//WARNING: I am about to spoil all of NieR: Automata, namely all 5 main endings. Normally I don’t really care if you wanna spoil something for yourself, but I think NieR: Automata is really good and that everyone who can should play it. In fact, I believe this so much that I actually bothered to use the “Read More” tag on WordPress for this post, because if you wanna ruin this 10/10 game for yourself, that’s on you.
Moreover, because I’m writing this for people who have beaten Ending E, I’m not gonna spend a lot of time explaining the base setting and plot of the game, so even if you don’t listen to me you might be extremely lost. You should play NieR: Automata, is my point.
I know, I know, I’m about a year late with my NieR thinkpiece. By the time December of last year rolled around, NieR: Automata was already taking top three spots on most outlets’ Game of the Year lists. I, however, was skeptical, and it took the repeated insistence of some coworkers that this game wasn’t just anime fan service to finally pick it up, and I realize I’m the last one to this party, but holy shit guys.
NieR is, hypothetically, about a lot of things, but the theme of the game that struck me the most, possibly out of applicability to my own life, is the theme encapsulated in the game’s central song, the hauntingly beautiful “Weight of the World”. Simply put, the song is about the crushing weight of needing to carry the burdens of life alone, a theme hammered home in the chorus:
Cause we’re going to shout it loud
Even if our words seem meaningless
It’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world
I wish that someway, somehow
That I could save every one of us
But the truth is that I’m only one girl
This theme, the idea that the burdens of life are too great to carry alone, are carried through the game’s three playable protagonists. The beauty of NieR being a game is that you get to experience these three arcs as an active participant, and see how the “weight of the world” crushes these characters alone and, conversely, how the strength of compassion and teamwork help them to carry their burdens.
We start with the game’s primary protagonist, 2B. Revealed to actually be designated 2E at the end of the game (for Executioner), 2B’s job is to monitor her ally 9S’s status and, should he ever become aware of the greater state of the world, kill him and reset his memory. 2B is living a sort of twisted version of Edge of Tomorrow, constantly stuck in a cycle of “meeting” 9S, working with him, becoming close with him, only to inevitably have to kill him at the end. When a new 9S is plopped out into the world, he’s none the wiser, but 2B still remembers that relationship, and the one before that, and the one before that, ad infinitum, each one ending with 2B’s hands around his throat.
2B’s life is centered around 9S, literally. As an android, it is literally her designated purpose to kill 9S, over and over again, for eternity. 2B needs 9S, on a base level because 2B only exists because of 9S, but also because, after spending literal lifetimes with him, she’s grown emotionally attached. This much is obvious: when we finally see 2B kill 9S at the end of Ending A, she’s openly weeping over his corpse, and before that when 9S is mortally injured by the machines, 2B is basically filled with a level of emotion (namely, bloodlust) that she’s never exhibited before. 2B needs 9S, and when 9S’s friendship is ripped from her, either by her hands or someone else’s, she goes berserk.
This brings us to 2B’s partner and the game’s secondary protagonist, 9S. A Scanner-type, thus designed more for recon work than combat, 9S is full of childlike optimism and a need for contact. He’s constantly reaching out for some sort of interpersonal connection, both with 2B and his Operator back in the Bunker. 9S ends up falling for 9S (obviously unaware that 2B has not only met him multiple times before, but killed him too), and the two grow close over the course of Endings A/B, as 2B slowly lets her true feelings about 9S slip over time (revealed in her occasional usage of 9S’s nickname). With 2B, 9S has purpose, has friendship, even has a twinkling of love. And then…
2B is killed. Pretty painfully, honestly, even though it’s a mercy kill by fellow android A2 (more on her later). 9S is left with his only friend in the world impaled on her own sword by an android who he believes to be a heartless killing machine, and soon literally all of his fellow androids are killed pretty horrifically. This leaves 9S alone, and he takes that poorly. 9S spirals into madness when left on his own, and basically becomes consumed in a quest for vengeance that destroys him.
Speaking of A2, the rogue android who ends up being the game’s third playable protagonist, she goes through the opposite arc. She begins the game alone, aware of the true purpose of YoRHa and the androids and disenchanted to the claims of “Glory to Mankind”, A2 basically begins the game a psychopath, essentially killing a child in cold blood as the game’s introduction to her.
However, once A2 is rendered controllable, she starts to open herself up to company, first in the form of assuming 2B’s memories, then in the form of 2B’s Pod, then in interacting with the machines in Pascal’s village and the androids at the Resistance Camp. As she begins to open herself up to the people around her, A2’s bloodlust wanes, and she starts to behave with compassion, with kindness, and starts to see the meaning in the interpersonal relationships around her.
With this knowledge in mind, she sets about trying to help 9S, seeing (and knowing, thanks to 2B’s memories) how much despair he’s in. She desperately tries to connect with 9S and help him, despite the fact that 9S is, literally, trying to kill her as revenge for 2B’s death, which 9S believes to be a cold-blooded murder. However, A2 knows what 9S is going through, because she went through it herself, and wants nothing more than to try and save 9S from his own isolation.
These three characters each represent the all-consuming need for “human” companionship and friendship, and the way that the crushing weight of existence will destroy someone who, either by force or by choice, faces it alone. 2B is put through the suffering of having to make interpersonal connections only to be forced to sever them. 9S experiences the highs of love before having it torn away and driving him to madness. A2 begins her story alone and angry, but as she begins to rediscover the meaning of human contact, finds peace, and goes so far as to try and help others feel the same.
The true magic of NieR: Automata, however, is the way that it uses its medium to hammer these points home. By forcing the player to play through 2B and 9S’s “initial” adventure together two times, not only does the player get to see both 2B and 9S’s perspectives on their friendship, but they also begin to empathize with 2B’s fate, as they themselves are forced to watch 9S die four times over the course of the 2 endings. Introducing A2 early on as a mid-game boss battle establishes 9S’s perspective of her as a killing machine, only to have it flipped on its head and become tragic as the player assumes the role of A2 in the Ending C run, and realize both how justified 9S’s feelings are, and the true, benevolent nature of A2 near the end of the story.
Ultimately, by playing through the same story from the perspective of multiple characters, NieR: Automata hammers home how much these characters need each other, how much they benefit from one another’s presences and how much they languish without one another. This point is finally hammered home at the end of Ending E, in which the player is faced with insurmountable odds, but is helped by the literal save files of other players jumping in to help them in the final moments. Putting this at the end of the game’s sweeping story, and accompanying it with “Weight of the World”, this time not a single singer’s cry for help but instead an entire choir singing triumphantly, hammers home this point: the only way to handle life is together.
With this message sent across, the game offers the player one last choice, a choice identical to the one made by A2 at the end of the game’s narrative: kill yourself (or, in game terms, destroy your save file), in order to help someone else, someone who might even hate you. I don’t know how everyone else made that choice, but I can say that, at the end of NieR: Automata, with an actual, honest-to-god tear in my eye, I smiled as I watched my save file slowly turn to dust, knowing that someone out there will be able to have the same triumphant moment I had as a result.