On Memory and Nier: Automata

For the love of god, don’t read if you haven’t yet finished the gam[E].

 

“Commencing deletion of all data”

I am looking at the screen, but I cannot press the button.

The prompt is right there, flashing at the bottom of the screen. But I can’t.

Nier: Automata, this video game, this interactive piece of media that occupied almost 30 hours of my time over the last two weeks, has achieved the exact opposite of what games usually strive for: I do not want to interact with it. I am frozen.

“Commencing deletion of all data”, the prompt reads. The memories and consciousness of the characters I played in this game, and their kind, are at stake – if I press the button, they’re gone.

This game is so all-encompassing that entire anthologies can be written about all the subtle ways in which it addresses consciousness, humanity and the meanings that life can offer. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for me, I do not have the resources to go over even a fraction of these ways, so I will focus here, mostly, on only one: memory.

I feel it wrong to engage with a single concept this game explores, as it does so in a rich context that I inevitably have to erase. It is impossible not to write about it, however, so we are stuck, context-less. At the very least, spoilers-galore, if you are reading this then hopefully you got to the [E]nd, and can use your own experience.

9S says he must die, but he can reload his data from the Bunker, where most of his memories are stored. 2B is incensed – But you’ll lose you! The you that exists at this very moment!

This game engages with both individual and collective memory. For the former, the issues are more on the surface. The notion that memories form one’s consciousness is present throughout the game, as it is peppered with little nods to the idea.

Do different memories change otherwise identical beings? Does a variety of experiences equate to a variety of identities? It is clear that to Yoko Taro the answer is a resounding yes. 2B knew it, too. She knew it would be a different 9S emerging from the Bunker after Eve was destroyed.

Think of Devola and Popola, their path through the desert, signposted by their memories, by the memories that made them who they were, and that made them die the way they did. Yes, they were programmed to feel guilt, but not to lash out at those who may hurt them. Their memories are defined by the actions of the other Devola and Popola that doomed project Gestalt, they are different.

A2 tries to tell him what 2B wanted for him. 9S screams at her – shut up, you don’t know anything about us. He means himself and B2, his B2.

Individual memories define individuals – but what about public memory? Yoko Taro has a few interesting ideas about that.

The Yorha project wiped the memories of all androids, ensuring they still believed that humanity survived. But true knowledge bled through the cracks in the monolith: 9S was always bound to learn the truth. He was meant to. The android society itself creates the one that will inevitably learn about humanity’s fate, learn the android History.

In this context, 9S is merely an instrument, a way for the collective to know itself, to know its purpose and its past. For Yoko Taro, public memory cannot be erased, it can be suppressed but it will always bubble up to the surface. Suppressing it for too long will cause its downfall.

Nations will remember their tragedies, feel for them. Societies may attempt to conveniently forget how they mistreated groups within themselves, but the underlying truth will have to be confronted, sooner or later. Gone unaddressed for too long, the truth will bend and twist the fabric through which society operates, collapsing it upon itself, pitting it in a war against itself.

I press the button – the data destruction process starts. I am happy to learn that the memories of A2, 2B and 9S are “leaking through”. The game gives me a choice – do I attempt to save them?

Of course.

That’s the easiest choice this game will give me. I realise that I don’t care for the dozens of other androids I met throughout my journey, and the thousands of others probably occupying other areas of this world. I care about 2B. About A2. 9S. Despite all, I think I do.

When 2B dies of corru[P]tion, I feel it. I can’t guide her to where she needs to go. She can’t fight – an invincible, graceful dancer on the battlefield – reduced to a shambling, powerless figure.

I am sorry. I am so sorry that I can’t save her, this time.

But now, I am given a choice, and I decide immediately. I want their memories, their consciousness, to survive. Just give me that safety, that knowledge, that memory, I plead of the game. Yoko Taro didn’t make me care about androids, he made me care about these androids – but that is what he wanted.

Brother, brother, please start moving, the machine cries out, its dead brother lying in a pile of discarded rusted iron parts.

Yoko Taro wants you to care about all the machines, however. Early signs point to this: their friendly, awkward design, their non-violent nature when you first step into the city ruins, the amusement park, Pascal’s village…. Pascal.

Do you feel guilt when you blow up the machines? At times, you are supposed to, at other times not. Even when they hack at you, though, they scream.

Kill. Kill me. Pain, pain. Become as Gods. Don’t kill me. Stop it. I’m afraid.

The overwhelming feeling is that the machines… feel. No matter how many times 9S tells you that they can’t. This is not the first game that asks the player if artificial entities can exhibit will and possess consciousness, but it does so flawlessly.

One of the biggest revelations is hidden in a text obtained outside of the main story path – the Yorha consciousness comes from the cores of defeated machines. The Yorha androids are machines, their black boxes made of the same material used to create machine cores.

I was scared, says the child machine. Now that we’re cut off from the network, I don’t know what people are thinking.

The public memory of the machines is codified within the network, easily accessible by all – unless, of course, some of them disconnect. When the machines in Pascal’s village disconnected from the network, from their public memory, they gained a new sense of self.

Children, sisters, parents, philosophers, thinkers, shut-ins.

Yoko Taro wants you to know that public memory does not bind the individual self, your identity. National memory of past conflicts does not mean you have to hate those enemies. Rumours about the group of gypsies in your town does not mean you have to feel threatened by them. Traditions should not dictate how you feel about your gender, sexuality, identity. Societal norms should not constrain how you treat those who are unlike you.

And yet, it is dangerous – machines disconnected from the network, from their public memory completely, turned to blind faith, zealous territorialism and unquestionable loyalty towards the hierarchy. Zealously following an ideal can lead to your destruction when you disregard the public memory, the traditions, as completely as they have done.

I saved A2, 2B and 9S. At least I think so. Did I? Their data was not deleted. Even if they persist, what kind of world are they left with? Have I made this world better?

Have I even left a mark on this world?

No.

When the game asks me, as the player, to help another get to the true [E]nding at the cost of deleting my progress, I let it. I know I wouldn’t have been able to get there without the help of another. It’s only fair.

I let the game delete all my data. My weapons. My archives. My saves. I let the game delete my memories of it.

Damn it, Yoko Taro, you played me. You didn’t really delete the Yorha data. You deleted mine.

There was no fanfare when you deleted my save. I will help another player, but all my choices were meaningless. I have to start the game over again, from scratch, knowing it.

But I know I will. Because this is the best game that I ever played.

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