This is the second post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
This post contains spoilers for Yoko Taro’s role-playing game NieR:Automata.
“Humans were gone by the time of my manufacture. All I know is ruin. And androids.”– Engels, NieR:Automata
On June 12th, 2003, around three o’clock in the afternoon, a giant, a prince, and a dragon fall through a crack in the world. The power of the dimensional disturbance stalls Earth’s axial rotation. Oceans rise; cities flood. One side of the world descends into eternal night; the other burns and blisters beneath the sun. The prince and the dragon battle the giant above Shinjuku, Tokyo. The city, once seethingly alive with people, cacophonous with car horns and trains coasting over rails, falls silent. When at last the prince and the dragon defeat the giant, slivers of the creature’s corpse drop into the canyons of empty streets like shattered eggshell. This particulate matter triggers an outbreak of the incurable, virulently contagious, deadly White Chlorination Syndrome. The disease radiates across Japan before spreading to the rest of the world.
To slow the rate of infection, a united front of Earth governments initiates Project Gestalt. The program, overseen by a pair of android administrators named Popola and Devola, aims to isolate the soul with the intention of later reintroducing it to a spliced host body, called a Replicant. However, due to the genetic instability of the isolated souls and the emergence of the Replicants’ own sentience and self-determination, Project Gestalt ultimately fails. Humans go extinct within a thousand years.1
Millennia later, an army of machine lifeforms lands on Earth as part of an alien invasion. A squadron of YoRHa androids—built to resemble their human creators—descends from an orbital base to defend a humanity which no longer exists. A long proxy war ensues: the remnants of an alien invading force and the android foot soldiers of humanity, each fighting on behalf of long-extinct creators.
Trying to consolidate the story from Yoko Taro’s Drakengard, NieR Gestalt/Replicant, and NieR:Automata video game titles is a task analogous in its strangeness and complexity to the act of wandering the salt-limned and sundered landscapes upon which NieR’s corporeal slippages, timeline divergences, and narrative contradictions play out. If Drakengard offers an account of apocalypse, and NieR Gestalt/Replicant its immediate and long-term aftermaths, then NieR:Automata is less about the circumstances surrounding humanity’s own extinction so much as the “state of suspended mourning” that arises from a rift between nature’s fecundity in a post-human world and a pervasive ecological strangeness.2 NieR is a game about queer melancholy, after Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, in the post-post-apocalypse.
“O sun, stand still over Gibeon:” Strange Landscapes and Melancholy Natures
In NieR:Automata, which takes place ten thousand years after the June 12th incident, the player explores a world weed-choked and windswept: the concrete carcasses of office blocks and skyscrapers lean haphazardly against each other; abandoned factories blistered with rust creak at the edge of the sea; moose and boars wander the highway overpasses, dwarfing the skeletal chassis of cars dotting the shoulders. Perhaps most strangely, the planet remains tidal locked, the sun fixed somewhere beyond the ecliptic, neither rising nor setting. In a brief interlude, one of the tritagonists, an android named 9S, recalls, “the sun never leaves the sky anymore, but apparently, it used to descend below the horizon for hours at a time,” to which a dying machine lifeform named Engels confesses that he would like, in spite of the fact, to “see . . . stars . . . sometime.”
Video games like NieR:Automata complicate the distinctions between the natural and the artificial, the human and the animal, and the machine and the organic along registers both diegetic (within the narrative game world) and ludic (in regards to play mechanics). NieR:Automata’s crafting and scavenging mechanics allow the android tritagonists to upgrade their weapons, gear, and Pods by collecting items in the environment. Despite their artificiality, the androids depend upon organic materials like pearls, mushrooms, and moose meat to maintain their integrity. The mechanical and play elements of the game trace affinities between machine, geological, animal, and botanic forces to trouble the distinctive precision of each.
At the narrative level, the characters interface with an intensely organic setting, which environmental artist Yasuyuki Kaji describes as “a crumbling city being slowly reclaimed by nature.”3 More than incidental scenery, the landscape is essential for interactive play and exploration. Upon exiting the abandoned factory in the game’s opening sequence, 9S’s mission partner, 2B, encounters a flock of birds, a moment which causes both her and the player to meditate upon a paradox: despite the sublime landscapes of destruction, the city ruins are fiercely and vibrantly alive — dense with vegetation, the streets carpeted in green where new shoots, burgeoned by the rain, force their way through the cracked and crumbling concrete.
The ineluctable sense of strangeness thus extends not only to the landscape filled with the fragments of human inhabitation, illuminated in perpetuity by a sun that never sets, but also to those artificial beings who live, fight, and die in the rubble that remains: “all I know is ruin,” says Engels. “And androids.” Of androids like 9S and 2B, a state of melancholy emerges in the continuous deferral of death codified by their mission imperative. Unaware of humanity’s extinction, and believing a small number of humans are hiding on the moon to wait out the machine invasion, 9S and 2B are part of a fighting force mobilized with the express purpose of making the Earth habitable once again for humanity — humanity cannot be grieved as the androids have no reason to suspect their loss.
The continuity of YorHa as an entity, the motivation and morale of the androids as units, as well as the proxy war at large, suggest that the intensely visceral realization of human absence informs the “value of devastated landscapes.” For the YorHa, human absence is only temporary loss.4 Figures like 9S and 2B embody the belief that someway, somehow, somewhen, humanity will return once again to inhabit the shattered cities, and YorHa must make the world ready for them in the interim. But it is an interim with no sense of an end. In this light, the YorHa’s navigation of the game’s wounded and fecund landscapes resonates with a question Sandilands asks in “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies” : “how does one grieve in a context in which the signiﬁcance, the density, and even the existence of loss is unrecognized?”5
The post-post-apocalypse in NieR is not a distinct temporal state, but rather an infinitely iterative transit zone, a queer entanglement of affects and bodies and biomes that complicates the normative representational economy of the apocalypse — the ruined city as a key signifier through which the catastrophic end of civilization can be affectively and tangibly encountered — as well as the teleological temporality upon which this economy depends. This is not a world in which the spectacle of apocalypse invites nostalgic and commodified attachments to lost environments, nor a post-apocalyptic vision in which human extinction allows the Earth to heal itself. Within this zone of the post-post-apocalypse, queer melancholia emerges “in deﬁance of bourgeois (and capitalist) imperatives to forget, move on.”6
Queer Melancholia and Suspended Mourning in a Post-Human World
Unlike the rest of the android units, who have been remodeled and rebuilt, decommissioned and upgraded, multiple times over the ten millennia leading up to the events of NieR:Automata, the Popola and Devola models remain unchanged since Project Gestalt. They are ancient, their ages best measured on geologic or planetary scales. As the administrators of Project Gestalt, Popola and Devola are pariahs; they are representative of, bearing responsibility for, and suffering under the trauma of having failed to save humanity from extinction. Like the wounded Earth for whom the sun no longer sets, Popola and Devola both disclose and embody “a ﬁeld of intimately mourned lives and possibilities.”7
Buried in sand, we press forward one step at a time.
We have nowhere else to go, after all.
Because our models—the Devola and Popola models—are defective.
. . .
At first, we simply accepted the fact that our friends turned on us.
It was almost unavoidable, I suppose.
We were observers for Project Gestalt, after all.
And while we didn’t cause it to fail, the people who did . . .
Well, they looked just like us.
. . .
So we accepted it. We took the resentment and scorn. We endured.
Because as crazy as it sounds, I think we actually felt . . . responsible.
The simultaneous promise and trace of human habitation, manifest in the mission objective of the YorHa androids and the embodied liminal fixity of Popola and Devola, considered in concert with the disruption of the day-night cycle upon an “eerily abandoned planet where nature is gently erasing the marks of human civilization,”8 NieR:Automata stages a post-post-apocalypse poised at an encounter with a specifically queer melancholia, where “pain and displacement are things to be specifically remembered in reflections on nature, ecology, and landscape.”9 The planet shares a particular kinship with beings like Popola and Devola. Like the tidal-locked Earth and the ruined city festooned with life, they are bodies caught between night and day, between life and death, between animated and the inanimate, between past and present. Their melancholic grieving for humanity—a loss without closure, without end—reflects the fractured spaces, endlessly deferred futures, and life/death slippages—in short, the fundamentally queer ecological and relational game elements—that lend the ruins their strangeness.
NieR:Automata is less about humanity’s extinction so much as the “state of suspended mourning” that arises from a rift between nature’s fecundity in a post-human world and a pervasive ecological strangeness.
By investigating the incorporative mechanisms of queer melancholia, NieR:Automata draws upon the entanglements between android bodies and ruined landscapes as means to externalize melancholic grief. The convergence of the design, diegetic, and narrative elements lend themselves to immersing the player in a world filigreed by encounters with strange entanglements of machine, geological, animal, and botanic forces to ends that may offer, after Jack Halberstam, “a queer sense of time and space.”10
In keeping with Yoko Taro’s oeuvre, to suggest that NieR:Automata is concerned with strange environments and uncanny play elements is not altogether novel. However, for a game typically approached through the ambits of philosophy and ethics, artificial intelligence, and religion, a specifically queer ecological approach to NieR offers a supplement to the aforesaid engagements to both build upon the rich potential of queer theorizations of video games, which Bonnie Ruberg reticulates beyond queer representations or storylines towards “a longing to live life otherwise . . . and an embrace of the strange” while conveying a vision of post-post-apocalypse that disturbs bounded conceptions of post-human subjects and environments and teleological formalizations of time and space.11
More, reading NieR:Automata as ecologically queer, or indeed queerly ecological, enables melancholy to emerge as a recognition of how android bodies and broken cities, machine lifeforms and immobile suns, overlap in incredibly intimate ways, even if those ways are, despite their intimacy, representative of a desperate need to grieve that which refuses to remain lost.
- Taro Yoko. Drakengard. Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive, 2003; NieR:Automata, Square Enix, 2017; Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139, Square Enix, 2021.
- Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, eds. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson (Indiana UP, 2010), 333.
- Yasuyuki, Kaji. “The Artists Behind Nier: Automata: Environmental Art – Yasuyuki Kaji,” ed. Kirill Tokarev, 80Lv. 6 December, 2016.
- Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson, 2010, 39.
- Mortimer-Sandilands, “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” 338.
- Mortimer-Sandilands, “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” 354.
- Mortimer-Sandilands, “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” 355.
- Oyarbide, Ernesto. “In the Year 11945 No One Really Dies Without a Reason: On “NieR: Automata,”” Los Angeles Review of Books, 26 May 2018.
- Mortimer-Sandilands, “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” p. 347.
- Jack Halberstam, “Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo,” in Queer Game Studies, eds. Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw (U of Minnesota P, 2017), 189.
- Bonnie Ruberg, “Playing to Lose: The Queer Art of Failing at Video Games,” in Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games, eds. Jennifer Malkowski and TreaAndrea M. Russworm (Indiana UP, 2017), 100.