This piece contains spoilers for Nier Automata and Beautiful World, Where Are You.
How do we find meaning in the modern world? It’s probably a question that every conscious generation has grappled with going as far back as, well, who knows? But it seems like a more pertinent, gripping question now than it ever has been. Maybe that’s just my human brain and its inability to think broadly, but there’s something about the digital era we’re living in that makes this central question feel more depressing than I imagine it would if I were a farmer in 1800s Cyprus, frolicking in the sun and bathing on the shores.
“I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed.”
My brain constantly flips between headlines that read “World War III imminent”, to “New Mouthful mode in Kirby”, all while my face reacts like nothing has happened. Scrolling through words that are at once world-ending, then hilarious renders all of it a little null. Finding true meaning, at this point in time, has never felt as essential as it does now when we’re faced with the meaningless black hole of a blue screen in one hand and the collapse of the Earth in the hands of, I don’t know, God?
In times of existential dread we turn to art, aka food for the soul, for answers to the question, where do we find meaning in a meaningless world? And what I found was that Platinum Games’ Nier Automata and Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You both have an answer to that question. The synapses in my brain were able to connect the two during a 3am overthink and what I found was, weirdly enough, that they have exactly the same answer.
Rooney is a famous Irish novelist and her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, primarily follows Alice and Eileen as they begin new relationships and deal with midlife crises. So, what could that possibly have to do with Nier Automata, Square Enix’s fan-favourite action-RPG? Everything, is the answer.
“It always ends like this.”
Director Yoko Taro has long dealt with big, philosophical ideas clothed in whacky JRPG goofiness, and Automata sprints with that idea like the world is ending, because it is ending. Nier Automata sees ‘androids’ and ‘machines’ fighting for dominion over Earth on behalf of exiled humans on the moon and aliens that preside over the planet. After countless battles, upgrades, side-quests and other JRPG vignettes, it’s revealed that both the humans and aliens have long been extinct. After a couple more hours you find out the head of the androids already knew this, they just didn’t want everyone else to lose meaning in their existence.
It’s a crushing revelation in the context of the game. The high-octane melodrama of the JRPG dissipates. All that’s left is a kind of emptiness. The knowledge that life, at least in this game, is an endless cycle of war to no end. Once faced with this realisation, the machines in Automata begin to mythologise and reenact the ancient culture of humans - not realising they’ve already done so through the act of violence. One baffling sequence has the barrel shaped machines awkwardly emulating sex. Awkward might be an understatement.
The most interesting case of this comes as the machines don religious outfits and begin to pray to a central machine. Once its head falls off they become unhinged, chanting “Become as Gods.” Either they’re manically resisting the meaninglessness of their existence or this death is seen as a sort of martyrdom, ascending to Become as God.
“Please God show me what you want.”
Rooney similarly depicts a feeling of meaninglessness. The characters in Beautiful World, Where Are You, search for purpose in all kinds of post-postmodern ways: in literature, social media, drugs, sex, religion. All they’re left with, in every page, are more questions, struggling to understand each other or themselves. The usually omniscient narrator doesn’t even have answers, itself constantly interpreting facial expressions or gestures.
Modern structures of economics and digitisation make Alice and Eileen dissociate themselves from their own sensory experiences. What makes this worse is the knowledge that the impending doom of humanity has already happened before in the Late Bronze Age collapse. What they’re living through isn’t unique. Even the way they communicate - through email exchanges - echoes the epistolary form that many of the earliest novels used. If the androids and machines are repeating the cycles of humanity, what are we doing?
The surface of both texts is wildly different but they’re both depicting worlds deprived of structure for the people that inhabit them. The only difference is one of them exists in a world full of crazy anime battles and one of them exists in the real world, our world.
“Do you think games are silly little things?”
So… Taro makes us delete our saves and Rooney goes on a multi-page rant about the pointlessness of the contemporary novel, while we’re reading her contemporary novel - both forcing us to acknowledge this meaninglessness. Great. Life is meaningless and there’s still three endings to go in this game and 100 pages left of this book. Except, right at the end of both, Taro and Rooney seem to shift their stance.
In the face of personal and universal ruin, in the face of existences that have been cosmically stripped of purpose, these characters hold onto each other. The only beauty they can find in the world is in the people they love.
Nier Automata pulls off an ending that only a video game as boisterous and confident as this could. Our central characters kill each other fighting for ideas that the game has long-established as pointless. Credits roll. The end. Then, weirdly, the control is put back in players’ hands as we attempt to literally kill the credits of Taro and the development team, bullet-hell style. This is a near impossible feat as the credits fire relentlessly. After dying, repeatedly, something magical happens. The ghosts of other players appear, words of encouragement typed in the background, from all over the world.
“I never quite realised… how beautiful this world is.”
Beautiful World ends, somewhat controversially, in the same way many 18th Century novels do, with Eileen happily married and pregnant. After spending approximately 300 pages resisting these traditional structures, the only way that she finds happiness is by investing in her own world. Eileen’s U-turn worked for me but has left countless readers unsatisfied, if Goodreads reviews (the Metacritic user review of the book world) are anything to go by.
Depending on the interpretation, Eileen’s transition to happiness is either a call to cling to each other in times of crisis, or it’s supposed to make readers feel as unfulfilled as Jane Eyre and Little Women do, this time in a meta-fictive way. Again, reminding readers that there is no long-term comfort to be found with or without structure.
If we read the book with the former interpretation in mind, it’s clear that it hasn’t worked for many readers. It seems even one of today’s most famous novelists is unable to make the corny message of ‘live for love’ work. Maybe Alice was right, the contemporary novel is no place to talk about real people while the world burns. But maybe video games are.
Automata’s ending is universally adored, partly because it does what no other medium can do. It doesn’t just call for people to support and hold and love one another, it makes us. It puts us side by side, killing the makers, protecting each other, encouraging each other and sharing something, even if it is just a game. There’s at least some beauty in that.
“As long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.”