The overarching theme of Nier Automata is that of humanity. It is of consciousness, awareness and the self. What makes this interesting though is that there aren’t any human characters but instead artificial beings desperate to find meaning in their lives. It is a Sci-Fi trope as old as the genre yet it always evokes strong reactions because of the question it raises about the fundamentals of what humanity actually is.
Depression is an illness that preys upon the darker aspects of humanity and the uncertainty that surrounds it. To be depressed is often to question the core pillars that hold up our individual lives and the structure of society. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there something more?Why can’t I get to be where I want to be? Why don’t I fit in? What right do I have to this life when so many more deserving died before their time? It is a constant cycle of darkness that needs to be fought constantly so that it doesn’t simply overwhelm you.
Nier Automata is built around these questions. The protagonists are androids built to fight an unending war in the service of a human race that no longer exists. They are taught not to have emotions but to be weapons of war, tools to be used for a greater purpose. They do feel though and must constantly battle to suppress their emotions and tow the military line.
On the other side are the machines. These are thought to be lifeless hunks of metal without autonomy, created by aliens as soldiers to take over the Earth. Unlike the androids they don’t look or sound human but they do begin to develop a sense of awareness. They don’t feel physical pain like the androids but they start to grasp the idea of individuality and the mental pain that comes with it. They yearn for something more than endless war so try to mirror what they know of human civilisation in order to express themselves. They create families, form societies, attempt to engage in intercourse and even begin to form religions.
The trouble is, the machines are too aware. They see past the lies that humans tell themselves or the truths that they ignored, and see that life doesn’t serve any greater purpose. This knowledge tips them over the edge leading to mass machine suicides because they lack the ability to make their own purpose or understand the emotions that they are appropriating. Rather than accepting the pain that comes with self-awareness they choose death.
This is a powerful analogue to depression. Objectively, we humans can look at life and see that we aren’t needed. Most humans serve no true purpose in an overpopulated world so we fill our lives with possessions and trivial drama to help us forget about it all. Depression plays with these thoughts and too often leads us to make similar conclusions to those of the machines. We want purpose beyond working a shitty job that pays us enough money to survive another day to repeat the process again and again until we drop dead. We want the pain inside to go away. Watching the machines wrestle with these thoughts actually hit me quite hard and made me empathise with them more than most human characters in games.
Jumping back to the androids, we watch them struggle with similar issues. Unlike the machines though, they are not simply adopting the emotions and ideas of others but have true individuality, despite their role as faceless soldiers. From the very start of the game the characters adopt a philosophic outlook that dwells on those same concepts that doom the machines. The game opens with a brief monologue from the protagonist 2B that perfectly encapsulates this:
Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment? I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.
The game starts with very little of these themes though once the gameplay actually begins. Our character is shown as strong and stoic rather than philosophical and there is no doubt on display. We have clear orders, clear purpose, and everyone is happy to work towards the greater goals given. This is the illusion of society, the mask that humans wear to pretend that everything is okay. It is the lie we tell ourselves and others that grease the wheels of a functioning society. Think of it like social media, where people post smiling faces, holidays and fun so that from the outside everyone’s life looks so perfect.
Only, as the game progresses we see this begin to break down. The faceless enemies reveal themselves to be little more than lost children who don’t want to fight and we see the androids develop friendships, love, betrayal, grief, and a whole host of other emotions and actions that go against their orders. 2B hates herself for having to kill 9S over and over again while 9S battles with an affection for 2B that supersedes his own life and that over the entire world. Then there is A2 who lost all of her companions only to find out that they had all been lied to from the beginning and all of the death had been in vain. Each one faces a decision between societal expectations and their own personal emotions.
They each struggle with this conflict and deal with it in their own way. 2B buries her emotions and tries to emotionally distance herself from everyone so that she can’t grow attached to them. She tries to hide from her feelings and becomes an empty shell of herself with only small moments where her true self breaks through. This represents one manifestation or coping method of depression. Internalisation. She takes all of her darkness and locks it away inside even though it eats at her. She doesn’t let others in and tries to put on a brave face so that others can’t see her pain.
A2 chooses the path of isolation. She runs from society and goes it alone, living without any real purpose or connection. She fights her own meaningless battles because it gives her focus and a manufactured goal to fill the emptiness of her life. She feels betrayed be everything she has ever known and lives almost like a wild animal, fighting to survive because survival is ultimately the only true purpose in life.
Unlike 2B and A2 who try to control their emotions, 9S becomes consumed by them. He chooses the path of destruction because, to him, nothing matters any more. Like the machines, he is unable to find purpose for himself beyond Yorha and 2B. As soon as both of these disappear he can no longer look to the future because he cannot adapt his idea of what the future should be. He lacks the empathy to see past his own life so cannot understand that his lack of a future isn’t reflected in the others around him. He lets the negative emotions eat away at him and reaches a state where he simply wants to watch the world burn because none of it serves any purpose. He no longer cares about himself, his life fueled only by his own darkness until he is twisted into a character that we can no longer recognise.
Interestingly, this stands in contrast to how they accept the end. Both 2B and A2 accept death with hopes of a better world. They fought to survive but were able to pass the torch and die with a smile knowing that they had done their part. 9S, who no longer desires life, thrashes and fights to his last breath. He dies empty and alone, though he is the only character given a choice about his soul. He is offered the choice between staying on earth or going with Adam and Eve on an ark through space, a metaphor for accepting death as oblivion or passing on to a heavenly afterlife. It becomes 9S decision on whether there is life after death.
This choice becomes far more important than is shown in the game itself. The decision has no shown consequences unless the player watches/reads the Nier Automata Concert. The game’s Route E ends with the pods choosing to fight against fate and try to get better results from a new cycle. 2B, 9S and A2 are gathered together and repaired with the implication being that they are revived to continue their lives. It is heavily stressed though that results will probably be the same with all of the same parts creating all of the same problems. Only, in the concert it is revealed that if 9S chose to go with Adam and Eve then his mind cannot be recovered and so is never revived, leaving 2B alone to grieve his loss.
This implied cycle of repeated mistakes that the pods speak of is represented in game by replays. No matter how well you play, things will always occur in a similar way, just like how no matter what you do in your life, depression will always pry open your doubts and leave you vulnerable. Depression is a cycle and will affect people however successful or happy in life they become.
Nier Automata does offer a way to break the cycle though. Route E offers you the ability to delete all of your save data, in effect wiping your presence from the game. This is a representation of death. A nihilist could interpret this as the machines did, that life has no meaning so can only be broken by death.
I chose to interpret it in another way though. This option is not one painted as a surrender or an inevitability but as a passing of the torch, just as with 2B. The game allows the player the chance to live their life for another as well as for themselves. A game’s experience is something personal, just like our real life. We live it and then those memories and experiences die along with us. Only, Nier Automata offers us the ability to help another player. It is a sacrifice to help someone else in need. We were helped by people who made this choice.
It is an offer of purpose.
Life is there to be lived. There is no greater purpose. We can be consumed by our own depression even as we watch other being consumed as well. At the end of the day, life is only worth the meaning that we each assign to it yet we continue living and helping others to do the same. The motivational messages that are scattered throughout the game and the giving of digital life to help others reach the end are hands in the dark. They are people reaching out to tell you that you are not alone.
Depression is a hard-fought battle. We know what you are going through. We’ve been there too. We still are there. We know how hard it is and we’ve got your back. Reach out and help others who are falling and let others reach out to you when you too falter.
Depression is a cycle but together we can beat it. Hope exists as long as we are hopeful. So please, message me if yo need to talk. Let’s fight this boss together.