“I Don’t Let Men Control Me”: Gender and Sexuality in NieR:Automata

I’m going to provide a short feminist critique on a video game.

As some of you may be aware, video games have a rather complicated relationship with issues of gender and sexuality. Actually, ‘complicated’ proves to be a bit of a euphemism here: many, many games are filled with sexist and downright misogynistic imagery. Too often, video games depict women as ‘damsels in distress’ or sexualised background decoration. There is a nagging lack of well-written, fully-developed female protagonists–and those that actually exist are quite frequently just female iterations of what might as well have been a male character. Other problems include, among many others: casual violence against women, presenting sex as a commodity or reward, and the under- and misrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people.1
The sexism in video games is not limited to the medium itself, but also to the culture surrounding it: generally speaking, video game culture can be exceptionally sexist, homophobic, and regressive. While this has been shifting over the past two decades or so, white heterosexual young men are still the hegemonic force in game culture and therefore remain the key demographic of most of the gaming industry. There have certainly been efforts to make the medium more broadly accessible and inviting to women and LGBTQ+ people, but they are always–always–met with some degree of backlash. Men who openly advocate gender equality in video games are seen as disappointments to their community. Women who do the same are met with rape and death threats. When the word ‘gender’ is involved, things tend to get real ugly, real fast.

With these issues in mind, NieR:Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017) can feel like a breath of fresh air: two out of its three protagonists are female, and many of its most memorable secondary characters are women or have no clear gender. The game turns gender stereotypes upside down and plays with them a lot, whilst still retaining a degree of nuance: 2B, the main female protagonist, is generally cold and unemotional; in contrast, 9S, the male protagonist, is constantly excited, spontaneous and childlike. One of their closest allies is a machine named Pascal, who is referred to with ‘he’ by others, has a feminine voice and is depicted as a caregiver for his village’s children. Next to these characters, there are plenty of women who behave in typically ‘feminine’ ways: 2B’s handler falls in love with another YoRHa2 officer and practically becomes a teenage girl because of it; a similar thing happens to the female groupies of the machine philosopher Jean-Paul.

At the same time, the romantic relationships between the androids of YoRHa are implied to usually be lesbian relationships, and nobody in the game seems to mind that at all, which is nice for a change. Often, when media deal with a non-heterosexual relationship they will do this in either of two ways: they pay too much attention to it, causing the relationship to feel overtly artificial and fake; or they pay too little attention to it, causing the relationship to feel inferior to other depicted (heterosexual) relationships. NieR:Automata is one of those games that talks about queer relationships the way we should hopefully all talk about queer relationships one day: as no different, no more and no less than any other type of relationship. For YoRHa’s androids, love is love.

There’s many more positive things to say about NieR:Automata, from its excellent incorporation of its main themes into its gameplay mechanics to the utter brilliance of its plot. Those things aren’t really of much interest here though, so I’ll instead focus on a more contentious aspect of the game: 2B’s body. For those who haven’t played it, this is how she is depicted in the game:

What’s with women in media always wearing high heels during combat situations?

And this is a costume you can dress her up in if you buy the latest DLC, fittingly named ‘Revealing Outfit’:

Fighting in her underwear and even higher heels. Right. Someone should make a parody to address how ridicuous this is.

Okay, so, uhm, yeah. There’s some issues here.

Now, I probably don’t really need to point out what’s wrong with what 2B looks like. It’s a familiar problem: female characters get overly sexualised to cater to video games’ straight male audience.3 When those digital women are also playable characters, like in NieR:Automata, things don’t change very much–in fact, they usually get worse because these women are now constantly visible and must therefore be even more pleasing to the eye than background characters. Not only is 2B constantly exposed to varying degrees, you can also control what kind of clothing she gets to wear, you can look at her body from every possible angle, and, naturally, you can control her movements. During one of the game’s many sidequests, 2B says, “I don’t let men control me”, but of course the player–who will, in many cases, be a man–does control her. He can let her jump graciously through the air, he can make her walk elegantly across a reflective puddle of water, and he can have her climb up a ladder and then adjust the game’s camera angle to reveal her underwear. Power fantasy much?

Then, around the middle part of the game, something happens: Adam, one of the game’s main antagonists, hacks 9S’s mind and starts talking to him about how “all who live are slaves to desire” and more such profundities. In that moment, he states abruptly,
“You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”
At this point, it is already clear that 9S is in love with 2B, but the bluntness and suddenness with which the statement is made causes it to resonate beyond 9S’s feelings towards his partner. It becomes a comment on the stereotypical young, heterosexual, male gamers who find 2B’s seductively short skirt and alluring digital curves to be one of the game’s primary initial selling points, as the game’s online reviews also demonstrate. (“Oh, and don’t forget the butts, those are important too,” writes one Steam reviewer.) Through Adam and 9S’s conversation, NieR:Automata forces us to consider the implications of desiring 2B’s digital body–or even to simply admit that her body is desirable at all. The game lays bare the complexities of sexuality in the context of digital technologies by allowing us to lust after our avatar’s bodies freely, before bluntly asking, “What are you doing?”

The question is whether this one statement by itself, however impactful it may be, justifies the constant voyeurism that the game clearly encourages. The game’s director, Yoko Taro, has said that he simply “really like[s] girls”, which doesn’t really do the case of ‘NieR:Automata as criticism of the sexualisation of digital women’ any good. The ‘Revealing Outfit’ that comes with the latest DLC also doesn’t help. Nevermind the fact that, when the player self-destructs, 2B’s skirt is removed when she respawns. That’s not feminism, that’s fan service!

Some very interesting pieces have already been written on how this game deals with sex and love, and they all make very good points about the function of the general sexiness that pervades the entire game–2B’s body alone is, after all, not the only titillating part of NieR:Automata. However, all of them seem to ignore or downplay its implications for video game culture. Some will even actively distance themselves from such discussion, when precisely this game can be interpreted in so many different ways! All of those different interpretations have different implications for attaining social justice in popular media, and not all of those implications are necessarily sexist. While NieR:Automata does perpetuate the sexualisation of women in video games without a clear and explicit diegetic goal, it also presents us with interesting, threedimensional and positively bad-ass female protagonists. Additionally, the game destabilises gender norms, and it normalises homosexual relationships to boot. And those things are pretty cool, at least.

Other good stuff in NieR:Automata: smooth gameplay, great UI, gorgeous setting. Other bad stuff: its android characters are really, overwhelmingly white. Also, the PC port sucks.

It is perhaps important to note that the game’s merits don’t make up for its flaws, but also that the game’s flaws don’t necessarily (with many exceptions!) take away from its strengths. The goal of analyses such as this one is not to pretend that whether a game has a ‘feminist message’ or not is the only measure of quality; instead, they serve to point out the lessons that designers and audiences can learn from the material presented to us. A brief list of such lessons to be learnt from NieR:Automata, based on this post:
– Games with female leads and lots of character development for those leads will not be worse for it–on the contrary!
– Games without rigid gender stereotypes are not any less fun due to that lack of stereotypes–if anything, the experience feels more playful!
– Games that contain explicitly homosexual relationships are rather cool, because, well, we hardly ever see them in popular media!
– Games that sexualise their female characters may be fun for straight men, but they facilitate potentially harmful male power fantasies, and women/LGBT+ people might feel excluded or unwelcome because of such depictions!

Did I say this was going to be a *short* analysis? Whoops.


Notes and references:
1. Hopefully everyone knows what this means by now, but just in case: ‘LGBT+’ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and any other (that’s the ‘+’) non-heterosexual/non-cisgender identities, such as Intersex or Asexual.
2. ‘YoRHa’ is the organisation that the game’s protagonists belong to, an army of androids, created to protect humanity from the alien invaders who created an army of machines to conquer Earth.
3. For a good overview of how this works within the industry, check out the chapter “Designing Militarized Masculinity” in Stephen Kline et al., Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003): 246-68.