Nier: Automata is a game that explores the meaning and consequence of being human, despite not featuring a single actual human in its primary narrative. In a world populated by machines, one mechanical being, village leader Pascal, strides closest to humanity, and pays a steep price.
Automata takes place on a future Earth where a seemingly endless battle is playing out between the invading alien machines that forced humankind to flee the planet and the android warriors the humans left behind to clean up the mess. 2B and 9S, a pair of androids designed to resemble incredibly attractive members of our species, find themselves on the planet's ravaged surface with a wealth of rusted mechanical monsters to destroy.
At the onset of Nier: Automata the androids' world is black and white, at times literally so. Machines are mindless things that must be destroyed for the glory of humanity, and that is all. Despite the verdant greenery choking the ruined buildings they see upon arriving on Earth, as the game picks up speed and despite 9S' divergent curiosity that prime directive remains firmly in place until the pair meet one very peculiar machine.
After defeating a massive machine boss oddly obsessed with personal beauty, a flying machine bearing the white flag of surrender guides 2B and 9S to its village, hidden deep within the forest. Machines are not supposed to organise themselves in such a manner. Machines are not even supposed to talk. Machines are certainly not supposed to be anything like Pascal.
Pascal is so much prettier than 2B, at least on the inside.
Pascal is the leader of an enclave of peace-minded machines. While 2B and 9S encountered machines exhibiting human behaviour prior to this meeting (including a bizarre machine rocking a cradle and intoning "baby" over and over again,) Pascal is something completely new and different. Voiced by a female actress but identifying as male, Pascal is a soft-spoken mechanical being who wants nothing more than to live conflict-free in his forest hideaway with his children.
This meeting changes the entire tone of Nier: Automata. Pascal tells the androids he is not their enemy and invites them to explore the village. A gorgeous bit of music begins to play, built around the nonsense chattering of machine children. Colour begins to creep into the androids' world.
Skip to 3:30 in the video below for the first meeting between Pascal and the androids.
As I played through the game the first time, it was at this point I started to feel like a complete arsehole for ruthlessly slaughtering so many machine beings. Aside from their alien construction, what made Pascal and his people any different from the humans I was working for?
Soon after meeting Pascal, 2B and 9S learn a startling truth about the aliens that used the machines to attack the Earth hundreds of years ago -- they're all dead, and have been for quite some time. The machines have begun feeling emotions and gathering together in groups. Some, like Pascal's village, are tired of fighting and just want to live. Other groups craft elaborate fictions in order to give them a reason to keep on existing, including a feudal machine society tasked with nurturing an infant king until it can mature and assume the throne. Left directionless on a desolate world, the alien machines search for purpose.
Meanwhile, during the second playthough of the game, the curious 9S uncovers another shocking secret. The humans broadcasting orders to the android space station from their secure base on the Moon? They don't exist. Humans have been extinct for thousands of years, since the ending of the original Nier. The YorHa program was designed to keep up morale in the android ranks -- lacking purpose, they created their own.
With few exceptions, the more human you look in Nier: Automata, the less human you are.
And so we have two mechanical societies, both desperately scrabbling for a reason to be. The androids chose war. Pascal and his people chose peace. As the game plays out, Pascal proves an invaluable ally to 2B and 9S as they battle more aggressive machine enemies. They face foes like Adam and Eve, brothers born of the neural interface that once connected all of the aliens' forces.
When 2B kills Adam, a grief-stricken Eve unleashes a logic virus that drives the machines into a frenzy, another case of human emotion continuing to cause chaos long after the humans are gone. And it isn't just the machines that are affected. The androids turn hostile as well, leading to the destruction of their orbital satellite and the death of 2B, who transfers her memories to rogue android A2 before shutting down for good.
It's A2 (with more than a little of 2B's influence) who rushes to the aid of Pascal when his peaceful village is infected with the logic virus, causing once-peaceful villagers to cannibalise one another in a gruesome display.
And it's A2 who fights by Pascal's side at the factory where he and the remaining child robots of his village take refuge. But when a massive machine army converges on their location, intent on eliminating the last bastion of human emotion that is Pascal and his children, it's the robot himself that rises to the occasion, in one of the game's most triumphant moments.
I cheered when Pascal took control of a mechanical titan in defence of his children. I felt the love he held for those tiny machines. I knew elation as he felled his massive foe in one-on-one combat.
I should have known it wouldn't last. This is a Yoko Taro game, where happiness is always written in lowercase, making it easier to cover it over with despair in bright red.
Pascal rushes to check on his children, but it is too late. The smaller machines are scattered across the factory floor, each laid low by a self-inflicted stab wound to the mechanical equivalent of a heart.
"I taught the children what fear is," the despairing Pascal explains. "I thought they had to know so they wouldn't rush heedlessly into danger. But instead..."
It's the worries of most human parents made manifest in one tragic moment. Every good-intentioned father and mother wonders if they are teaching their children the right lessons, properly equipping them to deal with what life throws at them. For Pascal, the answer is too much to bear.
The most beautiful character in the game is done. The player is given a choice -- delete Pascal's memories, or kill him outright. I cried as I put him out of his misery. The last humans may have died out thousands of years ago, but humanity died on the edge of A2's blade.
If the player chooses to erase his memories, the machine man makes one final appearance during the final ending of the game. As an ark containing the seeds of mechanical life lifts off into space in search of a new planet, Pascal stands alone, the last living machine on the planet.
Don't mourn the lonely robot. He doesn't remember how to laugh off fear or grieve. Humanity isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Pascal's better off without it.