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The left-right divide of NieR: Automata - I am on the left, you are on the right. That's all we need to kill each other.

The left-right divide of NieR: Automata

Understanding the meaning of existence in a post-apocalypse.

The difference between 9S and A2 is the difference between leftists and rightists. The final showdown between them has 9S on the left and A2 on the right, which is symbolic of the politics they represent. Even though they are androids who can be infected by a logic virus that makes them go nuts, they are really not that different from humans, and the game explicitly makes that point. Humans are not perfect logic machines processing pure truth drawn from a universal server of comprehensive knowledge. They are ignorant, emotional, naive, selfish, prejudiced, hypocritical, and bigoted because their brains have limited capacity and they have an incentive to value social power over truth.

The problem with telling the same story with actual humans is that it is difficult to believe that real people would behave like that. But in reality, they do when it comes to difficult subjects like politics. People you thought were normal and good could suddenly flip on you for having the wrong opinion. You were taught that democracy is good, yet it is possible for a large number of people to be wrong because they do not have the intelligence, time, and bravery to make independent judgments on the subject. They just follow whoever is the most idealistic and powerful to protect their place in the social hierarchy, creating an empty consensus of yes-men amplifying the views of a minority.

The events of NieR: Automata provide an important perspective about people and society. The game is somewhat vague about the exact psychology of the characters, but I think my interpretations fit well enough with the narrative to be more than just a coincidence.

9S's nihilism

9S derives his meaning from society and his relationship with others. After the collapse of YoRHa, he had no one left to give him purpose, so he degenerated into nihilistic insanity. He is like a kid who grew up thinking if he just followed the system, it would give him the purpose he wanted, but then he is suddenly cut loose from it and left without direction. He lived his life being respected for his potential as a high-end android, but he needed an authority to tell him what to think and do. When left on his own, the only purpose he can muster up is hatred of the system that betrayed his expectations.

In his mind, society is reality. There is no meaningful existence outside of a prestigious social system, and no purpose beyond the directions of an elite authority. If society is destroyed, there is nothing left to live for. Shithole societies like the Resistance Camp don't count because they do not provide the wealth, status, and clean women he craves. When he is used to high society, he cannot settle for anything less, even though it was all an illusion of dresses and flowers covering up the rot of the soul. Rather than find something else to do and move on with his life, he is too fixated on what he has lost to see meaning in anything else.

The meaning of meaninglessness

9S's ending is not some generic "Haha! You picked the evil option! Now they're both dead! Bad end!" It is a deep representation of the essence of nihilism. Why do people become nihilistic? Because they are inferior, jealous, and resentful people who see reality as irredeemably immoral by design. They long for a perfect existence that cannot happen in this limited reality, like believing in communism while knowing it will never work as envisioned. Therefore, they seek transcendence to an abstract state of pure good not bound by reality, to "become as gods" so to speak. If there is no meaning to life, then death is a viable alternative to escape the material world. 9S dying is perfectly consistent with nihilism, which is why his ending is technically his win, even though it doesn't look like it at first.

9S's ending tells you his thoughts as he dies. It juxtaposes his current insane, hateful, and dead self to the innocent boy full of potential he was. And that's the thing. He fixates on his past when he was morally pure: The beginning of the happy anime school life when everyone was equal in a state of moral superposition, before everything became corrupted by differences, choices, and missed opportunities. The tower where he dies is for an ark containing the memories of the machine lifeforms to be launched to a new world, and he joins this ark by uploading his memory to it. He freezes his moment of purity in time as his transcendent moral state he wishes to live in forever, sending that memory into space and ascending into eternity as a pure being.

In short, nihilism is a literal dead-end line of thinking. It is not about seeking truth, finding happiness, or being a better person. It is longing for the impossible, running from responsibility, and being immersed in a delusion of grandeur. It is an attempt to be intellectual while refusing to learn, virtuous while refusing to act, and existent while refusing to live. Nihilism itself is meaningless.

A2's conservatism

A2 derives her meaning from nature itself, which is why she is able to see the world as beautiful. Having disconnected herself from YoRHa because she discovered it was pointless before everyone else, A2 became independent, which allowed her to be unaffected by YoRHa's destruction. In the chapter of the game where you swap between playing as A2 and 9S, A2 goes around doing side quests to help the local community, but 9S is just going through dungeon after dungeon out of hate. Rather than basing her purpose on a fragile, arbitrary social institution, she makes her own decisions within the framework of the fixed, indestructible reality. It gives her the consistent foundation that allows her to be rational, moral, and productive.

Existence precedes essence

To understand the rightist perspective, you need to realize that reality is a system in itself, and it does not change. Humans are only one part of the grand scheme of nature where countless living things exist and carve their own purpose to survive. Animals do not need complex social systems and prestigious careers to keep living, they just eat whatever they can find and reproduce with whoever they can get with. The only thing that matters is that they exist in a world that would otherwise be empty because there is no reason to believe in any existence other than this. Those who pointlessly die become irrelevant, leaving behind those who do not believe in death to continue the struggle of existence and inherit the earth.

For life to have meaning, you must first exist, so perpetuating existence is the most fundamental purpose every living thing has. But due to the immutable design of reality, it inevitably results in competition for scarce resources and partners, creating an environment of survival of the fittest. It is not a morally ideal system, but there is no alternative. You cannot spawn more wealth and beautiful women out of thin air, and even the most advanced system of production has its limits (e.g. you can't touch 2B's ass). And if all of the good people sacrifice themselves, only the evil will remain, so you need to be selfish. But as long as you do not set your standards too high, you can find a niche for yourself and live a humble life that is still more meaningful than death. A2 is filthy, half-naked, and edgy, but at least she is alive and doing good things.

Conservative stagnation

The drawback to this world view is that you will not reach your full potential because you are accepting mediocrity. A2 was under the false impression that the tower is a weapon for destroying the last bit of human data stored on the moon, when it is actually a structure for going into space and achieving transcendence. Remember, the machines won the war a long time ago; this is their world now. Humans are no longer relevant, and everyone is just a product of the machine regime to evolve the system through conflict. A2 destroying the tower in her ending symbolizes the collapse of progress as a result of her reactionary attachment to human tradition.

Conservatives prefer to stick with what is familiar, even if it is not ideal, because they fear the unforeseen consequences of change. They delve into conspiracy theories as a way to predict such consequences, but it can lead to misguided action. In the end, they seek to maintain the status quo under the belief that things cannot be better than this, but that could also be holding them back. You need some dream of the ideal to accomplish more than you ever thought possible, and that is where leftist idealism comes in.

Suffice to say, being a reasonable person means you should not polarize in either direction because there are valuable lessons on both sides that attracted people to them in the first place. Leftism leads to nihilism, nihilism is cured by rightism, rightism leads to stagnation, and stagnation is cured by leftism.

Strength through adversity

In the end, NieR: Automata leans to the right. If you are someone young and naive, you are more likely to relate to 9S. However, A2 is portrayed as the good one, which steers you towards her perspective. Even though it initially portrays positive leftism through Pascal's Village, where you find a society of pacifist machines you can help, it doesn't last because they are too dependent on a strong fighter to protect them in such a hostile world. They are unable to handle adversity and develop their own strength, resulting in them committing suicide out of cowardice.

Rightist individualism is the only thing that survives in the end, and that is the philosophy espoused in the final ending. Believing in strength through struggle is a very rightist perspective. However, the ending is blocked by an extremely difficult bullet-hell mini-game. It symbolizes the struggle of realizing the truth about life, requiring you to navigate the precise path of logic in the face of overwhelming distractions and people trying to undermine you. You will fail over and over until you find that exact step-by-step strategy and muscle memory to evade the lies, backstabbing, group pressure, and even your own mistakes. It teaches you the necessity of perseverance in the face of despairing odds.

Difficult Ending E bullet hell Making a mistake does not necessarily mean you are wrong on the whole. People will try to overwhelm, corner, and silence you, but truth will keep coming back and eventually prevail.

False collectivism

Despite being surrounded by so much deceit, the game eventually offers you help from other players who sacrificed their save data to give you a massive buff that makes the mini-game much more manageable, and I suspect that is the intended way to beat it. It shows you that there are still good people out there, and there is still value to the leftist idea of systemic charity. People who know nothing about you and will never see you can willingly help you at their own expense, creating a collectivist system that benefits everyone without bias as long as everyone contributes. It warns you against being too selfish to the point of mistrusting everyone and trying to do everything yourself in vain. Indeed, being reasonable requires you to have some level of balance. But on the flip side, the game will not play itself even after accepting help.

But despite this system of sacrifice, the game gives you a choice of whether you want to sacrifice your own data to contribute. It does not shame you for refusing, but if you do want to contribute, it mockingly requires you to confirm over and over. A true leftist not only expects, but forces you to contribute because the system would collapse otherwise. Regardless, the system isn't actually sustainable if you take two seconds to think about it. Every time you take a hit during the mini-game, the game states that a player's data is lost, but you are just one player, so how can you net contribute to others? Considering how easy it is to get hit, it is mathematically unlikely that it works as stated. There is also the possibility of troll players deliberately taking hits to waste as many people's data as possible. Therefore, I suspect the system does not actually require you to sacrifice your data for it to work, thus making the system a lie. This is why rightists tend to be wary of systemic charity. They would rather not make a personal sacrifice in vain.

Final words

NieR: Automata is often regarded as a masterpiece of video game storytelling, and the philosophical themes are what got me interested in it. However, it did not delve into deep philosophical exposition, so unless you have a good philosophical background, a lot of the deeper meanings will fly over your head. In fact, it is probably better for the game to be a bit vague to fly under the radar of leftist critics who lack the meta-perspective needed to realize the game pushes rightist themes (see IGN's review claiming the game "wanders into uber-convoluted territory").

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