*There will be full spoilers for NieR: Automata. If you haven’t finished playing the game I recommend coming back to read this later.
While the debate of whether videogames are art has long been settled, I rarely (if ever) see people cite their interaction with a game as being a part of the art. Some of this can be attributed to just human error, but a part of it is because of games themselves. It is difficult to even think of clear examples where interaction played an important part of the art aspect of videogames rather than just the entertainment part. Some arguments could be made for the surgery scene in The Last Us or even some indie titles like Undertale or the LISA series however I find these games to not go as far or do it as well as NieR: Automata. In NieR interaction with the game becomes part of not only the narrative, but the philosophical themes the game explores.
What it means to be human is explored and answered by various characters throughout the game. Some characters find humanity in conflict, some find it through community, and others find it in their own unique singular purpose. This can be been seen with Pascal and his village, the Forest King, and many of the machines in side quests. Each one of them found humanity and happiness through things that are commonly praised in other JRPGs (i.e power of friendship). Normally this would lead to a happy ending where the artificial life forms all learn to be human, but NieR offers a different perspective. Regardless of where they find it, time and time again any source of humanity and happiness is shown to be fragile and ultimately living as humans leads to more suffering.
The idea that human existence is suffering or will lead to suffering is a popular philosophical idea and fairly simple. Because life is always filled with desire or in other words lacks something, all life will suffer and even if they satisfy one desire there will be another that isn’t. In the case of NieR: Automata what satisfies a character is often taken away whether it is community or something simpler like being the fastest. Throughout the game, characters struggle with their source of satisfaction being taken away. The best examples of this are 9S dealing with the death of 2B and Pascal choosing to die or forget everything after the death of his entire village. None of the characters ever find a way to deal with suffering and the ones that try end up causing more suffering. Rather than tell the player how to handle this suffering or even showing them, the game lets the player’s actions speak for themselves.
At the final ending of the game player are presented with an almost impossible bullet hell section. When the player inevitably dies they are presented with the question to continue. Here the player is given a choice to either give up or continue the frustratingly difficult gameplay. This reflects the choice between avoiding suffering (death) or living despite the suffering. Eventually the player is given another choice to continue on alone or receive help from others. Now the player is choosing whether they can continue alone in the face of suffering or admitting they need others to overcome it. If the player has made it to this point they will chose to receive help and have likely reached the same conclusions as many characters in the game. Life is worth living despite the suffering and other people make it possible to overcome that suffering.
The player is presented with one final choice: give up your save data for a complete stranger or keep it and have no negative consequences. This choice is one that plays off narrative, themes, and the gamer mindset of reward and progression. It removes any of the normal gamer rewards and presents players with a choice that is only influenced by their instincts and the game’s rather bleak narrative. By choosing to keep your save data, you are proving that humanity is suffering. Humans are selfish and their desires are greater than their willingness to help one another so they will continue to suffer even when others are with them. If you choose to give up your save data, you are showing that humanity isn’t completely selfish. There is some hope that they will help each other overcome suffering and adversity.
Undoubtedly there will and are many people who just continue on to see the ending and don’t think too much about the choices. This is understandable because in the moment these choices can seem purely narrative however they are deeply tied to the game’s themes. Each choice made during ending E is more than narrative flavor or a way to increase replayability. They are a means to explore fairly complex philosophical dilemmas in an easily digestible and entertaining way that is unique to videogames. Whether it is gameplay or choosing a dialogue box, the player is saying something about the story and its themes by interacting with the game. In this way interaction becomes as much a part of the art of NieR: Automata as any of its other components.