How I Learned Empathy from a Video Game
Two days ago I approached a friend of mine with renewed spirit. I told him I don’t give a damn if NieR: Automata was released two years ago; I need to write about the game. Thank God I decided to do it.
Because NieR: Automata is a masterpiece. No excuses. And I’ll do my best to show you why (trigger warning: there will be some mild swearing here and there).
Let’s play a game. Start the song below and keep it in the background for a while, but keep reading. You can thank me or insult me later, if you wish.
Only an asshole would get to the end of NieR without squeezing his heart in both hands. Problem is, this world is full of assholes.
And the sheer fact this world is full of them is at the root of every major plot point in NieR: Automata. Apocalypse, murderous robots, secret plots and other shenanigans that all bring us to the same conclusion: humanity sucks, and it does because we’re all part of it. But we can at least make an effort and make this a better place — by trying not to risk extinction before an alien threat shreds the planet apart, possibly.
Stay with me. We’re amidst city ruins. Gloom and dust guide our steps as we put bullet holes into this or that machine life-form. Why are we doing that? Because that is our mission. We are programmed to do it, we are programmed to destroy the enemy.
Our issue is that we were programmed by humans, according to human rules and laws and culture. Try swapping ‘machine life-form’ above with ‘soldier’ — it makes no difference. Because NieR is about war too, of course, but it also shows how empathy can sprout on the battlefield. Just like The Boss taught us a long time ago… Except it’s arguably a bit more difficult to do it with machines and humanised androids. It’s a bit more difficult to do it with metaphors.
And yet, NieR does it. It starts as a standard action game, post-apocalyptic like many, machines against machines, and we all know from the start that the intelligent machines will win on the stupid ones. But the truth Yoko Taro is throwing in our face is that it’s not up to us to decide which machines are intelligent and which are the stupid ones. Both of them feel empathy — even if “emotions are prohibited” and “machines can’t have family connections.” Both deserve to live in the same way.
Is the song over yet? Stop it now. There’s another thing I want to talk to you about. And if this song doesn’t give you chills from the very first note, regardless of what you know or don’t know about NieR, let me tell you, you should stop reading right now.
A Beautiful Song
You’re in a theatre. All you want is to look beautiful, skilled and brave to those looking from those seats before the stage. You dance, sing, perform, you feel the wood and get inebriated with its smell and adrenaline. You got all dressed up for that special someone in the audience, someone who’s admiring the very best of you.
Lights go back on. The theatre is full; yet, it empties before your eyes, as you notice the only seat that matters is empty. That special person, someone who you just realise has never even considered you, isn’t there. And everything you did was for them.
After reading this brief story, someone will recognise a specific series of events happened in the game. Others will find a personal experience, because we’ve all been there: sometimes, that person just doesn’t love us back, and they never will. All this brings rage. Unfortunately, madness too.
All our beliefs can lead us to madness.
Whether it be an ideal, a dogma, a crush on somebody, madness is lurking from behind the corner and creeps in as soon as our beliefs and desires turn into obsession.
Why is this absolute nobody being so patronising, you ask? Because NieR is about this too. It’s empathy, folly, rage, beauty and disappointment, sadness and resignation. It is also about love; love for video games and stories, and one I’ve rarely witnessed in my years as a gamer. An experience I’m glad to have lived now as a young adult.
Next track. Because there’s light at the end of every tunnel.
When NieR starts, you land on a planet swarming with old enemies willing to kill you, but you soon realise something’s not right. Not all of them are out of their minds or aggressive; some are harbouring a spark of consciousness, a glimmer of love. They imitate the only model they’ve seen around them for years: human behaviours. Which warms your heart.
Pascal is a secondary character. Absolutely secondary. He barely ever brings the main story forward, as he stays focused in his own world. Sometimes he can even be seen as plain useless (he is not, of course — I love Pascal, take this with a grain of salt). Yet he is still one of the best characters in the game, and it’s easy to feel this way as you meet him for the first time.
In chaos, Pascal found his own world. He found purpose. He found light, while the whole world around him goes to hell. All he wants is to be left alone and build his family. And we, as poor and oblivious players, are more than happy to go the extra mile to help him reach that peace.
Pascal is one of the best characters in a game where hardly any character is badly written. All major secondary characters have their own story, which is always, categorically, a beautiful, touching and intimate one. As mentioned, NieR starts as a simple action game, a sui generis ode to video games; it then evolves in a deep experience studded with appreciative swearing on the player’s behalf, to finally deliver an ending which teaches you about empathy in its own way.
All you do is follow some stupid android, someone who can’t show a grain of empathy on its own. You feel like a little child who still has to grow up and learn how to love, and then you grow up and learn how to love with them. You follow their journey in a hostile and strange world, until you actually find out that, after all, you were a little stupid as well — but not all hope is lost.
You know the drill by know. Last track.
The Weight of the World
And then it ends. It ends once, and you start again. It ends twice, start again, and discover a whole new game. It ends three times, and you play the third ending twice to see what happened to you-know-who. And then you think it’ll finally end for good, but NieR: Automata has one last surprise for you.
For the last time, it switches game genre and adopts the twin-stick shooter scenario you’ve seen in 9S’ hacking sequences. It does it for one last scene — one that’s harder than anything you’ve faced with 9S so far. Now, at this point, a poor and oblivious player should have learned; by now, you should have learned to feel empathy. But just in case you didn’t, the game thinks, why don’t we go through this one last time?
You die. You die. You die again. You don’t give up, because gamers never give up — humanity, in general, never does give up. That’s who we are. But then you die again, and your pod sends a call for help somewhere, and someone comes to show you love. A complete stranger, in a powerful ‘Journey Effect’ reminiscent of the Thatgamecompany masterpiece. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world all on your own. You’re not alone anymore, you actually never were. Nobody is.
And then, NieR: Automata ends.
In a way you would never expect: by asking you to make one last thing, to confirm it several times, knowing that your sacrifice as a player will save someone else’s experience.
You select ‘Yes’ so many times you’re surprised by your own self. You just do it, because damn it if this experience has left a mark on you. Damn it if you’re a good person. Otherwise, what the hell was this all about? What was this all about, if you’ve learned nothing?
So you go through with it. You don’t know why, it’s a complete stranger, you could even despise him — the game itself tells you so. But you don’t care. You leave a message of encouragement to those who suffered, and you do it.
NieR: Automata ends — for real, this time. For the fourth or fifth time (if you’ve been a good player), you see credits rolling. They leave behind a heart in tears and pulsing eyes, and you’re not sure you’ll ever want to see those credits on screen again.
Did you think NieR: Automata was a lesson about empathy, after one or two runs? No. Get to the real credits, make that choice, make it as I did. Only then will you have truly learnt. Only then will you think about all that has been, 2B, 9S, A2, Devola, Popola, Anemone, Pascal, the ‘children,’ even a stupid moose you’ve been riding every once in a while, or a poor idiot you found in the desert by a pure accident. Only then will you think about everything again.
You’re back to the title screen. Your journey has finished. You’ve learned empathy. And perhaps, with your final choice, you have saved someone else’s journey too.
You send NieR: Automata straight to the list of your favorite video games of all time, and instantly realise how the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher, To The Moon, they’ve all taught you something about the human nature. They’ve all taught you something about yourself. If you’ve ever stopped to think that video games are ‘silly things,’ even just for an instant… You should play NieR: Automata, and perhaps another one of the games I’ve just mentioned. Then we can have a talk.
And, you wonder, who knows? Maybe gamers will save the world, after all.