What follows is devoid of spoilers for Nier: Automata. Instead, what I offer is an interpretive lens through which those who have yet to play the game, or who may have already done so, may interpret the narrative of Nier: Automata. This is, of course, only one possible reading among many others.
In the year 11,945 AD, Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata follows two androids, 2B and 9S, and their part in a proxy war between an invading alien force and what remains of humanity. From their bunker on the moon, the surviving humans send orders to their android army, YoRHa, in an attempt to retake the earth from the aliens’ own machines. While the game is certainly playable on its own merits, the overall narrative is intricately interwoven with Yoko’s previous games—namely Drakengard (1 and 3) and Nier. And though the narrative is quite complex, even without this background knowledge, Nier: Automata is tuned to a fascinating theme: the redemptive death of meaning.
Whether one has played Nier: Automata, the theme can be presented quite clearly. Each character possesses a "Big Other," a term in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan denoting an externality around which one orders their life in unconscious and deep-seated ways. The Big Other, often a personified figure, is to the human person as grammar is to language. Grammar orders language without our even recognizing it; for instance, the reader does not have to “work” to read these words, but automatically recognizes and understands them. The grammar of the English language is already so deeply planted in the reader’s mind that it operates without their even realizing it. The Big Other, in a similar way, is a network of principles and ideas which order the human subject’s life.
Slavoj Zizek, an expositor of Lacanian psychoanalysis, describes the unconscious Big Other in this way:
“For decades, a classic joke has been circulating among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other’s knowledge: a man who believes himself to be a kernel of grain is taken to a mental institution where the doctors do their best to convince him that he is not a kernel of grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a kernel of grain but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back, trembling and very scared—there is a chicken outside the door, and he is afraid it will eat him. ‘My dear fellow,’ says his doctor, ‘you know very well that you are not a kernel of grain but a man.’ ‘Of course I know,’ replies the patient, ‘but does the chicken?’
“Therein resides the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment: it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms; the unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth. The same holds true for the Marxian theory of commodity fetishism: we can imagine a bourgeois subject attending a Marxism course where he is taught about commodity fetishism. After the course, he comes back to his teacher, complaining that he is still the victim of commodity fetishism. The teacher tells him ‘But you know now how things stand, that commodities are only expressions of social relations, that there is nothing magic about them!’ to which the pupil replies: ‘Of course I know all that, but the commodities I am dealing with seem not to know it!’ This is what Lacan aimed [PAGE 68] at in his claim that the true formula of materialism is not ‘God doesn’t exist,’ but ‘God is unconscious.’ “
Nier: Automata's Big Other takes many forms: authority, culture, conquest, exploration, science, philosophy, humanity, gender, utopia, religion—ideology generally. Throughout the game, players encounter—and are sometimes even pitted against—characters who are often named after famous thinkers: references to Marx and Engels, Pascal and Nietzsche, Sartre and De Beauvoir, among others. Each character, tentatively personifying a Big Other referenced in their respective names, functions much like a threshold guardian. In the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, a threshold guardian is an (often personified) psychological obstacle one encounters in their development; addressing and even overcoming the various threshold guardians of one’s psyche, according to Jungian theory, is how one comes to experience individuation. In a related way, as the player encounters, addresses, and occasionally even surmounts the various threshold guardians of Nier: Automata, they near the game’s overall theme: namely, what remains of each character after the several deaths of their respective Big Others—their various responses to naked reality, unorganized and unfiltered by its very nature, in the absence of the “grammars” by which they brought order to their lives.
As Nier: Automata’s narrative progresses, each character's Big Other collapses or proves to be an illusion or even delusion, exposing them to uninterpreted and unmastered reality. In Lacanian terms, for each subject, the Symbolic and the Imaginary collapse before the Real. In that exposure, each character is revealed as having used their now-broken Big Other as a kind of levee with which to hold back reality, a defense mechanism rather than an accurate portrait of reality itself.
In a similar vein, one may consider the Buddhist adage that “Zen is about tasting strawberries.” Imagine, having eaten a bowl of fresh strawberries for the first time, you were then charged with describing the taste to others who had never eaten strawberries in their lives. How would you go about it? You would likely begin, then realize the task was too great; falling over your words, you would realize none of them have meaning outside of the actual experience of eating strawberries. If the experience of eating a strawberry is analogous to one’s experience of the present moment—the content of this very second, here and now—then all one’s attempts to describe the taste are analogous to one’s thoughts and feelings about the experience—positive, negative, or otherwise. In this way, Zen is indeed about tasting strawberries. Similarly, each Big Other in Nier: Automata is in fact analogous to their respective character’s attempts to explain the “taste” of life to others and themselves. And far from sinking each character into a nihilistic terror, by steadily shaving away each Big Other, the narrative of Nier: Automata invites each of its characters—and presumably players themselves—to instead “taste” the life they have only ever tried to experience through the secondary nature of language—through words, words, words.
Further into Zen, the various endings of Nier: Automata (and there are many), in fact, remind me of a story about the Zen master Ryokan: one day, upon returning home in the evening, Ryokan happened upon a thief in his house. Having already carried off virtually all Ryokan's belongings, the thief, seeing the master had returned, ran like the wind. Ryokan pursued him, shouting after him, waving a sitting-pillow over his head; perhaps the thief thought Ryokan was going to assault him, but when he listened closely, he heard the master shout, "Wait, please, you've forgotten this!" But the thief kept running.
Having failed to catch the man, Ryokan took his cushion back home and sat down in the middle of his now empty dwelling, staring out the window at the full moon. And there is born one of Ryokan’s greatest haikus:
"The thief left it behind:
at my window."
—The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, ed. Mitchell, Stephen (Harper Perennial, 1993), 162
Ryokan considered the thief robbing him entirely to be an opportunity for enlightenment: rather than losing all comfort, he had been freed of every crutch or coping mechanism he himself did not realize he had put up. In the end, the thief left Ryokan with all that mattered: the capacity to experience reality as such, without filter or principle, without explanation or plan—with no Big Other guaranteeing anything. In Zen poetry, the moon is often a symbol for this enlightenment, the ability to shed all thought and feeling about a reality in order to see and experience that reality itself. The thief had left Ryokan able to see the moon clearly, as if for the first time; the several deaths of each character's Big Other in Nier: Automata seems to have provided them the same gift.
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, ed. Mitchell, Stephen (Harper Perennial, 1993)
Nicolas Turcev, The Strange Works of Taro Yoko: From Drakengard to NieR: Automata, trans. Shona Carceles Stuart Smith (Third Editions, 2019)
Michael Saba, “How NieR: Automata Tells the Ultimate Humanist Fable,” YouTube, 24 September 2018