Becoming Beautiful: A Year of Living with ‘NieR: Automata’

The first time I worked up the courage to paint my nails, my feet were in the water. October. Night. Too cold. We were both wearing our winter coats, and my toes were turning blue. My friend, legs crossed on the rocks beside me, promised to teach me how. I bought a single bottle of nail polish that lasted many failures and three good uses. It would be terrifying, she said, until it wasn’t.

Sometime after the second use and before the third, I started playing NieR: Automata, and it started to change me. In a year like this, which has been joyful and horrifying in equal measure, we have all needed to find the right stories to save us, and Automata, for all its quirks and foibles, has been mine. Eight months later, it is still willing to welcome me home. To allow me back in, to let me lose myself once again in its bright, colorful world.

I would like to recall, here, a story worth saving about someone named Simone. If you haven’t touched Automata since its release in March, or if you only ever made it through the first of the game’s many interlocking endings, you might remember her instead as “the singer in the abandoned theater,” or “the woman in the armored ball gown.” Or, as in an anonymous forum post I stumbled across a few weeks ago, you might remember her as “that screaming thing in the basement of the amusement park.” That screaming thing. Denied a name, and so denied a soul, and so denied a story.

But she has a name. Simone. Please remember that, if you can.

As you might expect, the remainder of this piece contains spoilers for ‘NieR: Automata.’ If that matters to you, proceed with caution.

Set in a distant future long after the last humans have fled the earth, Automata presents us with a dying planet that has functioned for hundreds of years as the battleground for two warring classes of robots: “Androids,” built by humans to reclaim the earth, and “Machines,” built by alien invaders to thwart that plan. Here’s the catch: no one has seen a living human or alien in centuries. Are there any left? It doesn’t really matter. Asking that question isn’t part of your programming. Fight, die, turn into scrap and be reborn. Oceans rise to cover cities. Buildings crumble and are returned to the earth. It is, in a word, bleak.

And still there are children to play in the ruins. The world requires children, and so Automata provides. As they dig through the wreckage of the earth in search of a purpose, the alien machines uncover a few morsels of humanity. They have no parents to turn to, no one to teach them how to live and love, and so the best they can do is sort through the archives of the old world of humans and replicate whatever data they uncover. They never find enough to paint a full picture, but they manage to find a few outlines: Family. Love. Sex. Birth. Death. Child. Child. Child.

Children, they learn, are fearful and curious, and so some of the smaller machines are programmed with those traits and begin to invent hide-and-seek, and nursery rhymes, and all the other small magics that spring forth from the minds of the not-yet-grown. They learn to tell stories, and face their fears, and believe in miracles. This is where Automata succeeds as a story. This is why it lives in our hearts, still, at the end of a year when the whole world seems to crumble beneath our feet. It finds love in the wreckage. It has no choice.

Of course, Automata’s machines learn more than that from the remains of human civilization. They learn that there were “men,” and so some among them fashion top hats and ties and adopt whatever casual markers of masculinity have survived the ages. Others learn about “women,” and cover their hulls in makeup. They begin to fall in love, or at least they say they do. This is what it means to be human: to look to those that came before you, to take them as signs for how you are supposed to be, and to imitate their gestures until you convince yourself that doing so makes you whole.

This is how we all learn gender as children. We look out into the world and see people with bodies that look like ours behaving in a certain way, and are taught to believe that failing to do the same is a sign of dysfunction. In the course of their quests, Automata’s machines come to decide that gender (and heterosexuality) are essential to imitating humanity. This is nothing new. Those of us who are gender non-conforming, who reject the bonds that were assigned to us at birth, are used to being treated as something less than human. This isn’t to say that Automata believes that gender is a prerequisite of personhood — only that if you were forced to reconstitute an image of humanity from the cultural artifacts we left behind, you could reach no other conclusion.

But what happens when the role we are asked to play fits too tightly around our bodies? When the gestures we learn from our predecessors don’t feel quite right? In the real world, we get transphobia and dysphoria, we get kicked out of our parents’ homes. In Automata, we get Simone. Do you remember her?

When we first see that screaming thing in the basement of the amusement park — we are not allowed to call her Simone, not yet — we are living in the head of 2B, a no-nonsense combat android who prefers to keep things simple. The thing is screaming, it has killed before and will kill again, it must be destroyed. Period. She is not given a name. What she is given, instead, is a body. The thing in the basement is massive, far bigger than the standard machine enemies encountered in the rest of the game, and it is dressed in a plate-metal ball gown that appears, on closer inspection, to be fashioned from the corpses of other machines.

There’s no question about it — this body is meant to repulse us. It carries the stink of death. It lurches out onto the stage of the old theater that forms the arena for the coming battle and screams: “Beautiful. Beautiful. I must be beautiful.” Looking at the corpses dangling from her waist and strung up on crosses all around the room, we think we know what she means. We don’t have a clue. We won’t understand, we can’t, until we meet her again.

And so, inevitably, we kill her. This is no surprise. NieR: Automata is a video game, that screaming thing is a boss battle, and she exists to be defeated. There is one surprise, though, after all: Automata’s unusual narrative structure has us play through its first act twice — first as 2B, and second as her companion 9S. This is the source of a great deal of Automata’s charm, as 2B and 9S have wildly different perspectives that transform a single story, in its retelling, into something radically new. Of all the innovations and revelations offered by this narrative quirk, though, one stands out: it gives us the gift of meeting Simone a second time.

Things are different this time around. 9S is more reserved than 2B, more prone to seeing shades of gray. He wonders at the machines as he watches them fall in love, expresses more emotion than is permitted by his programming, and asks questions that might get him into trouble. Most importantly, he isn’t built for combat. He’s a hacker, built to work his way into the heads of the machines, to figure out what makes them tick, and to make that thing stop ticking. So, when we kill that screaming thing a second time, we dutifully discharge the responsibilities of 9S and hack into her system to lower her defenses. All the while, she screams the same familiar words: “Beautiful. Beautiful. I must become more beautiful.”

In her final moments, that screaming thing releases one last burst of energy and 9S is treated, momentarily, to a direct look at her memories. The first thing we get is a name: Simone. Immediately, she becomes something more than a machine. The name alone gives her personhood. We are trained, as players, to give our attention more fully to things with names, and so Simone is promoted instantly from a caricaturized villain to a three-dimensional character with a story to tell. The second thing we get, once the name has primed us to receive it, is that story.

Finding herself gripped by an inexplicable, relentless infatuation with another machine lifeform, Simone did what all Automata’s machines do when faced with a problem — she turned to the archaeological record of humanity for advice. There, in stories and song, she learned about “beauty,” and so began her quest to become beautiful to win his love. She taught herself to sing, suffered countless wounds in expeditions to recover precious gems, and, as her desperation grew, even tested an old rumor that she could become beautiful by cannibalizing her fellow machines. It didn’t work.

Confused and afraid and desperate to understand her hatred of her own body, with nothing to guide her but our own civilization’s public record, Simone became that screaming thing in the basement of the amusement park. Dressed like an opera singer in a gown stitched together from the scrap recovered from the machines she tried to consume, she does her best to sing in spite of the circumstances. “I will become beautiful,” she says. “I will do it for him.”

The first time I painted my nails, I lasted all of two days before I started to feel sick and rushed to scrub the polish from my hands. What I remember most was a twofold embarrassment: I was embarrassed first to have ever tried to be seen the way I wanted to be seen by others, and second to have failed in that trying. Despite my best efforts as an adult to shed the gender signifiers I was taught at birth, I am forced to reckon — as are we all — with the circumstances of childhood. In my case, that means boyhood. This is irreversible. Pursuing beauty on my own terms will always carry some small sense of shame.

In one of Automata’s endings, a tactical support pod who has only recently become self-aware reflects on its few hours of intelligent existence and concludes that “being alive is pretty much a constant stream of embarrassment.” This is a charming idea. Whatever happened to this newly-conscious creature in the brief time since its birth has led it to believe that embarrassing yourself is part and parcel with being alive, and given the evidence it’s hard to argue otherwise. We are all born into lives and bodies that we did not choose; we are handed the raw material of life and asked to fashion something meaningful from it with no guide but the imperfect histories of those who tried before us. Is it any surprise that we end up embarrassed more often than not?

Our saving grace is that some of us are lucky enough to find supports to pull us through our shame. Trying to become beautiful — whether that means overcoming gender dysphoria, or learning to love your body, or carving out a place for yourself in the world — is tremendously difficult, and doing it alone seems inconceivable. Simone’s tragedy is that there was no one to help her but the public record of humanity, and that record failed her, full as it is of toxic depictions of beauty, of people coerced into roles that fit them far too tightly.

Simone’s story is, at its core, a story about gender dysphoria run rampant. But what if it didn’t have to end monstrously? If, in her searching, Simone had stumbled across accounts of trans people living and thriving and loving themselves, how would her story turned out differently? If she had seen people who learned to become beautiful on their own terms, would she still have been compelled to lose herself in pursuing a form of beauty that devoured her from within? It’s hard to tell. Things are rarely so simple. But she would have had a chance.

It’s no accident that we meet Simone on a stage. She is a performer, doing her best to imitate the role she knows she is supposed to play. We are all performing, in some sense, doing our best to present a coherent vision of ourselves to the people around us. Unlike most of us, Simone has the courage to be honest about it. Likewise, it’s no accident that we are not permitted to know her name the first time we meet her. This is something cruel: Automata does not offer her the mercy of a successful performance. By denying her a name, it turns her into a monster and forbids her from achieving the beauty she craves. She becomes something else entirely: nameless, macabre, strange, repulsive, inhuman.

Simone’s story is a tragedy. Turned monstrous in pursuit of beauty, abandoned by her love, she screams in a basement and waits to be killed. Automata affords her only one solace for all her pain: in having its players experience the first act of the game twice, it gives her the gift of a second impression. It’s not much — a few paragraphs of text dispensed onto the screen at the end of a climactic battle. Just enough to tell us what she wanted, to teach us who she was before she lost herself. Enough to give her the gift of last words. One final request:

“Someone please look my way.”

The subject of Simone’s unrequited affection is an insufferable machine named Jean-Paul — a nod to Simone de Beauvoir and her real-life lover Jean-Paul Sartre. The real Simone, our Simone, made history by writing The Second Sex, a book that nearly single-handedly founded the contemporary field of gender studies. In it, de Beauvoir wrote: “[A woman’s] supreme consolation is to set herself up as martyr. Life and men have conquered her: she will make a victory of this very defeat.” This is the story of Automata’s Simone, more or less: conquered by a life that consigned her to a role of impotent longing, she did her best to find beauty in the ashes. She can hardly be blamed for not succeeding.

I still paint my nails, among other things. It’s still terrifying. I worry about being judged, or ostracized, or worse. But at the very least, I’ve stopped hiding my hands beneath the table. I’ve learned to brace against the tide of my own constant stream of embarrassment, to sit in my fear and hope for the best, even when the best seems impossibly rare. This is, I think, what it means to become beautiful. I’m still not sure.

Like previous installments in the series, Automata offers its players a wicked choice: at the end of everything, erase your save file completely to offer aid to another player in need. Or, if you prefer, keep it intact: skip through the stages of the story as much as you like, revisiting your favorite moments for all eternity.

The first time I played, I hit the “delete file” button without even thinking. Visiting this world again at the end of the year, with the weight of these past few months on me, the choice isn’t so simple. I find myself sitting down to my computer again and again to visit that screaming thing in the basement of the amusement park. She does not want me here. I wish I could find a way to save her.

For as long as I leave my save file intact, she is still locked away in that basement theater. I am keeping her alive. Breathing. Screaming.

“Beautiful,” she cries, for the hundredth time. “Beautiful. I must become beautiful.”

If only.

Jon Sorce is a PhD student with a few other things going on. You can find their contribution to the archaeological record of humanity on Twitter at @sonjorce.