Warning: This piece contains major spoilers for NieR:Automata.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a renewed interest in the work of philosopher Albert Camus, especially his 1947 novel The Plague. In the novel, an Algerian city, Oran, is swept by, well, a plague, and eventually sealed off from the rest of the world. As the body count rises, supplies run low, and a long, monotonous quarantine ensues.
NieR:Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017) feels like a game designed with the current social moment in mind, one that almost benefits from being played in isolation during quarantine. It’s an extremely philosophically literate game, as seen in its constant name-dropping of famous philosophers (particularly existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Nietzsche) and subsequent ironic subversions of their work. A game about pretty anime robots facing existential horror to the rhythm of PlatinumGames-style character action combat, Automata presents a scenario that in some ways speaks directly to the current state of the world.
Automata is set thousands of years in the future, during the 14th Machine War, in which the human-made androids of YoRHa fight against alien-made “machine lifeforms” in a proxy war that has lasted for centuries. On a mission for YoRHa, androids 2B and 9S encounter machine lifeforms that exhibit signs of consciousness and sentience. Soon, they cross paths with a rogue YoRHa android, A2, and as the truth about the war reveals itself, everything they thought they knew about the world falls apart entirely.
What can a game about angsty anime robots and existential horror tell us about how to cope with the ongoing pandemic? To answer that, we need to talk about Camus.
At bottom, Camus’ philosophy is about rebellion, not only in terms of resisting tyranny (The Plague doubles as an allegory about Nazi occupation), but in a more general sense: defiance in the face of the paradox of humanity’s futile search for meaning in a universe unwilling to provide any, which Camus dubs “the absurd.” In The Plague, the titular disease is presented as an agent of the absurd: a cold, indifferent, invisible enemy that kills indiscriminately, cannot be reasoned with, and generally serves as a reminder that the universe does not care when it uproots what one considers a “normal” way of life.
The absurd cannot be conquered or fully comprehended, only resisted, fought back, rebelled against. At an individual level, Camus argues in the 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” that one rebels against the absurd by choosing to live in spite of it: as he famously says, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In a more collective sense, rebelling against the absurd entails standing in solidarity against existential threats, as The Plague’s protagonist Dr. Rieux does by working tirelessly to combat the spread of Oran’s plague. Camus is saying, in other words, that the key to rebelling against the absurdity of the world is through empathy and self-sacrifice.
Which brings us, quite handily, to Ending E of NieR:Automata. By the end of the third playthrough, 2B, 9S, and A2 are dead, and Pods 042 and 153 are about to dump their memory files in order to begin a new cycle of the machine war, thus rendering the events of the entire game effectively meaningless. Suddenly, Pod 042 rejects its programming (rebelling against the absurd) and launches a seemingly futile strike against the system, which takes the form of a nigh-impossible shoot-em-up sequence as the end credits roll.
Time and again, the player dies and dies and dies, and after each death the game asks the player to admit that life is meaningless, that games are just playthings. In saying “no” to the game’s taunts, even in the face of an impossible challenge, the player rebels against the absurdity of the task they’ve been given; the screen fills with encouraging messages from players from around the world, who eventually join in and help the player directly. In a scenario specifically designed to be absurd (a sequence designed to be impossible to beat, but which needs to be completed to finish the game), a collective standing in solidarity enables victory; the players, much like Dr. Rieux, have beaten back the absurd (for now, at least).
Finally, the player is given the opportunity to send a message to other players, along with their ship, in exchange for their save data. To Camus, this is a final test of sorts: choosing to keep the data is akin to being complicit in the suffering of others. But by giving up their save, the player accepts the world’s absurdity while also rebelling against it. The impossible credits sequence will still be there for players in the future, but by sacrificing their save data (the “proof” that they’ve beaten the game), the player helps slightly reduce another player’s suffering for a brief moment.
The lesson here is obvious: by banding together during a global, existential crisis, we help ensure the safety of others, and in turn reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
Like the plague, the absurd can only be beaten back, never defeated. But in fighting back, we affirm our existence: as Camus writes in The Rebel (1951), “I rebel, therefore we exist.”
Or, in the words of YoRHa, “Glory to mankind.”