Playing posthumanism? NieR: Automata and the inescapable human

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

How do videogames imagine diegetic and extradiegetic posthuman agents? In a sense, videogame play is already posthuman. The player of a videogame is redistributed in an interrelational assemblage of human and non-human agents (Braidotti 2013); of physical world, player, technology, player character, and virtual environment (Taylor 2009).

Thus, videogames, by their very “nature” should allow us to play out versions of breaking away from anthropocentric idealism and experience what new modes of subjectivity and agency might entail. 

One such attempt is found in the 2017 videogame NieR: Automata (PlatinumGames 2017), lauded as a work of existential nihilism and post-humanity (as “after-human” as well as “beyond-“ or “more-than-human”). NieR: Automata is a role-playing action adventure videogame set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth where androids and machines are caught in an eternal war. The player “controls” the android 2B, and later other androids and drone companions, to fight machines on behalf of humanity.

The director, Yoko Taro, has explained that the videogame intentionally avoids asking, “What does it mean to be human?” in favor of asking questions about what is left when we are gone (Muncy 2018).

The videogame more than nods at the posthuman in its narrative and gameplay, as it rejects standardized perception (Gerrish 2018) and traditional depictions of characters (Wright 2020) for machines interacting outside of the human sensorium, and idiosyncratic narrative structures (Backe 2018; Jaćević 2017).

Yet even if the humans behind the conflict are revealed to be long gone, their traces linger as machines and androids are struggling with concepts of human society such as gender, race, and human language. What happens to the posthuman stance of videogame play when machines are breaking away from humanism’s restricted notion of what being human is while continuously performing versions of it?

This presentation investigates how NieR: Automata consolidates reversing an anthropocentric view with firmly situating the human in the network. Through conceptualizing the posthuman as an interrelated agent (Braidotti 2013; Hayles 1999; 2017), the videogame presents oppositions to the humanist fantasy of autonomy on several fronts, especially in the final scene of the videogame. Here, the player has to shoot (and by extension, kill) the credits with names of the developers.

After removing the creators, the player can choose to “release” the player characters by deleting the videogame’s save file, thus stopping the perpetual circle of war, dying, and rebirth that the videogame presents. Is this part of the posthuman agent? Ultimately, in the tension between accelerating and inhibiting agency, in joining and distributing perspectives, in prompting continuation and condemning it, NieR: Automata imagines a paradoxical posthuman future of a human present.

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Cecilie Klingenberg