In [Jacques] Derrida’s terms, it is the blind, the disabled, who “see” the truth of vision. It is the blind who most readily understand that the core fantasy of humanism’s trope of vision is to think that perpetual space is organized around and for the looking subject; that the pure point of the eye (as agent of ratio and logos) exhausts the field of the visible; that the “invisible” is only — indeed, merely — that which has not yet been seen by a subject who is, in principle, capable of seeing all.
— Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (132)
Embedded and embedding narrative frames assume precisely this self-referential form of form by marking the virtual edges of narrative structure.
— Bruce Clarke, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems, (94)
Upon Playing NieR:Automata’s DLC, which focused on the machine individual, Plato 1728, I felt that the narrative was engaged with the powerful aspect of disability. It allows the player to take control of a robot who is considered “defective” and does things poorly. Plato 1728 believes that he does poorly in everything, he cannot fight well as when he does his body betrays him, nuts and bolts come off and oil spills. He cannot hold a weapon. Yet, he tries his hardest hoping that he will be accepted and appreciated.
This does not happen.
What you experience in the gameplay is a first person perspective of what it feels like to be disabled and ostracised for said-disabilities. The game poignantly attempts to show the player the censor and the frustration, alongside the mental trauma, a person with aa disability can face in a ableist society. It does this brilliantly by showing this efficiency prone behaviour and ableism in the lifeforms that invaded Earth. Though they are aliens they have adopted many human like aspects. The other machines tease and ridicule Plato 1728 to the point that he feels alone all the time. No one desires to be his friend and no one seems to care about him.
Plato 1728 is a horrible dilemma. He was built to be a weapon but he has not of the proclivities and qualities of a weapon. Rather he mentions he abhors violence. Yet, as he is built to fight, he must continue to do so. The machines are all living workaholic existences in which their daily routine is comprised of sparring and maintaining, and building other machines for war alongside taking care of the factory. Some of the machines obviously have consciousness and existential thoughts but this gets stampeded over the nuts and bolts of what they assembly is comprised of.
We, as the players, are put in the position to play as Plato 1728. It is something that overwhelms us. It is designed to show how inhumane and cruel the machine life routine is. Operating Plato 1728 you notice he glitches and seizes up at times and he cannot move at all. There are system errors shown about as you and Plato 1728 desperately attempt to keep himself composed. Then we are presented with the motor function test. We are in the position of Plato 1728 giving this test. Plato 1728 actually does well. You can, even with his body glitching, get 17-10 rings, which are the objectives of the motor examination. However, then multiple rings come on and off and go away easily and we are given a body that wasn’t either designed to move fast or we do not know how.
This a crucial part of the narrative. After basically failing the test three times, with an “exceedingly poor” grade, we as players are made to ruminate why the motor function examination suddenly became what it was. Why did the runs suddenly come and go off in such a manner. Why were these tests designed like this. The players are also made to wonder if we were in control of 2B, 9S or A2 would be able to pass a motor examination like this? We probably could. However, in the base game when you start out with a mission directly with tutorials just being on-screen commands you may falter. The prologue is also designed to be 35-40 minutes gameplay that any newcomer can exceedingly fail in as well.
It is not also a question of machine lifeforms themselves. Before coming to Plato 1728′s narrative, we must finish three coliseums. One coliseum is devoted entirely of machines and you must make 9S choose a machine to battle with. Depending on your level, you get a selection of machines. The thing is you upgrade or you choose a machine based on which level in the coliseum you are, what your skill level is and what the skill level of the machine is — they are all interconnected factors that help you win the tournament in the coliseum.
Plato 1728, though saying he is a “defective” model, was able to get many rings. It is not his fault the test is designed such a frustrating way that failure seems to be the only option. Even with his disability Plato 1728 tried and succeeded a lot. However, due to the assessment requirements not being met, Plato 1728 is branded as a failure.
Subsequently, this branding of failure persist. When we are doing combat training we, the players in control of Plato 1728, are shocked when a punch makes Plato 1728 lose both his arms! We can try to evade and move about and do what we can to keep the clock running but Plato 1728 fails. It is not that he is intending to do nothing. He is intending to fight but his body is having issues and no one seems to care and no one seems to assist him with his bodily issues. He is branded a failure. This is not only a desecration of justice but a desecration of life and the game wants you, the player, to feel it, as a machine with disability.
Plato 1728 then decides, in his loneliness and ostracism, to take care of a doll. The factory is attacked, either by the player as playing one of the protagonists’ androids, and Plato 1728 helplessly watch as the doll he cherished goes up in flames. Feeling traumatised and grief beyond anything, all his pent up sadness came up and he started anyone and anything. When his rage is exhausted, his companions trap him and dispose of him. When we re-enter the factory as another machine, the player sees that some people are shocked that Plato 1728 have had so much power in him that they didn’t realise. Some don’t wish to go into battle, afraid at seeing the destruction that Plato 1728 wrought, some are still thinking he is “useless” and that his model should be stopped while others mourn his downfall and are ashamed at their own behaviours surrounding him.
In fact, the machine the player is operating comments at his terminal as he has to input data on Plato 1728 goes on to say something like oh yeah, the guy who lost it.
Plato 1728′s consciousness and soul are still alive even if his body is gone. Though he wishes he could have a body again. He comments that the coliseum people are all selfish. The ones were machine are fighting to become stronger, the one where machines are trying to live by rules and the ones where machines are enslaved to be gladiators for android amusement. He says that is he really the crazy one?
Due to the doll seemingly being the cause of Plato 1728′s madness, dolls when found, are destroyed in the factory now. The players are then shown a psychedelic, gothic music video of a random machine destroying dolls and in the end Plato 1728′s soul reaches out attempting to stop the machine to destroy the doll that looks like 2B but he fails and the 2B doll is symbolically destroyed.
In my own reading of this DLC and the NieR:Automata game, I found aspects of posthumanism and transhumanism at a clash. My intentions to summarise the events of the DLC is to provide some of my own critical understanding of the game. In the base game, Pascal, 2B and A2 herald empathy and mostly posthumanist aspects in their characteristics. Though Route A follows more of a transhumanist path the characters present show some posthumanist nuances. In the game, the transhumanist agents are 9S and initially, Adam and Eve.
Transhumanism believes in the augmentation of the human body. It believes that human limits can be “corrected” and transcended. The body is to be a workshop and that workshop perfects upon the body into an ideal type of unit or anatomy in execution. Posthumanism is different; in fact, posthumanism believes more in the imperfections of humans and it rejects the humanist model of ideal human saying there can be no ideal. It considers the value of all living life forms and the systems that interconnect them. It also shows that human bodies can inherently and environmentally differ from each other and that is a good thing. Posthumanism also does not advocate anthropomorphism.
Bruce Clarke in his book Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems talks about humans as quasi-subjects and quasi-objects. This means they are neither completely subjective markers nor markers of objectification. Humans interact and they are heavily affected and influence by how, what and why they interact with (Clarke 44-45). Clarke also states that humans are biotic creatures and there can be abiotic organisms (Clarke 17). Biotic organism are organisms who can perform autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is the ability of the body;s various parts to organise itself, to keep its integrity but also to allow certain things to change, an example of human genome which does not change but phenotypical components such as hair and eye colour changing. The organisation of autopoietic structures is recursive; unique in its context. Non Autopoietic structures can exist within autopoietic creatures. Clarke states that non-living, non autopoietic organisms are called abiotic. He also states that there are metabiotic structures as well for example consciousness and social and psychical systems that make up society, an example would be media is an abiotic system that influences metabiotic structures like society and biotic humans.
I talk about autopoiesis and abiotic, biotic and metabiotic structures because these are crucial elements to understand posthumanism. Posthumanism plays a large role in NieR:Automata not only in its embedded narrative style as Clarke would state it, but also as Wolfe would state, it attempts to broaden the self-reflexive criticism of disciplines themselves. Wolfe states that disciplines can keep their integrity, as in autopoiesis, but must understand that there is a multidisciplinary promise to every discipline and that disciplines can evolve. Wolfe follows the second system theory to a bit in that the observer(s) are also scrutinised and called into question or positionality as much as the observation (Wolfe 121). There is a difference to Wolfe between the accurate and the specific (Wolfe 115). Wolfe critiques that disciplines are important that they are specific and not necessarily always accurate as in the universalising way (Wolfe 115-117). Things have context and that context must be taken into consideration. This is important as NieR:Automata also looks a lot on the context of the situation via both its posthumanist narrative style into bioethics and but also through disability studies and trans-species disciplinary actions (Wolfe 141).
Wolfe uses the life of Temple Grandin to talk about the trans-species understanding in that Grandin’s understanding of things in pictures, this hypervisuality within her autistic self which she has to then add language to is both thinking in pictures and allows prosthetics become one with her which are both ahuman or considered nonhuman traits. However her approach has “canonical expression” which includes Renaissance theory of perspective, to Freud’s parsing of the evolutionary sensorium in Civilisation and Its Discontents, through Sartre’s discussion of the Gaze, to Foucault’s panopticon, and finally to the various modes of electronic surveillance culture.” (Wolfe 130) Wolfe further postulates that there is obviously different ways to thinking that humans have but can be excised (140). He also quotes Derrida’s concept of knowing invisibility as another kind of spatialisation (Wolfe 133).
The reason I have talked about this is that in the gameplay of NieR’s DLC our narrative focus on Plato 1728 shows many ways of understanding content. The language is not always constructed verbally. The players must level up, become fit and then fight battles in coliseums with different storylines and tangents, and rules and regulations. Plato 1728′s story origins begin with the machine spear which decodes some fragments of his story and this is later extrapolated in the DLC. Plato 1728 is sensitive and kind, communal and intelligent. He has almost all of the understanding of family and familial connections as once stated by 21O independently in the Data Freak quests that androids seemingly lack. Plato 1728 intelligence is differently abled but not all inferior to others and it is not to be taken lightly. When Plato 1728 in grief attacks in a berserk way he is only doing something normal in his condition though normative regulations deemed this to be the progression of him as a failure.
Plato 1728 is not a failure as he understands that there is lack of justice, a seduction by rules and power in the coliseums and in life in Earth in general. A feeling and understanding he also shares with Emil. Emil is attacked by 9S is losing his mind. Emil calls 9S his “cherished companion” who still must be “punished” because he has done something wrong, obviously, from stealing from him. The player as 9S can defeat Emil in which, in this first form, states that in the end power dominates so much and he says, with reluctance, that 9S can use his room whichever way he prefers. Though, Emil just accedes only because he doesn’t understand what purpose 9S has to do this to him. In a similar way, Plato 1728 does not understand why his companion easily disposed of him instead of coming to his aid.
NieR: Automata uses a very embedded narrative. It uses a verbal embedding, which is a narrative that is horizontal and epistemic (Clarke 100) meaning it uses people in the same timeline such as Emil and 9S battling out within the same time period and context to say some of its story. Then it also has a modal embedding, which is ontological and vertical. That as Clarke expertly puts:
“here the same or different narrators are transported to and thus reframed within different storyworlds — for instance modal borders are crossed in the transit “through the looking glass” from waking to dream worlds, from the present to the past or future, or from physical space to cyberspace.”
When we play as 9S or 2B or A2 we experience the story differently. Swords and hacking tell the story differently. Then there is Route C and D than changes a lot of the narrative setting and climate. The narratives are something, as Clarke puts it, stretching and meets at different viewpoints and that it what makes narratives embedded and autopoietic. They are framed to form something that has integrity but is also perpetuated amongst different disciplines. The modal embedding also goes to mathematics modular group, with the j variant, the function of complex numbers which satisfies a growth condition in the upper plane of a graph and shows the connection between monster group and modular group. 1728 is a number that is the cube of 12 and also part of the j variant. The monster group, or Friendly Giant, being the largest sporadic group in mathematics. The name is embedded into the narrative of NieR Automata thus disciplines evolving, looking at the observer and the observation, keeping the integrity but also going beyond.
Additionally, many side quests and even the birth of Adam and Eve is a fusion between modal and verbal embedded storytelling. We can see this in both 2B and 9S routes where picture books also tell the story of machines getting consciousness and an identity. Also, we see machines having sex or attempting to in the chasm. It is as if they don’t wish anything to be ex nihilo but to have origin, purpose and an evolution in connectivity. 9S’s trauma is also reflected in quests done for Resistance members when they lose their loved ones. Though 9S’s actions are more severe and a disruption to not only his life but others.
Going back to Temple Grandin, 9S is someone who espouses humanism and transhumanism a lot. Even when he hears machine talk he keeps on repeating to 2B they meant nothing. He even says that after he is traumatised and going insane. In the Forest, Resource Unit he hears the machine begging him for an explanation to the violence and asking him to just kill them but he almost takes sadomasochistic satisfaction in torturing them and being in denial. To him, only androids can have life. As Wolfe also states that the sciences Cartesian duality of consciousness and cognition is pretty ingrained (Wolfe 116) and 9S is a proof of that. He has selective empathy and he cannot see anyone not abdroid-like to be human. Pascal is an exception because 2B and he had visited him and 9S is just in denial as well to consider Pascal completely living even as there is something disturbing is seeing his memory being wiped.
9S in Route A ending is accepting of his data being embedded in machines, in a way Plato 1728 was alright in loving a doll. Yet in Route C/D 9S is disgusted to know that their black box does contain the machines’ cores as well. He is angered to know that within him is embedded, in the flesh so to speak, the narrative of machines. This is why it was ironic when sometime ago he told to Pascal that he didn’t have a heart seeing their autopoietic structures are similar in detail.
Similarly, Adam and Eve killed the aliens feeling they were too “plant-like.” This alone becomes at first their justification. They so are obsessed in bettering themselves in some mythical ideal way that they wish to even dissect humans to achieve this goal. It is noteworthy, that 9S is selectively horrified by this yet he too decides to dissect machines or remnants of YoRHa later on. N2, the machine in the tower, programmed to fight the enemy, felt they must keep the androids alive and manipulated the coding of machine s which help make machines like Adam and Eve and Pascal. Though, they didn’t really know if such machinations would bring forth what it did thus they are killed by their own transhumanist consciousness in a way.
Empathy is not relinquished by A2 or 2B. Like Plato 1728 who signifies that invisibility, as in his own thoughts and emotions and different abledness, is a form of spatialisation, we can see that in these individuals as well. A2 opens up to Pascal and shows him kindness and empathy. She starts treating him as an equal and is heartbroken to erase his memories. When she fights Emils and tries to help Emil she actually calls him “kid” and wishes to protect him. 2B hearing machines feels terrible about injuring and killing them. That is why Route A ending was also a trans-species ending where 2B understands and accepts the machines’ souls and consciousness. It takes almost death for 9S to do this in Route C/D and he also falls like an angel from heaven. A hero who becomes a brutal villain due to trauma, idealism and grief. A2 already accepts this as in a way her ending shows her need to reunite with her old comrades, Pascal and the village’s lost children.
The True Ending, reaches out and embeds both the old beginnings and a prospect of evolution. This is semiotically and semantically shown with the Pods but also the different endings that were possible showing that the future, open but still with some integrity and organisation, is not set in stone but growing and evolving. Plato 1728 also sends the player a mail thanking them for reading about his life and looking at it. This brings back the posthumanist term of the observer being observed and visa versa.
In conclusion, The transhumanist and posthumanist conjugate with trans-species elements and disability studies in NieR:Automata. This is done expertly through various intermeshed narratives. The game attempts to make players embed both storytelling and the codex for change within them. Thus it generates new knowledges and a sense of hope even when the story and game ends. It is interesting to play a game as such that takes into context and spatialization/specialisation that individuals do not need to look human and androids can very well be more than standard AI and machines can evolve into their own beings.
Clarke, Bruce, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
Wolfe, Cary What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001)