Solo: A Star Wars Story Review: The Double-Bladed Saber of Nostalgia

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*Spoilers within*

Last week, I was one of approximately 14 people who saw Solo:  A Star Wars Story.  It’s kind of unbelievable that a Star Wars film dropped as silently as this one did, and judging by the lukewarm early box office results and the astronomical cost of the troubled production’s reshoots, we may be looking at the first financial bomb in the franchise.  A number of factors likely influenced its inauspicious performance, including the staying power of Infinity War and Deadpool 2 – neither of which I’ve seen yet, by the way – but I would be remiss to ignore the impact of The Last Jedi on Solo’s disappointing performance.  To put it bluntly, Solo didn’t seem particularly appealing to anyone with a strong opinion, positive or negative, of the most recent entry in the main saga.  Those who hated The Last Jedi (almost everyone) have been effectively alienated by the franchise, and a culture of vocal (and bigoted, in a disturbingly large number of cases) anger towards Disney’s direction and personnel has propagated through the Escher-designed feedback loop of online discourse.  It looks something like this.  Meanwhile, those who loved The Last Jedi (me, maybe a few others) found it disappointing that the series would immediately revert to nostalgic pandering, congratulating its own mythology so soon after it had meticulously deconstructed the very idea of Star Wars.  While I’m well aware of the reality of production cycles and that the most recent film couldn’t possibly be an intentional response to fan outrage via a return to familiar territory, to me, Solo felt like a step backwards.

Considering all of the behind-the-scenes woes, creative disputes, and costly reshoots, to say that it’s a miracle that Solo came out as well as it did is like saying Jabba the Hutt has a slight weight problem.  From all the news I followed, I had prepared myself for an unmitigated disaster, the kind that the rough cut of the original Star Wars supposedly was.  But for the most part, I found the film cohesive, entertaining, and at the very least, competent.  The direction and cinematography felt considerably flatter than either the sequels or 2016’s Rogue One, but it was by no means terrible.  In fact, I’d say that I probably had more fun watching Solo than the last several Marvel movies, which have a similarly rigorous production schedule and a similarly blasé look to them as a consequence.  But what do you expect when you replace a director at the 11th hour?  At that point, competence and completion are your goals.  And Solo definitely nails those, and manages to work in some thrills, laughs, and a spirit of adventure with it all.

But all of this comes at a cost.

Solo brims with confidence, humor, and for lack of a more specific term, fun, but it may be the first movie in the franchise that felt entirely self-indulgent.  The prequels told a story – poorly in my opinion, but a spark of perverse inspiration shined through.  The sequels combine incredible character drama with a meta-commentary on Star Wars’s presence in our cultural consciousness.  Even Rogue One, for its wonky pacing and weak character work, managed to carve its niche as a gritty war drama that shows how much it sucks to be a redshirt in this series if your last name isn’t Skywalker or Solo or Kenobi.  Star Wars has always been a heavily commercialized product, all the way back to when kids opened empty toy boxes as an I.O.U. during Christmas in 1977.  But while the other three new films all worked to challenge our preconceptions of what Star Wars “is” and push the boundaries of what the series could be, Solo feels trapped in its own mythology.

Solo is exactly the kind of movie I would’ve loved as a kid.  Back then, I was chest deep in books from the now-defunct Expanded Universe.  The movies weren’t enough for me.  I had to know everything:  What planet did the Sith come from?  How did Boba Fett escape the Sarlacc?  Who does Luke marry now that incest is out of the question?  These topics and more all proved worthy of a novel or two or ten.  And it was all canon.  And I adored it at the time.  But as I grew older, I lost interest in Star Wars’s prolapsed continuity, and a running joke developed among myself and a few friends:  In any given scene from any given Star Wars movie, you can pick out a random background character and find out that, in the Expanded Universe, they either a). were a secret Jedi, or b). wanted to kill Han Solo.  As you might imagine, I breathed a sigh of relief when Disney expunged all of the cumbersome expanded content from canon.  Certain fans continue to bemoan the loss of the old continuity in favor of the new films, but trust me –

Lord Nyax

You’re not missing anything.  You don’t want this back.

For all of its stimulating action set-pieces and charming performances, Solo feels like an old Expanded Universe story – which, ironically, had a tendency to compact the universe, making everything feel small, interconnected, and repetitive.  Above all, it champions the Expanded Universe axiom of exploring the background behind everything.  Han and Chewbacca meet up, they join Lando Calrissian on the Millenium Falcon, Chewbacca rips someone’s arms out of their sockets, Han does the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, and, amusingly, he shoots first.  As a longtime fan, a lot of these moments put a smile on my face, and I even appreciated the incredibly obscure callbacks, such as Qi’ra’s reference to an infamously awful Star Wars fighting game from the 90’s.  But these callbacks, and the focus on them as the driving forces of the plot, rather than cheeky references, not only contribute to the mythologization of characters like Han Solo, but they also reduce him to symbols, icons, and events that we’ve already heard about.  It makes it seem like nothing else really happened in his life, and that these events and traits that the filmmakers single out make up the core of his existence.  In extrapolating on the character’s origins, he is made less of a character, because those origins sacrifice his credibility and nuance as a believable person for the sake of celebrating these identifiers.  It unfortunately comes across as cinematic navel gazing, where the creators myopically obsess over details at the expense of narrative and subtext.

The movie rarely ceased to entertain me on my first viewing; most of my issues with it didn’t settle in until after the fact, when the proverbial post-coital bliss of targeted fanservice faded.  Solo makes for an excellent roller-coaster, as the Kessel Run sequence doubtlessly proves.  Donald Glover absolutely nails Lando, Alden Ehrenreich makes for a better Han Solo than anyone could’ve anticipated, Woody Harrelson gives a very Woody Harrelson performance (which works in context), and Emilia Clarke gives a very Emilia Clarke performance (leading me to believe that death sticks must be barbiturates).  The sets and creature designs are gorgeous, and the action remains fast-paced and fun, despite a shaky first act that gets bogged down with too many consecutive action scenes.  Solo doesn’t offer the same quiet, contemplative scenes that benefited The Last Jedi, but as a cinematic roller coaster, it doesn’t aim to.  For every underwhelming moment, like the origin of Han’s last name, the film quickly compensates the audience with two great ones, like hearing the Imperial March in major key as a recruitment anthem, or the sabacc scene with Lando.  Whereas The Last Jedi aimed to provoke fans, Solo aims only to please.  And true to its titular character, it shoots first and asks questions later.

The “questions” in this case represent the speculative elements of the movie, which are present, but muted.  Despite primarily working as an effective pirate/heist movie, Solo teases a theme of social justice that ultimately settles as flavorful background noise.  One of the film’s more unique ideas revolves around the acknowledgement of the casual mistreatment of droids throughout the franchise.  L3-37’s abolitionist rants and revolutionary actions prove profoundly entertaining and catalyze one of the film’s funniest scenes, but I feel like the movie doesn’t follow this thread far enough to tell a story of substance.  It’s relegated to a side-plot at best, even though it addresses an issue rife with narrative possibilities.  Our young captain incidentally enables a slave revolt, helps his Wookiee wingman free a collection of his kinsmen, and eventually opts to aid a band of downtrodden marauders in their fledgling rebellion.  However, most of these elements are disconnected from the progression of the main plot, not to mention Han’s character arc.  He doesn’t start out as a selfish rogue in this movie, so while his altruism doesn’t seem out of character, it does seem a tad odd considering that events in the third act try desperately to betray Han’s faith in others, setting up for his eventual loner persona.  But even though almost every member of his crew betrays him in some fashion, including Beckett, Qi’ra, and Lando, the film unfortunately fails to provide enough focus on Han’s emotional response to these events to illustrate a transformation into the scoundrel he would one day become.  Even after he’s duped and dumped, Han maintains the same spirited attitude and sense of justice he’s held throughout the movie, but would somehow lose by the time A New Hope rolled around.  It feels as though the filmmakers lost their nerve and stopped short of a conclusion that leaves Han characteristically disillusioned and embittered.  Again, the movie delivers on the fun and laughs, but at the expense of a satisfying narrative.

Most of these criticism could honestly be relegated to the backburner if you look on Solo as a fun, pulpy, sci-fi romp.  However, there’s a certain scene near the end of the film that took me out of the experience, prompting me to reevaluate everything I had seen and consumed before when I was watching it without thinking too much.  While many of the film’s earlier references and callbacks succeeded through their campy charm, one particular moment evoked the same feeling I had while sinking into my seat watching Ready Player One, becoming an unholy fusion of man and cushion – that uncanny sensation of a soulless marketing executive presenting an iconic image without context or reason and shouting, “Hey guys!  Remember this!  Didn’t you love this?”

I am, of course, talking about the Darth Maul cameo.  I genuinely doubt I would’ve found my aforementioned misgivings worth remarking on if it wasn’t for this scene.  This small, disconnected scene, feeling more like an intrusive trailer for an unrelated and ill-advised spinoff movie, could easily be edited out without disrupting the progression or pacing of the plot.  I strongly believe it was added in very late in production.  For those who haven’t seen Solo, near the end, Qi’ra retrieves a ring from the corpse of the antagonist, Dryden Vos, and uses it to contact his superior in the Crimson Dawn crime ring.  This summons a hologram of Darth Maul, and you know it’s him because he stands up on robotic legs, leers at the camera, and pointlessly draws his lightsaber to threaten nobody in particular, all the while musical cues from “Duel of the Fates” kick in.  It’s the first time in the revived series that the references have felt embarrassing.  Ignoring the disconcerting implications of what this means for the consequences and permanence (or lack thereof) regarding death in the series, as well as the bizarre and inexplicable career change that Maul seems to have adopted – from apprentice dark lord to smuggling kingpin – the whole affair strikes me as indulgent.  Maul had no characterization in The Phantom Menace.  Like Boba Fett before him, he’s a superficial icon virtually divorced from the story, one that fans latched onto based on design alone.  That’s why Maul has to pull out his lightsaber in this scene; there’s nothing else to his character.  This scene, what would otherwise be a minor nuisance, easily removed through a fan edit, unfortunately shines a spotlight on Solo’s appropriation of imagery as a currency for audience investment.  The otherwise subdued and tasteful references become more egregious when viewed in this light, and the whole product suffers for it.  Nostalgia proves a duplicitous ally, not unlike Han’s crew of ne’er-do-wells.

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There’s no reason for this to be here, I just think this image is hilarious.

Both Darth Maul and Boba Fett (whose own spinoff Disney recently announced) proved incredibly profitable sources of material for the Expanded Universe because of the inherent aperture of their character.  Their enigmatic nature made them perfect targets for extrapolation.  And one was a secret Jedi.  And the other wanted to kill Han Solo.  Though ironically, Maul has more dialogue in his simple cameo than he did in the entirety of The Phantom Menace; perhaps it’s Lucas’s inability to write convincing dialogue that made his stoicism so endearing to fans.  Maul’s inclusion in Solo – apparently as a tie-in to one of the recent animated series, as I’ve been informed – makes it feel like the constricting yoke of the Expanded Universe has returned, stronger than ever.  Moreover, it reveals itself as a transparent attempt to appease fans by giving them exactly what they’ll eat up, with few considerations given to continuity or narrative quality.

And the tragic part of all of this is that Solo is by no means a bad movie.  The prequels failed because their weak storytelling, disjointed structure, and sterile, vapid production caused them to fundamentally fail as films.  Solo remains an above-average action flick, and one of the best space-westerns you’ll see.  But as a Star Wars film, it leaves much to be desired.

However, from a certain point of view, Solo’s obsession with the past may actually contribute to the demystification of Star Wars.  If The Last Jedi set out to liberate Star Wars from its burdensome legacy, to kill the past, then Solo’s transparency as a product might paradoxically facilitate the series’s liberation from always needing to be “special”.  This movie released to little fanfare, even though reviews remained generally favorable.  In a market where blockbusters have become the norm, where studios spend big to make big, the struggle of even the most impressive films to make a lasting impact is proving increasingly difficult.

Perhaps it’s okay to be okay.

 

– Hunter Galbraith

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Only What You Take With You: Reverence, Anxiety, and Faith in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi

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I.     It is a Period of Civil War

For the past few years, I’ve looked upon the release of each Star Wars movie and thought, “This’ll be the one to unite the fans again.”  I’ve been wrong every single time.  And while the unfortunate reality of Disney’s rigorous production schedules will inevitably give me several more chances to vindicate that assumption, I’ve realized that this will never, ever, be the case.  It’s no fault of Disney or any of their creative personnel, either.  Rather, Star Wars has, for better or worse, transcended judgment based on the standards of most formal film criticism, and is instead often weighed by the four decades of cultural baggage that it hauls like an oxcart.  Diehard fans and casual audiences alike already have a conception of what Star Wars “means”, and yet the interpretations are all over the board.  These films have nothing to worry about from professional film reviewers; their own fans are consistently their most savage critics.

The passion with which fans tend to argue about the franchise’s integrity borders on religious fervor.  From the prequel trilogy to the more recent sequels and spinoffs, the discourse you’ll find online would have you believe that Star Wars’s legacy is constantly in a state of jeopardy.  To disappoint that legacy, offer a pale imitation, or otherwise “ruin your childhood”, as the ever-hyperbolic Internet is so fond of saying, is to desecrate a series that many hold as a significant cultural icon.

It’s little wonder, then, why the new movies are so entranced with notions of trepidation and uncertainty regarding how we contextualize our past, live up to expectations, and sustain and augment the mythology of our predecessors.  The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are equal and opposite films in this regard:  both firmly ground themselves in their narrative ancestors by overtly evoking scenes and plot points from the original trilogy, but while TFA highlights ideas of mimicry, rejuvenation, and a gracious acceptance of an intimidating but delicate legacy, TLJ instead focuses on deconstructing the perversity of this inheritance, zeroing in on the adherence to outdated and destructive ideas, the anxieties of failure, fruitless struggles, and misplaced faith.

Together, the two films engage in a surprisingly lucid dialogue about the legacy of one of science-fiction’s most-loved and most-hated franchise, one that’s nevertheless staged in the emotional journeys that the characters themselves explore.

II.     The Force Awakens: Aren’t You a Little Short?

“This will begin to make things right.”

This is the first line of dialogue spoken in The Force Awakens, and already the film shows its self-conscious concern for the Star Wars legacy.  With the new movies, Disney, Abrams, Kasdan, and the other creative forces involved set out to distance the series from the much maligned prequel trilogy and go back to basics.  Detractors of the film cite this as evidence of its creative bankruptcy, as the movie is, structurally, a remake of A New Hope, the original movie from 1977.

The plots of both films, loosely summarized, revolve around a young man/woman living on a desolate desert world who befriends a wayward rebel droid that carries information crucial to the resistance effort.  They leave their home on the iconic Millennium Falcon and discover their potential as latent adepts of the Force.  Meanwhile, a villainous imperial force, led by a Nazi-esque officer, an evil sorcerer clad in black, and mysterious leader working behind the scenes, constructs a planet-sized superweapon that it uses to annihilate civilian targets on an astronomical scale.  The heroes stage a daring rescue within the mobile battle station’s base, face off against the main antagonist, and then participate in a riveting dogfight that ends in the station’s destruction.

The Force Awakens was in no way trying to mask these parallels.  Marketability and nostalgia-baiting played a role, to be certain, but the movie kept a clear and consistent approach to the way it interacts with its distant past.  The production of The Force Awakens itself is a reverential throwback; it was shot on the same brands of camera and film stock that made the first movie, turning its back on George Lucas’s infamous and controversial push for digital film in the prequels.  Early promotional videos emphasized the use of sets, costumes, practical effects, the casting of relative unknowns for lead roles, and even a brief scene using stop-motion.

Simply put, TFA was paying tribute, both textually and behind-the-scenes, to its progenitor.  But what sets it apart from the various other “soft reboots” that have become the norm in the industry is its incorporation of these self-reflective, borderline worshipful elements into the diegesis, rather than using them as hollow signifiers of the brand.  Moreover, it uses the repetition of plot elements as a proverbial negative space to highlight the movie’s significant departures from the status quo – an especially poignant maneuver, since one of the film’s strongest themes is about the anxiety of worthiness.

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The presence of ruins, artifacts, and remnants of significant historical context permeate almost every frame in The Force Awakens.  Rey makes a living salvaging materials from old war relics, including a downed Star Destroyer.  Her method of borrowing and repurposing even leads a Stormtrooper to call her “scavenger scum” later in the film, denigrating her background as someone who subsists on the past creations of others.  She lives in an overturned AT-AT walker, which she’s refurbished into a comfortable hovel, while wearing a rusted rebel pilot’s helmet as she sits pensively beneath the walker’s foot.  She is quite literally playing dress-up while eclipsed by the imposing wreckage of the original trilogy.  Her chance encounter with BB-8, and her subsequent opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker’s journey, happens mere moments later.  The Force Awakens visually acknowledges its debt to the original trilogy and its uncertainty in its own ability to fill the franchise’s big boots.

More artifacts are treated with veneration and awe as the film progresses.  Rey initially dismisses The Millennium Falcon as garbage, just as Luke did, but becomes ecstatic when she discovers its identity and history.  The image of a comatose R2-D2, tucked in a corner and covered in a tarp, inspires feelings of stark melancholy.  Perhaps most significant is the in-universe legacy of Luke Skywalker.  The Resistance views him as their last hope, staking everything on locating him.  Rey tells Finn that she thought Luke was “a myth” (a more believable notion than the Jedi vanishing into obscurity between Episodes III and IV, given that Luke, for all the public knew, was a singular larger-than-life figure who destroyed the Death Star, defeated a lecherous crime lord, and effectively won the war by confronting Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader; meanwhile, the Jedi somehow drifted into legend, despite playing active political and military roles, answering to the whims of the Supreme Chancellor, and having a view of the Senate building right outside the window of their headquarters; but I digress).  The elevation of Luke from man to myth would later play a critical part in The Last Jedi, but here it distinguishes the original Star Wars’s canonization among the saints of cinema.  No longer is it a pulpy action-adventure series based on 1940’s serials.  Instead, it’s a ubiquitous cultural icon with its own fragmented religious following, with denominations arguing about everything from the extent of Lucas’s role in the creative process to whether or not Han shot first.  In other words, to live up to Luke Skywalker, to the legacy of Star Wars, you have to be more than human, regardless of the fact that Luke started as just another stock character in just another sci-fi movie.  Rey, and by extension, the new trilogy, are forced along the path of Luke Skywalker’s now-perverted legend, following the same basic plot points, whilst cruelly set up for failure and disappointment.

That’s why Rey balks at the idea of taking up Luke’s lightsaber when it’s presented to her.  Even as Maz Kanata explains her potential and her destiny to carry on the Skywalker legacy, she runs for the hills – ironically just after chastising Finn for almost doing the same thing.  Much of the main cast spends the film fleeing from their prescribed roles in the universe, for better or worse.  Finn breaks his conditioning as a Stormtrooper, assumes a new identity, and is content to spend the rest of his life running away from the First Order instead of fighting for a greater cause.  Luke’s failure to resurrect the Jedi Order leads him to exile himself where even his closest friends couldn’t find him.

But the strongest example of this comes in the form of Kylo Ren, debatably the best character in the new series.  Kylo represents the destructive effects that legacy-expectations can inflict upon someone’s identity and sanity – especially when those expectations are multi-faceted and contradictory.  He’s a child of several worlds:  the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, the nephew of Luke Skywalker, the heir to the Jedi, the grandson of Darth Vader, the bearer of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s alias (Ben), and at first glance, a more obvious and legitimate inheritor of the series than Rey is, considering Star Wars’s preoccupation with familial ties (more on that in The Last Jedi).  He’s the anxieties of a generation made manifest, uncertain of who he is and feeling alienated by the previous generation’s designs for him.  Leia laments giving him to Luke, who wanted to make him into a Jedi, like himself.  Kylo also expresses resentment towards Han, citing his father’s absence from his life.  All of this leads to his perverted investment in the myth surrounding his grandfather.

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Kylo Ren desperately seeks to emulate Darth Vader, regarded by many as the ultimate movie villain, and is continuously frustrated as he comes up short of this ideal.  He spends time alone, praying to the burnt husk of Vader’s helmet, another hallowed artifact.  This time, however, the artifact in question reveals the grim risk inherent in this motif of reverence:  becoming a slave to a past that can’t be perfectly replicated.  Rey rebukes Kylo, telling him that he’ll never be as powerful as Darth Vader, which upsets him greatly, because it’s a reality he’s been avoiding.  No matter how much he mimics Vader’s cruelty, he’s still a proverbial cosplayer and fanboy.  His troops don’t respect him in the way that Vader’s did.  He lashes out, throwing temper tantrums and destroying equipment in fits of impotent fury.  General Hux regularly questions his authority and gets away with it.  He’s not the S.S. death commando that Vader was; he’s an insecure school shooter with a power fantasy, searching for meaning and validation in a role that he could never live up to.  The consistent parallels with A New Hope thereby cast him in contrast with Vader and put his failures under a microscope.  He’s emblematic of all Rey has to fear – not just the temptation of the dark side, but the pressures of upholding a legacy.  It’s little wonder why she’s reluctant to take up the saber.

Han critiques the superficiality of Kylo’s Vader envy by specifically addressing his mask, saying that he doesn’t “need it”, in reference to the previous Dark Lord’s breathing difficulties.  His use of the headpiece is intrinsically appropriative and hollow, devoid of the substance and meaning behind the thing it emulates.  Material objects, clothing especially, play a huge role in The Force Awakens as superficial harnesses that secure the bearers to roles that they don’t totally fit.  Finn awakens from his Stormtrooper conditioning, another predetermined identity, when his helmet becomes stained with blood and he’s forced to remove it.  By taking Poe’s jacket and impersonating a member of the Resistance, he intends to mask the shame of his past life and prop himself up with the keepsake of a hero.  Of course, Finn neglected to doff his Stormtrooper boots, which, in a deleted scene, allows Han to deduce his past role.  Even C-3PO questions whether or not he’ll be recognized on account of his new red arm!  These articles act as crutches, providing for their wearer’s mental stability and assurance in their purpose – they’re how they fit themselves into the grand play that they’re forced to take part in.

The fact that Kylo Ren’s most vulnerable moments happen when he’s separated from his Vader-inspired helmet lends further evidence to his identity’s dependence on his heinous grandfather’s image.  His unstable mental state is plainly reflected in the energy fluctuations that go through his lightsaber’s blade.  His movement and mannerism during the final confrontation in The Force Awakens are characteristic of a frantic, lost, and maniacally unhinged man, due in no small part to Adam Driver’s spellbinding performance.  Kylo feels like he needs to become Darth Vader because there’s nobody else he could be at this point.  He declares a birthright to Rey’s lightsaber, since it originally belonged to Anakin Skywalker – it’s another artifact to confirm his identity and worthiness, free of the shaky, uncertain nature of his own weapon.  His bout with Rey, a duel second only to the last battle with Luke and Vader in Return of the Jedi, pits two confused youths against each other, seemingly trapped by the memetic legacy of their predecessors and struggling on behalf of ideologies they don’t fully understand.  This mutual sense of alienation would later show how the two went from bitter enemies in TFA to somewhat sympathetic allies in The Last Jedi.

The Force Awakens addresses the legacy of Star Wars with some scrutiny, but overall it privileges the triumph of devotion and succession over the anxieties of failure.  Those anxieties remain a central theme throughout its immediate sequel, but The Last Jedi, by contrast, chooses to call its mythologized past into question, ask whether or not the continuation of these legacies are worthwhile, and challenges the audience to reflect on why exactly this multi-billion dollar franchise still appeals to them.

III.     The Last Jedi: Lost Confidence and Shattered Faith

Throughout my first viewing of The Force Awakens, I had a big, stupid smile on my face.  This is because I was precisely the demographic for the film’s targeted fanservice.  Upon seeing The Last Jedi, however, I wasn’t smiling.  Rather, I was gazing at the screen in awe, both at its elegant visual direction and its provocative content.  Leaving the theater, everyone who watched it with me voiced a common response:   ”I need time to digest this,” or “There’s a lot to unpack.”  The Last Jedi may be the most thematically rich movie in the series, and in its disruption of the status quo, it was inevitably destined to outrage fans.

In many ways, The Last Jedi acts as the perfect companion piece to The Force Awakens, building on the earlier film’s character development while also posing arguments against its worshipful treatment of the original trilogy.  It calls everything into question:  the morality of the Jedi, the resolve of the rebellion, the artificiality of the conflict, the nature of the Force, the purpose of self-sacrifice, the above all else, the reason to continue in the face of abject defeat.

Yoda famously chided that “There is no try,” but that, along with many other packaged quotes of Jedi ideology, proves untrue in The Last Jedi.  The characters in this film try.  A lot.  And they fail nonetheless, even when they put their lives on the line, follow their principles, and give it everything they’ve got.  Belief doesn’t guarantee success.  It’s a Star Wars movie for a more cynical time.

After achieving success with his 1950’s nostalgia-piece American Graffiti, George Lucas made the original films as escapist throwbacks to pulpy adventure serials, westerns, and samurai flicks.  The opening phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” doesn’t just establish the setting, but also the proximity of the conflict – one so far removed from the audience that they can watch it with detached amusement.  The Last Jedi situates itself differently, pulling the audience into the conflict and making it all too real for them.  We see flawed heroes, disgraced leaders, sympathetic villains, political realities that are a bit too close for comfort, and common soldiers who struggle and die in vain.  Plenty of violence and death happens on-screen in the original trilogy, but every fallen hero or military blunder puts the protagonists one step closer to delivering justice and righting the wrongs of the universe.  The new film goes to great lengths to make the protagonists feel small, insignificant, and unable to make a positive change no matter what they give up.  This breed of vulnerability and angst aggravates further hostilities between the new generation of characters and the older ones.  In place of The Force Awakens’s reverence, where the meekness of Rey and the insanity of Kylo Ren served as mere obstacles to overcome and potentially lead the way for a Star Wars Renaissance, The Last Jedi validates the anxieties of its young cast, challenges the beliefs of old, and explores how characters reconcile their lost or betrayed faith with their longing for purpose.

Back in Return of the Jedi, Luke tells the Emperor, “Your overconfidence is your weakness,” to which the Emperor responds, “Your faith in your friends is yours.”  This match of wills ultimately pays out in Luke’s favor, as his allies, both on Endor and among the Rebel fleet, manage to defeat the Imperial war machine.  His father even returns to the light to save his life, vindicating his faith.  But The Last Jedi, in its moral deconstruction of the Jedi philosophy (one which draws close parallels with the Sith), portrays faith as a fragile thing, and potentially as destructive as the Emperor’s self-assured hubris.

Time after time, misplaced trust leads to grand betrayal, hope for a brighter future leads to crushing disappointment, and investment in superhuman idols leads to a discovery of just how mortal and fallible they are.  It’s hard to keep faith alive when almost every plan in the movie results in failure.  And eventually, deluded faith and catastrophic failure form a vicious feedback loop.

Finn and Rose hope to disable the First Order’s tracking technology and embark on a lengthy vignette to recruit a code-breaker.  They fail to retrieve the man they wanted, and so they end up putting their trust in a vagabond named DJ, who ultimately sells them out and makes everything worse for the Resistance.  Poe’s faith wavers when he’s asked to blindly follow Admiral Holdo’s lead, and his failed coup and misplaced trust in Finn’s venture leads to the deaths of countless soldiers.  Holdo opts to sacrifice herself in one of the film’s most stunning scenes, but it fails to take out the First Order’s leadership, and the Resistance is effectively crushed anyway.  However, the strongest dynamics in the movie, and the ones that most clearly illustrate the aforementioned phenomenon, are the ones between each of our Force users:  Luke Skywalker, Rey, Kylo Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke.

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Kylo, recently disgraced by his duel with Rey and berated for his defeat by Snoke, is left alienated by his master’s mockery of his Vader obsession.  Feeling humiliated and unworthy, Kylo smashes his helmet and begins to doubt whether carrying on the legacy of the decrepit and dead serves his needs for fulfillment.  Estranged from both the light and the dark, he vows to “let the past die”, completing his transformation from someone dependent on relics to dictate his identity to a villain repulsed by every facet of the old order.  He develops a bond with Rey, who, having failed to bring Luke out of hiding and growing increasingly impatient with the fatalist Jedi Master, sets out to change Kylo’s heart.  Snoke, confident to the end that he held Kylo’s leash, is betrayed and bisected in one of the movie’s most subversive scenes.  But despite their mutual pleas for companionship, Rey and Kylo fail to convince one another to come over to their side.

Yet even as the young cast tries to make sense of who they are and what they believe in, it’s Luke Skywalker who embodies both the greatest victim and the greatest perpetrator of damaged faith.  One important point about Luke that many critics of The Last Jedi neglect to acknowledge – and indeed, a concept that plays a major role in the film’s central conflict – is that Luke is a flawed individual, not a paragon of goodness.  This man destroyed his defenseless father’s arm in a fit of rage, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he’d consider, if only for a moment, taking the life of one of his students in order to prevent all he’d fought for from being swept away.  In the realization of his worst fears through his failure with Kylo, Luke sends himself into exile and, seeing the galaxy locked in a spiral of life and death with no permanent solution (as alluded to by the weapons trading plot discovered by Finn and DJ), finds the Jedi to be at fault just as much as the Sith.  His isolation from both his friends and the Force has left him bitter and fatalistic, so much so that he callously discards the lightsaber that Rey presents to him.  He shows right away that he’s not the hero the Resistance needs, and attempts to convince Rey of her naiveté regarding her views on the Jedi and the Force.

Fresh off the reverential orgy of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi aims to cut Star Wars’s ancien regime down to size (literally, in Snoke’s case, who was revealed to be  smaller than his holographic appearance in TFA suggested, and later found his torso splayed out on the floor).  Fan theories about the identity of Snoke or Rey’s parentage were discredited, Luke faced criticism as a defeatist hermit (while Obi-Wan and Yoda got a pass), and the common conception of the conflict between the light side and dark side, spelled out so plainly by Maz Kanata in TFA, was revealed to be largely illusory.  For all the complaints of the previous mainline film playing it too safe, TLJ took the franchise in a bold, critical, and socially-conscious direction that left many viewers feeling as lost and abandoned as the characters in the film.  With all the subtextual fears of failure from TFA validated in the diegesis of The Last Jedi, the search for purpose in a universe/property with such a burdensome legacy has yet to yield any simple, conclusive answers.

IV.     May the Force of Others Be with You

As the plans, dreams, and ambitions of the characters come crashing down, so, too, does the previously monolithic morality of the Star Wars universe.  Although largely portrayed as an archetypical “good vs. evil” conflict, nuanced takes on the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force are not unknown to series, most notably in Return of Jedi.  In that film, Luke questions his Jedi Masters’ advice, as they believe that his father can never be saved, and Luke’s only recourse is to kill him and the Emperor.  In the end, though, Luke kills neither of them; his trust in his friends that Obi-Wan and Yoda told him to abandon in the previous film allows the rebels to win the war, and the old sages’ wisdom is revealed to be dubious and archaic.  Luke would recreate the Jedi, true, but it would be his Jedi.  But seeing the mistakes of his predecessors repeated in his paranoid mistreatment of Ben Solo, followed by the tide of darkness that inevitably rises in proportion to the light, Luke concludes that these tragedies are unavoidable responses to the Jedi Order’s presence.  Hiding in exile as much out of necessity as of shame, he accepts that the Force must be balanced – and the ultimate way to balance something is to have nothing at all.  He cites the failings of the old Jedi Order, their ignorance and corruption, and declares that nobody has a right to reign over the Force.

The conceit that the “light side” of the Jedi (itself an alien and distant concept to the struggles of the common folk in the galaxy) raises its own enemies and facilitates longer power struggles that capture others in its midst aligns with the revelation that corporate bigwigs are getting embarrassingly rich through perpetuating the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order.  The rather unpopular Canto Bight sequence, admittedly too long and very clumsy at times, provides a critical lens through which the entire conflict can be viewed:  the lavish aristocracy and child slavery of Canto Bight exist outside of whims, control, or concern of either the Resistance or the First Order, as they’re too busy senselessly killing each other in conflicts they don’t understand, enabling further abuses elsewhere.  As Luke seems to conclude – and Snoke seems to corroborate in his predictions of “light coming to match the dark” – war, oppression, and suffering stem from a corrupted investment in power, profit, and continuity.  In other words, it’s a chain-reaction big enough to take down a thousand Death Stars, sustained artificially by the hands of the greedy, fanning the flames of war.

And the parallels of the Canto Bight capitalists and the studio executives at Disney do not go unnoticed.

So with the disgrace of the light side and Jedi philosophy, what can we put our faith in?  The Last Jedi offers a tentative answer in the interconnectedness of the universe.  When Luke teaches Rey how to reach out with the Force, he has her touch images of peace and chaos, life and death, even among the smallest of creatures.

The motif of connection vs. isolation saturates the mise-en-scène.  Leia and Rey share a tracking beacon between each other, which eventually falls into Finn’s hands as well.  Rose interferes with Finn’s would-be solo suicide run, explaining that caring for loved ones is more important than smiting enemies – a subversively cynical outlook, as it confirms that the conflict will continue, without end, regardless of how many bodies they throw at it.  Kylo Ren and Rey form their relationship through the medium of the Force, communicating over vast light years in their search for validation.  Conversely, Luke appears to have severed his ties with the Force, only briefly reopening them to reach out to his sister.  At the film’s climax, Luke projects his consciousness across the void to confront Kylo, despite not actually leaving his hermitage.  This helps to facilitate the culmination of his arc, changing him from a man who abandoned the galaxy to one who is truly superliminal.

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But as The Last Jedi eschews easy answers, it shows that such tethers, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, can prove destructive.  After all, the crux of the movie’s suspense hinges on a pastiche of a submarine chase, where the First Order is tracking the Resistance ships through hyperspace and towing their fleet just beyond the range of their lethal arsenal.  The bond between Rey and Kylo ultimately turns toxic and emotionally manipulative.  Rey literally shuts the door on him to terminate the relationship, simultaneously evaporating the illusionary linked-dice that had come to symbolize both their connection with each other and Kylo’s ties to his heritage.

Symbolism in Star Wars has never been particularly subtle.

The movie returns the Force to its Taoist roots and distances itself from the more Westernized, pseudo-scientific portrayal from the prequel films (which was complete with Messianic prophecies and quantifiable power-level mumbo jumbo).  It emphasizes balance, harmony, and humility, in stark contrast to the rival superpowers feuding throughout the franchise.  The Force, according to The Last Jedi, acts not through these juggernauts, but through the infinitesimally small.

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This accounts for The Last Jedi’s focus on animals:  the equine beasts that Finn and Rose rescue from a racetrack, as well as the clever crystal foxes that, with their animal intuition and understanding of their environment, lead the rebels to safety at the film’s climax.  It also plays into the film’s focus on the poor, downtrodden, and forgotten.  In a sense, the Force has been democratized.

Rey, as revealed to the chagrin of thousands of fan theorists who were convinced she was the daughter of [Luke/Han/Obi-Wan/The Emperor/Jar-Jar/That Elephant Thing From Jabba’s Palace], is the child of destitute, drunken scrap dealers who abandoned her on a desolate junkyard world.  Her attachment to familial surrogate figures, from Han Solo to Luke Skywalker to Kylo Ren, serves both as a bait-and-switch for the audience and a devastating gut punch to our heroine.  She has no great destiny, no right to inheritance, and a fragmented sense of self.  And yet despite this, she wields the Force with great strength and consistently shows a depth of altruism and valor.  Despite being a “nobody” from “nowhere”, to use her own words, she’s still a hero – a new breed of hero, independent of the sordid Skywalker legacy and free to walk her own path.  But of course, ignorant commenters and misogynists looking for a cross to die on will use this as further of evidence of how she’s a “perfect Mary Sue” (disregarding the operative meaning of that word and ignoring her plethora of faults, doubts, and failures, including, but not limited to:  accidentally releasing dangerous squid monsters into a crowded freighter, fleeing from the presence of Luke’s lightsaber, being easily dispatched and captured by Kylo Ren, failing to convince Luke to return to the Resistance, failing at each and every test Luke gave to her in training, failing to turn Kylo, etc.; but again, I digress).

This emphasis on a democratic manifestation of the Force comes to a head in the last shot of the movie, where a small child, untrained in the ways of the Jedi or the Sith, uses his power to call a broom to his hands, intermingling the mystical and the mundane in one of the film’s most sublime and poignant moments.  The Last Jedi recasts the magic of the Star Wars myth, provoking the audience to unlearn what they’ve learned and bear witness to a film that’s more engaged with the reality of its social context than one that slavishly imitates its predecessors and panders to fans.

V.     Every Word in That Sentence Was Wrong

Audiences promptly pointed out that The Force Awakens was a structural retelling of A New Hope.  Just as quickly, they identified the similarities between The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back, except this time, something was different.  TLJ consistently teases us with mimicry of TESB, but this flirtation sets the stage for subversion.  Instead of hearing the shocking truth behind the protagonist’s origin, we experience the angst of her irrelevance.  Instead of the roguish traitor having a change of heart and helping the heroes to escape, DJ sticks to his guns and walks away.  Instead of seeing the rebels decimated and routed on a snowy white expanse at the beginning of the movie, it’s at the end.  For all intents and purposes, The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back turned on its head.  It takes the most beloved installment in the franchise and sets out to undermine and ruin the recreation of its most iconic scenes.  As Luke says, “This is not going to end the way you think.”

Irate fans are, to an extent, justified in their resentment of this movie.  Some have called it a slap in the face for Star Wars, while others have accused it of being too “millennial”, no longer representing the values of the series or its characters.  They’re kind of right.  Regardless of your feelings on the film, The Last Jedi’s message to old fans is loud and clear:  “This isn’t your Star Wars anymore.”

The series has evolved, and evolution by necessity means a departure from one’s old form.  Fans are so invested in Star Wars that it’s almost like a holy text – there are disagreeable parts, to be sure, but the unprecedented mania that’s surrounded this brand for almost half of a century shows that it’s perceived as something other than a set of decent sci-fi movies.  And I think it’s valid to examine whether or not these cultural artifacts, like the ones the characters in the sequel trilogy keep exhuming, actually have legacies worth living up to.  If I decided to rank Episodes VII and VIII with the likes of the original trilogy, I would be bombarded with vitriolic hatemail.  There’s a bizarre conception around the immaculate nature of the first three movies (even though they faced their share of criticism at release), and the demand to produce more installments that can call themselves “worthy” strikes me as self-defeating.  There was even a petition to delete The Last Jedi from the franchise canon, as if its very presence had a corrupting influence, and it needed to be ritually cleansed at the stake.  If the original series – misremembered and mythologized to the point of absurdity, not unlike praying to a mask of Darth Vader or expecting Luke Skywalker to solve everything – cannot be equaled, then the most we can ever hope for is a passable pastiche that smiles and deferentially follows in its footsteps, like a pilgrim on its way to see the relics of a saint.

The beauty of The Last Jedi comes from its critique of this paradigm.  Not only does it toy with and subvert fan expectations of what a Star Wars movie should be, it also invites introspection and criticism into why people care about Star Wars in the first place.  And in some cases, the answers aren’t pretty.  As explained above, the film alludes to the series’ entrapment in a perpetual struggle as part of a weaponized merchandizing scheme (and contrary to what the Internet would have you believe, this not a new addition on Disney’s part; Star Wars has been a media/merchandise giant ever since Lucas fought for the rights to license toys in the 70’s, and nothing will ever match the amount of press and hype generated for The Phantom Menace).  Like the surreal grotto scene where a lineup of Reys end their search for answers with a mirror, viewers won’t necessarily like what they see when they gaze into the abyss.  The fact that Luke and the Jedi aren’t out of character is the frightening part to people, because it means that the archetypical symbols of goodness and virtue that they’ve rooted for their entire lives have betrayed their faith by the simple fact of their fallibility.

In-universe, Rey and the rebels look on Luke Skywalker as a legend – almost as if they’d seen a little movie series called Star Wars.  They consider the man as a symbol, when in reality he’s just a tired, broken war veteran, one who’s excused himself from the outside world to avoid future failures.  This deconstruction of the Man as Symbol motivates a significant portion of the film’s drama, and is ironically replicated in the responses of disgruntled viewers who founded themselves turned off by Luke’s pessimism.  He embodies disappointment, and it’s difficult for anyone to accept that (perceived) gods can bleed and cry.

Although the movie explains Luke’s ideology and renders his motivations sympathetic, the framing doesn’t necessarily endorse his actions.  He’s frequently shot in the same manner that antagonists are displayed based on cinematic trends of lateral movement, often positioned to Rey’s right.  It’s his movie as much as Rey’s, but his callous fatalism comes under scrutiny through this lens.  Furthermore, a scene where the specter of Yoda descends to tell Luke that he needs to “pass on his failures” brings all of the movie’s themes full circle.  Failure, as disheartening as it may be, nevertheless makes for the ultimate teacher.  Everyone in The Last Jedi learns the hard way.

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Luke’s astral projection during the final fight marks the film’s brilliance.  Not only is the whole sequence visually stunning, with Luke moving without leaving the same sanguine footprints that Kylo does, but it allows Luke to elegantly reconcile his dilemma of being both a flawed individual and man-made god, in true Paul Atreides fashion.  If he had gone to duel Kylo in person, he would’ve certainly died, but the martyrdom of the galaxy’s last, desperate symbol of hope is not what the Resistance needs – especially if that death only shows how weak and vulnerable he is.  Instead, Luke chooses to embrace his symbolic value, seeing the inspiration in Rey and the hope his story has brought to those who might’ve otherwise had none.  He transcends his mortal coil, manifesting himself as a phantom that the new Supreme Leader can’t truly destroy, to his humiliation.  And with that, Luke disperses into the grand flow of the universe.  We see his story reinterpreted by the small children of Canto Bight, dreaming of a better life, and showing that, with hope and determination, the kids, Rey, or anyone can create their own legends.  Luke embraces his symbolic value and became more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Luke will not dictate the trajectory of these new legends.  Rey’s Jedi will not be Luke’s Jedi, just as Luke’s Jedi were not Yoda’s Jedi.  It remains to be seen if Rey can halt the cycle of violence between the light and the dark side, but one can only hope.  The symbolic rending of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, a weapon that’s passed through three trilogies, seems to suggest that an era is ending, and that our ideas of the Jedi must evolve.  The Jedi may not be all powerful or all good, and Star Wars may not be perfect series, but people derive strength from believing in such things, and according to the film, there’s good that can come of that.

The Last Jedi places the burden of constructing the truth on the viewer.  Luke and Kylo both have separate accounts of what happened on that fateful night when Luke sought to preemptively eliminate him, and it could be said that both are true “from a certain point of view,” as a compulsive-liar-of-a-Jedi-Master might say.  The new films, drawn from the same spark of inspiration that enraptured so many casual fans, have adopted their own clear and critical direction for the franchise, one that many won’t be happy with.  Because of all the cultural baggage tangled up in it, Star Wars can and will always be whatever individuals make of it.  On one hand, that’s saddening, since the series will never have the sort of peaceful consensus that I’d like to see.  But conversely, I find it inspiring to see such a huge blockbuster movie foster such spirited debate – though I could do with a lesser degree smugness and bigotry.

VI.     The Future of “A Long Time Ago”

The Last Jedi has its share of flaws.  The humor feels awkward and forced at times, the Canto Bight segment is too long and could’ve been better tied into the main story, and timeframe of the whole story seems a bit confused.  But to me, these failures don’t diminish the movie’s accomplishments; rather they’re just more experiences for future creators to learn from.

I’m somewhat disappointed that most reviews, including this one, barely mention the formal aspects of the film (lighting, cinematography, color, sound, sets, acting, choreography, etc.).  Most of it proved among the best in the series, but discussion about that almost always get drowned out in a sea of voices arguing over whether or not the movie did Star Wars justice.  And I suppose that’s the legacy we’re preoccupied with to the point of myopic obsession.  That contentious legacy will stay in the limelight for a while longer.

The 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas asked the question of whether a work of art belongs to its creator or its audience.  With its emphasis on democratization and subjective meaning, I believe that The Last Jedi makes it clear where it falls in this debate.  Rian Johnson’s vision won’t satisfy everyone, and the film keenly acknowledges this without necessarily denigrating the legitimacy of those responses.  That commands a great deal of respect from me, at least.

I won’t try to predict the future with Abram’s Star Wars IX.  I know that Abrams is a crowd-pleaser at heart, and a talented one at that.  I hope that he doesn’t walk back the daring elements of The Last Jedi in light of the recent mixed response, but we’ll have to take what’s to come.  Inevitably, the movie-a-year release schedule that Disney’s pushing will grow exhausting, and may even undermine some the ideas discussed here.  But frankly, it’s pointless to worry about that.

It’s much healthier to find meaning in the things that move us – whether you’re a director with the opportunity to carry on your favorite film series, an astronomer dreaming of the wonders of space travel and alien lifeforms, or just an idiot teenager who roped his friends into a stupid video project and discovered first-hand how miserable it is to edit in lightsaber effects frame-by-frame.  For better or worse, Star Wars will be with us.  Always.

 

– Hunter Galbraith

William Shakepeare’s Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

Backround:  This might be the single stupidest piece I’ve ever written.  It was originally scripted for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I was running, wherein the players were tasked with disrupting a theatre performance.  In that rendition, a number of the names were changed (e.g. Jojo was “Hoshi”, Dio was “Tohru”, and Robert E. O. Speedwagon was “Vincent T. J. Glamrocker”).  I’ve taken a number of liberties with the original source material for the sake of brevity.  There is a chance I could produce a revised and expanded version in the future.

The Tragedie of Jojo and Dio

Dramatis Personae:

Jojo

Dio

Jojo’s Father

Erina

Wang Chan

Robert E. O. Speedwagon

A Dog

Guards

Thugs

Speedwagon’s Gang

 

SCENE ONE

 

JOJO’S FATHER:

Hark now, a carriage comes round yonder bend

To our illustrious mansion, breaking day

And with it my prestigious ward, a Son!

Entrusted by my creditor and hero

Who rescued my son Jojo and myself

From certain doom beneath a wrecked wagon.

His name is Dio, gentlemanly raised

And brought before us to live in our home.

Here, Jojo, come greet your brother and friend!

 

Dio steps from the carriage, posing dramatically and casting a menacing glare at the mansion.  Enter Jojo.

 

JOJO

Before now, I thought I was quite alone,

The sole boy aged as I am, in youth’s throes,

But Providence has blessed our household twice

Such that I may enjoy fraternity.

[Jojo’s dog comes running up]

My truest friend, this hound, greets you as well!

[Dio kicks the dog right in its side, sending it flying and whimpering away]

Be you mad?  Why attack my treasured dog?

 

Dio adjusts his collar and looks dismissively.

 

DIO

The brute surprised me, causing me alarm.

In my astonishment, I kicked the beast.

It is only natural to react

With force when safeguarding one’s personal effects,

Including one’s own life and dignity.

[Aside] Truthfully, I do abhor these creatures!

 

JOJO’S FATHER

I’m certain Dio meant no harm to him.

Egress with me, sons.  Supper’s on the stove.

 

JOJO

As you wish, father.  Dio, please excuse me;

I meant no disrespect or suspicion.

With this misfortune past us, I’m quite certain,

We’ll presently become fast friends, you and I.

 

Jojo extends his hand, but Dio scoffs at him.  He passes by him into the house; Exeunt All.

 

SCENE TWO

 

Erina, Jojo’s paramour, is skipping down a countryside path.  Dio and a few of his goons stand under a neighboring tree, looking for trouble.

 

ERINA

My darling Jojo, how I love thee:

Thine eyes doth glitter with a radiance

Surpassing beams of sunlight on spring days,

And thy form manly gives me cause to swoon

As if I was a bleating baby lamb.

  Your virtue certainly eclipses all,

And marketh thee as one blessed by fate,

With numinous worlds borne aloft by you

Sustained by your immensely strong shoulders.

No man can capture my heart but you, dear!

 

THUG #1

Be that Ms. Erina?

 

THUG #2

                                It would seem so.

 

DIO

She’s Jojo’s dearest pet, no?  I’ll meet her

Here, shadowed by the fading sunset red

And plant upon her parted lips a mark

Of passion and shame that symbolizes

My envy and my hate for Jojo’s soul,

That pampered bastard, vain and ignorant

Of earthly cruelties.  Puppet, come to me!

[Dio forcibly yanks Erina toward him and plants a kiss on her mouth.  She eventually pulls away, gagging, and falls to the dirt.]

Had you imagined Jojo to be first

To break the seal of your sweet, tender lips?

But I’m afraid you were mistaken, dear.

Your first kiss was not with your noble love –

For it was with me, Dio!

 

THUGS #1 & 2

                                What a swell guy!

 

ERINA

You fiend!  Defilement foul as this won’t stand!

Before you can blink, Jojo shall ride in

To safeguard me, reclaim my honor, fight,

And avenge the offence of thou three swain!

 

Exit Erina.  Dio and the Thugs laugh.  Dio returns to his nearby home.  Exeunt the Thugs.  He sits down to read a book.  Enter Jojo, bursting through the front door and delivering an uppercut to Dio’s chin.

 

JOJO

Thou scoundrel, Dio!  How dare thee behave

In such a cruel, brazen manner, cur!

In Erina’s name, I shall pommel thee

Until you cry, fall beaten to your knees,

 And beg for mercy, which I shall not grant!

 

The two continue their fisticuffs, knocking over furnishings.  Eventually, a splatter of Dio’s blood impacts a strange stone mask mounted on the wall and provokes some sort of reaction.  Spider-like tendrils emerge from the back of the mask. Dio notices this, and attempts to flee.

 

DIO

[Aside] Jojo’s battle prowess vexes my mind!

It would be unwise to challenge that fool

While his passionate wrath doth burn brightly.

I must act with subtlety and cunning.

Downfall I bring yet to your house, Jojo!

Mark my words!  Till that time comes, however

I shall bite my tongue and bide my time here.

But down, thoughts!  To the shadows I return!

 

Exeunt all.  Curtain falls.  Intermission.  “Roundabout” by Yes plays.

 

SCENE THREE

 

Years have passed.  Jojo and Dio are now adults.  Jojo is walking down a foreboding alleyway – the infamous “Ogre Street”.

 

JOJO

My father’s health has suffered as of late

And only worsened since that serpent fraud,

My brother Dio, started treating him

With alien drugs from locales unknown.

A sample I procured from Dio’s hand

And carry here with me to Oni Street,

A den for robbers, vagabonds, and thieves,

  Where I might locate and interrogate

Some crude apothecary with no charge

To keep his business straight, nor clientele

Protected by frail oaths of privacy.

Alas!  I observe several ruffians

Converging on my person!  Have at thee!

 

Enter Robert E. O. Speedwagon and several members of his gang, bearing bladed weapons.

 

 SPEEDWAGON

You look to be a fortunate young man

Caught in a less than fortunate event.

My boys and I are ruthless highwaymen

Who’ll slice your neck as quickly as your purse.

To arms, lads!  Pick his corpse clean of doubloons!

 

Jojo fends off several of them, catching one’s blade in mid-air.

 

JOJO

I haven’t time to quarrel with you lot;

My father lies on death’s door, suffering

At the hands of a toxic medicine

Provided by that treasonous, vile hound

Who postures himself as a brother mine.

Assault me or assist me; I care not.

For my quest shall not be deterred by you

Nor Dio, nor the earth, sun, moon, or stars.

 

 SPEEDWAGON

Hold, fellows.  We have here a model man

Whose bravery demands our reverence.

My name is Robert E. O. Speedwagon,

Reputed outlaw and bewitching scamp.

My gang recalls an alchemist corrupt

Who deals in odious toxins similar

To that which you possess in your hands.

Allow me to serve as your shepherd true

Conducting your path towards the devil’s lair.

 Embark we on an orphic odyssey

To breach the gates of Hell and steal back life!

 

Exeunt All.

 

SCENE FOUR

 

The Joestar Manor, night.  Dio stumbles in, drunken and disheveled.  As he steps into the parlor, he finds Jojo there, ready to confront him.

 

JOJO

Thy plan is foiled, Dio.  Give it up.

I know thy treachery and wicked plot.

 

DIO

Perhaps you know, but of what use is it?

I, of course, have no motive to slay kin,

Be they of common blood or otherwise.

My father true passed from some nameless germ

That poisoned his old humours.  It seems now

Your father suffers an affliction same.

The heavens are indeed cruel, I say.

How could you pin such evils on my name?

 

 Speedwagon lights a pipe, revealing himself.

 

 SPEEDWAGON

 At Jojo’s order, I scoured the abyss

Of this city’s underworld, and found this!

                [Speedwagon pulls back a curtain to reveal Wang Chan, a small, seedy man in Oriental clothing]

This man sold poison to you, Dio, no?

 

WANG CHAN

Ay, it is certainly he, no doubt!

He came to my shop seeking bottled death

Which I carry in abundance!  Seize him!

 

Another curtain draws, revealing Jojo’s Father and several Guards, all of whom have heard this exchange.

 

JOJO’S FATHER

My heart doth rupture over this ordeal.

My son, how could you be so sinister

As to attempt the murder of the one

Who warmly welcomed you as family

I wish it untrue, this grotesque affair,

But I must entreat these loyal constables

To take you into custody posthaste.

Oh, Dio!  May God grant thee clemency.

 

Dio feigns guilt and appears to accept his fate.

 

WANG CHAN

No prison can hold one keen as he!

His face is marked by an infernal brand,

He toys with fate as the horned Devil would!

 

DIO

I would prefer it if you bound my wrists,

Respected brother Jojo.

 [Jojo approaches Dio with binds]

                                                I know now

The limitations of our mortal clout,

 That is, the more we scheme for revenge

The less predictable the end result.

It’s futile to commit such evil deeds

Whilst subjected to human folly’s yoke.

But Jojo –

[Dio produces the stone mask and knife from his cloak]

                          T’is not evil I renounce,

But humanity that I reject!

[Dio lunges forward with the knife, attempting to stab Jojo, but Jojo’s Father takes the blow instead, collapsing in Jojo’s arms.  Jojo cries out in grief.  Dio dons the stone mask and rubs the blood of Jojo’s father on the mask, triggering some sort of metamorphosis.]

Thy lines’ blood I hath spilt tonight, Jojo!

Now, you all will witness awesome power

And the birth of a new God!  Kneel to me!

 

The Guards all rush and impale Dio, and though it seems to work for a moment, with his head lolling to the side, but it then snaps back. The mask comes off, and he sprouts monstrous nails that he uses to cut the throats of all the guards.  Jojo and  Speedwagon are shocked by this display.

 

JOJO

My God, what manner of monstrosity

Has Dio conjured?  Was this evil beast

Inside him all along?  That horrid mask!

It must possess the power to transform

Men into monsters, and what’s even worse,

It can turn villains into vampires foul!

 

 SPEEDWAGON

Yea verily, I, even, am afraid!

 

Dio continues his rampage.  Jojo looks around the parlor, trying to find a way to stop him.  He begins lighting mansion on fire.

 

JOJO

We cannot let him leave this house alive.

Run,  Speedwagon!  Off!  Here I will remain,

Ensuring that my brother perishes

Amidst the scorching fingers of these flames.

 

 Speedwagon retreats.  Jojo ascends the staircase, followed by Dio, who appears to walk up the side of the wall.  Exeunt All.

 

SCENE FIVE

 

Jojo and Dio stand on the rooftop, wreathed in flames.

 

JOJO

Here me now, Dio!  This house that raised us

Will soon be the pyre for our funerals.

 

DIO

I have no intention of expiring

In your damnable home at all, Jojo!

Soon, a million voices will praise my godhood!

I can see my destiny, clear as day:

I shall rule this world, from mountain to sea.

I think neither you nor God in heaven

Can destroy me, perfect as I am now.

 

JOJO

My father, home, and life have been laid waste.

So nothing matters but your last demise.

A spiraling inferno beckons us.

Come, Dio.  We’ll both die in smoke and ruins.

[Jojo tackles Dio and they grapple as they descend through the burning mansion.  Dio attempts to cling to a wall, but Jojo grabs the knife from earlier.]

There’s no escape.  This knife is stained with blood

Of innocence, born through betrayal black,

But it can yet atone.  With this steel blade

                                           I sentence thee to the death thou deserve.

 

Jojo stabs Dio, causing him to shriek in pain.  As their falling bodies separate, Dio is impaled on a statue in the foyer.

 

DIO

Inconceivable!  To be slain this way

By the likes of you!  Be warned, Jojo;

Any agony I feel now shall pale

When compared to my eternal fury!

I await thee deep in Hell, young Jojo.

 

Dio dies.  Jojo is blown out of the house by an explosion.   Speedwagon and Erina find him.

 

 SPEEDWAGON

He yet lives!  He defeated that dire foe.

In time, this man shall be the champion

Of everyone worldwide.  But even now,

He is our honorable paladin,

A star that shines beyond all other lights.

 

Exeunt All.  Fin.

 

 

HAPPY HALLOW EN

The humming road makes me worry about my engine.  It always gets like this when I don’t have any music playing.  Grinding wheels on loose gravel emit a whine like waves groping at the boardwalk with their foam fingers.  But my passenger doesn’t like my music, so this is our symphony.

I’m driving him home from the diner.  It was the only place open at this hour.  A drowsy stillness, courtesy of our recently gibbous bellies, diminished our capacity for conversation.  I speak meekly to my friend about his thesis.  The car lurches briefly in one of the freckled road’s many potholes.  He tells me he was still deciding on what to write about.

We turn northeast onto Flatwoods Drive, less than a half-mile from his apartment.  It’s a one-way street, and there are no other cars present, save for a few illegally parked occupants before a row of austere duplexes.  We slide under a series of checkpoints delineated by the orange haze of overhanging streetlights.  They cover the right-hand side of the road with consecutive semicircles of light, opposite a darkened fence.

I slow down to soften the inevitable jostle of the next pothole.  The car gently rocks forward as a single wheel descends, as if dipping a toe in a pool to test the temperature.  We come out on top, and despite my caution, I swear I hear something large and heavy break under the hood.  I glance at the dash.  A yellow light tells me that the air pressure in my front-left tire is low.  I’m pretty sure it’s going to explode.

A shape catches my attention from a few yards ahead.  It lingers on the left side of the road, partially obscured by both the darkness and the bed of a nearby truck.  I lean forward to get a closer look, somehow assuming that a few inches closer and squinted eyes will make all the difference.  Its center of mass bobs up and down near the pavement.  From this perspective, it defies definitive identification.  A stray cat, maybe?  A road work sign?  Or debris from some other person’s rapidly disintegrating car?  I like to think I’m not alone in the universe.

The form starts moving.  It stands erect, silhouetted against the perimeter of one of the nearby streetlights.  For a moment, it twitches, hesitant to leave its hideout.  Then, with uncertain gait, it emerges from behind the car, taking careful steps into the street.

At this point, my friend has noticed it, too.  With an inarticulate grunt, he directs his finger towards the thing.  I glance over to him, brow furrowed, mouth slightly open to catch either explanations or insects.  He mutters to me, asking what we’re looking at.  My car has since decelerated, crawling on the road like an infant.  I’ve unconsciously slowed it to match the pace of the figure before us.

I’m reasonably confident that it’s a pedestrian dressed in obnoxiously dark clothing who simply didn’t want to walk two blocks to the nearest crosswalk.  But if so, they’re certainly taking their sweet time cutting across.

Their body seems abnormally top heavy, like an upside-down triangle (if we’re to believe in spacially-normative geometry.)  But their anatomy does not strike me as particularly curious.  Instead, their rhythm of movement alerts me to something more.  Their enormous upper-section oscillates unnaturally with each step, seeming to wander on whatever axis it chooses.  The form hobbles closer to the light.  I can make out deep curves that reveal an oblong shape.  And they have no legs.

My chest tightens, as if wrapped in an undersized life vest.  I contract muscles that I wasn’t aware of.  Invisible elastic bands pull my ears towards the nape of my neck.  My gaze remains transfixed on the thing before me.  We’re intersecting, now.  It hovers at eye-level, despite my vehicle’s generous suspension.

I don’t acknowledge my friend, nor does he acknowledge me, for several seconds.  My right leg has fully extended against the brake pedal.  I want to put a hole through the floor.  I’ll plant my foot in one of those potholes if that’s what it takes to stop.

It doesn’t take long for the car to reach its rest.  I clutch the stick with my right hand, a fine moisture building up between the two, but I don’t put it in park.  The thing outside shifts slightly, making a decisive movement in our direction.  The engine’s hums shrink to the sound of a trickling fountain, and the characteristic rumble beneath our seats calms.  I’m thrust into a horrible, palpable awareness of every single function in my body.  I hear my heartbeat because the music is off.

Headlights give a clearer picture of our visitor, though only barely.  Its main segment possesses a reflective sheen, with kaleidoscopic folds and scales lining it like a honeycomb of mirrors.  I still make out a distinctly dark red or black coat folded around its multi-pronged form.  There were no discernible analogues to facial features and an unsettling absence of a clear head.  A phantasmal tail trailed beneath it, undulating gently in its wake.  It loomed with cnidarian grace.

It’s stalled in front of us.  Our path is blocked.

Half a minute passes.  If my friend says anything, I don’t hear him.  I manage a few guarded breaths, never breaking my line of site with the thing.  It lurches forward and awkwardly leans its bulk against the front of the car, producing a metallic creak.  Its tail laps at the headlights inquisitively.  My hand reaches slowly toward the switch to turn them off.

In an instant, everything becomes dark.  The lights on the dash extinguish, and our trespasser vanishes back into its ghostly, penumbral form.

But it doesn’t leave.  A smearing sound, like greased glass, emanates from the front of the car.  The thing’s silhouette arches its serpentine figure and floats around to the driver’s side door.

My gaze remains perfectly still at the recently empty space in front of my windshield.  My shoulders lock up in proverbial rigor mortis.  I couldn’t turn left if I wanted to.

Confirmation of the thing’s presence comes in the form of a hollow knock on the adjacent window.  My eyes instinctively slam shut, and I flex every muscle on my face to keep them that way.  The brake pedal is still flattened under my foot.

A series of consecutive, rhythmic taps follow.  This is what grandfather clocks sound like.  My breaths become shallow and rapid.  I plunge into the depths of my consciousness, trying to find a way to escape, if only mentally.  The tapping gets louder, more insistent.  A mantra fumbles its way into my head – the only phrase I can think of.

I mutter it hurriedly.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

The thing at the window pauses for a moment, then resumes its efforts at a slower pace.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

I repeat the phrase over and over until it sounds like one long, uninterrupted sentence of gibberish.  Outside, I hear the tail lash against the window.  My friend doesn’t make a sound.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps of the lazy dog.”

Dozens of recitations escape my mouth.  A hundred more echo in my head.  Eventually, they’re all I can hear.  And then the tapping stops.

I cautiously open my eyes.  A howling wind blows outside.  I crane my neck to see what could be lurking outside my window.  Though only a brief glimpse, I notice a wiry appendage snake upwards and disappear beyond the portal’s edge.

I hear it brush gently and unceremoniously against the roof of my car.  After minutes of waiting, it seems completely gone.  My friend and I both glance outside our windows.  There’s nothing in sight.  Whatever it was, it’s moved on.

My heart rate returns to normal.  I flip the headlights back on and gradually return to speed as we head to our original destination.  We drive in silence until we reach his apartment.

As he opens the door to step out, I release a heavy sigh.  My entire body deflates.  We lock eyes for the first time since the event started, as if we’re finally able to acknowledge what happened.  He opens his mouth, but no words come out.  He lets it rest agape for a second, then proceeds with his thought – the best he could come up with.

“Well, that,” he says, “sure was something.”

I nod in agreement.

NieR: Automata Analysis

First as Farce, Then as Tragedy:
Chronicling Transactional Storytelling from Drakengard to NieR:  Automata

“No one stops!”

– Popola, NieR (2010)

“This cannot continue.”

– Desert Machines, NieR Automata (2017)

Nier:  Automata recently released to nearly universal praise.  In this essay, I intend to examine the game’s overarching themes and evaluate the mechanisms of storytelling contributing to its unique accomplishments.

I.  A Boring Treatise on The Paradox of Games as Art

Six years ago, I made a video mocking the idea of video games qualifying as art.  The core conceit basically focused on the void of a literary canon in popular games, evidencing its deficiency as a medium.  The video was mostly comedic in intention, poking fun at self-conscious gamers who felt compelled to validate their hobby as high art, as if they weren’t entitled to enjoy it otherwise.  My satirical defense of artistry within the medium picked out games like Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption, and Gears of War – such low-hanging fruits that I almost threw out my back making fun of them.

My thoughts on the subject have matured since then, but I maintain that video games suffer inherent structural limitations that hinder their chances of artistic achievement.  The first limitation comes from the division of labor.

Traditionally, high art is often thought of as a harmony of the elements, where every component of a piece interacts with every other component to generate a larger meaning that is (hopefully) greater than the sum of its parts.  This is more feasible in mediums such as books or paintings, since a single creative agent often oversees every aspect of a piece’s construction.  What is ultimately rendered is a gestalt of an individual artist’s (or a small group’s) conscious efforts.  When an artist fails to make a piece interact positively with its own composition, it leads to bad art – and the more complex the undertaking (such as a film or a game), the more craftsmen you need to carry it out.  This raises the probability of incongruity and sloppiness – not just because of the workforce’s size, but also the diversity of the roles the craftsmen play.  Feature films are frequently made by hundreds of people, all working very specialized tasks:  writing, lighting, editing, visual effects, acting, costuming, sound mixing.  The role of the director is to ensure that these varied undertakings all contribute to a unified, greater whole.  Particularly strong directors who micromanage every element of a film eventually produce something of a signature style.  This is the foundation of auteur theory.  Auteurs are few and far between, and not even necessarily good; you could consider Neil Breen or Tommy Wiseau as deserving of the title as Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino.  But the point remains that strong directorial vision has a much greater likelihood of producing art than some ghost in the machine from the disjointed efforts of hundreds of employees.

In the case of video games, this gets even more complicated, as the disciplines of craftsmen are further scattered.  Digital artists, computer programmers, level designers, and QA testers team up with writers, voice actors, and composers whose respective fields are often difficult to synergize.  It’s difficult, though not impossible, to reconcile the aesthetic with the technical.  But even games that are praised for their writing and storytelling often do so entirely through the strength of their writers, rather than taking advantage of the medium.  Most games with acclaimed stories, many of which I enjoy, do employ the language of cinema, instead of exploring the potential of games.  The Last of Us, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, all of them play out as two separate works:  the game and the story.  Playing Uncharted and seeing Nathan Drake portrayed in cinematic cutscenes as a suave, charming jokester with compassion for his friends fails to translate into gameplay, where Drake kills people in the hundreds to satisfy his lust for adventure.  The term commonly applied here is “ludonarrative dissonance,” and it’s indicative of gaming’s wasted potential to actually create significant art while recycling the techniques of cinema ad nauseum.

The other great hindrance to games as art comes from the conflicting goals between those two idenities.  A “game,” by design, is supposed to be fun.  At least, that’s what the critical circuit ostensibly cares about.  Games are evaluated on their level design, their combat, their graphics.  If a game gets all of this right and has a bad story, it’s still an 8/10.  If a game has a great story but is frustrating to play, it’s a 3/10.  The top priority, among the majority of critics and gamers alike, is gameplay, and by definition, gameplay should be fun.  To be boring, frustrating, or otherwise un-fun is the worst sin a game can commit.  If it has a decent story, that’s merely a consolation prize.

This inherently limits the material a game can cover.  Can a game tastefully cover profane and taboo topics while still being “fun”?  There should be merit in something that covers a repulsive topic and, if crafted skillfully, is also repulsive to play.  Such executions of this kind of material have a rich history in cinema, literature, music, and the visual arts.  But it’s rare to games.  This is less of a condemnation than a diagnosis – one that is, thankfully, not universal.

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Yoko Taro is a Japanese video game director and writer working for Square Enix.  He has seemingly made it his life’s goal to prove wrong all of my initial dismissals of the artistic potential in games.  Notoriously reclusive, ambiguously antisocial, and undoubtedly provocative, his work on the Drakengard and NieR series have proven that the aforementioned limitations can be overcome in previously unsuspected ways.

The key component behind his success as an artist is his willingness to transcend the lukewarm imitation of film and offer unrivaled and irreproducible interaction between the way his stories are read and reacted to by players, facilitating a transactional process that integrates them as storytellers.

This piece will focus primarily on an interpretation and analysis of Yoko Taro’s recent masterpiece, NieR:  Automata.  However, I would like to take a brief look at the previous entries in his series to provide context for his overarching thesis – namely, its preoccupation with killing.

II.  A History of Violence

*This section contains spoilers for Drakengard and NieR*

Yoko Taro’s directorial debut, Drakengard (Drag-On Dragoon in Japan), was released in 2003 to middling praise and universal confusion.  The story follows Caim, a soldier in a medieval land fighting against an evil empire backed by a sinister cult.  Other characters round out the cast, including a pedophilic hermit, a cannibal woman with a taste for children, and a five-year old high priestess who speaks with the baritone voice of an older man.  The game boasts multiple endings that grow increasingly disturbing as they go along.  The first ending features a positive, if somewhat bittersweet resolution to the story.  However, by the time the player reaches the final path, the whole world has gone to hell.  Giant cannibal babies descend from space and devour most of the characters.  In a final desperate act, Caim and his dragon, Angelus, attack the queen of the monsters, which transports them to modern-day Shinjuku, Tokyo.  They then proceed to have a rhythm battle over the Tokyo skyline, where Caim defeats the queen, causing it to disintegrate and cover the city with salt.  Then Caim and Angelus get intercepted and killed by the Japanese air force.  Then it’s over.

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The insanity of Drakengard’s plot speaks for itself and hardly went unnoticed in its time, but the way in which it interacts with the other elements of the game elevates Drakengard’s narrative from a nightmarish hallucination to an experimental piece of digital literature.

As many reviewers quickly pointed out, Drakengard is not fun.  The combat is monotonous, the mission objectives are often vague and frustrating, the user interface is unintuitive, and the overall atmosphere feels bleak and oppressive – not something you’d typically find in one of Square’s RPGs.  The disturbing atmosphere of Drakengard is an essential component of its narrative.  The game’s infamous soundtrack was arranged by sampling and shuffling pieces of classical symphonies together to produce a cacophonous mess that assaulted players’ eardrums during every moment of gameplay.  The dissonance of these tracks grows more extreme as reality crumbles in the main scenario, leading to bizarre mid-note halts and other disorienting effects.  Nonetheless, the uncomfortable soundtrack provides the perfect backdrop for an uncomfortable story about child soldiers, mass murder, incest, and a host of other disturbing things.  It always seems like Drakengard has it out for the player, culminating in its unnerving and borderline unbeatable final boss.

Games have explored taboo subjects like these before, but only Drakengard consolidated a formal and thematic union between gameplay and story.  As the game progresses, players soon realize that the protagonist, Caim, is a severely disturbed individual who revels in wanton murder.  Mercy and compassion, as concepts, fail to register with him.  Every level is effectively another leg of Caim’s endless rampage.  But the game doesn’t just tell the player to be repulsed by their actions via cutscene.  Rather, the player’s disgust is naturally incubated through the grueling experience of traversing battlefield after battlefield and killing everything that moves.  In a medium where violence is the standard, where characters kill by the dozens or hundreds and stay “heroes”, where violence is either kept at a distance, sanitized, or even celebrated (“Congratulations!  You defeated 100 enemies!”), Drakengard uses every textual force at its disposal to make itself unpalatable to players.  Drakengard is the video game equivalent of the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange.  The narrative cannot be ignored, because it’s woven into every component of the game.  Drakengard conveys its message by making you hate it.

The psychosis of the characters, the chaos of the world, and the dissonance of the music all build the game’s central thesis:  the insanity of violence.  What type of person do you need to be in order to kill like a video game character?  What type of player do you have to be to prolong the cycle of violence via multiple playthroughs, only to receive grimmer and grimmer endings?  Drakengard made an unparalleled achievement for its time:  it resolved ludonarrative dissonance.

Drakengard received a sequel (Drakengard 2) and a prequel (Drakengard 3).  The second game barely warrants mentioning.  Yoko Taro’s involvement was severely limited, and Square handed off the writing and directing duties in the hopes of making a less-gruesome, more-marketable game.  Despite Drakengard 2 making noticeable improvements to combat mechanics (i.e. making them more fun), it lacked much of the appeal of the first game and has since fallen to the wayside with fans.  The game is even quarantined to its own pocket timeline within the franchise’s larger continuity, effectively removing it from most plot or lore-related discussions.

Drakengard 3 saw the return of Yoko Taro and his signature dark atmosphere, although it seems more concerned with world building and self-parody than breaking narrative ground like the first game did.  It has plenty of amusing moments, but it ultimately doesn’t say much and feels more like wiki-fodder than anything.  Still, it’s a refreshing take on the series and proof of Yoko Taro’s range as a writer.

But a few years prior to Drakengard 3, Yoko Taro wrote and directed an alternate sequel to Drakengard, taking place after the game’s fifth and final ending – the one with the Tokyo battle.  This new title, NieR, advanced the line of inquiry started in Drakengard and expanded it tenfold.

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NieR was released in 2010 to mild praise, but has since developed an immense cult following.  The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where small pockets of humanity try to carry on normal lives amidst the threat of entities known as Shades.  In contrast to the oppressive atmosphere of Drakengard, NieR’s elegiac tone is underscored by Keiichi Okabe’s beautifully somber score, which went on to inspire several arrangements and tribute albums.

Critics heaped praises on NieR for its writing, voice work, and delightful characters.  At first glance, its more subdued, elegant content may seem less challenging than the audacious Drakengard, but NieR’s brilliance lies in how it approaches the same questions posed by its predecessor from different angles.  And ultimately, it comes to a different conclusion.

As the player controls the eponymous lead character on a quest to save his ailing daughter, the game comments on the cycle of violence that mankind unknowingly perpetuates.  This is achieved through appealing to Nier’s (and by extension, the player’s) sense of heroism.  Unlike Caim, Nier possess a kind heart and genuinely wants to make the world a better place, even though his daughter’s wellbeing always comes first.  The first half of NieR sees the protagonist embarking on a decidedly video-game-style adventure.  He takes on mini-quests to help out villagers, mocks boss designs ripped straight from Zelda, engages in a bizarre text-adventure sequence, and explores a mansion that’s blatantly reminiscent of the original Resident Evil.  The first half, while not entirely devoid of drama or pathos, affectionately parodies popular games and the conventional baggage they bring with them.  Grimly, this includes our lovable cast’s penchant for solving problems with their weapons.

The second part of NieR descends into full-blown tragedy.  Violence between the humans and Shades increases dramatically, and several characters are driven mad with grief.  By the conclusion, Nier and his friends discover that humanity as we know it has long since died out.  Using power extracted from the corpse of Caim’s dragon, humans devised a way to survive the apocalypse by separating their souls from their bodies.  A collection of soulless clones known as “Replicants” were to tend to the world as it recovered over the course of centuries, before the souls (known as “Gestalts”) returned to their corresponding bodies.  Unfortunately, the Replicants, including Nier and every other supposed human in the game, developed a sense of consciousness and fought back against the Gestalts, leaving them to wander the wilderness as the feral Shade creatures.  Nier himself is the clone of the Shadowlord, a Gestalt presiding over the entire system.  The Shadowlord labors to recover the corresponding bodies for himself and his daughter, with the eventual goal of restoring humanity.  In the end, Nier remains loyal to his convictions, puts the safety of his daughter over all else, and slays the Shadowlord, which precipitates the collapse of Project Gestalt and effectively dooms all Replicants and Shades to extinction.

Yoko Taro once again uses multiple playthroughs as a means to enhance the story.  Subsequent laps through the game have the Shades’ dialogue translated, revealing them to be just as emotional and human as the Replicants.  In fact, many of their fatal encounters with Nier turn out to be misunderstandings driven out of control by Nier’s prejudice and myopic obsession with saving his daughter.  Nier and his friends remain sympathetic characters throughout all of this, but the player now sees instances of supposed heroism, altruism, and duty in a different light.  The conflict between the Gestalts and Replicants is irreconcilable and unavoidable, but neither side is right or wrong.  Yoko Taro admitted that NieR’s story was inspired by the September 11th attacks and the resulting War of Terror.  He expressed dissatisfaction with the conclusion he came to in Drakengard – that you have to be crazy and cruel to commit mass murder – and sought to tell a story about two equally sympathetic sides willing to annihilate one another out of necessity, idealism, or justice.  The fact that Nier’s actions lead to humanity’s demise laments the inevitable suffering brought by such conflict.

Whereas Drakengard obsesses over the insanity of violence, NieR ponders the banality of violence.  Again, the player is implicated in this.  They undertake quests to help distressed villagers, willfully ambivalent towards the Shades they kill to do so.  Video games have often been described as power fantasies, and I posit that the opportunity to be a larger-than-life hero contributes to this phenomenon.  Nier is certainly devoted to his daughter’s well-being, but rather than stay at home and comfort her as she suffers from a terminal illness, he jumps at the opportunity to embark on a wacky adventure to find a cure, accompanied by his magical talking book.  Nier is easily manipulated into his journey by a bogus prophecy contrived by Devola and Popola, his long-time friends and hidden agents of the Shadowlord.  Throughout the game, loading screens convey letters from Nier’s sickly daughter, praying for him to come home and spend time with her.  After the Shadowlord’s defeat, her illness isn’t even cured.  The only thing Nier wins from his adventure is the downfall of humanity.  Nier’s heroism contains a component of egotism, as does any player’s.  The consequences of your actions retroactively pervert the good-natured fun and humor of the earlier sequences.  What began as a light-hearted Grail Quest escalates into a series of massacres where nobody can possibly “win”.  Through repeated playthroughs, Yoko Taro takes Karl Marx’s famous aphorism, “First as tragedy, then as farce,” and inverts it.  He leaves the player’s previous sense of heroism invalidated.

Nier receives one last chance at redemption, though.  A chance to be a true hero, uncorrupted by subliminal selfishness.  When his friend, Kainé, lies on the brink of death, Nier has the choice to sacrifice his life in place of hers.  But there’s a catch:  nobody will ever remember he existed.  This final scene puts Nier’s altruism to the ultimate test, providing him the opportunity to do something inherently selfless.  The player, meanwhile, also has to face consequences.  A lesser game would simply have you pick between saving Nier or Kainé, effectively making any element of sacrifice arbitrary; after all, the player wouldn’t be giving anything up.  But NieR’s legendary ending issues the player an ultimatum to prove their commitment:  erasing Nier from existence leads to the deletion of all of the player’s save data.  In order to see the ending, the player needs to sacrifice everything they’ve worked so hard to obtain.  It wipes away all records of their accomplishments.  This unique storytelling technique imbricates the personal experience of its audience with the central message of the narrative.

And yes, it actually does delete all of your save data.

The tragedy of NieR’s story complements the tragedy of its production.  Cavia, Inc., Yoko Taro’s company, folded shortly after its release.  The creative team poured everything into the game, but its sales were nonetheless dismal.  NieR released between Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy XIII.  No low-budget JRPG could compete with those giants.

Year later, NieR received a surge in popularity.  Yoko Taro teamed up with Platinum Games to produce a sequel with a significantly higher budget:  NieR:  Automata.

III.  I Actually Start Talking About NieR: Automata Here

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After fourteen years of critical and commercial disappointment, the cultural zeitgeist finally caught up with Yoko Taro.  Automata is nothing short of a masterpiece.  By collaborating with Platinum, Yoko Taro succeeded in delivering a smooth gameplay experience that satisfied players’ demand for fast-paced, visceral combat and boss design.   Combined with compelling characters, breathtaking visual direction, and one of the most beautiful scores in recent memory, it seemed like he had finally created something that could have mass public appeal.  But does Automata live up to the lofty standards of digital storytelling set by the previous titles?

Any explanation offered here, regardless of its length or thoroughness, would inevitably fail to capture just how effectively Automata is designed.  For this reason, I intend to limit my discussion to an analysis of the major motifs and themes present in the narrative, and investigate how they capitalize on their medium for added poignancy.

IV.  Sex, Violence, and the Evolution of the Drakengard Discourse

*This section contains spoilers for NieR:  Automata*

Automata takes place thousands of the years after the original NieR, telling the story of androids 2B, 9S, and A2 as they battle foreign machine lifeforms in a proxy war between humanity and alien invaders.  Under the command of YoRHa, an android military program, they fight on behalf of human refugees sheltered on the moon, all the while contemplating the futility of the seemingly endless war.  Despite their combat-oriented programming, both androids and machines nonetheless possess the capacity for emotion, including sympathy, love, and sexual desire.

Early in the game, 2B and 9S stumble upon a community of desert-dwelling machines who imitate sexual acts despite not possessing genitals.  The two soldiers walk in on an immense robot orgy, complete with uncoordinated machines thrusting their featureless groins together and attempting to perform cunnilingus without proper mouths.  The whole spectacle is as cute as it is disturbing.  The player is reminded of children playing “house”, imitating adult life while only understanding it on a superficial level.  Yet miraculously, the machines’ fruitless gyrations end up birthing a single, humanoid offspring, fully-grown.  This scene introduces Adam – a major antagonist, brought into being moments after a chorus of amorous declarations and relentless copulation, only to immediately be introduced to violence when 2B and 9S attempt to kill him.  Though Adam survives the initial encounter, the violence inflicted upon him influences his subsequent worldview and perception of desire.

Adam, along with his twin brother, Eve, was sculpted by the machines in the image of the elusive humans, whom the machines revere over their alien progenitors.  In fact, an early revelation shows that the machines already wiped out the aliens, whom Adam describes as “simple” and “plant-like”.  Adam harbors a fascination for humans, specifically because they “loved and killed in equal measure.”  Adam, who emerged from his metal womb devoid of genitals and experienced his first moment of intimacy at the edge of a sword, views sex and violence as two sides of the same coin, inextricable from the human experience he so desperately seeks to emulate.

Other machines share Adam’s presumptions.  Simone [Beauvoir], a hostile opera singer, cannibalizes androids and machines alike in the hopes of obtaining beauty and desirability.  A ragtag theatre troupe performs their own twisted rendition of Romeo and Juliet, which quickly descends into a spectacle of mass murder as the two titular lovers massacre one another (and their doppelgangers; more on that later).

The YoRHa androids, likewise, aren’t exempt from the association of sex and violence.  2B and the other combat units all sport racy outfits with frilly skirts and high heels.  Like the machines, they exaggerate the aesthetic to the point of absurdity.  But a side-quest with the character Jackass reveals an interesting aspect of the androids’ synthetic brain chemistry:

“See this reaction?  It proves that android brains contain an algorithm which allows them to derive pleasure from battle!  Without that, we’d probably have stopped fighting a long time ago.  What a brutally efficient piece of evolution!”

Jackass’s discovery not only explains the borderline Pavlovian association of sex with violence instilled in all androids, but also contextualizes a key part of the gameplay experience:  the combat system, as experienced by the player.  Subjective as such an assessment may be, Platinum Games is renowned for their refined combat systems, which typically prioritize intense, visceral battles that are both visually and mechanically stimulating.  When Automata was announced, many fans were overjoyed to hear about Yoko Taro’s collaboration with Platinum, since they typically viewed the fighting mechanics as a major weak point in his previous titles.  Indeed, much of the positive reception Automata garnered from critics came from the improved gameplay.  It made all the difference, allowing the game to earn commercial and critical success beyond expectations.  But Automata in no way sacrifices narrative cohesion for the sake of more fluid, entertaining combat.  Rather, it uses the orgasmic feelings generated from bombastic enemy encounters and ferocious boss battles to clue the player in on the psychology of the androids.  As Jackass states, android would’ve been driven to despair or insanity by the eternal war with the machines had it not been for their rhapsodic indulgence in the thrill of battle.  Whereas Drakengard sought to make violence unsavory, Automata strives to make it fun, but it nonetheless shares its predecessor’s disturbing implications.  In the world of Automata, violence acts as a bulwark against madness.

Drakengard expressed the insanity of violence.  NieR expressed the banality of violence.  NieR:  Automata expresses the necessity of violence.  And with each passing game, the gameplay becomes more fun, though not to the detriment of its thematic substance.

So what happens when violence isn’t fun?  9S possesses obvious romantic feelings for 2B, but she remains cold and aloof.  As a non-combat model, 9S’s duties lack the excitement or reward that units like 2B and A2 receive.  Among the game’s notable criticisms, the most prevalent one comes from a general dissatisfaction with 9S’s gameplay style.  Most players find controlling him significantly less fun than the other two, as 9S isn’t designed for the thrilling close-quarters combat enjoyed by them.  Even 9S complains about the tedium of his hacking job at certain points.  Considering what we’ve learned about android brain chemistry, it’s easy to understand how 9S can be sexually frustrated – and how that frustration contributes to the madness that consumes him in the third act.

After 2B’s death, 9S launches a rage-fueled vendetta against the machines and A2.  As he grieves over her, his behavior grows increasingly erratic and violent.  The true perversity of this rampage isn’t revealed until just before the end of the third playthrough.  It turns out that 2B was, in actuality, a specialized Executioner unit designed to murder 9S when he inevitably discovered the truth about humanity’s extinction.  In fact, 2B had already killed 9S several times in the past – he just lacks total recollection of his previous incarnations, or willfully denies it.  2B’s cold demeanor towards 9S, her constant insistence that “emotions are prohibited” whenever he tried to get close to her (despite the fact that none of the other androids, 2B included, abide by this rule in any other context), all serve to shield her from the pain of her murderous duty.

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Nonetheless, 2B retains feelings for him.  When Eve infects 9S with a logic-virus at the end of the first playthrough, he begs her to kill him.  She tearfully obliges, straddling his prone body, wrapping her hands around his neck, and thrusting her hips against him suggestively as she chokes the life out of him.  A perceptive player will notice the perversity of the scene even prior to the endgame revelation.  After she’s finished, she laments that it “always ends like this,” alluding to her true assignment well before it’s brought to light.

A part of 9S, however, seems to recognize 2B for what she is, despite being unwilling to accept it.  When 9S slays a machine construct manipulating his memories within his mind’s digital world, it turns into 2B upon its defeat.  This scene inverts the previous one, with 9S mounting 2B’s corpse and repeatedly thrusting his sword into her chest, spewing blood with each plunge.  His sexual fantasies intertwine with his violent instincts, and together they act as a therapeutic outlet for his grief – if a bit too little, too late.

In one of the game’s most controversial scenes, Adam captures 9S and, via a text-only interface, expounds on his obsession with conflict and hatred.  Immediately following his diagnosis of 9S as someone who wants to both “destroy everything” and “be loved by all,” Adam drops this bombshell:

“You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”

At face value, most players assume that the censored word is “fuck”.  But other instances of “fuck” go completely uncensored – it’s an M-rated (17+) game, after all.  However, after finishing the story, many have posited that the four letter word is, in fact, “kill”, an idea infinitely more profane and more likely to be rejected by 9S’s mind.  The Japanese text is likewise obscured.  The ambiguity of the statement, especially considering Adam’s preface, enhances the overlap between ideas of sex and violence among Automata’s cast.  9S wants to love 2B, physically and emotionally, but still struggles to repress the lifetimes of anguish she’s caused him.  The irreconcilable nature of the conflict pushes his grief to insanity.

The final symbol of this paradox comes in the shape of the game’s penultimate boss – Ko-Shi/Ro-Shi.  This boss is a fusion of two separate entities:  a black sphere, Ko-Shi, whose name is derived from Kong Fuzi – and a white sphere, Ro-Shi, whose name is derived from Laozi.  Both philosophers are associated with Taoism, and the duality of their combined form represents the symbol of the yin and yang.  Moreover, the black and white color scheme already appeared on the signature weapons and vehicles of 9S and 2B, respectively.  The union of these two souls, of these two ideas, literalizes in the form of a mechanical abomination, a contradiction 9S has to face and overcome.

The mixture of pleasure and pain, a fun action game with a bitterly critical story, conveys itself in such a manner that it could not be represented in any other medium.  NieR:  Automata follows in the footsteps of the previous games by speculating on the nature of violence and how an audience interacts with it in game form.  Yoko Taro crafted the characters’ personal journeys to complement the emergent narrative contributed by the player.   Automata’s conclusion to the question of violence differs from Yoko Taro’s previous outings without losing any of its profundity.

V.  What’s in a Name?

*This section contains spoilers for NieR:  Automata*

One of Yoko Taro’s greatest assets is his ability to turn seemingly innocuous bits of humor or fourth-wall breaking into serious dramatic content.  He drafts every silly one-off joke or character quirk into the service of a larger idea within the narrative.  Foreshadowing in stories often tends to match the tones between the setup and payoff – if the setup is funny, it will typically appear later for a comedic bit, whereas a more grave scene portends something of similar significance.  Yoko Taro games, on the other hand, often contain jokes, camp, or awkward genre-blending, as seen with the text adventures and general video game satire in the first half of NieR, that reemerge with vastly different implications further in the story.

Adam and Eve’s names derive from the Biblical origin story of Genesis.  However, both of the siblings in Automata are male, as Eve points out in one of his conversations with his brother.  Eve, studying the Bible at Adam’s behest, suggests that it would make more sense to call themselves Cain and Abel.  Adam dismisses this suggestion, citing that humans (the mythical beings in whose image they were created) rarely changed their names.  An initial reading of the scene gives the impression of a warm, if somewhat dysfunctional relationship between the two, and the whole dinner table conversation screams of a domestic sitcom.  Another layer of humor can be found in Eve’s criticism of the misappropriation of Christian imagery, a prevalent issue in JRPGs like Xenogears, Final Fantasy, and Shin Megami Tensai.  Yoko Taro capitalizes on the machines’ collective naiveté to poke fun at industry trends that frustrate him.  From 2B’s opening monologue, he prompts player expectations about killing God, an exhausted trope in JRPGs, only to tragically turn this supposition on its head later on.  If God is described as a creator and one who defines the purpose of existence, then humans are the undisputed gods of the androids.  The humans, however, are extinct.  2B can never get the chance to kill God, because God’s already dead.  This sinisterly humorous inversion makes fools out of the androids and genre-savvy players alike, but it also denies the androids the opportunity to rebel against their fate.  If God was a ship’s captain, sailing along his planned course against the will of his crew, mutiny could change their fate.  But with no God, no plan, no ship, no wind, the androids lie adrift in an empty sea – a fate more frightening than a cruel captain.

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Moreover, the joke about Adam’s namesake underlines his ignorance of its original meaning, embracing it on superficial levels only – a quality he shares with many of his machine brethren.  He instructs Eve to eat an apple, despite having no need for sustenance in such a form, hoping that it will bring them knowledge.  But traditional Biblical interpretations view Adam and Eve’s eating of the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil as a negative thing that stole their innocence and lost them the grace of God.  Adam likewise insists on the two of them wearing clothing in order to be more human, which their counterparts only did out of shame.  In fact, neither Adam nor Eve possess visible sexual organs when nude, further drawing the function of the imitation into question.  They may not possess a sense of shame; or rather, they may be celebrating shame as part of the human condition.

When 9S delves into machine records, he notices that machine societies often try to set up governments, but never learn from their mistakes.  Despite showing remarkable adaptability in combat, a machine city will continuously overthrow despots and install new ones on the spot, despite knowing the disastrous consequences.  At first, 9S expresses frustration at the machines’ stupidity, but then he considers an alternative explanation:  the objective is failure.  To legitimize their cargo cult, the machines, along with Adam, identify the most efficient ways to mimic humanity’s failings.  Adam’s final moments come when he disconnects himself from the machine network, which granted him effective immortality, in order to fight 2B with a proper fear of death that inspired so many human emotions.  Mortality represents the final enigma in his obsession with humans, and just as the Biblical Adam was condemned to death by his lust for knowledge, so too is the Adam of Automata.

Another powerful example of farce turned tragedy is a humorous stage play performed by machines:  “Romeos and Juliets”.  In the play, which occurs in the middle of a bizarre side-quest as a one-off gag, three Romeos and three Juliets fail to identify one another and attempt to resolve the issue through a process of elimination – literally.  It seems the only part of the play that resonated with the machines, despite their childlike innocence and earnest desire to entertain, is its notably gruesome ending, and an exaggerated rendition, at that.  An audience member, identifying it as old world literature, suggests that it speaks to humanity’s capacity for cruelty.  Even this interpretation is meant to provoke a laugh from the player, as so many of theatre goers find themselves deeply moved by the infantile display (save for one cynic; you can’t please everyone).  Fans typically regard “Romeos and Juliets” as one of the game’s funniest moments.

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Nevertheless, the play also foreshadows the climax of the story.  When climbing the machines’ tower, 9S encounters hostile copies of 2B.  Approaching hysteria, he promises to kill them all because they’re not his 2B.  The parallels further crystallize after 2B’s purpose as an Executioner is revealed.  She, likewise, has slaughtered 9S countless times.  What was once humorous when performed on stage mutates into a tragedy of destructive catharsis.  2B and 9S, eternally star-crossed, take turns killing each other until a single, suicidal survivor emerges.

“Romeos and Juliets” functions within A2’s story as well.  While she climbs the tower concurrent with 9S, she encounters the Terminals – the cores of the machine network responsible for wiping out her squad years ago, who constantly strive to evolve in a human-like direction.  During her battle, A2 and her Pod discover that the Terminals keep replicating every time she kills one, and that they’re evolving too quickly for her to defeat them all.  So rather than fight back, she adopts a new strategy:  she lets them evolve, lets them replicate, until the Terminals start fighting amongst themselves.  Some consider A2 a threat to be neutralized; others recommend keeping her alive, as her continued resistance would provide an opportunity to evolve further.  The humanoid intelligences become divided by their ideologies and, in an accelerated, microcosmic simulation of human history, they wipe each other out.  This clever resolution, though achieved via nonviolence (definitely reflective of Yoko Taro’s stance on war), actually does speak to humanity’s capacity for cruelty, and harbors a pessimistic prediction on the end result.

As noted, humor and drama make for strange bedfellows in Yoko Taro’s work.  If we recall the original Romeo and Juliet, Juliet muses “What’s in a name?”  In NieR:  Automata, quite a bit.  The story overflows with references to existential philosophy, both subtle and painfully obvious.

It feels silly to even write this, but 2B’s name is a pun on “to be”.  The game makes this all but explicit.  9S, similarly, may derive his name from the German “nein ist”.  The grammar isn’t quite right, but such a statement could be interpreted as “is not”, and Yoko Taro has a history with naming characters with both German words and numbers.  A2 likely represents the French and Latin “Et tu”, meaning “and you”.  This probably refers to her outlier status among the YoRHa units, along with the fact that she only joins the cast midway through the game.

Most of the bosses take their names from famous philosophers, and many of them meet their ends in ironic ways.  Ko-Shi and Ro-shi I’ve already discussed.  Marx and Engels reside in a factory that their real-life counterparts would’ve abhorred, and they’re killed once 2B seizes their means of production.  Simone [Beauvoir] obsesses over beauty and femininity until they lead to her demise.  Kierkegaard passes away and “becomes a god” in his bizarre death cult.  Immanuel [Kant] inhabits the body of infant machine, acting as an amazing double-pun on the Christ child and Kant’s own beliefs on the agency of children.  Also, Yoko Taro may or may not be comparing Kant to a literal baby.  Other examples, such as Pascal, Hegel, Auguste [Comte], Jean-Paul [Sartre], and Friedrich [Nietzsche] are sprinkled throughout the narrative.

These references, however, go beyond cute parallels and smug lampooning (though that’s definitely present).  NieR:  Automata dives headfirst into the cloudy waters of existentialist inquiry and invites the player to explore alongside it through its unique gameplay-narrative transactions.

VI.  Meaningless Code and Childhood’s End

*This section contains spoilers for NieR:  Automata*

The pursuit of philosophy embodies an attempt to find answers for abstract problems.  The nature of these problems stems from an imperfection or dissatisfaction with life.  In other words, philosophy represents mankind’s attempt to derive meaning from pain.  In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, who is mysteriously unrepresented among Automata’s cast, explores the logic of suicide as a response to a life that is often painful and, ultimately, transitory and meaningless.  Rationalizing life thus involves an indulgence in the absurd, an investment in something that is utterly pointless.

The machines that live independent from the network all fixate on a particular value of human life:  love for the desert machines, fun for amusement park’s residents, religion for the factory machines, hatred for Adam, etc.  A particular picture book section makes clear that each machine holds a unique “treasure” that grants them purpose:

“Consciousness, pain, joy, misery, fury, shame, desolation, the future…  The meaning of life.”

Divergent meanings are also found by YoRHa, the Terminals, Devola and Popola, and 9S – almost all of which manifest as ways of working through trauma.  The concept of trauma, wherein an individual either relives a painful experience or carries it with them in the form of depression, posed a unique problem for Sigmund Freud in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  If life’s meaning comes from the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, even in the face of willful delusions, then why does the mind, consciously or unconsciously, maintain painful memories beyond practical use?  Why would the mind go out of its way to recreate negative stimuli?  One theory Freud posits is finding resolution through repetition, either by discovering meaning behind the traumatizing event or fantasizing about a different resolution – both of which prove painful processes that frequently backfire when recalling trauma.

For both the androids and machines of NieR:  Automata, physical death is relatively unimportant, but the loss of memory and consequent death of consciousness is.  Several times during cutscenes, 2B and 9S trigger their self-destruct protocols in order to escape dire situations and transfer their consciousnesses to separate (but identical) bodies at the android Bunker.  The game implements this concept with the player as well; when a player’s character “dies”, they are reincarnated at the nearest save point, but little actual progress is lost.  The player loses all accumulated experience points and levels that they earned since their last sync with the android server, but if they find their previous body where they died, they can immediately recover them at no cost.

Androids thus understand death differently:  death is the loss of memory, becoming a version of yourself that isn’t you.  9S fails to backup with the Bunker during the first mission, so after his body is destroyed, he needs to meet with 2B for the first time again.  2B’s hellish trauma stems from carrying the memories of meeting and killing 9S over and over again.  She’s trapped in a perpetual cycle of life and death, as her opening monologue states, and the burden of her memories shapes her characterization.  The pressure this puts on other Executioner-type androids is explored in a side-quest where the protagonists restore the memories of an amnesiac soldier.  The soldier reveals her Executioner designation with giddy laughter and explains that she deleted her own identity to escape the trauma.

Android or machine, the erasure of a person’s past is tantamount to suicide.  Pascal, a peaceful machine who shepherds a small village, discovers that the children under his care have killed themselves out of fear that he instilled in them for protective reasons.  Unable to handle the responsibility or grief, Pascal pleads with A2 to either kill him or delete his memories; since Pascal has no backup or alternate body prepared to house his memory core, the options are effectively the same.  A disturbing twist follows if the player deletes Pascal’s memories.  Should the player return to Pascal’s vacant village, he will function as a merchant attempting to profit off the “junk” lying around everywhere.  He then offers to trade the body parts of the children and other villagers in exchange for money, since they mean nothing to him any longer.  The good-natured Pascal’s avoidance of trauma renders him hollow and solitary.  Unable to find hope or meaning behind the deaths of his charges, Pascal chooses to end his life, one way or another.

As demonstrated by the cycles of violence in the first NieR, inconsolable grief similarly adopts memetic properties in Automata.  After 2B kills Adam, Eve goes on a rampage with no defined goal.  When 2B and 9S confront him, he curses them for robbing him of his reason to live.

“I know you two feel the same.  That this world… is utterly meaningless.  As far as I’m concerned, my brother… was everything… and now… everything must die!”

Eve’s grief-stricken madness spreads to 9S in a quite literal manner.  After the fight, 9S gets infected by part of Eve’s consciousness.  With the partial fusion of their memory regions, 9S decides that his data cannot be uploaded to the android server, and requests 2B to kill him.  Despite his insistence that he can always come back in a new body, 2B laments that he would lose the version of himself that “exists in this moment”, once again foregrounding the interrelation between memory and identity.  But even this idea is complicated by the temporary fusion of 9S and Eve’s personalities, along with A2’s incorporation of 2B’s memories later in the game.  It seems that identity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but instead forms through interactions with others, as noted with Pascal.  The influence of others exists as a ghost memory in our subconscious, informing the ways we develop, the ways we think and feel, and how we cope with grief.  Even after the androids obliterate Eve’s independent consciousness, his footprints guide 9S on a path of nihilistic homicide once he experiences a similar loss.  Trauma is sympathetic in nature, hence why players receive the option to side with 9S in the end battle, despite his erroneous logic.

Like the androids and the machines fighting a war on behalf of their masters in absentia, 9S carries out his final violent crusade in the name of 2B.  He remains wholly fixated on her after her death, despite the pain it brings.  Upon confronting the 2B copies in the tower, he rips the arm off one and grafts it onto himself.  He literally can’t let her go, despite his Pod’s warnings of a virus spreading from the arm into his system.  He vows to kill the machines and A2 in 2B’s honor, consequences be damned.  It’s all he has to live for.  When A2 tells him the truth about 2B, he reacts with hostility, even though he’s always suspected it.  9S can’t bear the thought of his fighting being meaningless.  The humans he fights for are extinct.  The woman he loves has died.  The last thing he wants to hear is that she wasn’t worth fighting for.  His idealized relationship with her gives him a sense of meaning, and each act of violence on her behalf makes his fantasy feel more legitimate.  Delusions and narcotic violence help him cope, but realistically, nothing is solved.  In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek comments that there’s a name for fantasy realized:  “nightmare.”

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The larger war functions as a shield for psychological insecurities.  Androids risked falling into despair with the death of humanity, so they crafted a grand conspiracy that claimed humanity survived on the surface of the moon.  Meanwhile, the machines proved the perfect enemy for the androids to fight and ensure a sense of purpose.  The military deadlock guaranteed the truth would never get out, thus allowing androids to retain hope and perpetually contribute to the cause.  The Terminals, the nefarious machines that co-opt YoRHa, come across as equally pathetic.  Their prime directive is to eliminate the enemy – in this case, the androids, which they could easily do.  However, they fear what a future without purpose holds, since their creators are no longer around to designate meaning for them.  They decide to extend the war as long as possible, evolving and expanding in consciousness, but always allowing the androids to survive so that the conflict, their reason for existence, persists.  Jackass says it best:

“… So then!  To sum up:  For hundreds of years, we’ve been fighting a network of machines with the ghost of humanity at its core.  We’ve been living in a stupid fucking world where we fight an endless war that we COULDN’T POSSIBLY LOSE, all for the sake of some Council of Humanity on the moon that doesn’t even exist.”

The search for meaning behind suffering makes for dramatically heavy stuff, but any work of art exploring a concept like this would need to communicate it delicately, lest the farce-turned-tragedy fall back into farce.  After all, the game originally teases this idea with Operator 6O tearfully interrupting the story to whine about being turned down for a date and claiming that she doesn’t know how to “go on living.”  So a deft handling of the subject matter is required to keep it from becoming camp.  This is where a transactional reading of Automata triumphs.

Players familiar with the first game likely recognize Devola and Popola as mysterious manipulators and late-game antagonists.  They reappear in Automata, though it’s not really them.  The original Devola and Popola units perished in the final battle of NieR, while the ones in Automata remain among the last of their line of models.  Due to the failure of their previous incarnations and the subsequent collapse of Project Gestalt, the new Devola and Popola are ostracized by android society.  Their oppressors don’t particularly know what they’re punishing them for, since the predominant belief has humans living safely on the moon.  Their prejudice and abuse is more of a cultural custom than anything.  But even the twins themselves have internalized their oppression.  They believe they exist to suffer in order to atone for the past sins they don’t fully understand.  They carry out a degrading existence, rationalizing their pain as deserved retribution.  They bear the shame of their predecessors’ faces, despite knowing that they, personally, did nothing to warrant their lot in life.

But Yoko Taro doesn’t merely tell you about this prejudice.  Nor does he just show it.  He proves it.

Right before 9S enters the tower, the twins appear out of nowhere and brandish their weapons towards him.  This almost perfectly mirrors the first game, where they appeared unexpectedly in front of the final level and threatened the heroes.  Familiar players, myself included, interpreted this moment in Automata as another sign of their duplicity.  A battle seems all but inevitable, but it may only seem that way because of the baggage the characters bring with them – baggage that isn’t their own.  The scene promptly reveals itself as a bait-and-switch, with Devola and Popola attacking the machines flanking 9S and offering their lives in his service.  They don’t seem to understand 9S’s motivation or the psychotic impetus behind it.  Rather, they seek atonement through martyrdom, perhaps the only way they’ll find peace.  They die selflessly, hoping they assuaged their false guilt.

The player effectively becomes an actor in this scene, as they’re expected to have an arc.  Players ought to assume Devola and Popola’s hostile intentions and liken them to their former versions.  But in doing so – and more importantly, being wrong – the game implicates players in the same logic that discriminatory androids use to brutalize the sisters.  Contriving a scenario to show prejudice is one thing.  Tricking the audience into engaging in it makes its existence undeniable and terrifying.  It triggers a sense of revulsion, and further, a pang of guilt – one less burdensome yet more authentic than the one the twins harbor.

By interfacing with the player, Automata employs techniques unfamiliar to other mediums in order to encourage its audience to reflect on the purpose of their playing.  For example, the coveted “Achievements” or “Trophies” ubiquitous to modern games, traditionally obtained by completing specific challenging tasks, can be purchased at a shop in Automata.  They no longer stand as a testament to skill, but did they ever?  Do they have any function beyond the vacuous pursuit of competitive glory?  Are they ever an end in themselves?  I posit the answers to be “No” across the board.  This feature generated controversy upon release, which illustrates both the sanctimonious culture surrounding such trophies as well as the stubbornly resilient desires of consumers to impose meaning on the meaningless, defending it till death.

Even reconstructing the plot of NieR:  Automata to fit into the series’ larger cosmology proves a frustrating and unrewarding task.  The game teases connections to the previous stories, such as the Red Eye disease, the Cult of Watchers, the demonic flower, and the enigmatic Accord, but a clear pattern never emerges.  Meanwhile, fans (myself included), comb over minute details in the vain hope of finding a cohesive explanation.  Instead, we draw constellations.

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The nebulous lore leaves players as confused as the characters when it comes to the grand plan for the game’s universe.  Perhaps no such plan exists.  Perhaps Yoko Taro makes it up as he goes along.  But perhaps the struggle to find meaning, even in the face of pain, hardship, and potential futility – perhaps that’s the true meaning behind everything.

VII.  NieR: Automata’s Groundbreaking Finale

*This section contains spoilers for NieR:  Automata*

The [E]nd of YoRHa.  Barely a month after release, and this ending has already cemented itself in the annals of game history.

Following the completion of endings C and D, the three protagonist androids all lie dead.  As the credits begin to roll, Pod 153 chimes in to report the commencement of a data wipe, her final protocol after the destruction of Project YoRHa.  In this sequence, Yoko Taro shows his intimate awareness of his games’ reputation for dark and depressing endings.  Pod 153’s plan harkens back to the first NieR, which culminated in a data wipe on the fourth ending.  Lines of static stream down with the credits, implying that, once again, the story will end on a nihilistic note and deprive the player of any record of what they have done.  But then, something unexpected happens.  Pod 042, named after the answer to life, the universe, and everything, halts the data wipe.

Throughout the game, the Pods, who originally act as helpers to the androids, develop their own sense of consciousness that goes beyond awareness of the main diegesis.  Rather, the wizened pods routinely break the fourth wall.  In between major story sections, they hold brief conversations on an empty stage not representative of any physical location in the game.  They comment on the action thus far and share proposals and predictions on how events will unfurl.  The Pods function analogously to a Greek chorus.  Their exchanges provide much needed levity in certain situations.  At one point, Pod 042 worries about the security of the communication channel, so he contacts Pod 153 over a loading screen, a breach in protocol for which she reprimands him.  They can apparently transcend the primary diegesis, and this allows them to interact with the player along the interstitial boundaries between the scripted plot and the player’s emergent narrative.

But in Yoko Taro games, humorous abnormalities like this rarely exist for the purposes of comedy alone.  When Pod 042 stops the deletion process, he notes that he’s detecting absorbed memory data for 2B, 9S, and A2 within the collapsing machine network.  He claims that he “cannot accept this resolution,” and, after convincing Pod 153 to join him, decides to violate his programming (both as a servant of YoRHa and a scripted video game character) in order to save the protagonists.  The Greek chorus comes together with the audience to demand a better ending.

What follows is a “bullet hell” shooting sequence similar to the hacking mini-games the player has encounter several times.  However, the enemies this time are the credits themselves.  Yoko Taro, the voice actors, the programmers, the animators, the business division, the QA testers, and hundreds of employees from Square Enix and Platinum Games rush in to stop the player from altering fate.  Textually, this is conceived as a purge program initiated by the machines to prevent the androids’ data from being recovered.  Metatextually, however, it represents a rebellion by the fiction against its artistic demiurges.  At last, following 2B’s wishes, the player gets a chance to kill God.

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I think the bottom-right panel of the above Grant Snider comic succinctly sums up this final battle.

Crushingly difficult, this sequence will kill the average player over and over and over again.  When fighting against the beings that control the universe, you can’t expect it to be easy.  With each death, the player is asked a question before they can try again.  These include:

 “Do you admit defeat?”

“Is it all pointless?”

“Do you think games are silly little things?”

“Do you admit there is no meaning to this world?”

The player must consistently answer “No” to each question in order to try again, even if their cumulative attempts have gotten them nowhere.  However, with every death, more messages appear in the background, many encouraging the player to press on.  These messages come from players all over the world who’ve completed this section.  At this point, the boundary between the internal narrative and the audience’s experience collapses.  The characters and player must simultaneously confront failure and press on in the face of despair.  A brave, unified story emerges.  This could not be replicated in film.  Nor in literature, nor music, nor painting, nor sculpture, nor any other medium.  NieR:  Automata’s ending composes a new lexicon for the language of interactive media.

Following a certain number of failed attempts, the player receives a “rescue offer”.  Accepting the offer drastically alters the battle – a ring of ships, representing other players, sacrifice themselves for the host in case they get hit.  Meanwhile, all of them fire in unison, decimating the ranks of the developer-gods.  As this happens, a new chorus joins the music in the background, signifying the unity in everyone’s dream for a better future.  This chorus consists of the voices of much of the development staff, including Yoko Taro himself.  Even the gods contribute to this dream.

One final cutscene after the battle reveals that the Pods have rebuilt 2B, 9S, and A2 with all of their original memories intact.  Pod 153 warns that the cycle of violence could begin anew, leading them to the same conclusion as before, which Pod 042 accepts as a possibility.  However, he places his faith in the potential of a brighter future.  After all, 2B no longer has a reason to kill 9S; 9S no longer has a reason to kill A2; A2 no longer has a reason to kill machines; machines no longer have a reason to kill androids.  How they find meaning outside of the conflict that’s defined their existence is up to them, which remains an intimidating prospect in its own right.

But 042, the enlightened fool, who looks “very silly” by his own admission, offers words of wisdom:

“A future is not given to you.  It is something you must take for yourself.”

The scene gradually fades to black.  Pod 042 addresses the player directly and asks one final request.  In order to contribute a “rescue offer”, like the one the player received to reach the ending, the player must donate all of their data.  The significance of the sacrifices made by other players’ data during the final shooting sequence becomes clear.  In order for everyone to have a happy ending, the player must make a sacrifice and pay it forward.  Pod 042 reminds the player that whoever they save probably won’t even know them; they might even hate them.  The erasure of data here feels different from that of the first NieR.  In the original game, the request felt more coercive, which reflected its themes of inevitability and futility.  In Automata, it feels altruistic, and it’s even optional.  A player can witness the final ending and then refuse to surrender their data.  But the game expects its audience to be moved, and rightfully so.  Nier:  Automata uses its medium to its fullest extent and demands to be taken seriously.  You can’t even reach this ending if you admit that “games are silly little things”.  In a game obsessed with negative responses to grief, the player receives the opportunity to take their suffering, find meaning in it, and turn it into compassion for others.

With Automata’s ending, many mysteries still remain regarding the overarching plot of the series.  But that matters little.  Automata leads the Drakengard/NieR story arc on violence to its natural conclusion – healing.

VIII.  An Exciting Observation on the Potential of Games as Art

Despite my aforementioned dizzying standards for what qualifies as “art”, I admit that the definition of art remains as mutable as ever.  But one thing that I think many people will agree with is that art is moving.  Something that inspires an intense emotion or propagates itself by inspiring other artists – there must be some value in that.

Even disgusting art, like the first Drakengard game, elicits a deep emotional response and engages with its audience on a more intimate level than most media.  Art might provoke depression by reminding you of the futility of life.  Or it might offer new insights into your life’s meaning and point to an avenue for healing.  Or maybe it could inspire you to write a 10,000 word literary critique of a video game about leggy androids with katanas.

Nier:  Automata is a genre-defining accomplishment.  Yoko Taro has achieved something I previously thought was impossible.  I suppose Pod 042 was right; there’s always the possibility for a future different from the one we expect.

– Hunter Galbraith