The question, “are video games a form of art?” is a commonly debated topic amongst members of both the entertainment and art world, and it has been for a few decades now. Even though video games have been acknowledged as creative works by the Supreme Court, the philosophical aspects of this conversation still continue today. Film critic Roger Ebert’s early 2000s review of the film version of the video game Doom is a great example of this. In his (negative) review of the film, Ebert argued that “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” A few years later, on a panel at the 2006 Conference of World Affairs, Ebert furthered his negative sentiments, sharing his belief that video games do not explore the meaning of being human as other art forms do. This statement brought him a fair amount of backlash from the gaming community, and he never approached the subject again.
To me, video games have always been art. Visually, they have a very similar production and /development cycle to animation, and no one is arguing that animation is not a form of art. Video games are also art on a thematic level, and have often explored themes more deftly than some of the most revered movies and television shows. A prime example is Square Enix’s 2017 release NieR Automata, which does an incredible job of exploring the meaning of being human. It is irrevocable proof that games can be thought-provoking works of art.
***Spoilers for NieR Automata below***
NieR Automata is a 3D hack n slash RPG (roleplaying game) set ten thousand years in the future, in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Earth. Humanity, on the verge of extinction, has vacated Earth for the moon. Before leaving, they developed sentient androids in their image to fight and protect Earth from evil machine lifeforms, who were created by aliens who invaded Earth. The androids, all part of the larger Project YorHa, were created for a singular purpose – to defeat the machines and liberate Earth so the last remaining humans can return to live in peace. The game’s story follows the trials of the androids 2B, 9S, and A2, as they grapple with killing the machines invading Earth and delivering a devastating blow to the machine network, while questioning the meaning of life along the way.
Despite being a game about robots, who are so often associated with their lack of human emotions, the themes of NieR Automata could not be more relatable and human. There is an inescapable feeling of nihilism that permeates the game’s story. The game opens with an intense, existentially-charged statement: “Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death.” What an idea to present to players mere minutes into the narrative.
What makes NieR Automata a masterpiece is that it proceeds to spend the next thirty to sixty hours of its story proving this statement wrong in a compelling way. The protagonists are faced with various scenarios that force them to question their reasons for living, why they were programmed to do what they do day in and day out, and what impact that has on the world long-term. For example, midway through the 9S route, the player (and 9S) learns that humanity is extinct, and has been for centuries. The lie that humans live on the moon was concocted by YorHa to give the androids a cause to fight for, a reason to live, and an incentive to die. The Commander, the android who is in charge of managing the activities of our protagonists, tells 9S that “no one fights without a reason, and we need a God worth dying for.” Up until now, according to NieR’s story, if the androids have nothing to fight for, what is the point of their existence? Why are they even alive? “What path will you take? It’s up for you to decide,” the Commander tells 9S. It is up to him to handle this as he chooses. This ties in to what the production team defined as the game’s central theme – “agaku,” a Japanese word meaning “to struggle out of a bad situation”, an act that is so utterly human. All three protagonists of this game undergo some form of “akagu” throughout the story. 2B struggles to remain emotionally distant from 9S, because her programming requires her to kill him every time he learns the truth about humanity. 9S struggles with the ramifications of learning the truth, and proceeds to have a severe mental breakdown that permanently damages his psyche. And, finally, A2 struggles with immense survivor’s guilt as the last remaining member of a past iteration of YorHa, watching all of her friends succumb to the computer virus that killed all the androids at the time. The organization YorHa will destroy itself from within and then reset a status quo to perpetuate the ongoing lie that humanity still exists, despite mankind actually being extinct. It helps give androids a purpose for existing, even though it is false.
Another thing that NieR Automata does incredibly well is allow the player to sympathize with the enemies they are supposed to kill. NieR’s director Yoko Taro has been fascinated by the psychological ramifications of killing enemies in video games since his very first game, Drakengard. All of his games examine why people kill, and the impact of killing on others. In his art, Taro goes to great lengths to give players a peek into the enemies’ psyche. There is a stage early in the game that takes place in an amusement park. When the player arrives, they see a bunch of killable machine lifeforms minding their own business and throwing a parade. As 2B and 9S run around the amusement park, the enemies never attack them. The player could slaughter the machines for free EXP (that increases their level, granting more life and stronger stats) and items (which players can sell to make money to buy more powerful weapons), but what purpose would it serve, on a deeper level? Between this scene and the rich, impactful side-quests that showcase the machines engaging in various human behaviors, the enemy is given an added layer of depth not usually seen in the average RPG. The player realizes that the machines are just like the androids, mimicking something that no longer exists (humanity). It really makes both the characters within the story and the player on a more metatextual level question what is at stake here. Why are we killing these machines? It’s fascinating, incredible game design that is very rarely explored in video games.
NieR Automata is full of philosophical ideas, with multiple characters named after famous philosophers, all of them machine lifeforms and most of them boss fights. Some of the most iconic characters in the game are the pacifist machine lifeform Pascal (named for 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal), the opera boss Simone (named for influential 20th century feminist Simone du Beauvoir), whose entire story revealed that she was in deep, unrequited love with the machine NPC (non-player character) Jean-Paul (named for du Beauvoir’s real life lover, Jean Paul Sartre). The “cameos” of all these philosophers serve as fun easter eggs for fans of philosophy, and also strongly props up the peek into the thought processes of the machines with real world schools of thought that players get to see on their second and third playthroughs of the game through extra cutscenes and dialogue options.
NieR Automata’s final line is just as, if not even more impactful than its opening one. In my opinion, it cements its status as a masterpiece, and as a compelling work of art that deeply understands the human condition. At the end of the game (with the help of the player), 2B, 9S, and A2 have broken free from the cycle of YorHa, and they are free. “A future is not given to you, it is something you must take for yourself,” the game says. It’s a loaded, deeply emotional line that sums up not just the game’s core ideas, but the beating heart of humanity itself. We could stay trapped in the perpetual cycle that is life, but we could also learn from our past mistakes and attempt to lead better lives. What path will we take? It is up to us to decide. And what could possibly be more human than that?