is a Humanism.” This speech that Sartre gave was short and surprisingly, to the point, delivered on a cold day in 1945 with his hands in his pockets to a loyal audience of fans. In this speech, Sartre laid out the basic tenants of existentialism, the French Moses with his sermon on the mount. Sartre called it “a doctrine that makes human life possible,” and wove a narrative of the burden of freedom. For Sartre, we are doomed to be free, truly in charge of every decision we make in all we do. When his robot counterpart quotes Sartre in Pascal’s village with the phrase “existence precedes essence,” that truly is the tenant Sartre asks of us all.

When you look at a chair, you see an object that was created with an express purpose, usually sitting. Human beings, or in this case androids, are not so lucky. We are not made with an express essence, no rock chaining us to the sun.

Whether we’re in Sartre’s world of post-Nazi-occupied France or the war-torn remains of a shattered earth in Nier Automata, we are without God and without purpose.

While this might seem to be a grim fate at first, to be cast adrift in a cold unfeeling world, Sartre believes this is where we can draw our greatest strength. For Sartre, we are truly free when we make our own choices and carry the weight they bring. From accepting the burden of our own freedom, you can yell a powerful “no” into the empty black room of a cold, uncaring universe. And exactly how powerful that yell is you determine for yourself at the end of Nier Automata. The game’s love of bullet hell takes the genre name as literal at the true ending, presenting you with an isometric shooter that is impossible to complete as you fire at the credit screen you’ve witnessed a few too many times by now.

“Is the ending of Nier Automata a little too starry-eyed? I think so.”

As you meet your inevitable death, the game taunts you. “Do you accept defeat?” Here, you are brought face to face with a choice you’ve had the entire game and it was at this point that I remembered the OS chip. At any point in Nier Automata, you can pull the plug and get a game over by removing the OS chip from your inventory, and that’s all that happens. The game ends. You have an in-game option to simply give up, and at the finish line Nier: Automata is still giving you that out. You can still give up, even at the credits screen, not unlike Dark Souls where if you stop playing your character hollows out and becomes another mindless undead. You don’t HAVE to do anything, just like you don’t HAVE to play Nier Automata or any video games or brush your teeth ever again. But Sartre would say, you can.

Even though Nier: Automata has only presented to you a pointless world, full of absurdity and fury, you can continue to fight. Even against impossible odds. You have the option to break the cycle to save 2B, 9S (unfortunately) and A2. And the game knows this. It doesn’t want you to. From “Do you accept defeat?” the game quickly evolves to “Do you admit there is no meaning in this world?” Other messages pop up as well during this section, from other players cheering you on. But there is no winning. There isn’t anything but defeat until you answer “Do you admit there is no meaning in this world?” And if you refuse, and bullheadedly continue, you are rewarded with the true ending. Ships of other players come to your aid and you are able to complete Nier Automata. 2B, 9S and A2 are able to finally choose how they live their lives, accepting the responsibility for their own actions and fully grasping the reigns of the burden of freedom with calloused hands.

Is the ending of Nier Automata a little too starry-eyed? I think so. Sartre’s philosophy, while certainly a rousing narrative of human triumph, isn’t always applicable to our daily lives as a universal mantra. However, we don’t always need art to 100% accurately inform our lives. Nier Automata presents a story of struggle in the face of insurmountable odds, with the protagonists somehow winning despite having every reason to endlessly fail.

Philosophy’s biggest problem is PR. It’s met with cynicism and pigeonholed into the trope of chasing your own tail with increasingly obtuse word choices. While this can be true, I can think of very few things that communicate a love for philosophy in such an entertaining and positive way as Nier Automata. While it can be a little corny, life can be a little corny. Happy endings aren’t always the most realistic, but after having to witness the tragic state of things in Nier Automata for multiple playthroughs, being bombarded with bullet hells of all shapes and sizes and a head full of unanswered questions, I think a happy ending is just what the player needed. And if anyone ever asks you “a philosophy degree, what are you going to do with that?” you can tell them “hopefully write something as enjoyable as Nier: Automata.”

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