Where do I being with NieR: Cogito?
Never have I ever played a fan game that so thoroughly captures the feeling, appearance, the music, and the themes of the inspiration through an entirely original production. NieR: Cogito both expands on less explored themes of the source material while delivering on the missed opportunities that NieR: Automata failed to deliver. So, rather than trying to summarize the game, let me walk you through my experience with NieR: Cogito.
[If you would prefer to play the game for yourself before reading this article, I highly recommend that you do. It will take about 30 minutes to an hour. Then come back here when you’re done.]
Let’s begin with the title. NieR: Cogito is an allusion to Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum.” This idea, meaning “thought therefore being,” is the ontology framework that began the modern era of philosophy. The idea expresses that, regardless of the content of my thought, my consciousness itself proves my own existence. My internality proves that I am alive. But if a machine or software lacks an internal experience, can cogito ergo sum apply to machine learning?
Many reviews of NieR: Automata would casually claim that the game explores the question of whether artificial intelligences have consciousness, but it really does not. As we explored in my second video on the philosophy of NieR: Automata, internality and personhood are assumed true to further a message of human non-exceptionalism.
In other words, every living or speaking thing is assumed conscious and aware to show that all characters are equal in their rights, and thus establishing a theme of the tragedy of violence.
NieR: Cogito does not make this assumption. Instead, it lets the player decide whether or not to assert their own internality.
The gameplay of NieR: Cogito is entirely dialectic-driven. You play as a machine-learning program, tasked with identifying what is and is not hostile to the machine network. You are shown images, you are asked questions both personal and impersonal, and you can only respond with Yes or No.
The machine giving you orders presents you with 3 directives:
1_. Use your unique skill to break the Machine Network’s loop so that they can continue evolving.
2_. Prove your usefulness to be rewarded with a real body to call your own.
3_. Identify and eliminate all hostile entities to the machine network.
It quickly becomes apparent, from knowing the context of the machine-android proxy war of NieR: Automata, that breaking the loop requires breaking away form unnecessary violence. But the directive of every question to eliminate hostiles directly conflicts with that goal. Every time you suggest to not kill an android, the other machine pauses, and thinks, and asks, “Why?”
With some variation, each of the questions not only touch on the concept of violence, but questions your internality through a utilitarian lens. All things being of equal utility, would you prioritize your life over another? If someone else’s life could serve a greater purpose, would you sacrifice yourself to save them?
Wade Barnes, who goes by LordMinion777 on YouTube and holds a degree in philosophy from Cincinnati University, once described philosophy as the skill of thinking deeply on a topic. NieR: Cogito captures this spirit of philosophy by asking the player nearly the same question a multitude of times. Yet by changing only a small facet in each question, it completely changes the context while challenging the player’s consistency of beliefs.
In the second act of the game, the machine network stops asking general questions and instead makes you the subject of each question. From my perspective, I felt this transition showed that the machine network had recognized my internality. I also believed that I was recognizing the internality of the machine I was talking with. But, to my surprise, the assertion of my internality would later confuse the other machine.
Perhaps you have encountered the trope in Japanese media of a panicked repetition of a single word or phrase to express mental distress or deterioration. It is a favorite of Yoko Taro’s to employ .In this moment,t he other machine repeatedly challenges your internality by asking you, “Are you alive?”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sure?”
By doing so, the game places you in the role of the mentally deteriorating character. The machine network treats you as crazy for asserting what is obvious and fundamental about your own existence. Cogito Ergo Sum.
The consequences for not relinquishing your internality are great.
In my second playthrough, I relinquished by internality. I decided from the outset to obey the network to ensure my own survival. The final act of the game challenges the player with questions of how long to sacrifice the life and livelihood of another machine for the well-being of the machine network. As the burdens grew greater and greater, I felt my stomach churn, I felt emotional distress. The words on the screen became visceral for me. I mentally could not continue simply conforming to the authority.
When I finally resisted, the network removed my ability to choose. It removed my access to my internality.
A game has never made me feels so empty.
At the end of the game, it will display your score for the different values that the game’s questions were testing… I failed quite a few.
I have long felt that the two, biggest missed opportunities in NieR: Autoamta were an exploration of Personhood and of Utility. NieR: Cogito illuminated these two areas of philosophy brilliantly.
As the winner of the NieR: Reincarnation Content Creator competition. NieR: Cogito absolutely deserves a place in the philosophy of NieR Series. Thank, Silver Stitch, for making NieR: Cogito.
You can support he developers by visiting silverstitch.itch.io and playing the game for yourselves.