A way for storytellers to form a deep emotional connection with their audience is to earnestly address sex, death, and the ways they relate to love. Everyone thinks about sex and death every day of their lives - it is a constant recurrence. Safe to say I was taken aback when this sort of philosophy surfaced in NieR Automata's protagonists: 2B and 9S. When you see trailers for a high-octane action-RPG from Platinum Games, the last thing you expect is a commentary on how complicated relationships can be. It’s a game about both the beauty of love and how it can shake people to their core for all the wrong reasons.
Editor's Note: There are major spoilers for Nier Automata past this point. If you have not completed the game yourself, you may not want to read the rest.
2B and 9S are part of YoRHa, a military organization composed of androids. Aliens have conquered Earth with an army of machine lifeforms, driving humans off to the moon. YoRHa is humanity’s answer to the machine threat, and the two sides have been locked in war for centuries. Androids are usually paired together for various operations; 2B is the combat specialist, while 9S is a scanner-type focused on hacking and gathering intelligence.
When the two of them begin working with each other at the start of the game, 2B acts very callous towards 9S’s attempts to bond. He’ll inquire about the sights or just ask her what she thinks of their current predicament. 2B, unfortunately, shuts him down and insists that he focus on their mission instead. On an initial playthrough, it’s hard not to assume 2B is written as a stereotypical hardened-military archetype. However, as you work through Automata’s various chapters and endings, a tragic predicament begins to reveal itself.
Collecting information is part of 9S’s role in YoRHa. The only trouble is, he often goes digging too deep and learns things they want kept secret. 2B’s real task is not to protect 9S in combat, but to kill him.
The game establishes early on that the androids back up their consciousnesses to a home server on the moon. If an android is destroyed, YoRHa can restore the backup consciousness to a new body. However the android will only retain memories from the point of the backup. In the case of 9S, he’s continuously killed with his consciousness reverting to an earlier state, losing most of his recent memories in the process. YorRHa needs him alive to gather vital intelligence, then subsequently uses 2B to kill him when they deem it necessary. Every time he is revived he is essentially a new 9S. With each iteration of 9S that dies only living on is through 2B’s memories.
You start to realize that 2B’s callousness towards 9S is actually an act she puts on because the situation the two of them are in is utterly hopeless, and it only gets worse the more you think about it. She cares about 9S deeply, and twisted as it may sound, she only stays with her assignment because she loves him.
As absurd a claim as that may sound on paper, once you look at things from 2B’s perspective, it becomes clear. She can’t simply run away with 9S because YoRHa will hunt them both down. Passing the assignment off would just mean another android would have to take her spot. She can’t wipe her own memories because it would mean losing all knowledge of all iterations of 9S that have already died.
One particular conversation in the game encapsulates just how hopeless the whole situation is. Early on 9S sheepishly tells 2B that his friends call him “Nines”, in an attempt to get closer to her. She coldly states that ‘9S’ works just fine. Then, a little while later, she accidently refers to him as Nines, prompting an overly-excited response from him. When this happens in an initial playthrough, it’s easy just to pass off as a cute moment between the both characters. As you work your way through the game’s various endings and gain more context, the tone changes from lighthearted to heartbreaking. 2B didn’t accidently call him Nines because they were getting closer, she let her guard down for a moment and reverted to a habit. She almost certainly called a previous version of 9S by that name. There's a good chance she was probably the one that came up with the nickname in the first place.
To make things even more difficult, 9S is clearly in romantic love with 2B. I stress ‘romantic’ because his love clearly comes from sexuality and infatuation. The game hints at this through the story, such as when they’re in an old human structure and 9S goes on to explain it was once a shopping mall. He suggests that if the two of them were there in its heyday he might be able to buy her a t-shirt. It’s a hilarious gesture says a lot about his naivety when it comes to this sort of thing, but all the same he let’s his feelings slip out in moments like this.
However, 2B reciprocating those sorts of feelings is a different matter entirely. It’s all up for debate, but given how 2B acts towards 9S, I get the impression that she loves 9S in a sisterly way. Truth be told, I believe a lot of their relationship is intentionally written to be difficult for the audience to ascribe a label to. Platonic love, the kind you share with your friends, is often the most complicated sort of relationship.
The foil of their relationship is still the fact that 2B has been ordered to kill 9S, and has done so many times over. During the finale of Endings “A” and “B”, you witness 2B murder 9S first-hand. 9S gets infected with a virus that slowly corrupts him, and he pleads 2B to kill him before it spreads into YoRHa’s network. So she does just that, albeit reluctantly. It’s in this cutscene that a lot of the psychology at play in Automata is in full display. 2B proceeds to strangle 9S to death, but the entire scene is very Freudian in its presentation. She’s suggestively mounted over 9S until he draws his last breath. “It always ends like this”, the executioner says with her eyes full of tears.
Later in the “C” route a similar scene unfolds but with a far more unsettling tone to it, if you can believe that. YoRHa and their server responsible for backing up the androids’ consciousness has been destroyed, and 2B is killed. Worse yet: 9S witnesses this, and learns the truth that it was her mission to kill him repeatedly. Then, he’s confronted by several YoRHa androids that share the same model number as 2B - they look exactly like her. At this point 9S has become totally filled with rage, and he slaughters all of them. The game yet again ducks into the Freudian territory, as 9S repeatedly stabs the final 2B imposter in the chest with his sword.
These two scenes share similarities yet are framed completely differently. It makes either 2B or 9S the killer in very sexually suggestive sequences, but the tone couldn’t contrast more. When 2B has to murder 9S, it’s out of sympathy. She only does it because circumstances force her to. When 9S murders the 2B impostors, he’s hysterical and there’s a tinge of revenge to the whole scene. The person he cared about most had betrayed his trust for who knows how long, and he can’t even confront her about it because the real 2B is dead. He’s probably questioning how she felt about him, how he feels about her, and just everything about their relationship.
It’s never stated directly, but there are several moments where you can infer that 9S has been retaining bits and pieces of his memory. In one sequence, 9S is having a conversation with one of the major antagonists, who goad him:
“You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”
When this conversation takes place, most players are going to obviously assume the censored word is “fuck” but looking back on the scene after playing more, it’s likely that the word in question is actually “kill”. At the time, 9S’s reaction doesn’t match up with “fuck”, as he gets extremely upset and claims he would “never do something so horrible.”
From my own interpitation, I think the intent of these scenes was to illustrate the potenial danger of suppressing an emotion as powerful as love. In both instances, sexually charged visuals are deliberately tied with the act of murder. 2B bottles up her sadness and only lets it out once 9S has been killed. 9S, on the other hand, lets his emotions boil over and directs all negative feelings at the 2B impostors. Frustration, regret, infatuation, sorrow - it all comes back to sex and death.
If you were to ask me what I thought Yoko Taro was trying to say in NieR Automata, it would be that love can be devastating yet it’s worth experiencing nonetheless. 2B only continued to carry out her mission because she cared deeply for 9S. She could’ve passed on the assignment or had her memory wiped, but she couldn’t forget him or leave his fate to another. 9S, when he learned the truth of it all, allowed his infatuation with 2B to utterly decimate him and he couldn’t recover from it.
In life, you’re going to meet someone, fall in love, and they’ll take up permanent residence in your head. Whether they reciprocate that is a different matter, and it’s important to remember that no matter the degree you love them, or exactly how you love them, at some point you will hurt each other immeasurably.
Despite how bleak this story may be at times, NieR Automata has a very uplifting final message. While 2B and 9S suffer greatly for each other, their love endured. In the finale, they’re given a second chance of sorts, with hope that this time, they will get it right. Love may be overpowering at times, but if you share the load with another person, it is still the most beautiful thing that there is.