If we had to pick a central question for NieR: Automata, it would be: what is the meaning of life? This problem is as old as humanity itself, but part of the genius of YOKO TARO’s work is to pose this issue in a fiction with no human characters present. Humanity exists in this fiction, but as an idea, an idea that underlies the artificial intelligence of androids and the ruins of a planet that once was home to humans. In this context, it is the turn of machines and androids to think about their own raison d’être.
On the one hand, we have Earth-inhabiting machines that aliens have abandoned a long time ago. These machines can feel loneliness and can reflect on their purpose. They feel abandoned by their creators, like a species abandoned by its god. Machines need to discover for themselves principles of morality, politics, culture and other things to give meaning, value, and organization to their existence. In this way, they experience “life”, life as humans once experienced it, life as a way of not just existing in reality, but experiencing reality itself
"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced." -Soren Kierkegaard
On the other hand, there are the androids. Some of them live on Earth as a Resistance during the 14th War of the Machines against the machines that inhabit there, but most of the androids live on a space station that orbits the Moon. Unlike Earth’s machines, androids have an obvious purpose for their existence: to protect humanity’s cultural legacy, their planet, and pave the way for a new era for the humans (part of which would have survived in a colony on the Moon).
Unlike machines, androids do not live like humanity, but live for humanity.
"Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of all things." -Giambattista Vico
Thus, the player is thrown into a world divided between two philosophical views: the existentialism of machines and the humanism of androids. The central character for NieR: Automata’s narrative, 9S, is the key to understanding the conflict between these two philosophical conceptions and making the player live the tragic experience of this conflict.
Below I present this emblematic character and his relationship with 2B. In the second half of this article, I will introduce and comment on the concepts of humanism and existentialism in NieR: Automata.
YoRHa No. 9 Type S
YoRHa No.9 Type S (Scanner), or simply 9S, is one protagonist of NieR:Automata, developed by PlatinumGames and Square Enix, and directed by YOKO TARO. Representing this game alongside 2B — YoRHa No.2 Type B (Battle) —, 9S also appears in NieR: Automata collaborations in other games such as SINoALICE and Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, specifically in The Copied Factory Raid.
For many, 9S just seems like a cute secondary character who freaks out excessively at a certain point in the game and with a more limited and broken gameplay compared to the other playable characters. However, he is a fundamental character for understanding the philosophical argument of NieR: Automata, as well as for the tragic experience that YOKO TARO wants to provide. Today we are going to analyze why.
From the point of view of its place in the script, 9S is the ninth Scanner-type android (Type S) made for the YoRHa organization to serve during the 14th Machine War, fought between androids made by humans and machines left on planet Earth by an ancient alien invasion. Although part of the automated infantry squad, the Scanner model does not specialize in battle, but in investigation, mainly through remote hacking abilities to sabotage its enemies or extract information.
NieR: Automata’s gameplay was handled by Isao Negishi (Babylon’s Fall) and Platinum senior game designer Takahisa Taura (Astral Chain director). Specifically for 9S, instead of a second melee weapon — as made available to 2B — they gave him the ability to hack computers and enemies during battle to control or damage them. By interrupting the natural rhythm of battle, hacking mode has the player move an arrow with three lives that shoot lasers at obstacles or enemies in order to intercept black spheres that represent the systems to be hit.
Like other Scanner model androids, 9S is naturally curious about the world around him. He has a particular interest in the life form of the machines he studies and faces on planet Earth. However, 9S is a “high-end model”, which means that it is among the youngest of the S-type (about 3 and a half years old).
Being even more intelligent and curious than usual, 9S from the start of the plot shows an inclination to delve into YoRHa’s secrets and ask questions that his colleagues state he “shouldn’t”. He is also more subversive than his peers, such as frequently neglecting the rule of not showing emotions; it is common, for example, for him to be informal with his personal support robot (Pod 210), with phrases such as “yeah, yeah” or “fiiiiiiiine”.
"9S in particular has a wide range of rich emotional expression, which makes him noncompliant with YoRHa standards."
— NieR:Automata World Guide [City Ruins Survey Report]
Fruit of his curiosity for both androids and machines, 9S represents the collapse between two antagonistic philosophical conceptions in war.
On the one hand, he carries the humanism advocated by the YoRHa organization, in which he and the other androids in the organization fulfill a series of missions to supposedly pave the way for a new era of humanity.
On the other hand, existentialism – typical of the machines he faces – often confronts him (his ability to hack machines makes him able to understand them internally in their existential crises). A growing paradoxical duality, which develops from the B route, is present through his relationship with 2B.
Humanism & Existentialism
In order to understand the impact of these two philosophical conceptions on the 9S journey, it is first useful to introduce what humanism and existentialism mean. While merely an introduction, I will use hyperlinks in case you are interested in delving deeper into the subjects of this topic. I am most interested in showing how these two conceptions can conflict.
Humanism emerged as an intellectual movement and is associated with the Italian Renaissance, but it extended into the 20th century and branched into several current intellectual movements. As a philosophical stance, humanism considers the human as the starting point for serious moral and philosophical investigation, emphasizing its individual and social potential.
A good example of a humanist starting point in philosophy is that of Giambattista Vico. This Italian humanist philosopher made an interesting critique of the scientific method proposed by Descartes. In this critique, Vico considered that knowledge about human things has the ability to be achieved in its truth, since the human was the creator of these things (works of art, social institutions, concepts, etc.), while knowledge of the things of nature (such as species, chemical elements and the laws of nature) were more imprecise, as we analyze them with our limitations, and they were not made by us and were not made to be understood by other humans. Hypothetically, the only “who” can know nature in its full truth would be a god who created it.
From this point, we can ask ourselves:
- Could humanism be a starting point for some other intelligent being that is not human (perhaps an alien or an android)?
- If so, would they be able to understand human things (such as a poem, religious cult, or political system)?
- Finally, would humanism be a reasonable starting point for this being to define his ‘duty’ to choose between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in terms of moral thinking?
This is exactly the context of androids from NieR: Automata, or at least those more curious androids, as is the case of 9S. Androids are not creators of anything, but creatures. Supposedly, they were created by humans. Thus, humans are for androids, as God (as Vico refers) is for humans. In this way, humanism can easily become a kind of ‘doctrine’, everything a humanist would ever want. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, was a staunch advocate of using creative and analytical freedom to seek truth beyond Church doctrine.
Something brilliant in YOKO TARO’s text for NieR: `Automata is how the androids (specifically the YoRHa organization), no longer accompanied by humanity, transform humanism into a doctrine. This doctrine comprises rules that establish moral, social parameters, and “historical truth” about the war they are waging against the machines — many of which experience existentialist questions and a feeling of “emptiness” (an absence of intrinsic essence or purpose).
Existentialism is a philosophical movement much later than classical humanism. It emerged mainly with Søren Kierkegaard, and became very present in the work of some philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and mainly Jean-Paul Sartre. It is also possible to identify existentialist concerns in the works of Martin Heidegger, although he is interested in a much broader discussion of the concepts of 'existence' and 'being'.
Basically, existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the question of human existence. This usually involves questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence and the value and freedom of human life. It is also common to reflect on the feeling of ‘anguish’ that humans feel when confronted with intimate questions of their own being.
"Whatever can be the meaning of this life? If we divide mankind into two large classes, we can say that one works for a living, the other has no need to. But working for one’s living can’t be the meaning of life; to suppose that constantly procuring the conditions of life should be the answer to the question of the meaning of what they make possible is a contradiction. Usually the lives of the other class have no meaning either, beyond that of consuming the said conditions."
— Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
Again, YOKO TARO was brilliant in adapting the idea of existentialism in NieR: Automata. Unlike humans, who have an organic and fragile life, machines can be repaired and have an age limit that is difficult to estimate. This poses unique questions for them to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their existence, contributing to the reflection on the value of life in living beings.
One machine that the player can find on Earth, which reflects this, takes care of animals as if they were part of their own meaning to live.
2B or not to [B]e?
From here, it's all about 9S's role in the plot of NieR: Automata, spoilers about his fascinating narrative are inevitable. I strongly recommend that you try it out in-game before continuing this article. That said, let's start by placing our character on the 14th Machine War board.
The story of NieR: Automata begins in the year 11945 AD, approximately eight thousand years after the D ending of Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, also written and directed by YOKO TARO. Places that were once parks, factories, castles, and cities are now just ruins of stone and metal overgrown with sand and weeds. The Earth is populated by wild animals and machines in search of their own meaning in that world, after being abandoned by aliens who, legend says, would have exterminated humanity.
Meanwhile, there is a space station called “Banker” that orbits Earth and is managed by an organization of androids called YoRHa, whose units they made in the likeness of their human creators. YoRHa is tasked with taking back control of the planet, as well as defending the androids, who are still there and belong to the Resistance. According to that same organization, the remaining humans would be in a base on the Moon waiting for the end of the conflict between the androids and the machines.
During the 14th War of the Machines, aggravating factors of the conflict appeared: a logical virus that invades the Earth's machines system, making them aggressive or simply "zombies"; in addition, two peculiar humanoid creatures named Adam and Eve appear. In search of information and tactical solutions to favor androids in this scenario, route A in NieR: Automata is played by 2B, an android specialized in battle.
During this first route, 9S (or NineS), as he is nicknamed by 2B, only accompanies her, as a secondary support character (deuteragonist), but 9S assumes the protagonist of the plot in Routes B and D (most of the story). In Route B, the player follows exactly the same chronological period as 2B's journey, but with 9S's gaze, including the moments when they are separated during the adventure.
The title of this route hints at its theme: “or not to [B]e”. This is a reference to character 2B and also to a famous passage from Hamlet, the most notable tragedy by William Shakespeare, referring to the phrase, “To be, or not to be, that is the question."
"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life."
— Hamlet [Act 3, Scene 1], by William Shakespeare
In the passage in question, Hamlet realizes that humans rarely see themselves ready to take their own life; not because he lacks reasons to take it, but because without it he might not be able to dream or may be trapped in an unknown dream (paradisiacal or not) from which he cannot return. In this context, the author’s premise is that human life is a destiny that cannot be controlled and that can make us suffer the most varied misfortunes.
To avoid any harm that existence can cause us, we can simply die/sleep, but our dreams and thoughts remind us that our life can be worth it, if not for what it is, for what it could be in the future, for what it could have been or for allowing us to dream and think. In this context, should one choose to exist or not to exist? YOKO TARO translates this question to NieR: Automata, so that, to refer to a classic image of this scene, we can interpret 9S as Prince Hamlet and 2B as a skull in his hands (his own skull).
2B is both 9S's partner and executioner, although at first, she doesn't know that she will eventually execute him. It was revealed at the NieR: Orchestra Concert re:12018 event that 2B killed 9S 48 times. When 2B meets 9S at the abandoned factory in NieR: Automata's prologue, that's the 48th time she's been destined to kill him.
The situation in which 9S finds himself in is paradoxical; he knows he is doomed to die at 2B’s hands, but he harbors growing feelings for her. A dialogue that explores this contradiction is that of the occasion when 9S is captured by one antagonist, Adam. This character asks a rhetorical question with a censored word that can be filled in with “kill” or “fuck”.
"You're thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren't you?"
— Adam (NieR:Automata)
Interestingly, the two androids have opposite personalities: 9S is communicative and thoughtful, yet also sentimental; while 2B follows a military stereotype of someone direct and impulsive. However, despite 2B’s more closed personality, the reciprocity of affection between the two androids is proven on several occasions; the most striking perhaps is when 2B starts calling 9S by his nickname, NineS.
However, the feeling that 9S feeds in relation to 2B seems much more profound, mingling with its own reason for being. After the collapse of the Bunker, and more precisely after witnessing the death of 2B — victim of the logic virus and the android A2 — he only has war as his purpose for existing. On the next routes, C and D, he does his best to kill every machine on the planet. 9S’ dark side overshadows his former persona (which can be seen in the video below).
“meaningless [C]ode” or “chil[D]hood’s end”?
As we have seen, we can see 9S as an adaptation of a Shakespearean problem, which is already something intriguing, but the problem appears in order to provide specific philosophical reflections. The role of this android in the entire story of NieR: Automata is an invitation to think about two philosophical conceptions, humanism and existentialism, which are not easily reconcilable.
Long the object of discussion in the 20th century, the harmony between these conceptions seemed possible for Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous existentialist philosopher, at least when he wrote Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). On the other hand, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger criticized this work and showed several problems with the compatibility between these concepts in Letter on Humanism (1947).
"Please keep in mind that YOKO did not mention Sartre's name without careful consideration. That’s right, I didn't just randomly throw him in the mix because I thought, "It might be cool if I mention a philosopher's name," while drinking some beer. Absolutely not."
— Yoko Taro (SUPER JUMP interview)
Heidegger emphasized that thinking about our ‘being’ is something broader than thinking about the ‘human being.’ Human being is just one of the possible aspects of our reflective being as Dasein. The concept of ‘humanity’ is not enough to encompass what we can be for ourselves and as a being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) rather than as a mere species in the universe.
This has to do with how the terminology of Heidegger's ontology (study of being) is interesting more in a functional concept of "world" than in a physical concept of "universe". I think that Heidegger's broader ontological thinking is something interesting to think about post-humanism and the possibility of humans transforming themselves together with their technology, as well as originating intelligent technology.
One of the interesting aspects, for example, is the mortality of our being, since we are being-toward-death (Sein-zum-Tode). If we consider this reflection in NieR: Automata, we must consider, for example, that the relationship that an android has with death differs from that of a human with death, since it can almost always be fixed and its ‘mind’ can be preserved and placed in another body. Thinking about ‘being’ as an android implies thinking about a different way of being.
In a violent, destructive, reflective, and sentimental way, this theoretical debate comes to life and concreteness in the journey of 9S. Initially, he can be seen as a ‘humanist’, just like the other members of YoRHa. For the organization, any act is ethically justified if they do it for the good of humanity.
It is interesting to note how perceptive YOKO TARO was on this point, as this statement seems reasonable for a human, but not so much for an android. After all, why should humanity be the ultimate end of an android? YoRHa’s reason is merely teleological (that is, in terms of purpose): humanity must be the “greatest good” of its organization since it was the ultimate purpose for which androids would have been created (which is not quite true, as will be proved later).
Following this philosophy, 9S feels justified in eliminating machines on Earth and is initially suspicious of a village with pacifist machines led by Pascal (one of several references in the game to names of philosophers). However, he sympathizes with Pascal’s ideals and realizes how ‘human’ these machines are becoming.
The machines on Earth not only start to imitate customs such as staging plays, training martial arts, creating religious cults, or forming kingdoms, but also go through existential crises such as the one posed by Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Confronted by this reality, 9S perceives in himself what we can call ‘anguish’. Existentialist philosophers often associate this state as something unique to human experience. Heidegger, in Being and Time (1927), understands anguish as an experience of the uniqueness of human existence to seek meaning for one’s life and transcend mere “being in the world”.
Anguish is a way for human beings to take ownership of their own being. In NieR: Automata, it’s the opposite state to the one the machines are in when they are controlled by the logical virus; a state in which they have no control over what they are. It is especially interesting to reflect on this in a section of the game where 9S takes control of a machine (in place of his android shell) and watches the logic virus take over his fellow creatures.
9S questions his purpose and existence more deeply. In the two things, he discovers he was deceived by YoRHa. Mankind was wiped out long before the alien machines arrived on Earth, so this can no longer be what he’s waging war for. He also discovers that androids are not essentially distinct from machines, in fact, they are created from the hearts of machines.
Like some machines he’s known on Earth, 9S falls into an existential crisis. Alluding to Sartre’s maxim “existence precedes essence”, we can say that 9S realizes he has no essence. That is, he does not have a purpose — a meaning for his life. It exists, but it is empty inside; he has to invent for himself a meaning of his own to live by, a dream that justifies making him want to stay awake. For a long time, that purpose was the illusion of humanity and its partner 2B, but now he has only himself facing a meaningless war, but one that he can end.
9S can accomplish what Hamlet envisioned, die and take his entire world with him, or he can be killed and sleep alone forever while life goes on without him. In both ways, his raison d'être, personified in 2B, can now only be found again in his dreams or in death itself. Preparation for this is made when, before entering the final area of routes C and D, he makes a grave for 2B and states that he will meet her again soon.
What will be the end of 9S? That will be up to the player to decide. If you choose ending C (meaningless [C]ode), the player takes control of A2, who faces him and wins. She attempts to use her support robot (Pod 042) to restore it, however, it is uncertain whether it will survive. Then A2 sacrifices itself to destroy the large tower ruled by the logical virus (end game area).
On the other hand, if the player chooses the D ending (chil[D]hood’s end), 9S kills A2, impaling her with his sword, but also ends up dead in the process. The young android has the option of “living” in a purely unconscious way alongside the machines with viruses or simply dying. In this second case, he will look up to the sky and speak his last words:
“So that's where you were... 2B”
— 9S (NieR: Automata)
But what solves the problem posed in NieR: Automata’s story?
Maybe there is no solution, maybe we shouldn’t consider it a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced, echoing Kierkengard’s quote from the introduction to this article. But the game offers an extra layer of thought about it, a meta-fictional reflection on your gaming experience. We can also interpret our choice as the beginning of a new cycle of creation and redefinition of the meaning of the playable fictional world of NieR: Automata.
Meaning and Meta-fictionality in NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata is a unique and deep experiment on the human condition without having a single human character in the cast; in this point lies part of the genius of YOKO TARO's work. In addition, there are many reasons to play NieR: Automata, such as its character design style, its fun and experimental gameplay, and its exciting soundtrack. For me, however, the main reason is 9S.
9S doesn’t have a musical theme, his gameplay may not be the most fun hack n’ slash and his look may not be as “attractive” as 2B’s, but he is the heart of this game and the key to understanding an incredible, thought-provoking narrative within a video game.
It may not seem like it at first, but he is the center of this game. He is the deuteragonist of Route A, the protagonist of Routes B and D, and the antagonist of Route C.
There is still a “less tragic” ending, the E ending (the [E]nd of YoRHa). I mean... less tragic for the characters, perhaps, but at a cost to the player, who will lose their save forever. This ending will grant you an interesting meta-fictional experience that shares, at least, a little of the humanist and existentialist crisis addressed in this text with the player himself.
This article was based on a version I originally published in Portuguese on Nintendo Blast. However, this is not just a translation, but a revised and expanded version, including an entirely new topic on existentialism and humanism.
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