The nature of humanity is, of course, a common theme in works of science fiction. It may even be considered one of the core purposes of the genre. Isaac Asimov famously explored this in his many stories, especially involving robots and androids. His “Three Laws of Robotics” have become so ingrained in the fabric of the genre that many people probably don’t know where they originated. Other authors and creators have approached the idea of the “humanity” of robots, of course. Today we’re going to talk about two videogames. Xenoblade Chronicles X and NieR: Automata.
Spoilers after the jump.
NieR: Automata has prompted tons of discussion since its release in Japan, which has only escalated now that its widely available in the west as well. This is not unexpected. Director Yoko Taro is by this point well known for crafting stories that leverage the strengths of videogames as a medium to explore the nature of humanity.
Similar to Yoko Taro, to those in the know, the name Tetsuya Takahashi brings certain things to mind. The man behind the long running “Xeno” series of games, he’s been prompting discussion ever since Xenogears in the late 90s. His most recent work, as Executive Director, is the expansive Xenoblade Chronciles X.
So what do these two games from long-time auteur creators have in common? Well, both end up being rather focused on a single question: “Can machines be human?”
NieR: Automata pretty much lays this out from the get-go. In fact, there are no “humans” at all in the game. Humanity, as an organic species, died out millennia before the game even started. Left behind are Androids and Machines. The Androids are the explicit inheritors of humanity. They look and act just like humans. Only by being told they aren’t human, by seeing 9S’s shattered limbs in the prologue, do we know for sure they are not. The Androids do not consider themselves human. But they are. They are human in every way you can measure, except they are made of wire and steel instead of flesh and blood.
The Machines? The Machines are clearly not human. They look like rusted, discarded children’s toys. We are told, by the Androids, that they have no intelligence. They are just weapons. Nothing more. All they exist to do is destroy “humanity” on behalf of their alien creators. It quickly becomes obvious this is untrue. The Machines run in fear of the Androids. The Machines build a village of peace. The Machines create a kingdom in a forest. The Machines too, are human.
What NieR: Automata puts up front, Xenoblade Chronicles X hides. Partway through the story, the player (and their avatar in the game) learns that all the “humans” inhabiting the strange planet they have crashed on are in fact androids. There was no way to make a ship capable of carrying all the people they needed, so they loaded their minds into memory banks, and brought along their genetic information to grow new bodies when they reached their destination. In the meantime, they would remote control android bodies that resembled their own.
The real twist, of course, is at the end. Where it turns out the memory banks holding all the minds of the settlers was destroyed in the crash. Raising the question, how are these robot bodies functioning? Are they the people who’s minds were copied into the now destroyed databases? Or are they something else. Different existences entirely? The game does not address these questions, the reveal coming at the very end.
Both these games deal with the end of humanity. In NieR: Automata it happened millennia ago, covered up by a few of the Androids, to keep the war between the Androids and the Machines going. In Xenoblade Chronicles X, it happened at the beginning. Earth was a casualty in a war between two unknown alien forces, who even at the end of the game remain mysterious. The only escaping ship carrying a bit of genetic material, databases, and android bodies. But with the destruction of the databases, are there any “humans” left?
NieR: Automata clearly comes down on the side of “yes”. The Androids are “human” and so are the Machines. The Androids were created in the image of humans by humans. They have striven for millennia to save the Earth for their creators, only to become them in the end. When 2B cries over killing 9S, when 9S screams in rage at the machines he blames for taking 2B, when A2 learns to care once more.
They are just as human as anyone made of flesh and blood.The Machines are human. The Machines were never intended to become more than just weapons, but in their conflict with the Androids they learned of humanity’s history. They began to imitate. They began to grow beyond their bounds. They form families, they have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. They learn joy, and they learn fear. Some desire peace, others desire conflict. If the Androids are the successors we would create, perfect, idealized versions of ourselves, the Machines are our children. Messy and imperfect. Growing and making mistakes, sometimes learning, sometimes not.
Xenoblade Chronicles X leaves off right after its most shocking revelation, however given everything that the avatar sees and does, there is no question there either. The “humans” of New LA may no longer be flesh and blood, and may no longer be the humans that were loaded into the databases on Earth, but are still human nonetheless. The alien races these humans meet think nothing of their android nature. They have never, and probably will never, meet a flesh and blood human. To them, these androids are humans. Just as valid as a species as any organic one. For the “humans” of New LA, its hard to say what their reaction will be, when they learn the truth.
“Humans” aren’t defined by the flesh, but by the actions. We ascribe “humanity” to things that are clearly not human. Perhaps this is a failure of terminology. Perhaps we need a word for things that are like us, who act like us, who think like us, but who are not us. Science Fiction stumbles over this a lot. Many times its ignored. Sometimes its confronted.
The Androids, who look human but insist they are not. The Machines, who act human but are treated as objects. The citizens of New LA, who believe they are human.
What is correct? What is illusion? What is the truth of “being human”?