Concerned with a trio of androids who gradually become more human in a world now devoid of actual people, Nier: Automata ostensibly expresses its character’s growing humanity by having them explore sexuality. 9S, for example, the apparently male and apparently younger robot has feelings for the more experienced female, 2B. The androids’ handlers, back at base, talk in broad terms about relationships. More abstractly, the third protagonist, A2, has her clothing ripped as the game progresses – as more of her body is revealed at the beginning of Automata’s final part, it almost signals that some great insight or revelation pertaining to sex and sexuality is about to be uncovered.
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As an audience, we are certainly invited by Nier: Automata to feel aroused. 2B’s short, ruffled skirt is an invitation to look. As it dances like a leaf in a breeze, not only does it seem designed to pique our sexual interest, it teases a question: if these androids aspire to be like people, are they biologically disposed, or even equipped, to love, lust and breed like us? Full frontal nudity would both provide too tangible proof of 2B’s personhood and too straightforwardly gratify what are supposed to be our own complex urges.
But despite such a graceful affectation, Nier: Automata generally steps back from any actual depictions of sex, what it means, and how it feels to lust – considering the game’s overall simplification of love and relationships, to call 2B’s skirt anything but a brazen effort to arouse teenage boys starts to feel charitable.
When in the game’s first act we encounter several robots uselessly slamming against one another, in a vain effort to recreate intercourse, we almost laugh. Mechanical and fruitless, their ‘sex’ betrays an absurd absence of emotion. But while the game is capable of showing us what sex and lust don’t look like, it is unable or unwilling to show us what they do. Encouraged to gaze up 2B’s skirt, we are positioned as voyeurs, outside the world of sex.
Similarly, when one of 2B’s handlers makes reference to having a crush on another, it’s with such glee (or, during a quest when we talk with a couple who have split up, overwrought morbidity) that we are encouraged to regard their relationships as adolescent. Despite his apparent attraction to 2B, 9S resembles a schoolboy much more than an adult, and the entailed lust or love between these two characters comes across more like a flimsy crush.
And when we gaze at 2B, a perfect, smooth robot, Nier seems to be encouraging an attraction not to a person, with blemishes and bumps, but a facsimile, and a smooth, inauthentic body. What we’re asked to find stimulating in Nier: Automata are brief unveilings of a sleek computer. It may be framed using signifiers of personhood (legs, buttocks, clothing) but the game still asks us to regard, from forensic distance, a simple and pleasing approximation of a human body.
Potentially, these things comprise an invitation to ignore the androids and think of actual people. If the voyeur’s secret fantasy is being caught and punished for their lechery, Nier: Automata might be deliberately positioning us as a pervert then admonishing us for lusting after something so inhuman. We are drawn to look up 2B’s skirt, to wonder if she and 9S will get together, to expect A2 to be stripped nude, and when none of these things come to fruition seems to be mocking us for expecting them in the first place; rather than these characters, we should get our sexual kicks from elsewhere.
Also, 2B’s exasperation toward both her excitable handler and 9S’s meek affections might express a longing in Nier: Automata’s central character for more substantive relationships. Rather than incapable of emotion, she instead seems unfulfilled – at the end of the first part, after defeating Adam and Eve, the two machines prodigiously exploring consciousness, she laments: “The final screams they summoned on the edge of death, they still echo within me.”
Its decision not to put sex, kissing or even a genuine, lustful embrace on-screen makes Nier: Automata hard to take seriously as a story of human love, or even robots coming to terms with human love. But in a moment such as this, when something within 2B has been awakened but goes unsatiated, we can at least share one emotion with the game’s characters: frustration. The scream that echoes inside 2B is a plea for intimate contact in Nier: Automata’s seemingly sexless world. When Adam and Eve later mock 9S, berating him for wanting “to fuck 2B,” it seems they are privy to the coarse and emotionally complex nature of human relations – like 2B, we are stirred by their language, the game’s timidity regarding sex seems suddenly more stark and we imagine something more passionate.
Ultimately, however, Adam and Eve themselves are created asexually and lack genitals. Nevertheless conscious above all the other characters, they are like Nier: Automata itself, caught between fearing the naked, anatomical truths of humankind while also wanting to be regarded as humane. Their language is a promise, of the on-screen revelation of something tangibly sexual, but that promise goes unfulfilled. Like 2B’s short skirt, flapping in the wind, Nier: Automata teases opinions about sex and our bodies but never truly bares them. A game about robots which are immaculate from their conception and never seem to truly touch or feel one another, even after a spiritual awakening, Nier: Automata ostensibly wants to tell us about human passion, but dodges around its physical and emotional details – the very things that define it.