Saturday, July 13, 2024

Nier Automata and The Queer Experience of Its Bushes

Sometimes I recognize my queer experience in the most unexpected places. Queerness permeates the Nier series; both in canon representations and thematic underpinning. It’s no surprise then, that I would see myself reflected in some fashion while playing Nier: Automata, but where my experience manifested itself most clearly was, in fact, a surprise. Tripping on the bushes as you have 2B run from one place to another is arguably one of the most obnoxious mechanics in the game and it is also a stark illustration of how it feels to move through the world as a nonbinary queer person.

2B’s heels kick up dust as she flies across the ruined city. Her silvery-white hair flutters in the wind and her black velvet dress dances with abandon to the rapid tempo of her boots hammering the earth. YoRHa units do not have muscles which tire or strain. Though built to resemble humans and die for their causes, they far outclass their makers’ physicality. With enough momentum, 2B does not sprint so much as soars, leaving dust and an afterimage of silvery-white and black in her wake. One would think nothing could halt such a body moving at such a speed. Alas, should the player steer 2B–or any playable android–into a bush, she crashes through it, stumbling, clumsy. All momentum lost, she must get to jogging and work her way back up to soaring.

This is what it feel like to move through a cisheterocentric world as a nonbinary person. I can’t tell you which of 2B’s many stumbles through the bushes it was which brought this parallel into relief as I made my way through PlatinumGames and Square Enix’s Nier: Automata. What I can tell you is the parallel is felt. I move through the world, ever-present in my queerness (whether as a point of joy or mode of alertness) when suddenly I find my feet catching on roots and I end up with a mouthful of bitter, cisheteronormative leaves. You’d think over a decade out of the closet would have me leaping over these pesky shrubs when they cross my path. You’d think dozens of hours with Automata would make my trips across the City Ruins speedrun worthy. Still I–and 2B–fall. 

Nier Automata Bushes
Stumbling through the foliage is graceless // Source: Famitsu

There is no canonical explanation for why the YoRHa androids’ powerful bodies don’t plow through the foliage unfettered. However, their antagonistic relationship to the fauna speaks to an incompatibility with the world they are thrust into; only deepening the queer resonance I feel with the androids as they face their tragedies and scuff their patent leather on branches and twigs. Not only does nature reject them, but the ruined structures which surround them are tombs housing dead and rotting ideologies. Ideologies whose ghosts plague the Machine Lifeforms with whom they share a genesis and to whom they might compare themselves and their “humanity.” 

Monarchies, organized religions, nuclear families, cishetero relationships, nationalism, militarism: all ideologies and value systems working over, being programmed into, and being scavenged by Machine and android alike. All in the hope of stitching together identity or purpose like a garment born of threadbare cloth. Like the cisheteronormative ideologies and values which never come in my size and do little to flatter my figure, these outdated systems fit the automatons of the game poorly. The androids are constructed to operate beyond the boundaries of these systems, rendering them incompatible. An incompatibility which is deeply rooted, systemic. As with all systemic issues, it manifests in unobvious ways. In this case, fauna which the Nier: Automata World Guide Volume 1 hints may be chemically contaminated and trips up the androids as they try to move about a home that is not theirs.

I find this incompatibility, this otherness starkly relatable. Cishet ideologies haunt me everywhere I turn and even as I try to build momentum and move with ease through a world framed in systems which uplift and uphold cishet values, the bushes trip me up. Bushes sprouting thorns of microaggressions, gender norms, queerphobia, etc. I look at myself in the mirror, analyze my body through a kaleidoscope of gender and I can taste the leaves. I sense the weight of capitalism (be it pink, rainbow, or without a queer friendly facade) try to smooth out my differences and I feel the thorns prick at my skin. I try and squeeze my body into gender normative clothes and my skin becomes inflamed from poison ivy. 

With their superhuman legs, androids can jump over the bushes or dash around and through them. More often than not, I end up steering them into a leafy collapse regardless. I either don’t see the bush coming or don’t react quickly enough when I do. The safest way to proceed may be to tread carefully, but as a queer person, I ache with the strain of carefulness; the mental and physical toll of constant vigilance of how my body presents, what unsafe space it might wander into, evaluating and reevaluating each word I speak for fear that my authenticity might finally invoke violence from the powers that be. In spaces virtual or real, queer people deserve to stretch our legs and fly fearless through the decay of cisheteronormic ideals. 

We don’t know why YoRHa androids don’t plow through the foliage unfettered

Sprinting through the city as an android is the feeling of scream-cackling amongst queer friends. It’s speaking in slang which constantly evolves (as cishetero capitalism co-opts it at every turn). It’s going about your day with a gender euphoric spring in your step as if you really could keep building speed until you’re flying like a YoRHa unit. But no matter the dozens of hours I’ve played Automata, often enough, my momentum has me running 2B headfirst into yet another bush. 

A stranger misgenders you. Someone you looked up to outs themself as a TERF. Your coworker jokes about celebrity women “secretly being born male.”  You try to jump over the bush by pivoting to humor but the button press was poorly timed. You end up crashing into the brambles when you realize, in an attempt to get them to laugh with you, to your great shame, you’ve only encouraged them to keep laughing at you. The thorns tear through embroidery and velvet, slice into your flesh, and leave you halted in place. 

Though the tripping mechanic evokes painful aspects of queer life, I manage to find a spiteful glee in it’s inclusion. Though Automata makes itself blessedly accessible with waypoints and adjustable combat difficulty, the game also manages to stick its foot out and trip the player up amidst the power fantasy. My glee is born of the slapstick in making the player trip, but it’s colored with queer spite because I believe plenty of people deserve to stumble now and then.

A common reduction I hear of the Nier games–especially Automata–is that these games are about what it means to be human. While that isn’t necessarily incorrect, the game demands a more specific reading. The question isn’t whether the automatons of Nier are people, but how they manage to bear the weight of their personhood, or whether they choose to at all. As a queer person in a cishet world, I often don’t feel I can bear that weight. At my lowest, I have moments of eyeing my OS Chip as I ideate tearing it out and accepting Ending T as my canonical fate.

The queer experience in Nier Automata is hard for straight gamers to understand

While I don’t believe one obstacle to traversal can fully convey the weight of my personhood to a cishet player, my queer spite relishes that they might finally take a turn at tripping. Though they move through the real world at a more carefree pace with myriad fewer obstacles, every now and then, while playing Nier and embodying an android situated in queer modes of existence, they might get a mouthful of leaves. They might take a tumble through bushes of their own making, get a taste of their own plant-based medicine, and have their hems frayed by the thorns. 

I know an ultimately minor inconvenience in a video game will not instill an understanding of queer people’s lived experience in a cishet player. They will not know the involuntary flinch that comes with misgendering. They will not feel the steam born of anger or shame from a queerphobic joke. They will never know the anxiety of holding a partner’s hand in a public space. They have fewer bushes to trip on and none of them are shaped like these. However, in the ruined city of Nier, the bushes do not see gender or sexuality. The straights trip just as easily as the queers. That’s why, even if it’s for only a moment, or more realistically, even if it’s only felt in my spiteful fantasies, when I trip on a bush in Nier: Automata, I do not curse. I nod and I smile. I can rebuild 2B’s lost momentum easier knowing some straight person, somewhere, is tripping through the same bush I am for once. 

More games should make you trip on the bushes. 

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