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The Casual Gaymer: Nier: Automata and Decentralizing Heteronormativity

Reading queerness into a robot’s existential dread.

Welcome to another edition of “The Casual Gaymer!” This is a bimonthly column from AiPT! Gaming in which I’ll share my thoughts, questions, and concerns about video games and the gaming industry as a queer person with limited free time. Missed the last edition where I connected the dots between Bloodborne‘s aggression and Sekiro‘s combat? Liberate yourself from your wild curiosity. This week, dust off those blindfolds, mark your maps, and get your plug-in chips sorted. I’m diving back into Nier: Automata. This one’s going to be a bit more high-minded than usual, so make sure you’re buckled securely into your flight units. Also, a brief content warning: near the end of this piece, there is a link to an article regarding violence against transgender people. The content in the article isn’t graphic and focuses on statistics but bear that in mind before clicking the link.

*This piece contains heavy spoilers for Nier: Automata, including its endings!*

The last time I wrote about Nier: Automata, I wrote about repetition. I began with 2B’s grim opening lines and talked about how the game’s combat conveys the numbingly repetitive nature of war as seen in the androids’ struggle to win back Earth from the aliens’ machines in humanity’s name. I want to revisit those words, not only because they are still sweet as hell and I will capitalize on every chance I get to invoke them, but because I want to expand on the thematic work they do. 2B’s says:

We are perpetually trapped…in a never-ending spiral of life and death.

Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment?

I often think about the god who blessed us with this cryptic puzzle…and wonder if we’ll ever have the chance to kill him.

The game’s titular automata are trapped in a cycle of bodily violence and also in one of emotional unfulfillment. Nier: Automata is a game in which sentient beings reach out for connection towards one another, yet never manage to meet. Both android and machine attempt to form socialization, organization, and self-identification from the leftover wreckage of a long dead human race and reap only sorrow for their efforts. The androids, built in humanity’s image, can define emotions, yet are told to reject them in contradiction of their bodies. The machines, built for humanity’s extinction, absorb human behaviors through osmosis on the ruins of Earth and clumsily pantomime human customs in grotesque displays of gender, piety, and government. Both android and machine yearn to establish real, enduring connection, but will never succeed through conditioned contradictions and pantomimes that reach towards assimilation into something in which they may never truly belong. The automata are trapped in this cycle of imitate, contradict, repeat and I can’t help but look at that cycle and see an uncanny reflection of queer experience.

By this comparison, I do not mean to say the experiences of the automata are perfectly analogous to that of queer people. Rather, throughout my time through Nier: Automata‘s five major endings, I couldn’t help but read queerness into their fruitless attempts at enduring connection. So apparent was the inherent queerness of this conflict, it felt less like I was reading between lines and more like the soldiers of YoRHa were lifting their blindfolds to conspicuously wink at me between the clashes of swords on metal and dialogue filled with existential befuddlement.

The characters of Nier: Automata suffer because they limit themselves to the confines of human socialization though their artificial intelligence and mechanical bodies differ from and transcend humanity. Neither the android nor the machines ever think they can aspire to more than humanity’s limited means of connection, as the former have been conditioned to question nothing while the latter lack the processing power. Queer people also endure conditioning from birth; first being taught they do not exist, then that they do exist, but they are not one of their own people. If they are allowed to learn about queerness and are able to find it in themselves, they are then taught that their queerness is only acceptable if it fits as closely to cisgender, heteronormative norms as possible. If you present as male, act masculine. If you present as female, act feminine. Make sure your clothing choices align with your assigned gender. Only use male or female pronouns and use them according to your assigned gender. Decide which of you is the “man” of the couple, and I mean couple, no more–and regardless of whether you are asexual–no less. Nier: Automata may not dive into all the ways an automaton may identify, but the overall idea of conditioning holding a group of sentient beings back from living their truest selves is there.

It makes itself known through the introduction of Adam and Eve, two machines who take human form, but act in contradiction of and rebellion against humanity’s norms for existence. Outside of the fiction of the story, they also reject heteronormative gender expectations for the player. Adam and Eve both presenting as male immediately invert expectations that accompany the biblical apple biters being referenced. Adam and Eve are the characters that reveal the murder of the aliens by their own creation and weapons, the machines. Though Adam and Eve were not the aliens’ killers themselves, they are inspired by past machines’ abilities to evolve beyond the conditions they were assigned. They plan to use that knowledge to evolve further and find their own means of existence and connection, divorced from the expectations and norms salvaged from the ruins of humanity which the machines attempt to replicate. This is an incredibly queer thread to follow which makes me think about activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who paved the way for queer rights activism in the United States. It was trans women of color who were and are the most persecuted of the queer community, yet were the most willing to act against cisgender, heteronormative conventions and work towards cultural and legislative progress.

I bring the persecution of trans women of color to the forefront to illuminate another troubling parallel between the marginalization of queer people and the dynamics of android, machine, and human in Nier: Automata. All too often, trans people (trans women of color in particular, as racism is not exclusive to heteronormativity) face persecution from within the queer community itself. Cisgender, heteronormative norms and conventions teach us that even if we allow queerness to exist, othered and marginalized though it may be, transgender people are one step too far, defying not only heteronormative expectations, but the expectations of some nebulous ideas about “nature.” As queer people are conditioned to accept these ideas, they persecute their trans siblings, excluding them from their feminism, their activism, their representations, and their socialization.

When a revelation is made near the end of Nier: Automata‘s story that androids and machines are made from the same cores, this cements the ironic tragedy of the androids and machines warring against one another on behalf uncaring creators, as not only are they both automata, but they are shaped from the same clay through which their creators condition them. It becomes progressively more apparent that the androids and machines shouldn’t be fighting one another and instead warring against the conditioning that led to their conflict so they may evolve beyond it. Little else is so discouraging to me as the sight of queer people persecuting transgender people, excluding asexual people, or erasing bisexual people. Though the ways in which each queer person is persecuted varies depending on their race, gender, ability, or socioeconomic status, one of the major sources of our oppression is a shared weight beneath cisgender, heteronormative expectation. If we war on each other rather than against the culture which disenfranchised us, we only act to continue the cycle of imitate, contradict, repeat.

Before I continue, let me be clear, I am not comparing the machines’ culling by the genocidal androids to the persecution of trans people by other queer people as perfect analogies. Queer people are not storming into trans spaces and slaughtering them as they attempt worship or civilization and trans people do not only act on simplistic instinct as the machines in Nier: Automata. Making one-to-one analogies between fictional beings like orcs or mutants and real-world marginalized people can–and often does–lead to thorny territory. I instead want to compare the broader conflicts as presented in the game and those of reality in this exercise of reading queerness into the game and showing how the game resonated with my lived queer experience. One would hope this would be obvious and require no disclaimer, but in short, I promise I don’t have my wires crossed here.

Now then, who else could bring my comparison home but Adam and Eve? In Ending D, 9S learns the giant tower which emerges from the earth beneath the ruined city will fire the “memories” of Earth’s machines into space, letting them leave behind the primitive remains of humanity and begin a new life among the stars. In deciding whether to leave with Adam, Eve, and the machines, 9S asks himself:

What have I been fighting for?

Who have I been living for?

I don’t know anymore.

9S realizes he’s been fighting and living for humanity’s sake, not his own, and the player may choose if he joins the machines on their ark into space. Either way, the machines finally leave the Earth and humanity’s incompatible means of connection behind to evolve past them and connect through means of their own. This is an answer the game offers for the automata yearning to connect and it’s one that I’d love to offer to queer people. We should absolutely not let ourselves be limited by cisgender, heteronormative (Tired of hearing these words yet? Me too.) expectations and norms and continue to evolve beyond them, reaffirming our own identities. We, however, do not have a rocket-propelled ark through which we might yeet the hell away from the expectations of our straight oppressors. Our fates are more in line with Ending E, in which 2B, 9S, and A2 are rebuilt, their memories intact, to continue the cycle of imitate, contradict, repeat. Their hope is that in continuing the cycle, perhaps something different might eventually happen, for “a future is not given to you, it is something you must take for yourself.”

Such is the queer experience. A lot of the time I feel like I’m repeating the same explanations, the same justifications, the same entreaties on behalf of my existence and that of queer people everywhere. We win marriage equality one year, they ban trans people from the military the next, then legislate discrimination against us the year after that. Just as Nier: Automata presents a narrative of androids and machines which works to remove humanity from the center of conversation, we as queer people should always work to decentralize cisgender heteronormativity from the narrative of our identities and our lives. However, like 2B, I often feel perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of performative tolerance when it’s fashionable and ignorant hatred whenever our culture permits. It often feels impossible for us to evolve beyond our culture’s expectations when we’re still having 101-level conversations about how straight people “feel” about whether or not we’re even real. So the cycle continues and so queer people continue to seem as disposable as the YoRHa units are revealed to be. We have no ark on which we can escape into space, so we repeat the cycle, try and take our futures for ourselves, and hope we can at least preserve our memories when our bodies are torn apart.

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