A NieR Automata Project: Connections - Exploring Sex and Relationships in a Game About Robots

Though superficially known for it’s Gothic inspired outfits, dramatic destruction of cute robots and 2B’s butt, NieR Automata harbours a profound exploration of many points of thought, from existential philosophy to analysis of identity. Today we’re going to talk about one specific theme explored through the game, both in- and outside of its existence; Connections.

Connections with other living beings are something we both take for granted and cherish dearly; they are something we seek and something we sever, an acknowledgement of self and an acceptance of others. The connections we make with others - whether fleeting or lifelong - are intrinsic to being alive.

Connections come in all forms. NieR Automata is concerned with all types, from physical to emotional to spiritual. In this piece I will be exploring the first two, breaking down how the game explores the idea of sex in a physical capacity, as well as what the game has to say about relationships on an emotional level.

Sex and relationships are complicated enough as subjects to think about and discuss in the real world, let alone in a video game. This is something that is reflected through the nuanced discussion points this game wants to ponder on and which we'll be analyzing today.


Part 1: Sex

Marketing

It is unavoidable to not see the nature of 2B’s design - despite hand wavy explanations detailing how the bottom half of YoRHa outfits are actually heat sinks (as evident by the fact that they blow clean off on a self destruct), the clear metaphorical nature of the “sexy maid” characters being servants to humanity, and the domme/sub archetype in relation to 2B and 9S’s companionship - as one of clear sex appeal. The black lace, short black dress with a slit down her right thigh, over the knee stockings and high heel boots, make for a conventionally attractive and sexy character. This has lead to, both prior to and after it’s 2017 release, NieR Automata facing a reputation as a sexualized product. This seems by design, and not just for the sake of marketing.

Two months prior to release, game director Yoko Taro infamously tweeted “Because of the brouhaha over 2B’s butt, there are loads of rude drawings and whatnot being uploaded [online]. And since going around and collecting them is a pain, I’d like it if I could get them sent in a zip file every week.” This tweet in part was prompted by the creation and popularity of the very NSFW 2Booty subreddit. When asked about the perceived sexual nature of 2B, Yoko Taro has been quoted as saying "I like girls, first of all, you have to remember that”. All these events combined to create a controversy surrounding the title and its depiction of women.

Where the criticism has seemed to miss something is buried a bit deeper in the minutiae of it all - the designs are meant to be sexy, but not sexualized.

Particularly in games criticism, the medium has attracted a (wholly deserved) backlash to overtly sexualized female characters, where the designs were created specifically as a draw to target teenage boys - see just about any game released through the Xbox 360 era as an example - resulting in a crop of characters with ever-further plunging necklines and the creation of the term "jiggle physics". Costumes and armours designed for female characters varied from borderline impractical to overt uselessness in function, instead being created purely as titillating objects. This is important context for why the reaction to 2B’s outfit is what it is - it is the norm, it is expected for video games to follow this pattern. It’s not a wrong assumption to put NieR Automata in the same basket - the practicality of any of YoRHa outfits does not match the combat situations they find themselves in. 

The difference here however is not that these characters were created to elicit a sexual response, but rather were to present as sexy characters. 2B in particular's design has an appeal that is powerful and palpable. She exudes a presence throughout the game, serving as a solid center to a crumbling world. Her demeanour in interacting with other characters, her steadfast decisiveness when the need to act arises, her commitment to being a solid axis to guide those around her. Her design accentuates that, reflecting her inner character, instead of her being a result of how she appears. Her sexual exterior conveys a confident interior, a bold android pure in her conviction. 2B’s sex appeal doesn’t just come from the outfit itself, but also from her motivations and thoughts, with her design complimenting her very nature. 

In fiction

The irony then, despite all the real-world controversy surrounding NieR Automata and sex - 2B’s butt in particular - is that virtually every mention of sex in game is the exact opposite of “sexy”. On the contrary, every reference is explicitly mechanical, relating to attempts at or references to reproduction. There is no intimacy involved - not a single ounce of pleasure is present.

The closest we see anything resembling straightforward sex is near the beginning of the game, when a group of robots are attempting to replicate human forms of intercourse as they thrust their bodies against one another. There is nothing provocative, not a single iota of sexual appeal, in this scene. As their exclamations of “Love, love, love” and “Child, child, child” repeat, they are ultimately lead to chanting “This cannot continue” in an escalating cacophony of voices until they form a cocoon of sorts and “birth” Adam, the miracle child. This mechanical action is juxtaposed with Adams perfectly chiseled and naked body, which is clearly appealing to the viewer - yet the process of birth itself is presented less as sexy and more as repulsive, eliciting a response of horror and disgust from 2B and 9S as he drops out of the cocoon in a pile of glowing goop. 

This notion of childbirth being the explicit reason for sex is reinforced to us through the side quest Lost Girl, in which 2B and 9S search for and rescuing a machine lifeforms Little Sister - a sequence played for laughs for the player, yet is one that underscores a dilemma not easily understood by either androids or machines. On the way back to Pascals Village, the Little Sister presses 9S multiple times about a burning question she has: “Hey mister, how do you make children?” 

9S continues to drive the conversation away from the topic altogether in awkward fashion, never actually landing on an answer in order to keep the joke going for the audience. Yet despite its wink and nod to the player, the question never ends up leaning into anything sexual, instead focusing on the more mechanical process of sex - it’s use as a tool for creating another person. Despite the back and forth between 9S and Little Sister, it’s never even clear if 9S knows the answer to the question.

Any connection between sex and pleasure in the game is then intrinsically tied to violence. In the side quest Jackass’s Research, you are asked to fight off a bunch of robots while Jackass monitors your vitals. Jackass finds that excitement is experienced by androids during battle, and that that feeling is close to the human emotion “love”. Further research indicates that the feeling is actually generated through a “pleasure granting" chemical released during combat. 

Given that it’s stated through the early hours of the game that androids were created with the purpose of defending humanity through the defeat of the alien invaders, it could be argued that this release of a “pleasure granting” chemical is then tied to the way androids are designed, something that entices androids to continue the fight. The closest analogue to humans then, in the case of this “pleasure granting" chemical, is the rush of endorphins felt when experiencing something pleasurable. One of the most potent examples of this is of course sex, as a cursory Google search for the term “how do I feel the most pleasure” can attest. The way for androids to feel anything close to the way humans feel during to sex is to perform the function they were designed to do - kill machines. The closest our android protagonists can ever get to emulating human sex then has exactly nothing to do with the creation of life (which according to our mechanical friends is what sex is about) and instead, has everything to do with the destruction of it.

The few scenes in which characters do embrace in anything resembling a loving manner are focused, rather than on moments of bliss and pleasure, exclusively on the death of an important character. When 2B thrusts her sword through Adam for the final time, he wraps his hands around her, clasping to her in the only on screen representation of him touching another being, as the life drains from his body. Similarly, as route A/B are ending and 2B must relieve 9S of this life, she doesn’t simply pierce his skull with her sword as she has just done with Eve. She instead straddles his body, leaning over him, as if to perform the oft-used trope of the final kiss - before wrapping her fingers around his throat, choking the life from his being.

Even in the most explicit wording of the game referencing a sexual act towards 2B is the game even playing with the notion of sex. It is a line that is deliberately designed to be provoked as a thought by the player, and has multiple potential meanings inside and out of the game. When Adam asked 9S “You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”, the typical thought response is the word “fuck”, thanks in part to the English language traditionally using stars to censor out swear words. Yet this statement only means “fuck” if the player decides it does - in game it can be referencing several phrases, including “kill”, “save” and “love” (it could be argued that the “true” meaning of the **** is the word "kill", due to Adams words prior to this sentence and the fact that the Italian translators allegedly based their translation of the line on”kill" being the explicit meaning - though the very fact that it is censored out makes its ambiguousness deliberate). Outside the game, it can be interpreted as a finger pointed at the player - calling the world out on it’s sexualization of 2B, more as a reflection on the views of society than anything explicit to the character.

One other in-game mechanic exists to reference the sexualization of the characters, 2B in particular - the ability for the player to control the camera. If the player attempts to angle the camera in such a way to focus it up her skirt, 2B not only acknowledges it, she turns around and swats the camera away. Do this 10 times and the game will “reward” the player with the “What Are You Doing?” trophy, for “discovering 2B’s secret 10 times.” Aside from commenting on the idea of performing something 10 times for a reward - a rabbit hole of critique unto itself - this whole interaction explicitly calls out the player for trying to exploit 2B in a sexual manner. Not only that, but this sequence is explicitly the only time in the entire game that any of the characters acknowledge the players existence - until the very end of the game, where the game makes it clear that it knows you are a participant. This is an animation sequence that you can go through the entire game without seeing - there’s no tutorial section that teaches you to move the camera in this way for this to happen. The game not only understands that a player might (and probably will) do this, it puts the focus of the entire interaction back on the player, rather than on 2B herself. It turns into a critique of that type of “up-skirt” culture in games, and draws attention to the point that the action is in itself a moot one - with a self destruct sequence initiated, something that can be done at any point in the game, the skirt ceases to exist, revealing that there is no “secret” to "discover”.

Interpretation

Therefore, in the world of NieR Automata, sex is ultimately something that doesn’t actually exist; in the only fashion that sex and sexualization is a topic that is focused on, it is solely reliant on the audience outside the game. No characters through the entire game comment on the sexualized nature of body shapes or outfits, as the very idea of sex appeal does not make any sense. Where other games, like the Bayonetta series for example, are focused on for their deliberate sexualized nature as a key selling point (this is true regardless of where you fall on it being exploitative or empowering), NieR Automata presents the audience with a game devoid of sexual context.

Nowhere is the point the game is trying to make on sexuality more straightforward than during the only presentation of nudity in the game - when you first meet Adam and Eve. Despite the fact that nudity and sex are two separate notions, human culture tends to link them together, as almost all nudity ever presented in media of any kind is usually followed by a sexual reciprocative response from another character, with the result ending in sex taking place. NieR Automata responds to that notion, with 2B and 9S’s reaction to this nude being with confusion, followed by the aforementioned pleasure-inducing act of violence. This is the exact same reaction they give when fighting other robot lifeforms, or even when meeting Emil for the first time - there is no differing factor from one version of violence to the next. The final nail in the sex coffin as it were is exactly how Adam (and finally Eve) are revealed - though they are completely naked, they are essentially Ken dolls, with no genitalia present, no way they can possibly engage in any kind of sexual act. The scene is deprived of all sexual tension, instead leaving it physically sexless.

The sexualization of the characters in NieR Automata is not born from any kind of idea that makes sense in the world of the year 11945; instead, it is a reflection of society in the present day, how we react to the media in front of us and how sex is a topic we still can’t fully grapple with in an mature manner. Despite the advancement humanity has made in the last 60 years or so in bringing the idea of sex outside of the bedroom and into the mainstream, we still struggle with how to talk about it, and still demonize anything outside our narrow view of what is “normal".

Despite the lack of sexual context in existence in the game, the marketing and controversy around the sexualized nature of the characters became a part of the critique the game was making. Society can not help but notice and be critical of something sexual, despite the lack of anything physically sex related existing in the game - it’s a criticism of our reaction, a way to recognize we still have a long way to go when discussing the nuances of sex.


Part 2: Relationships

In our reality, sex is but one part of an intangible connection between two people - an expression of a feeling, of an understanding of a bond between one individual and another. We are individual, but we are also inextricably linked together. The connections we make with others is not just expressed through the physical action of sex, but also through the emotional networks we build with those closest us. These emotional networks tend to be extremely complicated, with a whole host of emotions pushing and pulling at the notion of a relationship in whatever form that takes. Nowhere is this more complicated in Automata than in two of our favourite protagonists.


Companionship

Presented initially as an archetypical alpha/beta relationship in which 9S is completely at the whims of 2B, the depth of this relationship that is “prohibited” between the two is elucidated slowly through the entire game. This complexity is unraveled layer by layer from the moment they meet, through to the final lines spoken between 9S & A2. What at first comes across as a stereotypical anime narrative reveals something much more complex. 

Through most of routes A & B, 9S is presented as the emotional puppy to 2B’s hardened exterior, his affections bouncing off her one by one before slowly wearing down her walls and resulting in those affections being returned. Early on 2B explicitly states that “emotions are prohibited”, but by the end of either route, 2B is weeping at the imminent death of 9S, unable to deny her feelings for him.

This in itself is a problematic portrayal of how relationships are formed; trying to force someone to like you by constantly nagging at them is not something that ever ends well for either party in reality. Yet rather than feed into that questionable form of relationship building, Automata flips the idea entirely, presenting a more nuanced take.

This idea is presented cleanly through the idea of “Nines”, the nickname that 9S says his friends call him. Initially, 9S brings the idea up to 2B as they ride the roller coaster on the way to facing Simone, but she puts the kibosh on the idea of her breaking protocol. As their relationship develops, 2B decides to give it a go, dropping “Roger that Nine…ze” as the duo make their way through the Forest Kingdom castle. Finally, the final sentence 2B utters as she falls from the sword stuck straight through her mid-riff, is “Oh… Nines”. Thus completing the cycle of her acceptance of how she feels for 9S, moments after removing her blindfold by choice for the first time.

We assume as players that 9S and 2B meet for the first time in the prologue, but astute players will have noticed that near the end of this sequence, 2B is already breaking down over the idea of “this” version of 9S dying, and that it is simply too much to bear. As 9S lays in pieces atop the Engels unit they’ve been fighting, she only comes to accept this death when they decide to eliminate the Engels bots together through joint suicide via black box reaction.

There continues to be subtle hints throughout the A/B route hinting at her underlying emotions - the clenching of the fist when 2B & 9S meet for the “first” time in the bunker post suicide, for example - that are easily passed over until the truth is revealed: that 2B has (potentially hundreds of times) killed 9S before. This re-contextualizes the way that relationship is portrayed throughout everything we’ve seen, bringing new meaning to the most inconsequential of interactions.

In our “Nines” example, it becomes clear that the “friend” who gave 9S this nickname was in fact 2B, sometime in the past in some other mission. The “Roger that Nine…ze” line is no longer an example of a layer being peeled back and her connecting with 9S, but instead a dropping of the guard and allowing that connection, with her catching herself and correcting with a curt “Roger that 9S”. “Oh… Nines” is her in actuality finally dropping all pretenses of trying to protect 9S from the truth, and instead enabling the emotions she’s felt the whole game lay bare.

The most nuanced development of understanding around this relationship is, oddly enough, shown during the time in which one half of the partnership is dead. Not typically something that is truly delved into so deep in most media - usually the full 5 stages of grief pass quite quickly, so the media in question can return to it’s actual storyline - instead, the rest of the game fully explores the meaning of grief on the part of 9S. When the relationship can no longer continue forward or evolve into something different, the facade put forward by both 2B and 9S in favour of living “normal” lives is discarded completely when 9S's “normal” no longer exists.

Where it is perceived as a straightforward admiration on the part of 9S by the audience early on, the complexities of his emotions toward 2B are delved into during route C. He doesn’t fully come to terms with it before facing A2 in the final battle, but 9S’s understanding (whether overt or subconscious) that 2B was always his executioner drives a deep hatred in his heart through the entire game. While he was able to compartmentalize that portion of 2B as her just doing her job while she was alive thanks to his deep care and longing for her, the realization that she will no longer be a part of his life unleashes that rage, driving him to madness and self-destruction.

Despite already being dead, 2B ends up being a pivotal figure not just in driving 9S through route C, but also A2. As she has taken on her memories, A2 begins acting in a much more personable manner towards other beings, and follows through on 2B’s final wish - to take care of 9S for her. Whether you pick to play as 9S or A2 in the final fight, it’s how much 2B cherishes 9S that determines both androids fates. When playing as A2, she follows through with 2B’s request in healing 9S of the logic virus, and sends him away to safety via the pods before falling herself. When playing from the perspective of 9S, it is 2B’s memories that cause A2 to falter before delivering the final blow, giving 9S an opening to stab A2, before falling on the sword being wielded his opponent - which of course happens to be Virtuous Contract, 2B’s signature weapon, the one she passed to A2 on her death.

2B and 9S’s relationship ends up delving into territory not typically explored in games, subverting expectations on existing JRPG tropes. Where initially portrayed as a simple “boy likes girl” motif, Automata provides intricacy. What resides under the surface of assumption is a multifaceted approach to how characters that spend most of their time together, build a connection with, and an affection for, one another - rather than just simply falling for each other because that’s what characters in stories do.


Affection

But when affection for another tips too far in a one-sided direction, the result is Jean-Paul.

Our first understanding of his lack of recognition in others is first found in Satre’s Melancholy. Far from interested in forging connections with other lifeforms, Jean-Paul instead devotes 100% of his attention toward philosophy, to the detriment of those around him. This doesn’t stop a group of machines admiring his being - introducing us to 3 machines (Machine with Makeup, Machine with a Dream and Machine in Love) intent on gaining his attention through gifts. 

Aside from commenting on the way video games typically view relationships between characters - often portrayed as transactional, as popularized through Bioware franchises Mass Effect & Dragon Age - this highlights the negative nature of relationships that aren’t mutually balanced. The three admirer machines might appear happy with the response (or lack thereof) in their interactions, but this is translated as delusional by those outside the relationship. Ultimately their affections are left wanting, as Jean-Paul leaves on a solo journey of self discovery, never to return.

This problem with the delusional nature of one sided relationships is taken to it’s logical conclusion with the discovery behind Simone’s transformation. Her affection for Jean-Paul was so self-consuming that she changed everything about who she was, forcing herself to perform horrendous acts that she clearly did not want to perform, in search for a mutual connection with him. She ultimately goes mad through her search for beauty, becoming the sole victim of her own obsession - with not a hint of recognition from Jean-Paul.

On the flip side, the most positive example we see of this search for companionship comes not from earth, but from the orbital base floating somewhere between it and the moon. While the interaction is only brief, and does not exactly result in a “happy” end - Operator 6O calls up 2B while upset, exclaiming that she had asked another operator out, but she was turned down - the conclusion is bright in comparison. Though she is dealing with rejection, 6O is doing so healthily, accepting the reality of the situation and coping with the results with friends. She then moves on and continues to be an effective operator for 2B for the rest of route A, the situation helping to bring the two friends together.


Family

That desire to connect with another isn’t strictly limited to romanticism however; Operator 21O, despite her outward attitude of “all work no play”, houses a deep longing for familial connection, as expressed through her two part side quest Data Analysis Freak. While the act of hunting down data for her to analyze is fairly undemanding, her interaction with 9S suggests a yearning to understand the idea of a blood connection with another - of being a mother in particular, if the items collected for her being a small shoe and a broken toy suggest anything.

Her motherly impulse shines through in her temperament towards 9S at the beginning of route C; she chides and babies 9S as he goes about the mission of preparing the combat droids to land, affectionately berating him for not being careful enough. Being the straight laced work orientated woman that she is, 21O has no real connection to other androids apart from 9S, leading to a warped sense of familial bonding. Her lack of connection with others, along with her incomplete understanding of what being a mother actually entails, gives her an overbearing presence toward 9S, leading him to be confused by her actions. 

This concludes in 21O not perishing along with the rest of YoRHa when the bunker explodes - instead, she has taken battle gear and headed down to Earth to further her obsession. The final fight cements the tragedy of her decent, with her battling 9S inside the God Box. As she stutters about only ever wanting a family, A2 has to step in and end her life after the logic virus has taken her over completely.

To hammer the point home, 9S and A2’s reunion is cut short but the appearance of Auguste, the “big brother” of a group of smaller units, named for Auguste Comte, sometimes regarded as the first philosopher of science and who’s work would go on to influence many later philosophers (an older brother to certain schools of thought, if you will.) These units act as a fierce group, willing to fight to the death for each other, an example of the closest knit family of units in the entire game.

The inevitability of 21O’s failure is reflected in the side quest Retrieve the Confidential Intel, in which the android quest giver ultimately introduces you to his own family in a YoRHa S-unit. This android has taken in the S-type and been fixing him up, with no regard for the dangers of doing so. He is “looking for someone to live with, someone to protect” after seeing machines living together and feeling lonely. Though his intentions were what you would interpret as noble, his actions were ultimately completely narcissistic, attempting to force his dreams into being without concern for the agency of others. The android ends up perishing, allegedly at the hands of machines, leaving the YoRHa S-type unit to suffer the same fate shortly after. 

As mentioned, the androids desire for a family is driven by various machines throughout the game, which attempt to create shared meaning through their own version of familial units - ones that despite having some troubles, share an understanding with each other. While at least one basic example can be found in the Amusement Park near the gates to the theater, it’s the Mother-Father-Child trio of the Family Squabble side quest that flesh out this characterization. Upon finding the child machine who has ran away and bringing it back to the village, the mother explains the drive for that desire as a bulwark against fear, as where before the machines were able to understand one another through the network, they now have to trust the other machines that are a part of their little collective. It is scary, but ultimately deemed worth it by the machines, due to their mutual love for one another.

The machine villages Big and Little Sister units of Lost Girl have also created and share a bond based around a mutual care and respect for one another, driving them to share a familial bond. The Little Sister unit attempts to help where she can by finding a spare part for her counterpart in the desert, while the Big Sister is worried about her being out there all alone and asking for your help in bringing her home.

Finally, brothers Adam & Eve stand in stark contrast to Devola & Popola when it comes to how sibling relationships are depicted. Adam puts his brother second to his own drive for learning, while Eve’s entire identity is based on his brothers existence - Devola and Popola differ in that they are both reliant on each other, and therefore share an existence together. Devola and Popola’s co-dependance is what gives their lives meaning (despite their discriminatory existence and constant feeling of guilt) where Adam and Eve never feel connected; instead, Eve comes across as an annoying younger brother that the older is annoyed at at best. The sisters' care in one another and  shared history together leads to a peaceful passing for both, at a time of their choosing; Adams instead chooses disconnection and death while disregarding the effect this will have on his brother, causing Eve to lose control completely in a wave of emotions he can not deal with, concluding in loneliness and suffering.


Reading

The subtle differences across each of these relationships hints at an overall theme of positive vs negative connection, and what makes connection with others worthwhile. The idea I find myself coming back to is one of balance - in every relationship that presents equal give and take between individuals, where mutual understanding and respect exists, story beats are concluded in a happy (or at the very least healthy) fashion (the eventual tragedies of nearly every party involved notwithstanding). Even the central pillar relationship of these examples in 2B and 9S, which is hit with the hardest tragedy of all, is ultimately the “best” kind - their connection has a positive effect on both of them, right up until one party no longer can participate in the relationship. The copious amounts of fan art that exist of these two, and the intense desire from fans for these two characters to be happy, is testament to that.

It’s only when there is an imbalance in a connection between parties does a relationship become toxic, and at least one of the participants suffers as a result. While it is not only ok, but a good thing to search out these connections, it’s when the turning point occurs and a relationship becomes unequal does that search create a large negative impact on ones life, unbalancing the nature of the connection. When an unbalanced connection is found and held on to - in the cases of both Simone and Eve, for instance - it will inevitably lead to madness, pain and loss.

Attempting to forge connections with others is a natural part of existence, and an important element of being alive. But those connections can’t be forced, else they become harmful -wholesome ones only develop as a result of mutual love, respect and care for one another. Good connections with other living beings are vital to leading healthy and happy life - even if some unknown factor destroys that connection, such as a death of one party, that connection is still a positive aspect of each participants life while it exists - and that is worth celebrating.

Conclusion

When I sat down to begin writing this, I was expecting to talk about the ways in which NieR Automata explores prejudices we as humans use to draw dividing lines - gender, sexual preference, race etc - and how it highlights the fallacy of those lines by pointing out that the game does so using robotic beings made of the same parts. It’s telling that I instead came away from my research talking more about the way the game talks about the connections we make, rather than the divisions we sow.

Even if the paths we take in forging those connections are impure, and even if the assumptions we make of others are unjustified, we as humans never stop searching for a reflection of being through those around us. Through looking at the way NieR Automata handles discussions on sex and relationships, we can begin to better understand what it means to be connected to those we love and cherish.