Few games this generation simultaneously take advantage of the interactive nature of the medium while using that strength to deliver potent messages in ways that could not be expressed to the same effect through other forms of entertainment. Existentialism is a philosophy whereby a human’s individuality is defined by his/her own free will through the pursuit of a larger goal. Life is given meaning through the pursuit of fulfilling this purpose as well as acting independently of any predetermined “fate”. How does this tie into Nier: Automata’s design?
The plot can be boiled down to the essentials: Hundreds of years ago the human race fought in a war against aliens. They eventually grew tired of this fighting and humans created androids to fight in their stead while the aliens created machines. Nier: Automata is designed to be played multiple times to understand the scope of the narrative and its overarching themes. The second playthrough takes players through most of the same events as the first, though through 9S’ added perspective, many scenes you thought you knew are transformed through recontextualization. The best example of this is the opera fight.
Upon a first playthrough as 2B, players are tasked with killing a deranged opera singing machine in an amusement park. It drones on and on about how it wants to be beautiful, yet its homicidal rampage using fellow machines as decoration for itself and its stage knows no bounds. This boss fight is turned on its head when players revisit it as 9S. One of his central mechanics is the ability to hack enemies, which the AI does independently during the first playthroughs encounter, with each hack serving as a progress marker during the fight. The second playthrough requires the player to actively hack the machine themselves. With each successive hack, players are given more insight into the machine’s psyche. We learn through this that the machine, Beauvoir (no doubt named after French writer and existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir), enables a self-destructive pursuit of beauty after being told by another machine that “Beauty is what wins love”. This machine, without a fully sentient awareness, misunderstands what it means to be beautiful after researching what beauty would have meant in the old world when humans roamed the earth.
Beauvoir believes beauty is nothing more than pretty skin and stylish accessories, which is where the dead machines come in, serving as mere accessories to Beauvoir’s twisted sense of “beauty”. It doesn’t know what it means to love, yet its fascination grows out of this longing for a deeper meaning. Machines are expendable hunks of junk created for the sole purpose of fighting against androids in war. It is from other machines that Beauvoir also hears a tale that says to “devour the body of an android to gain eternal beauty”. Beauvoir wanted something more to live for and in turn, ended up clinging onto ideals of beauty and love it didn’t understand just to feel whole; to feel individual. It’s a tragic turn of events–one that reframes the battle’s context from the first playthrough while highlighting how effectively games can tell stories through interactive means.