PLEASE NOTE: This piece discusses the ending of Nier: Automata in extreme detail.
I finally finished The Witcher 3, that beast of a game.
I have plenty of gripes with it. It egregiously sensationalizes violence against women, repeatedly putting the bodies of female murder victims on sexualized display. Yennefer has a ridiculous tendency to stand precisely where she needs to stand so that her butt is perfectly presented to the camera. Like many stories, it tries to address real-world issues of persecution by using mages and nonhumans as stand-ins for actual marginalized groups, but it does so while glorifying whiteness and taking place in a world populated almost entirely by white people.
But there are so many things I love about it, too. The back of the box for The Witcher 3 features the tagline, “This world doesn’t need a hero. It needs a professional,” and it’s a fitting tagline, for Geralt isn’t the world-saving type, nor is his world the type that any individual can swoop in and save, any more than ours is, for the problems that plague it are rooted as much in prejudice and power as they are in monsters and magic. But that doesn’t mean that our actions as individuals don’t matter. They do. To paraphrase David Mitchell’s spellbinding novel Cloud Atlas, we may each be nothing more than a mere drop in the ocean, but it’s equally true that the ocean is nothing but a multitude of drops.
Geralt’s impact on history looms large in The Witcher 3, yet he is not larger than life; he exists believably among the paupers and peasants of the world, drinking in the watering holes in the poor parts of town, muddying his boots with long travels along dirt roads, stopping in small villages to help simple folk with their troubles, for a price, of course. Personally, I never had the heart to haggle for a big payment from the game’s downtrodden souls, and so I never got rich myself. I went through The Witcher 3 barely scraping up the gold I needed to buy better gear, or to repair what I was already using.
This isn’t the sort of fantasy epic that’s concerned only with the doings of kings and nobles. Geralt’s work constantly brings him into contact with poor folk and other people living on the fringes of society. They give voice to their hardships. Their faces tell the stories of lives spent laboring in the fields or at the forge. Their homes lean askew, poorly built atop shoddy foundations. These people lead hardscrabble, often miserable lives, but by acknowledging their presence and listening to them, the game lifts them up. It knows that their lives matter as much as those of the powerful and wealthy, even if the world they live in doesn’t know that, and it knows that it’s only through the experiences of the downtrodden and marginalized that we can truly understand the forces that shape the world.
What’s more, the game is interested in love, in many of its myriad forms, as both a motivator and a source of meaning in its characters’ lives. The brotherly bonds that link Geralt and his fellow witchers. The sense of being right where he belongs that Geralt feels with Yennefer by his side. The lengths he goes to for his adopted daughter Ciri, and the way their love for each other impacts the course of their lives, with some of the most seemingly minor decisions in the game actually being the most important. In the end, it’s how well you love Ciri that matters more than anything, and though he spends a great deal of time alone, it’s the moments he spends with the people he loves that give Geralt’s life a greater meaning.
Geralt exemplifies the boundaries of traditional masculinity typified by early Clint Eastwood heroes, and he and his fellow witchers only seem to be able to express their love for each other after they’ve had several drinks. His extremely reserved demeanor makes it so that the slightest cracking of a smile or the smallest tender gesture for Ciri can seem like a massive outpouring of emotional expression, which, let’s be clear, it isn’t. But while I constantly hope for games that give us models of more emotionally expressive men, I also accept that Geralt is who he is, and that he conducts himself with a particular kind of old-fashioned masculine decency, a kind that’s as limiting as it is virtuous.
The fact that The Witcher 3 spends so much of its time observing him and his interactions with other people makes it much easier to put up with Geralt’s limits. In some games, the workmanlike dialogue is just there to shuffle you along to the next combat encounter, the thing the game assumes you really want to be doing. In The Witcher 3, the balance is somewhat shifted, and we’re invited, over time, to see past the surface. Combat is a central element of Geralt’s work, though crucially not the only element of it, and the game seems to know that it’s the combination of all the facets of Geralt’s life–his labor, his adventures, and especially his connections with others–that makes us feel compelled to live it along with him, walking in his mud-crusted boots but never supplanting his presence.
I appreciate Geralt’s world-weary perspective. He’s lived enough to have earned it. He knows he can’t fix everything but still finds meaning in doing what he can for people. However, Geralt, and by extension The Witcher 3 itself, do make one assertion that I take issue with. At one point, the witch hunters of Novigrad, who have long persecuted mages, start instead to target nonhumans when their supply of magic users to brutalize, murder, and display at the town gates runs scarce. In a cutscene about the shift, Geralt tells us:
“Hatred and prejudice will never be eradicated, and witch hunts will never be about witches. To have a scapegoat, that’s the key. Humans always fear the alien, the odd. Once the mages had left Novigrad, folk turned their anger against the other races, and as they have for ages, branded their neighbors their greatest foes.”
Of course, there’s a kind of truth in what Geralt is saying, but it’s his defeatist acceptance of it that I want to dispute. In broad terms, he’s right when he says that humans fear “the alien, the odd,” but it’s also true that we can work against the kind of ignorance that allows fear and hatred to fester; even if we may never be able to eradicate it completely, we can work toward a global view that is rooted in compassion and a deep sense of interconnectedness, rather than a sense of division, otherness, and fear.
That’s where the extraordinary Nier: Automata comes in. This is a game that, in its own way, takes a long, hard look at the same forces of hatred, prejudice and fear that Geralt speaks about in The Witcher 3, and grimly acknowledges how tragically destructive they are. And then, in the end, when everything seems to be lost and it appears as if ignorance, fear, and hatred have all but devoured every last glimmer of hope and life and love, the game does something truly extraordinary. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Games rarely care much about tenderness.
In Automata, you play as a few different androids: humanoid robots fighting to retake the Earth from machines. This is a kind of proxy war: the androids fight on behalf of humanity, which has, we are told, retreated to the moon, while the machines fight on behalf of aliens who are absent from the battlefield but ostensibly wish to take Earth for themselves. Protagonists 2B, 9S and their fellow androids are indoctrinated with the belief that the machines feel nothing, that they have no true consciousness but instead are mindless automatons carrying out their creators’ will.
However, on their assignment, the androids (and you, the player) are faced with incontrovertible evidence that the machines do in fact have inner lives, the capacity to form bonds with each other, and the ability to find meaning in existence. Some machines pursue philosophy or faith as they ask themselves some of the same fundamental questions about the nature of their lives that we humans have always asked ourselves, and though the machines (and many of the androids) may look interchangeable, they are not; not to themselves, and not to each other. Some machines form family units, referring to each other as parents and children, brothers and sisters; they have no bonds of blood with each other, but like Geralt and Ciri, they know that the real mark of these relationships lies in love, and though 2B and 9S have been taught to be blind to it, the machines absolutely do have the capacity for love and compassion.
Perhaps part of the reason the androids are so blind to it is that they’re forced to deny their own emotions. On their first mission together, 2B reprimands 9S when he starts to express some joy at finally having some company after working alone for so long. Most heartbreakingly of all, 2B ignores her partner’s pleas that she refer to him with the less formal name Nines, instead sticking with the cold, robotic designation of 9S all along. How can these beings possibly view anything else compassionately if they can’t even see themselves and each other as being deserving of tenderness?
Games rarely care much about tenderness. Throughout my life as a video game player, I’ve shot, sliced and otherwise slaughtered untold thousands, often with a great deal of hesitation and ambivalence. I was troubled, for instance, by the way that Shadow of Mordor wanted us to relish our domination and decapitation of the orcs as if they weren’t worthy of living, while the game simultaneously worked so hard to give them individual personalities and qualities that demonstrated that they were not merely mindless embodiments of pure evil. I may have questioned the righteousness of my actions, but not because the game encouraged me to. It didn’t. Shadows of Mordor is steadfast in its position that the orcs exist either to serve you or to meet the tip of your sword, in any case fueling your power fantasy.
Meanwhile, Automata constantly wants to make us uncertain, uncomfortable, to question and doubt the assumptions that are at the very core of our heroes’ existence. You can only hear 9S assert that the machines lead meaningless lives so many times before it starts to ring deeply false, and so I have never felt such a reluctance to kill my enemies as I did when faced with the endearing, rusty, featureless machines of Nier: Automata. The simplicity of their yearning for a meaningful life and the clumsy way in which they sometimes mimic the bonds they believe humans had with each other elevates the truth that they are as worthy of existence as any creature.
There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that when confronted with facts that directly contradict our own deeply held worldview, we respond not by adjusting our worldview to embrace those facts, but rather by holding on even more tightly to our existing beliefs. This is what happens to 9S in Nier: Automata. Statements like “There’s no meaning to anything they do!” become a constant, desperate refrain of his as the fact that there is in fact meaning to the lives of the machines becomes increasingly irrefutable. He cannot bend to accommodate this truth. He can only break. He becomes yet another victim of the forces Geralt lamented, destroyed from the inside by his own fear of “the alien, the odd.”
Nier: Automata knows that such destructive conflict is pointless, and that the things that matter are only available to us in life. As one character says, lamenting the loss of his brother, “My life was contained in our moments.” Yet the conflict in the game doesn’t stop with this senseless loss, or the next, or the next. On the contrary, Nier: Automata pushes things so far that, at a certain point, it begins to feel nihilistic. The cycle, it seems, is unbreakable. Conflict rages on and on and on, even after it’s made clear that the humans and aliens on whose behalf the androids and machines believed themselves to be fighting are long extinct, even after it’s made clear that the androids and the machines are constructed from the exact same core components and aren’t fundamentally different at all. It goes on long after the last flimsy pretense of any justification has fallen away. It goes on until there’s nothing left but for one android to kill another. Ignorance and hatred have utterly won. Love and compassion, which should have been the guides all along, have lost. It is over.
Then, as the credits roll, you’re asked if you wish to salvage the androids. If you say yes, then the greatest battle of the entire game begins: as if you haven’t already pointlessly blasted enough things into bits, the game forces you to fight your way through the credits, too. At first it seems like just a mindless exercise, a way for the violence to endure until this, too, is done.
Then it starts getting harder. Much harder. The screen fills with bullets and you start failing, again and again. After trudging your way through all of the pointless, tragic violence of the game, it asks still more of you. You must restart over and over and over. Your will starts to falter. The game tries to talk you into giving up, asking questions like “Do you accept defeat?” and “Do you admit there is no meaning to this world?” At the same time, you see messages from other players, from different parts of the globe, rooting you on. You know that they, too, faced this struggle, and there’s a kind of connection in that, in the shared experience. Finally, finally, you are given the option to accept an offer of rescue from another player. With their power contributing to yours, the tide of battle turns. You can endure, you can overcome. The music swells beautifully as, with the aid of another, you emerge victorious at last.
Geralt couldn’t see the possibility of a different world, perhaps because he is so deeply, effectively rooted in his own world where ignorance and violence hold so much sway, perhaps because the skillful deployment of violence is his craft and so he can’t help but perpetuate violence. But with its credit sequence, Nier: Automata speaks to us as players directly, those of us who exist in a world that knows all too well the tragedy of ignorance, hatred and violence, but that is not yet entirely lost to these forces.
There are no doubt a great many people who share Geralt’s view that these forces will “never be eradicated,” that they are simply part of human nature, inherent and immutable. Lately, when I think about our own potential to escape from the perpetual cycle of ignorance and violence, I think of a bit of Oscar Wilde writing I saw in a tweet not long ago. In 1891, on the topic of socialism, Wilde wrote:
It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes.
And so I think that perhaps the tendency toward ignorance and violence have always been part of human nature because the existing conditions have supported them. These conditions can and should be done away with, and in so doing, human nature will change. I like to believe that when they are resurrected, the androids will now fully see the folly and pointlessness of their actions, and choose a different path, a path charted by love and compassion. But of course we cannot wait that long, and though Nier: Automata may be a somewhat revolutionary game, playing it is not a revolutionary act. The fact is that we must, as individuals and as communities, actively strive to live lives that replace fear, ignorance, and violence with love, empathy, and compassion.
After you win that battle with the help of another player, the game asks you if you have a message you want to send to other players. Then it asks you if you would like to lend aid to another, as another player lent their aid to you, at which point it becomes clear just what doing so entails. You must sacrifice your save file, all your progress, everything you’ve earned and unlocked. Of course I agreed, reluctant as I was to see all my progress get erased, because that sense of connection with other players, with other people around the world was the whole point of the game, the thing that everything else was building up to. For a moment I thought that maybe I would play through the game again and, this time, say no when it asks me if I want to help another player. But I know I’d only end up saying yes again. I’m hardwired for connection, after all.
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