Breath of the Wild: The Hero Who Never Was

Introduction

After years of waiting, the world has the latest Zelda treasure that Nintendo promised: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with a new console—the Switch—to boot. There’s broad agreement among fans and critics alike that Nintendo did what they set out to do with Breath of the Wild: more than ever before, they succeeded in creating what Shigeru Miyamoto famously called “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit any time you like.” Indeed, many players who bought Breath of the Wild immediately upon its release three months ago (myself included) are still returning to it and discovering new features of the world.

Today, Breath of the Wild meets With a Terrible Fate. This article isn’t a review of the game, although its analysis is my best attempt at adjudicating and explaining my many, widely varied feelings about the game. And I think that this sort of response to the game is natural. After all, Nintendo broke from the recent Zelda formula in many ways for Breath of the Wild: they added voice acting; they created a massively open world; they invented a hybrid console to support the game; they told a huge amount of the game’s story through cinematic flashbacks (well, maybe they were flashbacks—but more on that later). Players of the game have a lot to process, and I think it will take a long time before we’ve really wrapped our head around Breath of the Wild.

I think that Breath of the Wild represents a new, philosophically challenging synthesis of (1) game console, (2) open-world storytelling, and (3) Zelda theming. In this article, I’m going to present an analysis of Breath of the Wild that will hopefully go some distance in both explaining why some people love the game and why some people don’t love the game. Put briefly, I want to convince you that the game is lying to you about something: the Shrine of Resurrection doesn’t really “resurrect” people in the way the player is led to believe. Figuring out exactly what the player’s avatar is, then, will allow us to understand both the story of Breath of the Wild and the player’s relation to that story in a new way. Be warned of Zelda spoilers throughout.

1. Two Puzzles

I want to begin by motivating my analyses with the two puzzles in Breath of the Wild that got me thinking about the problem of Link’s identity: fast travel and the Sheikah Slate. Once we get these puzzles on the table, we will be poised to explain exactly how the avatar and the player are connected to one another.

While most gamer’s were justifiably exhilarated by the panoramic view of Breath of the Wild’s absolutely massive world at the start of the game, I was much more interested in a different visual:

BotW Fast Travel

This is what it looks like when Link “fast-travels” in Breath of the Wild—that is, when he teleports from one location on the map to another instantaneously. Such a mechanic, of course, is crucial for a game with a world as massive as Breath of the Wild’s. When the player decides to make Link fast-travel, he is decomposed into a stream of blue particles, which evaporates and then reconstitutes him at his destination.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that a Zelda game has featured a method of fast travel: Farore’s Wind is a spell that lets Link teleport within dungeons in Ocarina of Time; the “Song of Soaring” lets Link travel from one Owl Statue to another in Majora’s Mask; Midna can transport Wolf Link in between Twilight Portals in Twilight Princess; and so on. What’s interesting, though, is that Zelda as a series has always been adept at integrating fast travel into the overall logic of the games’ worlds and stories. Farore’s Wind can presumably teleport Link by harnessing the goddess Farore’s dominion over living beings, since she created them at the beginning of the world; the power of the “Song of Soaring” derives from Kaepora Gaebora’s metaphysically external position relative to Termina, as I discussed in my work on Majora’s Mask; and Link’s wolf form renders him a creature of the Twilight Realm, which presumably grants Midna, as the Twilight Princess, the ability to move him through the twilight at will. Zelda isn’t one for deus ex machina fast travel, where the player decides to have his avatar fast-travel thousands of miles and this simply happens without any available explanation within the story.

With this background, it makes sense to ask what explanation there is for Link’s ability to fast-travel in Breath of the Wild. The game doesn’t give us much explicit information to go on here. We know that it’s facilitated by ancient Sheikah technology, since (1) fast travel decomposes Link into strands of the same blue energy/material that appears in active Sheikah technology, (2) fast travel is activated as the same time that Link activates the Sheikah network of towers across Hyrule, and (3) Link can only fast-travel to conduits of Sheikah technology—Towers, Shrines, Divine Beasts, and laboratories. But this information doesn’t answer our question. After all, how can Sheikah technology decompose and then reconstitute a living being? This isn’t supposed to be a divine power like Farore’s Wind: it’s emphasized in this game more than ever before that the Sheikah developed technology, not magic. And there’s no talk of any universal, Lifestream-like, organic energy that Sheikah technology could harness to move a human being from one place to another. And it’s not as simple as the Sheikah Slate somehow facilitating faster-than-light travel: fast-travel only operates on Link and his equipment; other beings—e.g., Link’s horses—can’t be teleported, either along with Link or on their own. So here we have the first of our two puzzles: Sheikah technology facilitates fast travel, but it’s not clear how it does so.

The Sheikah Slate acts as Link’s most immediate and direct access to Sheikah technology, and it’s through this piece of technology that Link is able to fast travel. So it makes sense to seek out an explanation of fast-travel in an analysis of precisely what the Sheikah Slate is. But here, again, the game doesn’t offer much by way of an explicit explanation. Zelda’s research notes on the Slate just discuss its ability to function as a camera; beyond these notes, all we really have to go on are the Slate’s various other functions: it can activate shrines, acquire regional data from Sheikah towers, and enable the various capabilities of runes. Because Link finds it in the Shrine of Resurrection when he wakes up there at the beginning of the game, it presumably also has something to do with the functions of that special Shrine—but that relationship is far from obvious (we’ll return to it later).

There’s another aspect of mystery surrounding the Sheikah Slate: it looks just like the player’s controller—either the gamepad of the Wii U, or the Switch in its handheld configuration (this analysis will presume use of the Switch rather than the Wii U, however).

Sheikah SlateNintendo Switch

Of course, this fact isn’t inherently mysterious: Nintendo obviously drew the connection between the fictional and real technologies intentionally. Nor is this the first time that they’ve combined their hardware with the stories of the Zelda series in novel ways—in fact, it’s become the norm for them to do this. Phantom Hourglass takes advantage of the 3DS’s stylus by making the player use the stylus to move Link; Skyward Sword effectively turns the Wii’s controller, the motion-controlled Wiimote, into a “sword” that directs the motion of Link’s sword in the game. The mystery here instead comes from the potential for the relationship between Sheikah Slate and game controller to play an important part in the fictional relationship between Link and the player of Breath of the Wild.

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know how heavily I emphasize the relationship between player and avatar as a central feature of video-game storytelling: I argued extensively that you can’t hope to understand Majora’s Mask without understanding the role of the player in its story, and I more recently developed a theory of video games according to which the player of a video game always plays a foundational, metaphysical role in that game’s story—a role that is different in kind from the role of the avatar within that story. Since the player can be involved in video-game stories and related to avatars in a multitude of complex and narratively important ways, it’s natural to ask whether the apparent similarity between the player’s physical controller and the avatar’s main means of navigating the game’s world has any deep meaning within the game’s story.

So, in trying to solve our first puzzle about the nature of fast-travel, we’ve arrived at a second puzzle: what exactly is the Sheikah Slate, and does it have any narratively significant bearing on the relationship between Link and the player? And now it’s intuitive to take up the task of exploring exactly who, or what, Link the avatar is in Breath of the Wild. After all, we already know a good amount about the player—we are the player, after all—and we’ve seen that direct information about the Sheikah Slate and fast-travel is limited. Link is the one remaining variable in our puzzles of fast travel, the Sheikah Slate, the player, and the avatar. It’s time to take a closer look at what we know about him.

2. The True Blank Slate

I want to convince you that the solution to our two puzzles is a radical idea that contradicts one of the explicit statements affirmed by various characters within Breath of the Wild: I contend that the Link who lived and died 100 years before Breath of the Wild’s events wasn’t actually resurrected by the Shrine of Resurrection. Rather, the Shrine of Resurrection created a mechanical copy of Link that can be “piloted” by the player in much the same way as the Divine Beasts of the game are piloted by their respective Champions. I’ll argue that this analysis not only solves the two puzzles discussed above, but also does a better job of holistically analyzing the technology of the Sheikah and accounting for the dynamics of the 18 Link-memories you can acquire over the course of the game. I’ll then reply to objections that (1) this analysis contradicts the very game it proposes to analyze and (2) the analysis doesn’t have enough explanatory clout to be preferable to the more intuitive view that Link really was resurrected. This will lead us naturally to this view’s broader implications for understanding Breath of the Wild’s method of open-world storytelling.

Here’s what we know (from Impa, King Rhoam, and others) about the ancient Sheikah who developed cutting-edge technology 10,000 years before the events of Breath of the Wild: in a time of societal prosperity and technological innovation, the Sheikah developed a system of machinery to combat the recurring threat of Calamity Ganon. This technology included: an autonomous army of Guardian machines; four Divine Beasts that required piloting by heroes called “Champions”; a network of Shrines and Towers designed to guide and train a chosen hero; a Shrine of Resurrection that is (according to Zelda) “a medical facility with the power to heal”; and Sheikah Slates that somehow serve as a catalyst for much of the other technology. This technology, buried in the earth, led to a prophecy being propagated that “the power to oppose [the resurrection of Calamity Ganon] lies dormant beneath the ground.”

The first thing to notice here is that the Shrine of Resurrection is something of a non sequitur in the suite of Sheikah technology: it’s not a weapon like the Guardians and Divine Beasts, nor is it a guidance/training catalyst like the Shrines and Towers. It’s not obvious why the Sheikah would even build such a healing device to operate on people, given that they had already developed a fully automated army and a team of four super-machines. More to the point, it’s the only piece of Sheikah technology that apparently operates on organic matter: instead of simply being an advanced piece of machinery, this machinery promises to manipulate the vitality of organisms. Of course, none of this is a knock-down argument that the Shrine of Resurrection couldn’t possibly do what it purports to do: the point is just that the supposed functionality of the Shine of Resurrection is somewhat dissonant with the rest of the Sheikah technology presented in the game. So it’s worth at least exploring whether an alternative analysis might provide a more unified picture of Sheikah technology—especially if such an analysis also turns out to shed additional explanatory light on the rest of Breath of the Wild’s story and world.

Here’s such an alternative analysis: imagine that instead of healing someone by putting them in a “long-term stasis,” the Shrine of Resurrection “resurrects” people by generating a mechanical copy of them: an “android” of sorts that mimics their body without capturing the contents of their mind or soul (we know that things like souls exist in the game’s world from the discussion of many characters). The copy could mimic the deceased person’s mind by having their memories uploaded onto them in some way; it could be trained as a hero through the Shrines across the world; and, crucially, it could be controlled by a pilot like a Divine Beast.

Avatar in Shrine of Resurrection

This, I propose, is the best available analysis for the real nature of the avatar that the Shrine of Resurrection created: the avatar is not Link, but rather a mechanical copy of him that the player of the game “pilots.” While this view might initially seem radically unmotivated, it actually has distinctive theoretical benefits. In particular, it casts the Sheikah’s technological program in a new, coherently logical light; it also makes new sense of how the avatar’s identity evolves in accordance with the player’s actions over the course of the game.

Here’s a problem with the story of the Sheikah: if we take Breath of the Wild at face value, then we’re forced to accept that the Sheikah both had incredible foresight and terrible foresight. On the one hand, they were advanced enough to anticipate the return of Calamity Ganon and devise an intricate system of autonomous machines, pilot-driven machines, and a network of Shrines and Towers to combat this return. On the other hand, they somehow failed to anticipate that Calamity Ganon would be able to take control of both their autonomous and pilot-driven machine armies. How are we supposed to reconcile the Sheikah’s technological mastery with this glaring design flaw in their program?

My favored solution is that the Sheikah actually did anticipate the risk of Calamity Ganon wresting control of their machines from them. On my view, the Shrine of Resurrection was designed to combat this specific threat. The logic of the Sheikah, as I see it, is the following. What’s the easiest sort of army to mass-manufacture? An army of autonomous machines (the Guardians). What do you do if your enemy can possess those machines? Build machines with human pilots as a failsafe (the Divine Beasts). And what if your enemy can kill those pilots, possessing these new machines just as easily as the old ones? Build a machine controlled by a pilot who is beyond the reach of your enemy.

Here’s where some console theory comes in. The idea is that the Switch is a representation in the player’s world of the Sheikah Slate in the avatar’s world, linking the avatar to the player in such a way that the player can control the avatar in the same way that the Champions control the Divine Beasts. In effect, this metaphysical correspondence between the Sheikah Slate and the Switch allows the player to control the avatar while remaining in a discrete world from the avatar’s—a world that is safe from Calamity Ganon. Ganon obviously cannot kill you, the player, and thus the avatar is safe from the danger of being controlled by Ganon like the Guardians and Divine Beasts were.

How outlandish is the idea that the relationship between Switch and Sheikah Slate allows the player, within the fiction of the game, to control a Link-automaton? Not especially. First, notice that interdimensional travel and communication isn’t a foreign concept in the Zelda series more broadly: for instance, A Link Between Worlds centrally features the traversing of dimensional barriers between Hyrule and Lorule, and various iterations of the series’ time-travel mechanics (e.g., the cross-temporal communication in Ocarina of Time’s Spirit Temple) come theoretically quite close to communication between dimensions of some sort of another. Even the concept of one sentient being possessing another humanoid being is familiar to the series: recall Ganondorf’s possession of Zelda in Twilight Princess, or the recurring mechanic of Link controlling statues. Moreover, one of the few analyses of the Sheikah Slate that the game gives us invites this kind of analysis. According to Zelda’s research notes, the Slate can produce “Perfect likenesses of the things you point it at.” The most obvious meaning behind this comment is that the Sheikah Slate can photograph the world around Link; however, the language also suggests that the Slate is able to represent reality while also controlling reality through corresponding Sheikah technologies like Guidance Stones (also discussed in Zelda’s notes). It doesn’t seem like a stretch that the Switch, which already corresponds to the Sheikah Slate in physical appearance, and its ability to be carried throughout the world, could also, within the game’s fiction, represent and exert control over a reality: and in this regard, Zelda’s research on the Sheikah Slate gives us an in-game explanation for the functionality of the Switch. The Switch acts as a Sheikah artifact that represents to the player the reality of Hyrule, and, through its metaphysical correspondence with the Sheikah Slate, bridges the gap between Hyrule’s dimension and the player’s dimension, allowing the player to pilot the Link-automaton through its reality.

Notice that this analysis easily explains the two puzzles we considered in the previous section. If the avatar of Breath of the Wild is itself a piece of Sheikah technology, then it makes sense that it could be decomposed and reconstituted across the broader network of Sheikah warp points—we don’t need to invoke anything like faster-than-light transportation of a unique human in order to understand this phenomenon. And of course, based on this analysis, the Sheikah Slate has a very narratively significant bearing on the relationship between player and avatar. In fact, this analysis has the added benefit of explaining why the Sheikah Slate is central to reactivating all of the Shrines and Towers at the beginning of the game: These locations are designed, according to Zelda, “to train the hero who is fated to combat the Calamity.” When the player arrives at the beginning of the game, the fated hero also arrives—because you, the player, are that fated hero.

Wait: isn’t Link the fated hero? Well, not really. First, there’s no indication within the game that the avatar possesses the Triforce of Courage, the standard, conspicuous symbol of Link’s evil-quashing destiny throughout the series (and a symbol equally absent from Majora’s Mask). It’s not even evident that the avatar is “chosen” by the Master Sword, like Link typically is: the only requirement for successfully pulling the Master Sword from its pedestal is the avatar having enough hearts, which hardly seems representative of a chosen destiny. And, further, it makes sense that the Sheikah would want to design a flexible Shrine of Resurrection in the sense of making it able to construct a mechanical mimic of any warrior brought there: the final failsafe in a world-saving system would presumably be best-designed if it were dynamic enough to accommodate a wide variety of potential avatars, adaptable to a wide variety of potential obstacles. (Notice that this flexibility also explains why the Shrine wouldn’t automatically implant its mechanical avatar with all of the source human’s memories—more on that below.) The key to the system’s success would be the competency of the avatar’s pilot—i.e. the player—and thus it is in the pilot that the true heroism rests. (And, as a nice bonus, you get from this the feel-good conclusion that, in a metaphysically deep sense, the player really gets to be a hero in Breath of the Wild.)

So the system of mechanical avatar, Sheikah Slate, Shrines, runes, and Towers all activate in response to the player picking up the Switch and activating the Sheikah’s last failsafe. This analysis thus provides us with the unifying understanding of Sheikah technology that the intuitive, face-value understanding of the game lacks.

Subsequently, we also get an improved understanding of the avatar’s acquisition of memories over the course of the game. To see this, first notice another puzzle with the face-value analysis of Breath of the Wild’s story: if the avatar is really just a revived Link with memory loss, then why is it that his memory can only be retrieved in discrete chunks at extremely precise locations throughout the world? No doubt, it might be the case that a specific location could plausibly jog an amnesiac’s memory; but one would suppose that, once memories started returning, the memories would cascade, emerging and filling in gaps in the amnesiac’s overall identity and mental repository at an increasing rate. The story of the avatar regaining memories doesn’t work this way: the player can find at most 18, discrete memories of Link’s, and they are all capable of being accessed only by the avatar observing a specific location.

If the avatar is really supposed to be Link, then it’s mysterious why he ends up with only 18 memories and can only derive memories from specific locations; buying into this interpretation of the story means we essentially have to throw up our hands here and say that the game admits of no further explanation. On the other hand, the analysis of the avatar as an automaton emulating Link naturally invites an explanation about the dynamics of memory acquisition: we know that the Sheikah Slate (and other technology like the Towers, for that matter) is capable of recording and representing data from the physical world around it; it’s a modest extension of this notion to suppose that the Sheikah Slate could record the experiences of its owner and associate these recorded experiences with the physical locations where they took place. In fact, this method of representing content in physical space is strongly analogous to the Slate’s ability to represent columns of colored light at various points in the world as location markers (or “pins”) throughout the player’s journey.

BotW Map PinBotW Memory Point

On this view, the Sheikah Slate, while in Link’s possession 100 years before the game, recorded 18 of his central memories, associating them with the locations where they happened. When the Sheikah Slate was implemented to create a copy of Link, it also made it possible for this copy to acquire those 18 memories by traveling to those locations. This explains why the game memories are all tied to specific physical spaces, as well as why the memories are discretely acquired without triggering a cascade of further memory recall (i.e. the cascade we would expect if the avatar were an amnesia-ridden Link).

I’ve argued thus far that the analysis of Breath of the Wild’s avatar as a mechanical copy of Link unifies the purpose of Sheikah technology, explains the game’s fast-travel mechanic, illuminates the relation between the player, avatar, Sheikah Slate, and Switch, and accommodates the memory acquisition method uniquely well. But is this enough to make the analysis plausible? You might have two objections in particular: maybe you’re worried about an analysis that rejects the game’s explicit statement that Link was, in fact, resurrected; or, maybe you’re worried that the intuitive value of the view that Link was resurrected simply trumps the explanatory virtues of the analysis I’ve outlined here. Neither of these objections, I think, should deter us for long.

Zelda games, more than most games, are often heavily analyzed through the lens of “canon”: the official, Nintendo-licensed interpretation of how the series’ titles fit together into a coherent set of timelines. This canon mentality, I think, makes some people reticent to doubt any of the explicit information about the Zelda universe provided by the games. Nintendo’s words, and the words they encode in their games, are often taken as law in one way or another.

There’s of course value in theorizing about the Zelda canon—for example, hypothesizing about how Breath of the Wild fits into the Zelda timelines—but it’s dangerous to focus on canon to the exclusion of all other analytical methods. A common, established storytelling device is unreliable narration: stories in which a narrator or various aspects of the story’s representation are dubious within the overall ecosystem of the story and its world. This is how The Sound and the Fury works; this is how Fight Club works; this, I’ve argued, is how Majora’s Mask works. To focus only on the letter of canon and on the information a game literally endorses is to ignore the nuances of a story’s overall world: oftentimes, making sense of a game’s universe requires reinterpreting various data from the game’s story in order to gain a maximally coherent understanding of the overall work of art. So I don’t take the objection that my analysis contradicts the game’s claims about Link’s resurrection as a compelling counterargument.

Of course, we should be able to offer an explanation of why the game suggests Link really was resurrected, if he in fact wasn’t resurrected. As I see it, there are two possible explanations: either no one in the age of Breath of the Wild was able to uncover the real nature of the Shrine of Resurrection, and so researchers like Zelda and Ms. Purah mistakenly believe that the Shrine resurrects people instead of creating pilotable, machine copies of them; or, researchers like Zelda and Ms. Purah did discover the true nature of the Shrine of Resurrection, and are willfully deceiving the player and avatar about it. My view is that the former of these explanations is the most plausible: presumably the efficacy of a machine replica of a human would be severely hindered if the machine and those around it didn’t genuinely believe that the machine really was the person of whom it was actually a copy. So we do in fact have a plausible explanation of why the beliefs of the characters in the game about the Shrine of Resurrection contradict the actual nature of the Shrine: the Sheikah probably intentionally propagated this misinformation in order to ensure the machine replica could operate effectively.

But even still, are the explanatory resources furnished by this analysis really sufficient to give up on the notion that the avatar of Breath of the Wild is Link? You might think that any argument that concludes that Link isn’t the avatar in a Zelda game thereby defeats itself. After all, what is a Zelda game if not a game in which the player’s avatar is Link?

The point is well taken: it’s hard to make sense of a Zelda game without Link as an avatar. But, in the last section of this piece, I want to show you that this is the most logical, albeit potentially unsatisfying, choice of avatar possible in the overall storytelling of Breath of the Wild: the player’s avatar can become Link, but it doesn’t have to do so. The avatar is a blank slate that can evolve in myriad ways.

3. Open World and Open Avatar 

Finally, when we understand how the avatar’s status as a machine imitation of Link allows players to choose whether or not the avatar becomes Link, we will understand in a new and robust way how Breath of the Wild weaves its story and character development into a vast, diverse, open world. This, as I promised at the outset, will shed light both on why people like the game, and on why people don’t like the game.

As the player accesses the various Link-memories strewn across the world, she gains more access to Link’s history, and the machine avatar comes to more closely emulate the mind and personhood of Link. The result is that, if the player takes the time to acquire all 18 of Link’s memories, she really feel as if her avatar has come into being the Link she knows and expects from other games: the memories have made the once-blank avatar a more compelling copy of the hero of legend. It’s telling, in this regard, that the last line of the game’s initial ending is Zelda asking the avatar, following the defeat of Ganon, “Do you really remember me?” The scene fades to black without the avatar giving a definitive answer; it is only once the player has acquired all 18 memories that a subsequent ending sequence will play, which shows Zelda and the avatar working together—like Zelda and Link once did in the memories—in a post-Ganon Hyrule. This reinforces the idea that the avatar only really becomes a full copy of Link, capable of recognizing Zelda, upon accessing all of the Link-memories left for him throughout Hyrule.

But of course, the player can spend uncountably many hours journeying through Hyrule without acquiring any of these memories, and without pursuing the game’s “main quest” to save Zelda and defeat Calamity Ganon. And from our analysis, it follows that a player who does this—exploring Hyrule without pursuing the main quest—thereby controls an avatar that is not Link in any way but his physical appearance. Why does this matter? Surprisingly, this unusual use of a mechanical avatar ends up circumventing a central problem of modern video-game storytelling in open worlds.

Games these days are increasingly focused on open worlds: environments with a huge number of potential paths and adventures that the player can explore in any order, with little regard to how far the player has advanced in the game’s primary storyline (i.e. the one that consists of the game’s central events and typically ends with the credits). This strategy seems like a promising way to afford players more choice and a more dynamic sense of exploration in the game’s world, but it can bring deep problems for storytelling—especially where tales of destiny are concerned.

Consider as an example Final Fantasy XV. The game is at once about a prince (Noctis) who goes on a destined quest to save the world, and also about that prince going on a roadtrip-adventure with his three closest friends. The open world of the game brings about a challenging tension between these two central themes: in particular, every moment that Noctis and his friends adventure around the world completing sidequests is a moment in which Noctis is shirking his duty and putting off saving the world. A similar problem exists in games like Skyrim, but it’s particularly apparent in Final Fantasy XV because the alternatives to the main quest of heroism are often mere leisure activities like driving in a convertible, fishing, hiking, camping, and hunting—activities that it’s hard to believe could ever justly take precedence over saving the world.

Noctis and friends driving

The mechanical identity of Breath of the Wild’s avatar allows the game to solve this problem of open-world storytelling in an unexpected, surprisingly simple way. So long as the player is focusing on sidequests and not collecting Link’s memories, the avatar remains nothing more than a physical copy of Link’s body; thus it stands to reason that the avatar is not under the same obligation as the hero Link to undergo the hero’s quest and defeat Ganon. It is only once the player begins aggregating Link’s memories, thereby molding the avatar’s identity into that of Link, that the avatar becomes correspondingly obligated to save Hyrule from Ganon. Because the avatar’s identity evolves with the choices of the player to pursue or avoid the main quest, the avatar is not automatically blameworthy for avoiding the main quest in the way that Prince Noctis or the Dragonborn would be.

But wouldn’t a Sheikah-designed machine have the same purpose—and therefore the same obligation—to save the world from Ganon, much like the purpose of the Guardians and Divine Beasts? That doesn’t seem right: as I emphasized above, it stands to reason that the Shrine would have an especially flexible design in virtue of being the last failsafe on the Sheikah’s technological system. The final failsafe would ideally be able to accommodate a wide array of potential scenarios and tasks in order to effectively overcome whatever obstacles might impede the previous technological layers of the Sheikah’s system; thus, it would make sense for them to leave the avatar’s purpose up to its pilot—that is, the player. This would explain why the Sheikah would make the prior mental life and identity of the human on whom the machine copy was based an entirely optional component of the machine’s composition, to be acquired only if the player sees fit. This is why any obligation the avatar incurs is contingent on the player’s decision to incur the avatar with that obligation. (One might be able to make the argument that the player, as the avatar’s pilot, is obligated to use it responsibly by saving the world; but even if that were the case, that would be a stark difference from the avatar being so obligated, as Link is in so many other Zelda titles.)

As I said, these dynamics of the avatar’s identity explain why the game is both likable and unlikable. To the first point, the player is free to explore Hyrule with impunity because their avatar is under no intrinsic obligation to save the world in the way that Link would be. But to the second point, notice how radical a departure this is from the typical (but not ubiquitous) Zelda formula: the series is renowned for giving the player control of a chosen hero who must fulfill his destiny by saving the world from evil. To be given control of an automaton for which saving the world is optional therefore has the potential to be deeply unsettling in the broader context of the series: the freedom to explore, so deeply enmeshed in the ethos of the game, cuts against the grain of good-against-evil destiny: it invites the player to take her avatar and cook food instead of combatting Ganon.

Conclusion

With all the Sheikah technology permeating Breath of the Wild’s world, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising after all that the avatar is a piece of Sheikah technology as well. By analyzing the game in this way, not only do we glean a stronger understanding of their technological program and of the player’s relationship to the game, but we also gain a new theoretical basis for the exploratory freedom central to Breath of the Wild’s method of storytelling. The story may distance players from the real Link, but it only does so in order to give them a new kind of choice: a choice to make their avatar the kind of person who is bound by destiny, or to decline that mantle of destiny altogether.

Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games

-by Laila Carter, Featured Author. The following article is based on Laila’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Horror is always an interesting genre: it subverts all the norms that we are used to, goes against human nature, and forces us to confront our own fears. When video games embrace horror, they enable players to willingly embark on a journey that thrives off of dread, thrills, the grotesque, the abnormal, and the contrary. What I want to explore is the storytelling elements behind this, and how the horror genre has transversed different media, from the ancient myths all the way down to present-day media. Storytelling tropes come together in gaming in a fascinating way, creating the fundamental aspect of the horror gaming genre: something that I term “Daemonic Warped Space.” Various mythological elements correlate to various aspects of this idea: specifically to the warped, to the daemonic, and to the combination of the two. In the paper, I will explore how this is the case, demonstrating how ancient and modern mythological tropes can produce horror atmosphere in the present-day storytelling of video games.

Mythological Roots: Horror Tropes

In ancient mythology, the first stories ever told, certain events or occurrences appear in several cultures, thus establishing themselves as common myth anecdotes. Whether these elements were shared between cultures or came about separately in isolation, these anecdotes are widely recognized and still used to this day. Here, we will examine three of these anecdotes in order to understand how they form the atmosphere of the horror genre.

One of the most prominent motifs in almost all mythologies is the descent to the underworld. A hero must embark down into the abyss, into the land of the dead to encounter its mysteries and overcome some obstacle that is keeping her from progressing. The Underworld is the most famous type of “Otherworld” – a supernatural realm of spirits, of the soul. It is a realm opposite to reality, one that makes regular mortals question their judgment, sanity, and existence. Most of the time, the Underworld is portrayed in a religious light since the afterlife is one of the greatest mysteries in all faiths. The Underworld can be Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory in the middle (like in Dante’s The Divine Comedy); it can be Limbo, the Spirit World, the Realm of Shadows, or it can be Hades in Greek mythology. But it doesn’t have to be religious: the Underworld is simply a place of no return, where the spirits of those forgotten tend to wander; if characters ever do escape, they come back up as changed people (and if they don’t escape, then the story is badly written). It is Frodo’s journey into the horrid land of Mordor, where the land is covered in ash, fire, and brutality; it is Limbo – the deepest layer of dreams – in the movie Inception; it is Harry Potter’s literal death and meeting with Dumbledore one last time. The Underworld may appear very differently in each medium, but each place has one thing in common: the realm serves as a place of spiritual undertaking, forcing the hero to deal with internal struggles and psychological roadblocks, whether those be identity crises, relationship issues, or lack of faith in others or oneself. As Clyde W. Ford says:

“Mythological journeys of descent into the world of the dead are symbolic of movement from the light world of ordinary reality to the dark world of the unconscious; there, just as when we fall asleep, we die to the world of wakeful consciousness and awake to the marvelous world of evanescent forms and symbols within. The challenge met by those who successfully travel these corridors of the psyche is to claim some boon or gift from this inner realm: an insight or revelation that will release the energies pent up in the labyrinths of personal and social crises; the marker of a new direction that offers reinvigoration where old ways have grown stale” (Ford, 20).

Once you enter the Underworld, it is very hard to escape. Successful characters learn to look within themselves for the way out of this haunting, confusing, and dreaded place. The hero’s descent, then, is not only to uncover whatever secret she needs to in order to progress in her physical quest, but also to overcome her fears and the crisis of mortality. She must accept who she is, including her faults, yet also realize her potential for growth—that it is not her time yet to stay in the land of the dead, but rather to find meaning in the descent as a way to challenge her current mindset and change it for the better. The journey to the Underworld helps the character cross the threshold into a “personal land of the dead…dying one’s former self so that a new self may be born in its stead” (Ford, 26). The character must confront the personal hell within herself before she can save the day. This does not necessarily mean defying death outright (though sometimes it does), but more of accepting death as a possibility. Characters learn to let themselves change in order to succeed in the normal world, whether they initially like it or not.

The descent to the Underworld is such a universal theme that is appears in almost every single mythology that exists: heroes rescuing (or attempting to rescue) their loved ones from death, immortals dying and becoming gods of the Underworld, or demigods trying to prove their resistance to death and courage. A famous example of the descent to the Underworld lies in the Odyssey. Odysseus must travel down to Hades in order to figure out how to get back home and restore his life. He meets all the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, as well as his late mother; from them, he learns to be a bit wiser, and to take a good look at what it means to be a (Greek) “hero.” Was the glory from the Trojan War really worth it? Does acquiring riches and killing all those people amount to such glory? Odysseus takes these questions to heart, and because of this, he is able to approach the problems at home with a new perspective, enabling him to win the “glory” of his home with tactics different from the Trojan War (except at the very end, but that’s always controversial). The Underworld and the meeting of the dead help Odysseus succeed in completing his goal of returning home and protecting his family. He has to overcome inner struggles and change his old self into a different man before he can leave to continue on his quest.

The second mythological trope of horror is hard to explain, given its nature. The Unspeakable “It” is a presence that permeates throughout the entire setting, invading all space with its terrible presence. This entity is usually never directly seen, but instead felt: the character is overcome with an inexplicable sense of dread as she feels something on her skin, something watching her every move—yet she cannot say what that something is. The Unspeakable “It” is an amorphous being contaminates the very air you breathe and surrounds you with its unsetting power. It has no shape or boundary, and it tends to make up its own rules as it grows into something overwhelming. There is no true escape from this creature: there is only unwilling acceptance, complete assimilation, or mad obsession.

The Unspeakable “It” appears in all forms of storytelling, though some incarnations are much subtler than others. In mythology, this creature can be a force of evil that constantly tries to consume the world—for example, the chaos god Apep from Egyptian mythology. It can also be a being who exists throughout the whole world and is not constrained to one specific place, like Gaea from Greek mythology. Many times, the Unspeakable “It” is simply “The Darkness” or “Chaos” with a capital ‘C’, as nothing else can really describe such forces. They just exist and usually try to thwart the heroes of the story. The most famous portrayal of this mysterious entity, however, comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraftian horror appears at the very beginning of the story and never leaves: it haunts the narrative to the very end, even if the characters somehow “kill” it (spoiler: Lovecraftian monsters never truly die. Their existence is permanent throughout the world). These monsters are made of a conglomerate of pieces, from tentacles to eyeballs, from disjointed arms and legs to inhuman mouths, from ordinary animals to creatures never seen before by a human.[1] These monsters can be unimaginable, as Lovecraftian himself can barely describe the creatures in his stories – they do not fit into a coherent description that humans would comprehend. For example: “It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualised by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (“The Dunwich Horror”). Most importantly, Lovecraftian horrors are ancient, huge, and everywhere. When describing his creature Yogo-Sothoth, Lovecraft states that it “was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike” (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”). Lovecraft’s horror features creatures of unimaginable amalgamation and limitless possibility, threatening the entire earth and space as we know it.

Like Lovecraft’s monsters, the Unspeakable “It” is a “kind of force that doesn’t belong in our part of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature” (“The Dunwich Horror”). It is an entity that invades our world like a parasite, consuming and overtaking everything in its virus-like corruption. The best thing to do it get rid of it as quickly as possible; however, you can never truly destroy the horror that is the Unspeakable “It,” because once it’s here, it is here to stay.

The last mythological story element we will consider is the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Blaming Athenians for the death of his son, King Minos of Crete required seven young men and seven young women from Athens to feed to his Minotaur—an abominable half-man, half-bull—as payment. After the second round of sacrifices, Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, decides to go as as one of the young men in order to kill the horrible beast and end the sacrifices. Unfortunately, the Minotaur resides in a labyrinth created by the genius inventor Daedalus, and escaping from its confusing halls is impossible. Luckily for him, Theseus has the help of Princess Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, who gives him string so that he can retrace his steps to escape the labyrinth. Theseus navigates the complex maze, kills the Minotaur, and becomes a legendary hero.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Unspeakable “It” trope have features of obvious relevance to the horror genre, but The Minotaur and the Labyrinth might instead seem like a very specific, heroic story. I argue that the monster-living-within-a-hostile-environment narrative is one of the main elements of horror, one that makes a story enticing and tense. The Minotaur knows the layout of the Labyrinth, having lived there all its life, while Theseus does not. He, and others before him, had a great disadvantage as they had to navigate an environment that was foreign, confusing, and treacherous. The Athenians did not know the “puzzle” of the Labyrinth, whereas the Minotaur could easily find its way around. Theseus had to figure out a trick to solving the puzzle (i.e. using the string) in order to survive. However, unlike Theseus, many characters have a hard time finding “string” in their world’s labyrinth. These characters did not have outside help, and instead had to make their own string—sometimes on the spot, and other times through dangerous games of trial and error. All the while, they must escape from a terrifying force that wishes to destroy them. The danger can take place in a literal maze, like in the story The Maze Runner (which is the entire plot of the book). For a more figurative type of labyrinth in the same genre, The Hunger Games presents an open world of survival; there is no “maze” per se, but the setting remains hostile and foreign to Katniss, filled with murderous enemies and lacking any plausible means of escape.

For a more concrete example of the Minotaur and Labyrinth trope, in Neil Gaiman’s fiction book Coraline, Coraline must somehow find a way out of a distorted world that mirrors her own small neighborhood: a world that is controlled by the Other Mother, a grotesque, button-eyed figure who wishes to consume the girl’s soul. Coraline must traverse the twisted and changing hallways of her Other house, encountering decaying forms of her Other Father and neighbors, and saving her parents from the dark distortions of space and shadows. The Other Mother created the eerie version of the house and watches Coraline at all times—she knows the “labyrinth” that Coraline has to navigate, and is fully aware of the girl’s every move, putting Coraline at a severe disadvantage. Coraline also has no string at the start of the perilous journey, no way of knowing how to defeat the Other Mother and escape her realm; over time, however, she manages to overcome her fears, find a few allies, and collect resources to fight against the Other Mother and escape.

The Minotaur and Labyrinth story element, when used in horror, creates an atmosphere that keeps the reader/audience on the edge of their seats. The monster and the setting have combined into one force that the heroes must overcome in order to succeed, even though the monster has the advantage of knowing where it is in terms of space and time, while the heroes do not.

Horror Atmosphere: The Daemonic Warped Space

Next, I am going to discuss atmosphere in horror, because it is arguably the most important storytelling aspect to the genre. Horror (good horror, at least) has a specific type of atmosphere, one that creeps directly into the skin and leaves readers/viewers/players on the edge of their seat, not trusting anything that they see or hear.

The first element of horror atmosphere deals with the setting of the narrative: the Warped Space. In his essay “Lewtonian Space: Val Lewton’s Films and The New Space of Horror,” J.P. Tellote explains distorted or “warped” space as “the site of those ‘subject/object disturbances’ that distort our conventional experience of space and open onto a decidedly disturbing world” (Tellote, 5). The conventional setting—something the audience expects—has twisted into a new environment, one filled with unknown variables and situations, one that the audience does not recognize and thus fears. These spaces are “‘not empty, but full of disturbing objects and forms’, yet not so much real objects as amorphous projection of ‘all the neuroses and phobias of the modern subject’…(Vidler2000:viii)” (3), meaning the space of the medium distorts reality with the viewer’s own fears and imagination. People see one thing on the screen—an open doorway, oddly placed furniture, or a long dark hallway—but they project “phobias” that linger in their minds, creating a twisted space that blurs the objective reality on the screen and the personal fears of the audience. Lewtionian space has the “ability to place [viewers] in a space where the imagination is free to play – and to confront our very fears” (6). The space plays with the vulnerability of the human psyche. It leaves people to their own horrors, to their inner demons, and lets their fears run wild without any way of justifying their existence. This space “warps” the rational and the irrational, blurring the line between logical understanding and madness, preying on the audience’s fear of concealing darkness, eerie emptiness, and strange camera movement. The audience projects imaginative horrors into these spaces, and they then have no choice but to confront them.

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This irrationality of human fear ties into the concept of the “daemonic,” the second element of horror atmosphere. The daemonic is something Eugene Thacker describes as “fully immanent, and yet never fully present…[the daemon] is at once pure force and flow, but, not being a discrete thing itself, it is also pure nothingness” (Thacker 35). In this conception, daemons are not physical creatures with horns, hooves, and pointed tails; instead, they occupy no space, have no physical presence, and are something that humans can neither touch nor describe. They are a force parallel to our human existence, much like abstract concepts of chaos, luck, or, in this case, nothingness. As a non-human entity, daemonic force is “a limit…both that which we stand in relation to and that which remains forever inaccessible to us. This limit is unknown, and the unknown, as the genre of horror reminds us, is often a source of fear or dread” (27). Daemonic force is so against the natural laws of the world that it doesn’t exist in the same realm as we do, and yet human existence is defined and haunted by its presence. It is everything we are not. This situation of a non-human and intangible force that violates all the known laws of nature frightens us, for it is human nature to fear anything that is not like us, especially if its features remain a complete enigma. Humans cannot grasp the concept of the daemonic and they never will, but it is a force that constantly surrounds them. In order to understand human existence in the horror genre, we must acknowledge the presence of the daemonic.

In horror literature, film, and gaming, the two concepts of Warped Lewtonian space and the daemonic force fuse together that twists the environment into a twisted version of imagined, psychological fear. Everything combines into one realm, one entity that I call the “Daemonic Warped Space”: A place not empty, but filled with forces that are both incomprehensible and inaccessible to humans, forces that distort our perception of reality and fantasy. This new setting is everywhere; both physical and mental, it will follow the characters as an encompassing entity with a mind of its own. Characters can never touch or restrain it because of its ubiquity. The Daemonic Warped is both the hideous monster waiting to attack, and the creaking walls that trap the character within. It is both the darkness that hides everything in shadow, and the hallucinations stemming from a character’s tormented psyche. It is the embodiment of a character’s limit, subconsciousness, and fears, and it is nearly inescapable. The Daemonic Warped space is crucial to the horror genre because it forms the fundamental basis of good narrative atmosphere: it becomes an entity itself in the fictional world, trapping the characters in a living nightmare in its distorted yet contained presence.

Mythology and Atmosphere: The Storytelling of Horror Gaming

We have discussed three mythological elements that appear in horror storytelling, along with the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space. These all relate to each other and work together to create the foundation of storytelling in horror fiction, specifically in video games.

The Journey to the Underworld trope remarks on the setting of a hero’s journey, forcing the character to travel down into the world of the soul and the unconscious. The Underworld, then, is a Warped Space: a place of the dead and the supernatural, where a living being creates a conflict of existence between life and death, the physical and the mental, consciousness and dreams. In horror gaming, this descent into the Warped Underworld is the basis for the entire game. The goal for the player is to find a way out and survive the ordeal.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Warped Space come together in the murky, crawling city of Rapture in the video game BioShock. Rapture is a new place, both to the avatar, Jack, and to the player; it is a place with different rules and norms. It is a city at the bottom of the ocean, built in the 1946 and initially capitalizing on the American ideals of prosperity and success in its early days. However, when Jack descends into the city, its corridors are devoid of life and instead filled with corpses. Messages in blood are splattered across the walls, used weapons lie everywhere, and the glass walls separating Jack from the ocean groan against the silence of the city. Not only does the city subvert the norm by existing at the bottom of the ocean, but it is then distorted even further by its emptiness (a city is supposed to be busy, filled with people), its violent backstory, and its murderous inhabitants that have strayed away from both sanity and humanity. Unlike Odysseus, who travelled to the Underworld willingly, the player and Jack are thrown down into this world with neither an explanation nor any way of escaping. They confront the dark and eerie halls of Rapture with no clue as to what they are fighting or why, and yet they know they must fight simply in order to survive.

Rapture also distorts the very concepts of life and death. The life of the ocean surrounds the bloody massacre in the city, creating a conflict of existence between the living and the dead. This is also seen with the existence of Jack himself: (mostly) everyone else in the game is dead, and yet somehow you (Jack/the player) are still alive. You have to survive in a place that has been consumed by greed, corruption, and destruction. Welcome to the Underworld: a land of the dead that doesn’t greet the living lightly, where escape is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. Rapture is a city warped by death and fear, causing the player to doubt every corner, every character, and every action they take.

Both Jack and the player have no idea as to what is happening or why they are in Rapture in the first place. All they know is they somehow have to get out of the horrid, decrepit place before someone out for blood kills them. The player must survive and press forward in order to discover the secrets of Rapture, of Adam, and of Jack, someone about whom the player has very little information. Rapture, then, represents a realm of complete mystery, one that you must unearth as you proceed through the game. It is the embodiment of the Jack’s troubled psyche, dark from his amnesiac state and corrupted by his haunting previous life. His subconscious leaks into the atmosphere of the place, reminding him and the player of his tortured and distorted childhood, of his criminal tendencies, and of his “hacked” mind.[2]

During one moment in the game, the player finds the powerful shotgun lying in the middle of the floor. Once Jack equips the new weapon, however, all the lights shut off. The player can hear footsteps and sounds emanating all around, and tenses—an ambush is coming. A spotlight then switches on, lighting a small circle of the room while the outside remains covered in pitch black; from this cover, enemies pop out and attack. This switching off of the lights and revealing only a small portion of the scene portrays Rapture’s trickiness as a whole, and how the city messes with Jack’s mind throughout the game. Jack will remain “in the dark” about certain people or history of the city (and of his past), only gaining concrete knowledge through audio recordings that deliver snippets of information. The player can choose to ignore these audio logs and proceed through the game blindly, or he/she can slowly piece together the misses pieces of the puzzle, “illuminating” the story bit-by-bit. Rapture, however, will only show the parts of the story that it wants to show, not giving Jack what he wants—his past in Rapture—until the end. Before that, the avatar must deal with the “patches of light” that make his path clear, that clear up his mind about the truth of the city, and that help him discover who he is as a person. The rest of the city, though, will remain in the dark throughout much of the game, where hauntings of the city and of Jack’s past sneak out and try to destroy him. Rapture portrays Jack’s distorted psyche, and he must descend into its darkest corners in order to escape its traps and leave the demented place behind.[3]

If the Journey to the Underworld and the Warped space complement each other in storytelling, then the Unspeakable “It” Trope and the Daemonic do as well. Both the Unspeakable “It” and the Daemonic permeate the entire setting, existing everywhere and with no chance of escape. Both come together as one force in the horror games, as a monster that is both in the walls and has a physical form, hiding just around the corner waiting to scare you.

The Unspeakable “It” and its Daemonic presence appear in several games where the enemy is seemingly everywhere yet nowhere: In Metroid Fusion, the X parasite inhabits every biological organism and hunts you. In System Shock 2, the Many infect the dead to attack the protagonist while SHODAN hacks into cyberspace throughout the game. In Bloodborne, everything is a Lovecraftian horror waiting to pull you into its sick realm. Yet one game in particular stands out for portraying the Daemonic, Unspeakable “It.” SOMA, by Frictional Games, follows Simon throughout the claustrophobic halls of PATHOS-II, a(nother) facility built underwater after an apocalypse occurred on the surface of earth. The moment he wakes up in this place, he is confronted with a slimey, tarish growth on the walls, one that pulsates and quivers to the touch. The substance is the far-reaching extension of the WAU, an organic AI computer that consumes the entire PATHOS-II research facility. The computer grows and expands on walls and through computers mainframes into horrid creatures (who were former humans), within both deceased and living staff members. It infects nearly everything, and all your actions/decisions are based on its looming presence that either helps or hinders your progress. Even when you (might) decide to “kill” it in the end, its murky goop is still present in the corridors, in the systems, and in Simon. The WAU will continue to live on, and humanity will be corrupted by its organic technology.

The ever-consuming presence of the WAU is due to its programming: the computer’s main goal is to “save” the remainder of humanity by integrating humans with itself. It amalgamates with any organic form, whether living or dead, to produce a being that can survive after the apocalypse. But, are these beings really human? At one point, Simon comes across a woman who is still questionably alive, for tubes and wire run through her body, and her breathing is synced with the WAU’s organic goo that she sits upon. Other encounters with humans show their organs completely replaced with gears, lights, and machines. Catherine, the AI copy of a previous human mind that you find, is infected with the WAU on the device that houses her. Even Simon replenishes his health through the WAU at specific sites, because he too is a copy of a former human mind. Barely anyone in the game is fully human anymore, and the player can feel this shift into non-humanness as the story develops. Simon cannot escape the ever-present WAU, both physically—as it covers the walls and blocks his path—and mentally—as it constantly makes him question what he is. Is Simon a copy of a human, or another extension of the WAU’s organic components? Is the WAU really “saving” humanity, even though it is taking away basic human parts? The computer and its effect on the PATHOS-II make Simon, Catherine, and player question what it means to be alive, serving as a questionable boundary of human existence. The WAU’s consuming appearance is the daemonic force that Simon and the player must survive against, one they cannot truly escape but which instead allows them to examine their complicated existence as human and machine.

Lastly, the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space corresponds to the mythological story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. With the Minotaur representing the Daemonic and the Labyrinth the Warped Space, both come together to illustrate the perfect balance of physicality and psychological tension that a good horror game needs in order to make the player fear for their virtual safety.

These two elements of horror will appear in every (good) horror game, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent masters the performance. The player must walk in the shoes of Daniel, an amnesiac who must wander through dungeon hallways in Brennenburg Castle in order to uncover the truth of his past. The corridors of the castle are all giant puzzles, which the player must “solve” in order to proceed forward, serving as the labyrinth that will eventually lead him to the “Minotaur” he has to defeat. Eventually, the player comes across the iconic monsters of the game: The Gatherers, deformed humanoid beings with disgusting, gaping mouths. Unlike the avatar in BioShock, however, Daniel cannot fight against the Gatherers. His only tactic for survival is to hide behind boxes or run to a safe area. Given this and the total eeriness of the mansion, the monsters and the setting of Amnesia: The Dark Descent create a collective sense of dread for the player. You must avoid the monsters in layered, environmental darkness, making the monsters hard to pinpoint. The darkness blocks the visibility of entire rooms sometimes, and yet the player can sense when a monster is present. Most of the time, all you have to go by are the sounds the Gatherers make, a door creaking open across the room, or soft footsteps. And, because of the nature of a labyrinth, it is incredibly hard to know when and where a monster will appear. The player can only move forward by guesses, inferences, and imagination. To make matters worse, Daniel cannot stay in the dark for too long or else he will lose his sanity, blurring the lines of reality and causing hallucinations to appear on the screen. Daniel does have a lantern to light his way through the complicated maze of the mansion, but this help is no Theseus’ string: the lantern needs to be constantly replenished with oil (a resource that’s hard to come by), and the Gatherers can spot you more easily with the light on. Darkness is both your friend and your enemy, helping you hide and helping the monsters finding you. Amnesia: The Dark Descent perfectly captures feeling of terror in a game where the monsters know the “puzzle” of the environment better than you do. The Gatherers understand the tricks and complexities of the maze-like hallways, and surprise the players in rooms with undiscovered entrances. They use the long hallways where darkness covers the end to ambush you; they conceal themselves in fog-filled rooms; and they corner you into one-way corridors filled with boxes, planks, and other items that thwart your progress and bring you closer to death. The Gatherers and the mansion work together as the Daemonic and the Warped Space to create the sensation of all-encompassing danger, consuming darkness, and inevitable death for the player, bringing out the sheer dread in anticipation of a monstrous encounter.

The Daemonic Warped Space works effectively if the two elements, the Daemonic and the Warped Space, are together. If they are separated, however, the atmosphere quickly falls apart. Unfortunately, this situation can be seen in The Dark Descent’s sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. At one point, the enemy pigs, the equivalent of Gatherers, leave the manor where the avatar wanders and begin to attack the neighboring town. The initial setting of the Machine is now left behind as the avatar walks through a more open space of the outside village, hearing the massacre of the villagers by the various pigs off-screen. The once-horrible monsters have abandoned the space, no longer using the environment to their advantage; the setting is no longer blocking the player’s path and producing suspense situations around the mechanics of the game. The Daemonic and the Warped Space are no longer using each other to create the basic element of fear: the player does not feel threatened, and the horror of the situation is lost. In order to create the tense and chilling atmosphere of the horror genre, a game must keep the Daemonic and the Warped Space together. Only when the two play off each other’s strengths to create one dreadful enemy can a player be immersed in their own fear.

Conclusion

In closing, I will look back upon one of my favorite horror games, one that represents the ultimate form of the Daemonic Warped Space and demonstrates how effective it can be in a video game. P.T. is the perfect example of the daemonic forces and warped setting fusing together to produce pure terror in the minds of players. What the game so extraordinary is it was only a demo for a much longer game (that got cancelled!), and the player does not actually do anything in the demo except for keep walking. The Warped Space distorts onto itself and repeats, causing the player to walk down a seemingly endless loop of the same corridor. You are stuck in a weird limbo where the rules of reality collapse and the dark subconscious reigns. The hallway projects different phobias and scares in each iteration of the loop, growing darker each turn, having a once-closed bathroom door now open, or inputting a different sound in the air. The monster is nothing specific; rather, it is an unknown force that you cannot fight against. It keeps changing, and the threat against you is vague in nature, making it even more terrible. Yet the “force” of the daemonic feels everywhere, like it’s the very hallway itself because it keeps messing with you. You experience the Daemonic according to its own will: it produces fears and monsters regardless of your decisions, acting alive in its own hauntedness. The only way to overcome this loop nightmare is to keep journeying, surviving the loop and experiencing the sadistic presence. The continuous, warped hallway remains alive with the Daemonic and keeps morphing to throw you into further torment, producing scarier circumstances at each turn. Your psyche does all the work, trying to piece together the story, the monster, the setting, and the way to escape, yet halting when confronted with an unknown entity due to your imagined fear.

The best example of this occurs on the fifth iteration of the loop. You turn the corner to face the exit door, and instead spot the first being in the game standing your way: a deranged, mumbling, crooked woman sways in your path. You know approaching her is a bad idea, but that is the only way to continue. So you walk forward, and, right before you reach her, the lights shut off, leaving you in pure darkness. It is the most terrifying thing because the setting and the monster are both fooling with you, and you as the player know that there is nothing you can do about whatever will happen next. You simply must continue forward in a darkness where a monster may or may not be, and that is utterly horrifying. The Daemonic Warped Space is an essential atmospheric element to horror storytelling and gameplay mechanics, for it makes you confront the fear of the unknown, and, no matter how hard you try, you will be going against monsters beyond your control and knowledge—monsters that work with the dreadful environment to make your life absolutely miserable.

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Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] From “The Dunwich Horror”—Someone describing the invisible monster terrorizing the village: “‘Bigger’n a barn . . . all made o’ squirmin’ ropes . . . hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step . . . nothin’ solid abaout it—all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together . . . great bulgin’ eyes all over it . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’ . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings . . . an’ Gawd in heaven—that haff face on top! . . .’”  http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/dh.aspx (Seriously, read this story).

[2] I am not trying to spoil the game entirely, but instead just hope to give readers a hint of the story. If you want to know more, you’ll have to play the game for yourself.

[3] Or not, depending which the ending the player gets.

 

 

Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

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Introduction

1990s 3-D platforming games were relatively difficult games, especially for my 3-year-old self. I distinctly remember playing Banjo Kazooie back in 1998. With my young, untrained fingers, it was simply impossible to walk across one of the many absurdly thin bridges spanning a dangerous gap without falling. But at that age my will was indomitable, and through countless hours of training, I became a master at crossing thin bridges. Platforming games became unilaterally easier at that point. I could apply the same skillset to each instance.

Then in 2007 Assassin’s Creed came out. Within the first hour of the game, I ended up in the same thin bridge predicament that I remembered so fondly from my days of playing mid-90s platformers for the Nintendo 64. As I set out across the bridge, I moved very slowly, ensuring that my camera was pointed straight ahead and I maintained exactly the course that I wanted.

Then I messed up. I got distracted and my thumb twitched ever so slightly. I mentally flinched, and awaited my inevitable plunge from the bridge. But that plunge never came. Altair remained perched on the bridge as if nothing happened. I stared in disbelief. I knew that I should have fallen.

But a thought occurred to me at that moment: Altair is an expertly trained assassin, not a bear named Banjo bumbling his way through the world. Why should he ever fall unexpectedly while crossing a thin path? How would he have survived his training and his missions up to this point? Maybe it was not actually possible to jump off the bridge.

I decided to test my theory, and try to jump off the bridge. Needless to say it didn’t work. The game prevented me from jumping off the bridge. But rather than be mad at the game for not placing trust in my ability to handle the mechanical difficulty of crossing the bridge, I was pleased. I was pleased because the game really put me in the shoes of the avatar. Altair is a master assassin, and as such needs to be more skilled than the 12-year-old who was controlling his actions as an avatar. By shaping the input I gave the game, the engine preserved the character of Altair.

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Authors have a difficult task in creating a narrative for a game. While the author is in command of a majority of the events in a game, there is a single variable which remains outside of their control: the player. The player’s actions are integral to the narrative of a game, and yet are by nature not within the control of the person who wrote the narrative of a game. But that does not necessarily leave the integrity of a game’s narrative to the whims of the player. In order to maintain a game’s narrative consistency, the believability of a story and the actions of the characters contained within, an author may introduce subtle nudges to the player’s actions. Not all games need to do this, however: some narratives are perfectly well maintained by a non-cooperative or incompetent player. But some narratives cannot afford the level of outside shaping to the narrative brought on by a player left entirely to their own devices.

The example I gave above is instructive because it shows how a game’s controls can be an important force in preserving, or not preserving, the narrative consistency of a game. If Altair had been able to fall, it undermines to a degree our ability as players to believe that he is an expert assassin. If Banjo never fell from ledges, maybe it would be hard to believe that we were playing as a human-like bear. By restricting (or noticeably not restricting) the ways in which the player can control the avatar, an author can maintain the consistency of the narrative being presented to the player.

There are many ways that control schemes can have an impact on the internal narrative consistency of a game. But in this and the following two articles, I would like to describe one particular concept: nudgy controls.

In the interest of defining nudges I would like to start by first defining what a game that lacks any nudges looks like. These are games in which an input X on the part of the player reliably yields an output Y within the game, so long as the physics of the engine allow it. For example, pushing left on the control stick always yields moving left, unless there is a physical wall blocking your path. There is a consistency to how the controls work. This is the example of Banjo who will reliably walk left in all situations when the player presses left, even if that results in him falling to his death.

Nudgy controls often resemble the paradigm described above, in that most of the time, an input of X yields output Y. However, in some cases, instead of input X yielding output Y, instead some other output, Z, is yielded. A nudge is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative coherence and Z preserves narrative consistency. As an example, most of the time when a player pushes left on the control stick, the avatar moves left. However, in some minority of cases the avatar instead moves forward. This is the example of Altair, who is nudged away from jumping off of the path to his death, presumably due to his training as an assassin.

Each individual instance of Y occurring instead of Z does not necessarily preserve narrative consistency. Context determines the effectiveness in this regard. The nudges in Assassin’s Creed help to preserve internal narrative consistency, while the same Y-to-Z conversions in Banjo Kazooie would actually undermine the internal narrative consistency. Thus the same mechanic used in Assassin’s Creed would that could be called a nudge would not be called a nudge in Banjo Kazooie. My definition of a nudge contains only the cases in which the instance of Y occurring instead of Z actually does preserve narrative consistency.

There are several kinds of games which maintain narrative consistency explicitly through lack of nudges. These games include:

  1. Trial-by-death games.
  2. Games with intentionally obtuse controls.
  3. Multiplayer skill tournaments

For the remainder of this article, I’ll go over these three types of games that don’t incorporate many nudges. In a follow-up article (Part II), I’ll discuss two differing models for nudgy controls.

  1. Trial-by-death games

A game’s mechanics can be described as trial-by-death if a majority of the gameplay consists of players dying at least once before success. There are a few possible reasons for the repeated player death. Through the death they could learn about a mechanic they could not have known without extra-gameworld knowledge before succeeding. In a puzzle game, there might be asymmetric information, such that the player cannot learn the solution to the puzzle without failing once at it. Or the game could just throw innovative, difficult challenges at the player that do not require a player death, but simply often result in it. These games are not simply “hard” in a conventional way; players usually cannot avoid dying entirely simply by learning some basic set of skills and mastering them. Unlike Pac-Man, which always features the same ostensive situation but with an ever-escalating degree of difficulty, a trial-by-death game will constantly change the nature of the challenges along with the difficulty.

In order for trial-by-death games to function properly, the player has to be sure that they can trace the effect of their death to their own actions. That way, given the new information they get from dying, they can change the way they play to not get killed again. This is one crucial reason for trial-by-death games not to have nudges in the controls. As the game designers at “Extra Credits” put it, studios like From Software (which created Dark Souls) make a “covenant with the player.” This covenant is that the game has a consistent ruleset. So the rules will not suddenly change, even in extenuating circumstances. If the player gets killed, they can always trace it back to their own actions, rather than pointing at the game engine and saying “it changed the rules.” The flipside is also true, though: if the player succeeds they can rightly congratulate themselves. But this sort of covenant with the player requires consistency in the controls. And so it precludes nudges. There should never be a moment in which input X could spit out either Y or Z. The player should always be sure of the output (if they’ve learned the game sufficiently). If there were nudges, it would be difficult for the player to diagnose the cause of their death, because they may be unsure about whether their own action or the nudge killed them. The inability to diagnose the problem would then lead to an inability to coherently change behavior for another try.

But the lack of nudges also can preserve narrative consistency in trial-by-death games. Dark Souls is an exemplar in this regard. As an undead in a world of gods and other undead, each task requires many attempts before success. By leaving the controls unhindered by nudges, narrative is preserved, since the player inevitably must try each task multiple times before success.[1] In this way the play experience parallels the avatar’s actions. Within the context of the game world, the avatar dies repeatedly attempting to accomplish his or her goal. The player as well most likely fails and tries again many times before success.

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

Dark Souls is not unique in being a game that benefits from a non-nudgy control scheme. There are other narratives for which non-nudgy control schemes contribute to narrative consistency. In Octodad, the player controls an octopus masquerading as a normal 1950s breadwinning human father. Octodad has a control scheme which is intentionally obtuse, in that the controls are unintuitive and difficult, yet faithfully respond to player input. In particular, there is a button that lifts his “leg” (which is actually a tentacle), a control stick to move said leg, another control stick to move his “arm” (again actually a tentacle), and many objects in the game are easy to knock over. The player’s difficulty navigating the obtuse control scheme mimics the experience of an octopus attempting with only minor success imitating the normal motions of a human.

octodad.jpg

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to do. No nudges are necessary in Octodad because either a change from output Y to output Z would help the player control the octopus better, which is antithetical to the narrative of the game, or the change from Y to Z would further inhibit the player. While initially this may seem like a choice that would further enhance the narrative consistency of Octodad, I’d argue that actually wouldn’t be the case. In order to mirror the experience of the inept octopus, the player should also feel as though their own actions are not very effective by their own nature. If the player feels they are forced to fail, they will not be in the same sort of physical situation struggling with the controller as the octopus has in struggling with his body. The introduction of nudges does nothing to further maintain narrative consistency over leaving the game non-nudgy.

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

There exist a wide variety of games that could potentially be considered multiplayer skill tournament games, and any game that fits the archetype is well suited for a control scheme that lacks nudges. I define this category by its three primary features. First, it is a multiplayer game, meaning that multiple players participate in a game. Second, it is a competition of skill, meaning that within the narrative of the game, the most skilled competitor comes out victorious, leaving nothing to chance or sabotage by another player. Third, it takes place in a tournament environment, in which the central narrative thrust is the competition itself, rather than a narrative that contains within it a competition.

A multiplayer skill tournament game doesn’t use nudges because an inclusion of nudges would undermine the narrative of the game. A nudge may cause an of imbalance in the skill levels of the competitors who are controlled by players. This imbalance potentially makes a player question the validity of the victor of the tournament, and thus the narrative itself. One will note that in the absence of any one of the three conditions—that the game is multiplayer, that the game is skill-based, and that the game is a tournament—the requirement for nudge-less gameplay vanishes. A game that is not multiplayer could include non-player characters that are simply more or less skilled than the player. A game that is not skill-based (for instance a game based on randomness) does not require an even playing field. And if the narrative is not a tournament or simply contains a tournament within it, non-tournament aspects of the tournament may require nudgy controls.

There is nothing in particular that pins the multiplayer skill tournament to a particular genre, such as racing or fighting games. Presumably any multiplayer game could have the narrative and gameplay of a multiplayer skill tournament. However, in practice, one finds that only a particular subset of games have realized the multiplayer skill tournament. Those games are 1v1 fighters. There are numerous multiplayer games that one may think are multiplayer skill tournaments, but actually aren’t. I’ll begin by explaining some examples that may seem at first glance to fit the category but actually do not. Usually this is due to the game not satisfying the second requirement: that the game is purely a competition of skill

The first example is the least related to multiplayer skill tournaments out of what I’ll discuss, but it’s still instructive to consider it. Mario Party seems to be an instance of a game that is multiplayer, where the players compete in a game of skill to determine the victor. However, a significant portion of the results of the game are blatantly based on randomness as opposed to skill (evidenced by the constant die rolls). So Mario Party fails to meet the second requirement and so should not be considered a multiplayer skill tournament.

Another example that one may consider is Call of Duty, which features a set of players competing at a skill-based game to determine the victor. Call of Duty fails to meet the requirement in two important regards, though. Firstly, there is no notion of a tournament present in the narrative. More often, Call of Duty is about a single war, or various covert operations, which have far more complicated victory conditions than a single match between players (including civilian casualties, and political stability post-war). Secondly, due to the nature of the cruelty of war, there is an awareness that sometimes even the most skilled soldier is a random casualty of war. Within the narrative of a war game such as Call of Duty, there is an awareness of the possibility of random loss, since war is too complicated and messy. Sometimes the best soldier dies. I will not be considering Call of Duty to be a multiplayer skill tournament because of the random losses and lack of a tournament narrative.

One example that may initially seem to be a multiplayer skill tournament is a racing game. In principle, there is nothing preventing a racing game from fitting the category. If the game is multiplayer, the vehicles are roughly equal in power (however this is defined for a particular vehicle), and the narrative is that of a tournament, the game would fit the category quite nicely. However, this is not what you tend to see in practice. In racing games one tends to see one of two things: sabotage, or unequal vehicles. In the instance of sabotage, one character has somehow tampered with another character’s vehicle, skewing the results of the tournament. In this case, an author should probably introduce nudges to the gameplay to make clear that there is something preventing the player from fully realizing their skill. Often, as well, the different characters have clearly unequal vehicles, making it not the case that skill specifically is what determines the victor. If a racing game avoids these two problems, it would be a good candidate for a multiplayer skill tournament.

From these examples one can see how fitting the mould of a multiplayer skill tournament is a case-by-case basis. From here I will consider a set of games which nicely fit the category.

1v1 fighters are a paradigmatic example of a multiplayer skill tournament. There are many games that fit the 1v1 fighting game paradigm. A few notable examples include Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Although the category cannot be pinned down entirely, a majority of these games feature two players fighting against each other in two dimensions. There exist a wide variety of moves available to the player, some of which are activated by button combinations, or a specific sequence of button presses. These moves tend to be more powerful. In order to be successful at a 1v1 fighter game, a player must know three things: the powerful button combos, when it’s best to use any particular move, and how their opponent will likely play.

Most 1v1 fighters tend to share a similar narrative basis: a collection of fighters come together to compete in a tournament, where the winner takes all. A prototypical example of this would be the original Tekken, which features no overt story other than the existence of a tournament. While some of these games take characters from other stories, the narrative is more often than not framed in the fighting tournament schema, in which the strongest, most highly skilled fighter is the winner. And since the players are the participants of the tournament, acting as the fighters themselves, the most highly skilled player should always come out victorious. 1v1 fighting games realize this narrative by creating a cast of fighters who all have roughly equal potential for victory, and keeping the game as close to nudge-free as possible.

Tekken_the_most_powerful_second_episode_by_jin_05-d5otl9v.jpg

All of these games share one key common feature: they are all designed to have a cast of roughly equally strong fighters. Due to the difficulty of that task, there is no 1v1 fighting game that is actually perfectly balanced between all the characters, but having a cast of equally powerful fighters is the end goal of the design of these games. Evidence of the goal is the constant “nerfing” of powerful characters, who are made a little weaker, and “buffing” of weaker characters to bring them up to par. The unachievable end state of fighting games is a set of characters all on a par with each other.

We can thus see that 1v1 fighters meet the essential requirements for a multiplayer skill tournament. Multiple players square off against each other, the victor is the one who is most skilled (given that the fighters are equally strong and/or fast), and the central thrust of the narrative is a tournament.

So why does a multiplayer skill tournament require nudge-less gameplay? What differentiates the winner from the loser is supposed to be the better player. Skill is what determines the winner. Let’s consider what happens when a developer introduces nudges that further hinder the player. In this case, the players can tell that they are being hindered from performing at the level they desire, similar to the case of an opponent sabotaging them. The players will feel less like skill is determining the outcome, and so the tournament no longer will feel like a competition of skill. In the case that the developers introduce nudges that actually help the player, then those players who are less skilled will have an artificial boost in skill. This is a problem because if these players should win, it would not be through skill, but rather through the benefit of nudgy controls, similar to the instance in the racing game of one character simply having the best car. Less experienced players will be able to achieve success without skill, to the detriment of the more skilled players. In both the instances of hindering and helpful nudges, introducing nudges into multiplayer skill tournaments is problematic. In order to maintain the narrative consistency of the worlds of multiplayer skill tournaments, in which the more skilled competitor is the winner, the game needs to be unhindered by nudges.

Conclusion

All three of the kinds of games I mentioned share one fundamental feature: they are all games in which the level of competence of the player is a necessary element in the narrative of the game. In trial-by-death games such as Dark Souls, the narrative of the game contains several instances of failed attempts by the player, and so narrative consistency is preserved by having a player transition from being incompetent at a task to be competent and then succeeding at that task. In Octodad, the controls are obtuse enough that a majority of players will be incompetent at the game in the same way as the octopus is incompetent at being a father. No nudges are necessary to realize this narrative. In multiplayer skill tournaments, the differentiator between fighters is supposed to be skill. By introducing nudges, a designer undermines the extent to which skill feels like the determinant of the course of the narrative. So introducing nudges would be counterproductive.

That does it for my discussion on games that are unhindered by nudges. In Part II I will discuss some examples of games that use nudgy gameplay to preserve their internal narrative structure.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] I prescind here from the obvious counterexample of people who have played Dark Souls many times, and so rarely die.

Where are the Humans in NieR: Automata?

Introduction

Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that Nier is near and dear to my heart because it was the game that first motivated me to write analytically about video games, even before my work on Majora’s Mask. You can therefore imagine how excited I was when the game was given a sequel, NieR: Automata. While I was initially worried that it would fall short of its predecessor, I think it’s safe to say that NieR: Automata ended up being even philosophically richer than Nier. To that end, it’s time that NieR: Automata met With a Terrible Fate.

Regular readers also know that my analytic method with respect to video games typically focuses on clarifying the precise and often surprising relations in which the players of video games stand to the stories of video games. In that regard, this paper is no exception: I want to convince you that you, the player, are involved in the story of NieR: Automata in a surprising and illuminating way. But, for the sake of full transparency, I’ll start by warning you that, as you might imagine, this work contains LIBERAL SPOILERS for NieR: Automata, Nier, and Drakengard (starting in the next paragraph!). If you’re at all familiar with Nier and/or NieR: Automata, then you know that the stories of these games deeply depend on facts that are only revealed quite late in the game; so, if you haven’t yet played through the games, I wouldn’t recommend reading this yet.

With that in mind, let me offer a roadmap of the paper. I frame this analysis as the attempt to answer a seemingly simple question: “Where are the humans in NieR: Automata?” Now, if you’ve only just started the game, you’d probably say, “They’re on the moon, obviously”; if instead you’ve played through the whole game, you’d probably say that this is an ill-posed question because, at the time of NieR: Automata’s events, humans are long-extinct—there are only machines lifeforms, androids, animals, plants, and pods. Fair enough; however, it’s undeniable that the presence of humanity is virtually ubiquitous in the world of the game. Machine lifeforms slowly recover human culture and become sentient; androids identify themselves as sentient even before machine lifeforms do; by the end of Ending E, even the simple pods that accompany androids are beginning to exhibit “human” traits like compassion and attachment. So when I ask where the humans are in the game, what I’m really asking is what the origin is of all these specifically human properties that the various organisms in the game eventually instantiate—especially the property of sentience, or self-awareness. You might think the answer is simply that these human properties originated in the humans that went extinct long ago in the game’s world; after all, the game mentions that the human characteristics of the androids are the result of their human creators.

It’s this second response that I want to challenge: I think that the player, rather than the extinct humans of the game’s world, are the source of the sentience that emerges in androids, machine lifeforms, and pods throughout the course of the game. I begin by clarifying the scope of my thesis, in an effort to show that, so far as I can see, my claims don’t threaten what one might call “canonical” interpretations of the game’s story. Then, I use an analysis of player-avatar relations to argue that the player is the origin of sentience and humanity in Nier and NieR: Automata. This, I think, is a fairly easy thesis to endorse. After this is established, I argue for the significantly more controversial thesis that the fictional world of NieR: Automata is actually nothing more than a data structure; that is to say, it is true within the fiction of the game that the world is just a computer simulation being manipulated by a real player. Finally, I conclude by explaining why these theses matter for understanding NieR: Automata: the game’s metaphysics, I argue, establishes unexpected, fictional, ethical mandates that bind the player as they engage the game.

1. Preliminaries

In the past—especially in my initial, four-year-old work on Nier—I have sometimes failed to be sufficiently clear about the scope and level on which my analyses of video games have applied, which has led to some confusion about how my work ought to be evaluated in comparison with competing analyses or interpretations of the games in question. This is an especially acute danger when discussing NieR: Automata because there are myriad possible ways in which one could interpret “the game.” To name a few: are you analyzing the game as a stand-alone narrative, or as the third installment in the three-part narrative sequence of Drakengard, Nier, and Nier: Automata? Are you analyzing the game as a set of equally possible narratives with 26 different endings, or are you analyzing the single narrative and ending within the game that you take to constitute the “true” story? And so on. There’s no obvious reason to endorse any one such analytical approach over the others; what matters is being clear on precisely what your analytical approach is, so as to avoid having it confused with other approaches in the vicinity. By clarifying my own approach in this way, I aim to show why the claims it generates about the game are fairly compatible with a wide array of other plausible analyses of the game.

To see what my project is up to, we need to distinguish between what we might think of as two “levels” of analysis. Call the first level of analysis ‘Narrative-Event Analysis’ (or ‘NE Analysis’), and define it as follows.

NE Analysis: The analysis or interpretation of the various events of a narrative, and of how those events are interrelated.

This is what most video game theorists and art critics are up to: they take the events of a given story and try to make meaning out of those events in a particular way. When YouTube personalities analyze and explain the lore of the Dark Souls games, they’re engaged in NE Analysis; when you try to sort out where the story of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild fits into the larger set of Zelda timelines, you’re engaged in NE Analysis; when you’re explaining how on earth the Shadowlord of Nier logically fits into Ending E of Drakengard, you’re engaged in NE Analysis. This is the time-honored tradition of taking the various events of a story and seeing how they best cohere with one another to form one meaningful, comprehensible work of art.

Breath of the Wild Overview

The question of where Breath of the Wild fits into Zelda timelines is a question for NE Analysis.

Now consider an altogether different level of analysis. Call it ‘Narrative-Grounding Analysis’ (‘NG Analysis’), and define it as follows.

NG Analysis: The analysis or interpretation of the metaphysical foundation in virtue of which the various events of a narrative obtain, and how that metaphysical foundation relates to the events that it actualizes.

Put this way, NG Analysis might sound unfamiliar, but (1) I think we often ask ourselves NG-Analysis questions about stories, and (2) this is the exact sort of analysis I’ve been applying to video games for several years now on this site. When you ask yourself what makes the constant regeneration of the Chosen Undead in Dark Souls possible, you are engaging in NG Analysis; when someone explains what it is about the world of Zelda that makes time travel possible, they are engaging in NG Analysis; when I am analyzing what makes it possible for machine and Replicants to become sentient in the world of Nier and NieR: Automata, I am engaging in NG Analysis. This is also the sort of analysis I was undertaking when I claimed that: the player is the source of moral reality in Majora’s Mask; the narrative of BioShock Infinite is a universal collapse event caused by the player; and the entirety of Bloodborne is a dream.

The Blood Minister

My analysis claiming that all of Bloodborne is a dream is an example of NG Analysis.

What’s crucial to notice about these two levels of analysis is that neither level of analysis, at least in any obvious way, makes claims about the other level of analysis. Insofar as this is true, the video game theorist is licensed to engage in NE Analysis about a game without worrying about what the right NG Analysis of the game is, and vice versa. For instance, suppose that you’re trying to decide between two competing theories of how Link is able to travel through time in the Zelda games: according to one theory, this is made possible by the will of the Goddess Hylia, and according to the other theory, it is made possible because Link is some special kind of entity that can freely move through time in a way that ordinary Hylians can’t.[1] These two theories are trying to explain the same narrative events, and they can’t both be right; that means that we have to choose between them if we want to have a correct understanding of the game’s story (assuming that one of these two theories is correct, as opposed to both of them being incorrect). However, neither of these theories is going to have anything to say about how time travel in the game works: they’re only going to say what makes time travel in the game possible. So consider a question like this: in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, how do the actions of Adult Link affect the events that Young Link experiences seven years earlier? (Think of an example like the Spirit Temple, where Adult Link and Young Link are apparently “interacting” with each other across time.) This is a question about how the events of the game’s narrative relate to one another—which is to say, it’s a question for NE Analysis to resolve. Whether time travel is made possible by Hylia or by Link’s constitution isn’t going to have any direct bearing on how the events concerning Adult Link relate to the events concerning Young Link; to answer this question, we instead need an NE Analysis specific to those events (e.g., “time travel works by allowing Adult Link to rewrite events of the past”).

I’ve only aimed to show here that NE Analysis and NG analysis are indeed separate levels of analysis: when you’re engaged in NG analysis, you’re analyzing something fundamentally different than what you analyze in NE Analysis: in NG Analysis you analyze the metaphysical foundation of events in a story, whereas in NE Analysis you analyze the events themselves. Why does this matter as preliminaries to my analysis of NieR: Automata? Well, there are many interesting questions about how the events of NieR: Automata relate to each other, to the events of Nier, and to the events of Drakengard. To name a few potential questions of this sort: where did the aliens in NieR: Automata come from? How, if at all, does White Chlorination Syndrome relate to the Black Scrawl? What effects does 2B’s consciousness have on A2, after A2 kills 2B? It should be clear by now, I hope, that these are all questions that NE Analysis is tasked with answering. And it bears mentioning that, typically, when people talk about “canon interpretations” of a story—roughly, the “correct” interpretation of a story’s events, often deemed correct simply because the author says it’s correct—are interpretations that similarly belong to NE Analysis. Canonical interpretations of narratives rarely have anything substantive to say about the metaphysical grounds of a narrative’s events.

Recall that what I’m interested in pursuing in this paper is a matter of NG Analysis: namely, the question of what it is in virtue of which apparently human properties obtain in the world of NieR: Automata. Given what I’ve said, it follows that my arguments in this paper won’t directly bear on “canon” issues of how to properly interpret the events of the game on the level of NE Analysis. Put differently: if you already have some favorite theory about how the events of the game are interrelated, my work here doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to that theory.[2] If, on the other hand, you have a favorite theory about the metaphysical grounds of the narrative’s events (and I frankly haven’t seen any such theories out there yet), then my theory is a competitor to that theory, and you’ll have to see which seems more plausible to you upon reflection.

2. Becoming Human

I’ve established the level on which I intend my analysis to operate: in this paper, we’re exploring the metaphysical foundations of NieR: Automata. In this section, I offer an argument to the conclusion that the humanity of the player is what metaphysically grounds an entity’s “becoming sentient” (i.e. being self-aware and instantiating human properties) in NieR: Automata and NieR. I’ll make this argument by first focusing on the nature of maso and Project Gestalt, and then by extending it to the nature of machine lifeforms, androids, and pods. This will directly lead us to the argument of the next section—that the world of NieR: Automata is a data structure.

Drakengard Giant

The Giant/Queen-beast, from which the maso originates.

‘Maso’ is a substance that originated in the ending of Drakengard that served as the impetus for Nier and (subsequently) NieR: Automata. Very roughly, in Ending E of Drakengard, the protagonists confront and destroy an otherworldly “Giant” (also known as the Queen-beast) that subsequently releases maso, an otherworldly, “multidimensional” particle. The maso induces ‘White Chlorination Syndrome’ (‘WCS), a disease that forces a choice on humans: either form a pact to become the servant of a god from another world, or perish by turning into a statue made of salt. Humans are able to avoid this disease by using maso to develop “multidimensional technology” that separates their souls from their bodies until a time at which WCS has died off, at which point humans would reunite their souls with their bodies (this plan of defense against the disease was called ‘Project Gestalt’ and was central to the plot of Nier). However, the soulless bodies preserved for humans—entities called ‘Replicants’—ended up developing “a sense of self” (i.e. sentience). This advent of self-awareness in Replicants led to a corresponding loss of sentience in the separated souls of humans, called ‘Gestalts’—this loss of sentience was known as ‘relapsing’ and caused the Gestalts to turn into aggressive, animalistic creatures (known to Replicants as ‘shades’).

Father and Daughter

Replicant Nier and his daughter, Replicant Yonah.

The protagonist and avatar of Nier—technically named by the player, but called ‘Nier’ for convenience—is the Replicant corresponding to “the Original” Gestalt, someone whose data was central to the development and sustainability of Project Gestalt. The story of Nier (again, very roughly) follows Nier’s struggle to save his daughter—also a Replicant—from “the Shadowlord”—an entity that Nier sees as an enemy, but who is actually his own Gestalt (“the Original”) trying to reclaim his daughter’s Replicant. When Nier kills his Gestalt, he effectively derails Project Gestalt, which leads to the eventual extinction of humanity.

Nier killing the Shadowlord

Replicant Nier killing the Shadowlord, his own Gestalt.

That’s a far-too-condensed reconstruction of what I take to be the key and relatively uncontroversial elements of the narrative than begins with Ending E of Drakengard and proceeds through the conclusion of Nier. The key points to notice for my purposes are: (1) maso is a multidimensional substance that binds humans to gods from other worlds, (2) the avatar of Nier is the Replicant that corresponds to Project Gestalt’s Original, and (3) sentience is more-or-less zero sum between a given Gestalt-Replicant pair: if the Replicant gains it, then the Gestalt starts down the road to losing it (and metaphysically, this seems reasonable: if a Gestalt-Replicant pair is supposed to be just one conscious entity, split into body and soul, presumably it would be able to sustain just one consciousness).

I think that, merely from the fairly uncontroversial facts I’ve highlighted about the story, a surprising but intuitive thesis about the source of sentience in Nier presents itself: namely, the player of the game is the source of sentience in Nier (the avatar) and other Replicants. Notice again that maso, according to Drakengard, is a substance that straddles dimensions and binds people to the gods of other worlds. It seems appropriate and explanatorily powerful to say that, as an avatar, Nier—again, the Replicant corresponding to the Original—is importantly bound to the player of the game, an extra-dimensional entity that determines Nier’s actions and choices throughout the game’s story. Given that we know maso renders humans the servants of gods, and Gestalt technology is derived from maso, we can explain Nier’s sentience by saying that he inherits it from the extra-dimensional entity to which he is bound: a sentient, human player.[3]

A potential objection: what about the fact that other Replicants gain sentience in Nier? These other Replicants are clearly not avatars, and so it can’t be the case that sentience in Nier is categorically derived from the player’s sentience.

My response: recall that Nier’s Gestalt has the special status of being “the Original” in Project Gestalt. To my knowledge, this status is never given a full and precise explanation, except to say that this Gestalt uniquely makes Project Gestalt possible, and that Project Gestalt is irreparably derailed when Nier kills his Gestalt. Given this special priority that Nier and his Gestalt have in the efficacy and progress of Project Gestalt, it strikes me as plausible to suppose that Nier’s sentience would play a causally decisive role in the emergent sentience of other Replicants. That is to say, Nier’s status as the Original’s Replicant makes it the case that his acquired sentience—which, again, he inherits from the player—subsequently induces sentience in other Replicants. So, even while the other Replicants don’t directly inherit sentience from the player, their sentience is still derived from the player, given the causally decisive role of Nier’s sentience.

Another potential objection: the player of a video game is a real person, not a fictional entity. So they simply couldn’t be part of the game’s narrative: real things can’t causally interact with fictional things in that way (e.g., I, a real person, can’t stop Tom Sawyer from painting a fence in the fiction of Mark Twain).

My reply: no doubt this is true, but fictions give real people fictional roles to play all the time. Think, for example, of second-person novels, which put the reader in the fictional role of whomever the narrative is addressing. And even though it might seem unintuitive or metaphysically unhappy to say that the player, from “another dimension,” is influencing the actions of Nier in his dimension, recall that the narrative already allows for this kind of influence even prior to my interpretation: again, WCS induces pacts between humans and gods from other worlds. So my analysis is metaphysically of a piece with the rest of Nier’s narrative.

I think my analysis is illuminating here because it links the rise of sentience in Replicants to Project Gestalt’s origins in maso; it also gives explanatory and metaphysical force to Nier’s status as an avatar (that is to say, Nier is an avatar because his maso-derived connection to the player allows the player to determine his actions). The analysis also strikes me as better than saying that Replicants “simply became sentient,” because, by linking sentience in Nier to the human playing the game, we are able to identify the sentience of Replicants as derived from a real source of sentience (i.e. an actual human).

So much for the good reasons to accept the player as the ground of sentience in Nier; the question now is, can we extend this metaphysical account of sentience to the world of NieR: Automata? Yes, but admittedly we can’t do it directly: given that YoRHa androids, machine lifeforms, and pods aren’t the direct products of Project Gestalt, we can’t simply say that maso technology allows the player to influence them all, and leave it at that. However, I think we can make an argument by inference-to-the-best-explanation that gives us good reason to believe that the metaphysical account we’ve given in Nier does extend to NieR: Automata; we’ll just have to invoke some data about machine cores and the player’s metaphysical relation to the game’s world.

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2B and 9S with their black boxes, fashioned from recycles machine cores.

First, machine cores. These are the central components of the machine lifeforms that the YoRHa androids in NieR: Automata battle without end; it’s also revealed late in the game that these cores are also recycled and used as “black boxes” to power YoRHa androids. There are two crucial upshots about these machine cores. The first upshot is that information archives provided in the game reveal that the cores are responsible for the structure of the consciousness of whatever entity they’re powering; we know this because the archives say that, in virtue of both machine lifeforms and YoRHa androids using machine cores, “it could be said that the consciousnesses of YoRHa units and machine lifeforms share the same structure.” The second upshot is that machine cores are well-suited to represent consciousness in entities that are designed to ultimately be destroyed. We know this because archives within the game report that “black boxes were installed [in androids] after determining that it would be inhumane to install standard AI in androids that are ultimately destined for disposal.” Given that YoRHa androids are apparently sentient, and their machine-core powered black box is responsible for the structure of the androids’ consciousness, it follows that we can understand what grounds sentience and humanity in NieR: Automata by understanding how machine cores are conducive to sentience and humanity.

Now, consider the question of what sort of metaphysical relation the player stands in to the world of Nier: Automata. What, in other words, does the player’s access to the game’s world amount to, within the fiction of the game? It seems to me that players have a fairly direct form of access to and influence on the game’s world. The game’s manifold endings exemplify this: the player’s choices are often able to determine not only the actions of their avatars, but also the desires and motivations of their avatars. For example, if the player directs 9S away from his initial mission helping 2B, the game ends with text saying: “9S was last heard to say: ‘I can’t control my curiosity about machines anymore. I’m leaving so I can study them as much as I want!’ He was never heard from again” (this is Ending G). Similarly, if the player has 2B kill the machines that putatively want to establish a peace treaty with Pascal’s village, the game ends with text saying: “In a sudden fit of temper, 2B wiped out the machine lifeforms, and no peace was born that day” (this is Ending J). This tight connection between the player’s choices and the mental states attributed by the game to the avatar androids suggests that the player does have some measure of influence over not just the androids’ actions, but over their psychology as well. Even more to the point, players can alter the very constitution of their avatar androids by changing the plug-in chips that determine their various characteristics, even going so far as to remove their OS chip if they wish. In other words, players seem to have deep and pervasive control over myriad constitutive features of their avatar androids’ identities.

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Ending G, in which the player directs 9S away from his mission supporting 2B.

In various ways, the activities of the pods that accompany avatar androids 9S, 2B, and A2 also suggest that the player enjoys a direct presence within the fiction of the game. In particular, notice that when the player uses her controls to change the “camera’s” perspective on the game, she doesn’t actually move some disembodied, third-person viewpoint: instead, as she moves the camera, the pod following her avatar moves accordingly, in such a way that the pod is always facing straight ahead from the player’s perspective. This establishes a sense in which the pod is directly connecting the player to the world of the game, thereby allowing the player to really be present within the world of the fiction rather than merely viewing the fiction from an external position in the real world.

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Notice that even as 2B faces orthogonally to the camera view, her pod matches the direction of the camera view.

Now we have on the table all the considerations needed to argue to the conclusion that the player is the metaphysical source of sentience in NieR: Automata. First, the consciousness manifested in YoRHa androids and machine lifeforms isn’t standard AI; given the context, which says that standard AI would have been inhumane for disposable androids, we can safely infer that the consciousness made possible by machine cores is somehow “less authentic,” “less genuine,” or less “sui generis” than “standard AI,” where “standard AI” probably means genuinely, intrinsically self-conscious AI of the sort that we still have yet to achieve in the real world. We also know that the player of NieR: Automata has apparently direct access to the game’s fictional world: the pods act as a direct means of access within the fiction by which the player can manipulate the world, and the player’s choices are reflected in the actions, psychology, and basic makeup of the androids; further, the iterative structure of androids’ existence—constantly dying, being re-instantiated, and recovering their old data—closely mirrors the player’s actions of guiding them through the game, failing, reconstituting the android, and recovering their data. Now, returning to my analysis of Nier and assuming that it’s correct, we also know that technology exists (namely, the maso technology of Project Gestalt) that allows humans from other dimensions to impart their sentience to otherwise non-sentient entities. Given that such technology already existed, I think we can infer that the best explanation of the sentience that emerges in androids and machine lifeforms is that, through the construction of black boxes from machine cores, androids were able to induce the same sort of relationship between android and player that previously existed between Nier and player. And, just as the player’s sentience proliferated throughout Replicants in Nier, so too was the player’s sentience diffused in NieR: Automata amongst beings with the relevant kind of technology—that is, beings with machine cores. This explains why both YoRHa androids and machine lifeforms are susceptible to becoming sentient.

What about the pods? It’s clear enough by the end of NieR: Automata’s Ending E that the pods are also at least on their way to sentience, if not fully sentient; yet there’s no evidence (so far as I know) that they’re also powered by machine cores. So how can my account explain their sentience, since they presumably wouldn’t be connected to the player’s sentience via machine cores? I think the answer here is straightforward. Recall that, on my account, pods act as conduits that directly connect the player to the world of the game. Given this direct relationship between the player and the pods, there isn’t any need to appeal to machine cores in explaining the pods’ emergent sentience: we can instead say that, since the pods already possess basic operational intelligence and they’re being used to directly transmit the player’s agency to the game’s world, it’s only natural that the pods could somehow “pick up on” or learn to emulate the consciousness of the player to whom they are intimately connected. This response is admittedly somewhat more vague than the analyses of sentience in androids and machine lifeforms, but this vagueness is a direct result of there being proportionately less information available about the structure and ontology of pods. Thus, I don’t think the additional vagueness in my account should speak against my analysis per se; we should instead just be disappointed that there isn’t more documentation about pods within the world of the game.

If my arguments in this section are right, then the sentience that emerges in Replicants, YoRHa androids, machine lifeforms, and pods are all deeply related in a surprising and informative way: all of them are derived, directly or indirectly, from the metaphysically foundational sentience of the video games’ player. As I emphasized at the outset, this Narrative-Grounds Analysis needn’t settle the most pressing questions of how to interpret the actual events of the games: my analysis, for example, needn’t bear on question of who the aliens are who brought the machine lifeforms to Earth, nor need it bear on the question of which of NieR: Automata’s endings is the “true” ending (if that’s even an intelligible question to begin with). What the analysis instead succeeds in doing is establishing a crucial link between the player of the Nier games and the content of those games: the player doesn’t just determine what the avatars do in those games—the player actually enables entities in those games to become sentient within the fiction, in a metaphysically robust sense.

3. Playing a Fictional Video Game

I think that the above analyses is the best account of the metaphysical foundation of sentience across both Nier and NieR: Automata; however, I think that NieR: Automata suggests a further, much more radical interpretation of the fiction’s metaphysics, one which invites us to reinterpret the precise significance of the player’s sentience and agency on the game’s world. I want to emphasize, however, that this further interpretation is both (1) much more speculative than the above analysis and (2) theoretically separable from the above analysis: that is to say, you can consistently endorse my above analysis while also rejecting the argument presented in this section. All the same, I would be remiss not to mention this more radical interpretation of the game’s world, because there is at least some evidence for it within the game and it allows us to conceptualize the game in an extremely unexpected, unorthodox, and challenging way.

The central thrust of this more controversial interpretation is that it is true within the fiction of Drakengard, Nier, and NieR: Automata that the world is nothing more than a data structure being manipulated by a human from the outside. In other words, put roughly, this interpretation claims that it’s true within the fiction of the video game that the world is nothing more than a video game. Just to be clear about how radical this thought is: our typical assumption with the fictional worlds of video games is that these worlds, within the context of the fiction, are real. For example, it doesn’t seem to be true within the fiction of The Legend of Zelda that the world is an interactive data structure; instead, it seems true within the fiction that there is a real world called Hyrule, in which Link really performs certain actions, quests, etc. The thesis I’m exploring in this section is claiming that it isn’t true within the fiction of Nier games that there is a “real world” in this sense: instead, within the context of the fiction, there is a computer-generated world with which a human player interacts.[4]

I see two central data in NieR: Automata that support the thesis that the fiction of the Nier games represents a pure data structure: the first datum is information about the overarching “network” that governs machine lifeforms in the game, and the second datum is the way in which the game’s content is generally represented to the player. I consider each datum in turn.

After the player completes Ending E of the game (assuming the player doesn’t delete her data—more on that in the next section), a “Machine Research Report” is added to her information archive. The report, written by Information Analysis Officer Jackass, details the network that governs the machine lifeforms, explaining how it was created and how it evolved into a “meta-network,” codenamed ‘N2’ (typically represented within the game as two Red Girls). It offers the following information about the machines, their network, and their meta-network.

NieR Automata N2

A representation of N2 as one of the Red Girls.

“Machine lifeforms are weapons created by the aliens. The only command given for their behavior was to ‘defeat the enemy’. However, it appears that their capacity for growth and evolution went too far, and they eventually turned on and killed their creators.

“At this point, machine lifeforms recognized that the goal of ‘defeating the enemy’ actually REQUIRED an enemy. In order to maintain this singular objective, they reached the contradictory conclusion that their current enemies—the androids—could not be annihilated completely, lest they no longer have an enemy to defeat.

“In order to resolve this inherent contradiction, the machine lifeforms began to intentionally cause deficiencies in their network, diversifying the vectors of evolution for all machines. This is the cause behind some of the more ‘special’ machine lifeforms, such as Pascal and the Forest King.

“Meanwhile, the deficient network began repeating a process of self-repair while incorporating surrounding information, until it finally reached a fixed state as a new form of network. Traces of information regarding human memories from the quantum server of the old model were discovered, indicating that it had integrated them during the final stages of its growth process. Said server contained a record of the discarded ‘Project Gestalt’, as well as information on the human who was the first successful example of the Gestalt process.

“Having acquired information regarding humanity, the network’s structure changed once more, becoming what might better be called a meta network (or a ‘concept’, to borrow the words of the machines). This led directly to the formation of the ego we identify as N2.

“…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 ****ing 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 obvious way to read this is to take it at face value: aliens created machines that killed them; these machines fought the androids; the machines ultimately learned about the real events of Project Gestalt and evolved, etc. But there’s another potential interpretation of this information available to us: suppose that aliens created a vast data structure, with “machine lifeform” programs that were governed by an overarching network with some sort of artificial intelligence. The network was designed with the purpose of “defeating enemies”; after generating and killing virtual representations of their creators, the only network-independent entities it knew, the network had to find a further, more sustainable way to fulfill its purpose. To this end, the network generated a virtual history of humanity and Project Gestalt within the data structure, along with the subsequent androids whose express purpose—protecting humanity—would necessarily put them into conflict with the machine lifeforms, thereby ensuring that the network would always be able to strive towards its purpose of defeating enemies. On such an interpretation, the worlds of Drakengard, Nier, and NieR: Automata are just the data structure generated by the machine’s network and meta-network: the network is the cause of those worlds, rather than just another element contained within those worlds.

Of course, the network and its machines couldn’t fulfill its purpose of defeating enemies simply by programming other entities to attack it: this would effectively constitute a fight against oneself, which is no real fight as such. So, the natural solution was to enable some external agency to control the androids and direct them to fight against the machines—and this external agency is what the player provides. The interesting, unintended consequence of the player’s introduction to this data structure—returning to the themes of the last section—is that the player’s sentience ends up “infecting” otherwise non-sentient computer programs with genuine sentience, which turns what was once a mere data structure with quasi-artificial intelligence into a virtual world that supports sentient virtual beings.

To reiterate, this interpretation is absolutely wild. Nevertheless, I think there’s enough evidence for it within the game to at least consider it as a seriously possible interpretation. Consider as further information about the machine network the monolithic Tower that emerges after the death of 2B—the Tower in which N2 resides, and in which A2 and 9S face each other. The purpose of this Tower is expressed by N2 directly to 9S, as he is losing consciousness during Ending D. It’s worth quoting what 9S learns from N2 about the Tower.

NieR Automata Tower

The Tower in NieR: Automata.

“This tower is a colossal cannon built to destroy the human server. Destroy the server… and rob the androids of their very foundation. That was the plan devised by [the Red Girls—i.e. N2].

“But they changed their mind. They saw us androids. They saw Adam. And Eve. They saw how we lived, considered the meaning of existence, and came to a different conclusion.

“This tower doesn’t fire artillery. It fires an ark. An ark containing memories of the foolish machine lifeforms. An ark that sends those memories to a new world.

“Perhaps they’ll never reach that world. Perhaps they’ll wander an empty sky for eternity. It’s all the same to the girls. For them, time is without end.”

In a similar way to the Machine Research Report above, we could interpret this in the obvious and literal way, but it seems like there’s another reading available that resonates with the radical interpretation we’re presently considering. On this alternative reading, the Tower is something like the central hub that generates the virtual world. Its libraries of “information” with various port numbers are actually libraries of functions to call to instantiate and run all the various virtual entities that constitute the network’s world; the network planned to fulfill its purpose (“defeat the enemy”) by annihilating its enemies (this is the discussion of the Tower as a “colossal cannon”), until the network realized it could better fulfill its purpose in perpetuity by using the input of a human to perpetually re-instantiate the network’s virtual world and enemies over and over again. Remember the fact that NieR: Automata has 26 endings? On the wild interpretation we’re currently considering, the multitude of endings is explained by being the networks’ way of prompting players to “send the memories” of the virtual world’s entities in the game to “a new world”—that is, a new possible outcome of the game. By constantly replaying and exploring all of the possibilities of the game, the player allows the network and its machines to infinitely strive to fulfill their purpose of defeating the enemy. In this way, the very structure of the game reinforces the idea that the machine network generated a virtual world for the player to engage in order to fulfill the network’s purpose of “defeating the enemy.”

As I mentioned earlier, the way in which the game presents its fictional content to the player further reinforces this wild theory that its world is just a data structure. The loading screens in the game present presumably in-game data about the various vitals and systems pertaining to whichever android is serving as the player’s avatar; pods are able to use the loading screen as a communication interface, further implying its in-game status as some sort of abstract data structure; the entire world as presented to the player will sometimes appear to “glitch” when all is not right with their android’s sensory systems, even though the world is not presented to the player through the android’s visual field; and the omnipresence of the virtual “data space” in which 9S can hack—appearing everywhere from in machine lifeforms, to the minds of androids, to locks, to seals on the Tower, further suggests that the world could foundationally be just a virtual data structure. Taken individually, each of these data could be furnished with an alternative explanation; yet taken holistically, together with the previous considerations about the origin of the network, it seems at least possible to seriously consider that the world of the game is itself nothing more than a video game generated by the machine network.

This analysis of the game’s metaphysics is of course controversial, and I’m not at all as confident in it as I am in the previous section’s conclusions about the player as the metaphysical basis for sentience in the fiction. Yet the analysis has distinctive merits. NieR: Automata is a game that is obsessed with the formal elements of video games: machine lifeforms are designed with the purpose of defeating enemies (in other words, they are meant to be enemies to the avatar), and avatars—the YoRHa androids—are designed with the purpose of defending humanity (in other words, they serve humanity while also being directed by the inputs of an actual human player). This metaphysical analysis explains these parallels between narrative form and content by saying that the game’s fictional world just is the virtual world of a video game, and its constituent characters are designed accordingly. It also captures the narrative significance of the wide array of endings that the game has: whereas we would otherwise presumably have to admit that there’s no intrinsic narrative reason why the game has so many possible endings (we might instead simply say something like “the developers thought it would be more entertaining,” which doesn’t seem as satisfying an explanation), we can instead say on this account that the machine network constructed the world in this way in order to keep the player coming back and thereby sustaining the network’s purpose. So, although this section is not intended as a staunch defense of this interpretation of the game’s world, it is an invitation to take seriously the idea that NieR: Automata’s universe might really be what it most immediately appears to be: a video game.

4. The Ethics of Being a Sentience-Source

Suppose you find my above arguments convincing. You might still feel the urge to ask: “So what?” After all, I was very clear at the outset of this paper that analyses of a narrative’s metaphysical foundation needn’t have any direct bearing on how we interpret the events of that narrative. If that’s true, then why should we even bother with NG Analysis?

Well, in the first place, I should hope it’s apparent by now that NG Analysis does have implications for how we understand a video game and its fiction, even if it doesn’t directly bear on events in the game. I imagine, for instance, that we might feel different playing through NieR: Automata and thinking that its fictional world is fictionally just a data structure, versus playing through the same game and thinking its fictional world should be understood as fictionally real in the same way that our actual world is understood as real. Or consider how different the series of games would be if sentience arose intrinsically from Replicants, androids, and machine lifeforms, rather than arising derivatively from the sentience of the player. On that alternative understanding of the games’ metaphysics, the games would be presenting a world in which sentience can naturally arise out of programmed machines. In contrast, that isn’t the case on my interpretation: because the sentience of all these entities is ultimately grounded in the player’s sentience, machines only end up being sentient because the sentience of a naturally sentient lifeform (the human player) is shared with the machine. I take it that a fictional world in which intrinsically sentient machines are possible is crucially different from a fictional world in which such machines are not possible.

But suppose now for the sake of argument that the above considerations don’t move you. I want to close by considering one other way in which the analysis of NieR: Automata’s metaphysics deeply matters: namely, it determines the ethical commitments that the player has within the game to androids, pods, machine lifeforms, and other players.

If a given entity is sentient, then we typically think that the entity has moral rights—that is, there are morally permissible and morally impermissible ways for a moral agent (like a human) to treat that entity. Because androids, machine lifeforms, and (eventually) pods are sentient within the fiction of NieR: Automata, that means that, fictionally, there are right and wrong ways to treat them. These entities of course don’t have real moral rights because it isn’t the case that the programs representing them in the video game are literally capable of robust artificial intelligence, but when we engage in the fiction, it stand to reason that we must treat them as fictional entities with moral rights because of their fictional sentience. But notice that, based on your preferred metaphysics of sentience in the game, the sense in which these entities have moral rights will differ accordingly. If you think that these entities naturally became sentient independently of the player’s sentience, then they will have fictional moral rights regardless of whether the player interacts with the fictional world or not. On the other hand, if you agree with me that the sentience of these entities fundamentally depends on the sentience of the player, then it follows that these entities only have moral rights so long as the player interacts with the game’s world and thereby renders them sentient.

Why should these ethical considerations be any more compelling a case for the value of NG Analysis than the earlier considerations were? Because, it turns out, these ethical considerations will determine what choice you should make at a crucial juncture in the game’s narrative.

In Ending E of NieR: Automata, Project YoRHa enters its final phase: destruction of all androids and deletion of all data. Pods 153 and 042, together with the player, decide to recover the data of 9S, 2B, and A2 (the avatar androids)—thereby preserving the player’s data and allowing the player to continue exploring the game’s world and possibilities. In order to recover the androids’ data, however, the player must complete an exceedingly challenging mini-game in which she pilots a digital ship that destroys all the names in the game’s credits, all while avoiding myriad projectiles that the names are firing at the ship.

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The credits-based mini-game in Ending E. Getting hit by three projectiles total is fatal.

It’s very difficult to complete this mission alone; however, after failing several times (assuming the player is connected to the online network of other players), the player will receive a “rescue offer” from other players. If the player accepts, then the ships of other players will join the player’s ship, making the mission extremely easy; however, every time a projectile connects with the pack of ships, another player’s data (not the original player’s) is lost. Once the player completes the mission, the androids’ data is successfully restored, and the pods offer the player an option: if she so chooses, the player can sacrifice her own data in order to help another player reach this ending, just as she was (presumably) helped in reaching the ending. At the price of the save data and records you have accumulated in the game, you can help another player—a perfect stranger.[5] Here’s the crucial ethical choice: do you agree to help the other player or not?

If you have the view that androids, and machine lifeforms, and pods are fictionally sentient independent of you, the player, then, within the context of the fiction, these entities have moral rights against you no matter what. Given that choosing to delete your save data plausibly entails more-or-less “erasing” these entities, it stands to reason that such a view would forbid you from deleting your save data: to do so would be to help a stranger at the cost of annihilating countless sentient beings. In contrast, if you have the view that the fictional sentience of these entities fundamentally depends on the sentience of the player, then it follows that, were you to withdraw yourself from that fiction—for instance, by deleting your save data—then these entities wouldn’t be fictionally sentient anymore, and thus wouldn’t have fictional moral rights against you. On such a view, helping a stranger would not transgress against the moral rights of anyone, since, upon deleting your save data, the androids, machine lifeforms, and pods would lose their foundational connection to your sentience, from which their own sentience derived. Since, other things being equal, you probably ought to help the stranger since you were probably helped by strangers in successfully reaching Ending E, it follows on this view that you ought to delete your save data. So your view of the metaphysics of sentience in Nier: Automata could end up determining what you morally ought to do within the fiction when presented with this choice at the end of Ending E. If you think that your choices as a player within a video game matter at all, then this means you can’t afford to overlook the metaphysical foundation of NieR: Automata.

Conclusion

Nier: Automata, as I said at the outset, is a philosophically rich game across a wide variety of dimensions. I’ve only aimed in this paper to analyze the most foundational of those dimensions: the metaphysics of the game’s fiction. But those metaphysics, we’ve seen, are quite illuminating with respect to the rest of the game: they afford the player a central role as the wellspring of sentience in the game’s world, and they suggest new ways of grounding the self-consciously “video-game” aspects of the game’s narrative. These metaphysics may well be part of why the game’s exploration of sentience and the meaning of being human is so compelling: even as machines and androids wrestle with these concepts, the sentience they are trying to understand is ultimately your very own sentience; the humanity they want to know is your humanity. The human in NieR: Automata, therefore, is the one behind the controller.

2B and 9S

[1] Obviously, these are both toy examples, and it isn’t obvious that either of them is the correct account of Link’s time-traveling abilities.

[2] I say my work “doesn’t necessarily” pose a threat to that theory because there surely may be specific cases and ways in which an account of a narrative’s fictional grounds might restrict the set of possible interpretations of that narrative’s events. My point is simply that there is no a priori, categorical entailment relation between theories of a narrative’s fictional grounds (NG Analyses) and theories of the meaning of that narrative’s events (NE Analyses).

[3] In precisely what sense does Nier “serve” the player? An easy response would be to say that the player “controls” Nier in just the way that the literal control mechanics of the game suggest. If you’ve read my recent work on the foundations of video game storytelling, then you know I don’t think it’s right to say that players control avatars in that way; however, on my view, the explanation would simply be that the player already occupies a fictional role in the grounding of the game’s narrative, and Nier simply embellishes that fictional role by identifying it as a human, extra-dimensional entity controlling Nier. All of which is to say: my preferred view of video game metaphysics supports the interpretation of Nier that I offer here, but one needn’t subscribe to my broader video-game metaphysics in order to endorse this interpretation of Nier.

[4] While the interpretation I’m considering here is radical, it’s not without precedent: my most recent work on Xenoblade Chronicles defends the view that its universe (or, at least, the main universe within the game) is best understood to fictionally be a computer-generated world with external input from a player.

[5] There are of course ways to avoid the hard choice here by, for example, backing up your save data on an external source that the game can’t delete. I’m ignoring such methods on the grounds that they are illegitimate responses to the choice within the context of the fiction.

A New Theory of Video Games

With a Terrible Fate has been quieter than usual lately because, for the past few months, I have been working on a thesis to fulfill part of the requirements for my degree in philosophy. I am now pleased to say that this project is complete, and the result is a new theory of the ontology and metaphysics of video games. The theory comes with some surprising results—for instance, I don’t think there’s any deep sense in which the players of video games actually control or embody avatars.

Thank you to all those who have found this site and engaged me in conversation about video games, whether online or in person. Those conversations are a huge part of how my thinking on video games has evolved over the years. And, now that this project is complete, stay tuned for more new work coming soon (I heard, for instance, that a new Zelda game and Nier game might have been released recently?).

You can read the full thesis here.

Sci-Fi and Real Science: With a Terrible Fate at PAX East (video)

With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX East 2017, in which we spoke to a crowd of about 500 people about how to better understand the science-fiction storytelling of video games using real science. We were also fortunate enough to have the entire panel recorded; we’re sharing that video with you here, so those of you who weren’t able to attend can virtually hear and see what we had to say. You can also read articles that present this same work in a more academic form: Matt McGill’s work on SOMA can be found here, and my own work on BioShock Infinite is here.

Thanks for being such a wonderful audience, PAX East. We hope to see you again next year.

Meet With a Terrible Fate at PAX East 2017.

With a Terrible Fate is thrilled to publicly announce that we will be presenting a panel at PAX East 2017, and we want to see all of our Boston followers there.

On Sunday, March 12, at 1:30pm at the Bumblebee Theatre, check out With a Terrible Fate‘s “Stranger than Fiction: The Real Science of Sci-Fi Games.” We’ll explore how applying real scientific theories and studies to science-fiction video games allow us to more precisely understand their worlds, stories, and relation to us as players.

Matt McGillFeatured Author and neuroscientist Matt McGill will be on the scene to talk about SOMA. Using cutting-edge neuroscientific findings, he will discuss the various
aspects of SOMA‘s wild world and suggest that it is far closer to reality than you might first reality. He’ll even go beyond the descriptive to the normative: if it turns out we really can do the sorts of things that happen in SOMA, does it follow that we should? If you want to preview the material he’ll be discussing, you can check it out here.
screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-8-11-13-pmAfterwards, I’ll discuss the quantum physics and philosophy of science that underpin the story of BioShock Infinite. I’ll argue that we can use these real theories to make better sense of the game, uncovering a new interpretation that makes better sense of the most famously confusing aspects of the game. Once we see this new interpretation, we’ll be poised to step back from BioShock and see a new, surprising way of analyzing video games more generally. You can preview the work I’ll be discussing here.

 

We’re excited to see you, Boston. With a Terrible Fate began here, and we owe a lot to the people in the area who’ve been keeping up with us since the Dawn of our First Day. So come meet us; explore games, science, and philosophy with us; ask us plenty of questions; and, as always, stay tuned for new content.