Eoghain Meakin

Eoghain Meakin is a Lecturer in Game Design and researcher at Ulster University. His research interests include narrative design and meaning-making processes in video games.

Contact information:
e.meakin at ulster.ac.uk

Brian Dixon

Brian Dixon is Head of the Belfast School of Art, Ulster University in Belfast. His research interests draw together design methodology and design philosophy. He is a committed interdisciplinarist who sees philosophy as a medium for supporting the processes of understanding and doing.

Contact information:
b.dixon at ulster.ac.uk

Murat Akser

Murat Akser is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Development and Partnerships in the School of Communication and Media, Ulster University. Formerly he served as a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, the Chair of the New Media Department, and the Founding Director of the Cinema and Television MA program at Kadir Has University Istanbul, Turkey.

Contact information:
m.akser at ulster.ac.uk

Playing Games with Gadamer: Language for the Player and Protagonist’s Interpretive Journey

by Eoghain Meakin, Brian Dixon, Murat Akser


While Hans-Georg Gadamer's philosophical concepts are already present in video game studies, this article focuses on his terminology and mechanisms as they can be applied to a video-game-specific, player interpretive journey, rather than a broader ontology. The aim is to offer examples of key terms in his work, used in context, to elucidate how they can describe experiences of play and untangling meaning over time. These linguistic tools also offer novel ways to discuss the entangling and distance between the player and text and player and player character. This article explores this topic by analysing some of Gadamer’s most immediately useful terms and applying them directly to the selected reading, PlatinumGame’s NieR: Automata (2017).

Keywords: Gadamer, hermeneutics, ludo-hermeneutics, interpretation, NieR: Automata, analysis



This article examines key terms and mechanisms in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy and applies them to video game research. It aims to contribute to the growing field of ludo-hermeneutics and hermeneutic theory within games design (Aarseth & Möring, 2020; Karhulahti, 2015; Roth et al., 2018) by illustrating the use of these terms applied to a game example, offering insight into the interpretive journey of the player. Though Gadamer is already present in video game scholarship, there are no other examples of sustained applications of his terms directly to a game. Instead, scholars tend to focus on the macro shape of the hermeneutic cycle in games (Arsenault & Perron, 2009), create distinct taxonomies of interpretation (Arjoranta & Karhulahti, 2014; Karhulahti, 2015) or elide Gadamer’s unique properties to include him as part of a collective of hermeneutic thinkers and philosophers (Aarseth & Möring, 2020; Tanenbaum, 2015). These approaches have been a boon to ongoing video game scholarship, but do not necessarily convey the specific nature of Gadamer’s sense of interpretation. While not intended to be exhaustive, this study highlights key terms in Gadamer’s work (and explains them through illustrations), with the hope that future scholars can confidently apply them to other contexts and scenarios. Gadamer’s language is useful for discussing the intertwined nature of the player’s interpretive journey and the protagonist’s diegetic journey -- as well as the distinction between the player’s in-game actions and wider interpretations.

This will be shown through a brief overview of Gadamer’s current position in video game scholarship, followed by an entwined process of defining key language and applying that language to a particular game. Finally, the article will finish with a discussion of Arjoranta’s “real-time hermeneutics” and “game hermeneutics” (2022) with an explanation of how Gadamer’s language can be used to understand each concept’s relationship to the other.

Gadamer in Game Studies

Gadamer is one of the foundational pillars of ludo-hermeneutics and general applications of hermeneutic theories to games (Aarseth & Möring, 2020; Arjoranta, 2011; Chen, 2014; Karhulahti, 2015; Leino, 2010). While it is beyond the scope of this article to untangle the history and complexity of hermeneutics as a method and a theory, put in a simplified form, hermeneutics is a theory of interpretation; typically understood through the metaphor of the hermeneutic circle (or spiral (Alkhateeb et al., 2016; Arsenault & Perron, 2009; Landa, 2004)) where interpretation shifts between understanding the whole of something and its parts, creating a cycle of deepening understanding for the interpreter with no definitive end (Arjoranta, 2022; Kinsella, 2006; Regan, 2012). Some of Gadamer’s innovations from earlier scholars in hermeneutics (or distinguishing emphasis) include: (1) that an individual is always interpreting (though they may not always be conscious of it), (2) that the context of the individual (their cultural and historical background, for example) is a productive part of their ability to interpret, and (3) that ethics are deeply connected to that individual context -- both in how they are construed and how they can be applied (Gadamer, 1998; Grondin, 2002; Roy & Bayo, 2011; Schuster, 2013).

Figure 1: The Hermeneutic circle (top) and cycle (bottom) (Alkhateeb et al., 2016). Click image to enlarge.

Gadamer is a key reference for video game scholars such as Arjoranta, Tanenbaum and Karhulahti for distinguishing between the different interpretive modes that players engage in; typically along the lines of the game’s internal mechanisms (how to play) against evaluative judgements of the game in culture (is it good? Is it meaningful?) (Arjoranta & Karhulahti, 2014; Karhulahti, 2015; Tanenbaum, 2015). With some variation, each of these scholars find merit in this approach, with Arjoranta noting how game interpretation is only “a special case” of interpretation rather than a demarcated break from other interpretable contexts and situations (2022, p. 3). Gadamer is also a reference for scholars when seeking to understand and articulate the underlying imposition of play, in the sense that a player is limited in action while playing a game (Leino, 2010; Möring, 2013). By extension, Miguel Sicart relies on Gadamer for understanding the underlying ethics of a game and the ethical journey of a player during play (2009). In this context, Sicart stresses Gadamer’s hermeneutics as a mode of self-understanding, where the act of interpretation makes the player “a moral subject who rationalizes the game experience with the tools and parameters of her ethical wisdom” (2009, p. 88).

These multiple modes of interpretation, and how they relate to each other, are what we hope to illustrate here. By outlining key ideas and language that Gadamer uses (which are increasingly applied to games) it is not our aim to be authoritative -- Gadamer’s thought is complex and is itself up for interpretation -- but rather, we hope to demonstrate productive use of his language when applied to a player’s holistic interpretive process while playing a game.

An Event

Fundamental to Gadamer’s perspective on interpretation is context. In this case, the orientation of the subject (here, the player); the perspectives and traditions that they emerge from. This fundamentally shapes how they view information and interpret objects, objectives and situations. The act of interpretation itself is automatic and ongoing, “a mode of existence” in which the individual has no say (Arjoranta, 2022, p. 4). However, while the individual may not notice this passive form of interpretation, there is a potential moment where their previous understanding can be found wanting, prompting a deeper and more active form of interpretation (Roy & Bayo, 2011). Gadamer calls this moment an “event” (1998), a moment when "our previous sense of reality is undone, refuted, and shows itself as needing to be reconstituted" (Taylor in Roy & Bayo, 2011, p. 39).

This is a meeting between the subject and other; that which has not yet been constituted into the subject’s pattern of understanding (or has to be reinterpreted due to some other cognitive shift) (Vessey, 2009). Despite the other being alien in some way, the subject can only meet the other through their own presuppositions. Gadamer often uses the term prejudice for these presuppositions (though terms such as fore-meaning and fore-understanding often appear interchangeably (Schuster, 2013)), but this term is not negative (Arjoranta, 2022; Gadamer, 1998; Regan, 2012). While prejudices can occasionally be understood in a strictly negative light (such as when they lead to arbitrary understanding (Schuster, 2013, p. 198)), Gadamer sees them as inevitable and productive (Dallmayr, 2000, p. 828). Understanding can only emerge from prior understanding, where “old and new are always combining into something of living value” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 317). The fore-meaning is our point of interaction with the text or object that we are trying to understand (here meaning “the reference of our interpretation” (Dibadj, 1998, p. 1)). The object itself is only “viewable” due to our pre-understanding and expectations (Dallmayr, 2000). Similarly, it is only through the unfamiliar and the new that a player is spurred to reconstitute the facts that they thought they knew -- and thus expand their understanding (Dallmayr, 2000). However, there is the possibility that something will simply be too alien, a cognitive leap too far for the player to make (Grondin, 2002).

New knowledge pivots, then, around this cognitive distance, dictating what the player can “see” at any given point. The player bridges this gap by expanding this perspective, which itself can only be built out of other, prior understanding (Gadamer, 1998, p. 316). In this way, knowledge is both a furthering and a negation of previous knowledge; where the player or protagonist is confronted and forced to update their previous standing. These may not be the individual’s personally held perspectives per se, but rather those inherited from a “tradition,” the cultural past that has led to this point (Gadamer, 1998, p. 294). This is then also considered as part of any being’s interpretive capacity.

In this way, when a subject comes to understand something new, the subject is repeatedly challenged and unmade. For Gadamer, discovery is a reordering and questioning of perspectives that can prompt self-reflection (Gadamer, 1998, p. 361). Video games as a medium offer unique ways of enacting this process and provoking a player to take this journey. This journey will be explored via a sustained look at crucial terms and concepts in Gadamer’s hermeneutic work applied to PlatinumGames’ NieR: Automata (2017).

The Horizons of NieR: Automata

NieR: Automata is a 2017, action-role playing game developed by PlatinumGames and published by Square Enix. It garnered plenty of positive critical and commercial attention. The game has been particularly noted for its subversion of genre and medium tropes, for its allusions to complex philosophical material, and for its fourth-wall-breaking manoeuvres (Hawkins, 2017; Kerr, 2021; Matulef, 2017). The mechanics, though well presented, are relatively simple; the majority of gameplay involves melee combat, but there are also shooting elements that occasionally blur into the “shmup” (shoot’em up) genre. NieR: Automata is also notable for its unconventional structure. To “complete” the game (resulting in one of its canon endings) it must be played at least three times. Each of these playthroughs cover many of the same events, but with the perspective shifted to a different protagonist (Jaćević, 2017). This makes NieR: Automata a game about updating previously held beliefs through new perspectives or viewing old situations with new knowledge. It is set in a distant future Earth that has been attacked by aliens, who use robots (also referred to as machines) to wage war on their behalf. Players learn early in the game that humanity has fled to the moon and use androids as proxy soldiers to try to reclaim Earth. The player takes control of several of these androids, who come to new understandings about their position in this seemingly perpetual war.

Figure 2: Melee combat (top) and "shmup" combat (bottom) (Platinum Games, 2017). Click image to enlarge.

At the start of the game, each of the protagonists players encounter are blind, in the Gadamerian sense: they have seceded their reason to an authority, and only interpret their situation through that inherited ideology, which blocks them from reaching any authentic understanding (Gadamer, 1998, p.282; Dallmayr, 2000; Althusser, 1970). The authority is YorHa, the humanity defence force made up of androids but “led” by the absent humans. YorHa directs the war from an orbiting space station, and their mandate, tactics and objectives remain unquestioned.

This situation constitutes the androids’ (and potentially the player’s) “horizon” -- a term adapted by Gadamer from the work of Husserl (Vessey, 2009). Though the concept of horizon in Gadamer’s work has some complicated nuance, it can be understood through the basic metaphor. A horizon is how far we can see at any given point: it is not a hard limit, and we do not recognise it as such. We do not presume that the world ends at the limit of our perception, and we also know that if we find higher ground then our horizon will shift or expand (Vessey, 2009, p. 527). Horizons also interact directly with our fore-meanings to help us project our understanding outwards. Though you may not have been on the roof of your house or apartment building, prior experience with being high up will lead you to have some understanding of what the view would be like up there. Horizons and fore-meanings therefore help us “complete” the picture of the world in lieu of actual experience. However, and perhaps more importantly, horizons can offer a gateway, a forward path, to new understanding (Vessey, 2009). Just like prejudice, horizons are a resource (or a foundation) for further enquiry (Gadamer, 1998; Vessey, 2009). However, inadequate horizons, here seen as an insurmountable distance to an object, will lead to an object being misunderstood or ignored. Interpreters use horizons to establish what is significant and what can be passed over -- and if something is beyond our “perceptual” limits it will most likely be misconstrued in this way (Vessey, 2009, p. 531).

These concepts can be seen playing out early in the game when two of the protagonists, 2B and 9S, take part in an assault of a “weapons factory.” As they fight through the factory, they occasionally gather hints that the machines are not as vacant as they might have imagined. The machines seem to be trawling through human data and even show some capacity for speech. However, the androids simply cannot accept this information: “It’s just noise… there’s no meaning behind what the robots do,” remarks 9S (Platinum Games, 2017). Despite the evidence, the conceptual gap is too great for the androids to make. They are prejudiced in the much more common sense of the word. This dismissal illustrates their initial blindness as they cannot “view” what is in front of them (Dallmayr, 2000). This is also clear in each characters’ designs. Until the latter portion of the game, both characters wear blindfolds, which are diegetically explained as combat masks and a tactical heads-up displays (Ariko, 2017).

Figure 3: Protagonists 9S (left) and 2B (right) wearing blindfolds (Platinum Games, 2017). Click image to enlarge.

Historical Consciousness at the End of the World

The setting of the war, of conflict and adversity, frames this inability to “see,” to interpret in a way that accounts for the perceived characteristics of the thing being interpreted (Arjoranta, 2022; Rockmore, 2012). Another term used by Gadamer is relevant here: “historical consciousness” (1998). Historical consciousness is where tradition, as our all-encompassing relationship to the past, is part of our present, lived experience (Roy & Bayo, 2011, p. 38). We are always affected in this way, both in our view of the past as the past and in our anticipations of the future. In some sense this means that subjects are locked into their worldview, as historical consciousness dictates the resources they must interpret. However, for Gadamer, when the present interacts directly with the past, a possibility of newfound understanding emerges in what Gadamer calls “a real fusing of horizons” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 317). In a fusion of horizons, the “other” of the past can be recognised as a relevant and active part of the present, leading to new, living, updated meaning (Roy & Bayo, 2011, p. 38). This combining of horizons rejects the objective “self-isolation” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 317), which exists only in accepting a horizon exclusively based in the past or a present that refuses to acknowledge what came before. Alternatively, Regan outlines “[t]he alienation of historical consciousness” as an attempt to maintain as objective a critical distance to events in the past (2012). In either case, past and present together make for the future. So, while there may never be a fixed “correct” understanding of the past, there can be an inability to fuse horizons, resulting in disjunction. This “self-isolation” is shown to be recursive in the world of NieR: Automata. The conflict is revealed to be largely artificial but prolonged to give purpose to those who participate in it. The androids fight today because they fought in the past. The machines, on the other hand, are attempting to build a society in a myriad of ways but can only repurpose misunderstood fragments of human history. This leads the robots into quagmires of understanding, where they can mimic an action but never truly replicate it or go beyond it. This can be seen in their (ritualistic) replication of human behaviour that includes Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs, mimicry of sexual reproduction, physical vanity and more. The majority of androids and robots are stuck, enmeshed in their current, static historical consciousness.

Gadamer’s Understanding

To instigate new interpretations, a subject needs an aforementioned event -- an encounter that forces them to evaluate their pattern of understanding. In Gadamer’s terms, subjects are “provoked” by the object’s newness (or relative incompatibility with their current prejudices) and they do not just interrogate the object but also themselves (Gadamer, 1998, p. 310). This means that, “to understand always implies an element of self-understanding, self-implication” (Grondin, 2002, p. 3). In this there can be “rival projects,” parallel readings of an object or text (Gadamer, 1998, p. 83). The interpreter then looks for suitability as a reference and may be encouraged to look for other sources. This is the other way that provocation functions as stimuli, as what a subject previously “knew” has now been proven inadequate. Understanding is “not merely a reproductive act but always a productive activity as well” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 307) -- one where horizons often need to be actively shifted in response to a new piece of information. “Growing” understanding does not necessarily mean understanding things better. Rather, it primarily means to understand things in a different way -- a way that is ultimately more suitable to the circumstances (Gadamer, 1998; Rockmore, 2012). In the face of this incoherence, only bias can keep someone from re-evaluation, although overhastiness and/or the secession of reason to some other authority can also lead to these arbitrary readings (Gadamer, 1998, p. 282). This framing shows how understanding is intimately entwined with the subject’s context, or their orientation towards the object (Grondin, 2002). A “genuine learning experience” happens through the constant exposure of our reason to the unfamiliar and alien -- that which does not already fit our model of the world (Dallmayr, 2000, p. 839). Understanding is meaning integrated into a larger frame -- expanding and changing the meaning that one already has available (Grondin, 2002, p. 2).

Forming an understanding then can be challenging -- unseating biases is similar to ripping up the ground a subject is standing on (Grondin, 2002). This is why, for Gadamer, experience is always initially a negation (Gadamer, 1998, p. 363). It is the undoing of something that a subject took for granted and maybe saw as “fundamental” to their being. For the androids and machines, it is seeing each other as enemies and humanity as an ideal (worth protecting or replicating). That this can be a struggle is made literal in the game; the androids only ever remove their blindfolds at points of conflict or high drama, implying that “seeing” takes effort, and can be dangerous and emotional. However, configuring a new understanding not only harmonises better with the available information (with fewer incongruities) (Arjoranta, 2011; Rockmore, 1990) but, in transcending inept understandings. The androids are learning how to “live authentically,” freeing themselves from an authority they have inherited or taken on surreptitiously (Aarseth & Möring, 2020, p. 4). In true understanding, subjects are able to effectively articulate the object of their study and turn this into a relative and fruitful activity (Aarseth & Möring, 2020; Grondin, 2002; Lawn, 1996).

Ethical Activity

For Gadamer this recognition, where something “is known as something,” emerges from the circumstances of the event (Gadamer, 1998, p. 119). Recognition includes the subject’s role and position in an interaction, and what that position makes possible (Gadamer, 1998, p.21). Insofar as any action can be “correct,” it is when the interpreter aims to understand their circumstances sufficiently -- “to subsume correctly,” -- applies judgement, and then acts based on this situated interpretive process (Gadamer, 1998, p. 28). Sound judgement is connected to the full circumstances; that is, not just what is present but what is being asked of the individual in general (Gadamer, 1998, p. 323). Here Gadamer points toward a common tension in our understanding and application -- the difference between what one can do and what one “should” do.

Utilising the language of Aristotle, Gadamer distinguishes between Techne, learnt technical skills, and the more universal praxis of ethical knowledge, Phronesis (Gadamer, 1998, p. 20; Roy & Bayo, 2011, p. 29). The latter is underpinned by a “sympathetic understanding” (Roy & Bayo, 2011, p. 29) that figures more as a capacity for action rather than a concrete skill (Gadamer, 1998, p. 20). Unlike techne, where the ends and means are known (that is, in conforming to a procedure with a known result connected to skill in application) (Lawn, 1996, p. 268), in phronesis “man is not at his own disposal in the same way that the craftsman’s material is at his disposal” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 326). People cannot produce a knowable, repeatable result using phronesis in the same way that they can through techne. Where techne is concrete (even though it may be widely applicable), phronesis has no absolute principles for moral action (Lawn, 1996, p. 269). We do not possess moral knowledge in a way that can be readily applied to specific situations and, furthermore, we are always in the situation where phronesis applies (Gadamer, 1998, p. 327). As an illustration of where these two forces combine, Gadamer uses the example of a judge or a court, where the judge interprets what should be done in a criminal case, for example, through the abilities that their role gives them and their ethical judgement in the context of that role (Gadamer, 1998, pp. 276, 347, 587). Here techne has its own capacity just as phronesis does. The two forms of knowledge may compliment or contradict each other, but it is clear that Gadamer prioritises phronesis for “the good person” (Lawn, 1996, p. 269).

In NieR: Automata, the androids display efficient techne at every turn. They are able to kill waves of machines and easily traverse the terrain of crumbling human buildings. Yet it is made clear by the text that their horizons need to be broadened and their phronesis cultivated. Up to this point they have made arbitrary, unethical judgements (arbitrary because they are incongruous, unethical because there has been no sympathetic understanding). The journey for the androids is to encounter events that force rapid reinterpretation and force them to engage in active ethical judgement, rather than the rote, passive interpretation of techne. Each event -- the discovery of a village of pacifist robots, the androids’ own deepening relationships, the revelation that the war is a controlled farce -- expands the prejudices and horizons of the androids. Using the typical language of games, NieR: Automata sets up a confrontation with the other. However, the us vs. them relation that makes up typical video game antagonism is subverted by each revelation and becomes the very thing necessary for new cognitive breakthroughs.

This activity then becomes existential, as the androids have to reinterpret themselves in the face of shifting information (Kłosiński, 2022; Lawn, 1996; Schuster, 2013). This is a painful experience for the characters, and it typically includes a phase of unmooring as they shift from their previously held beliefs to the new ones. The character 9S is sent spiralling, for example, when he perceives a mercy killing as a murder. In this case he is both literally and mentally too far from the event to perceive it correctly; 2B had been infected by a “logic virus” cultivated by the android military that would make her turn on her fellow androids (a critical part of perpetuating the war). Choosing to die while still in control is the last true choice that she gets to make. For 9S, still mired in deception, this is beyond his perception, and he loses control just as he loses his ability to perceive and reason.

The Player Interpreter

A similar interpretive journey takes place for the player during (and potentially after) play. To use Arjoranta’s wider ludo-hermeneutic terms, this happens in two ways: as “real-time hermeneutics” and “game hermeneutics” (2022). The former is the interpretation needed to play the game (the possible actions in that context and how they can be leveraged for in-game success), and the latter is evaluative (trying to understand the game as a text and cultural object) (ibid.). In either case, Gadamer’s concepts discussed above continue to apply. What changes is the objective of the interpretation and means (and veracity) of verification. Real-time hermeneutics are verified by the system itself; as Arjoranta states, “if a player is unable to keep playing because of their interpretation, it is opposed by the game and necessarily wrong” (2022, p.9). On the other hand, game hermeneutics “lack final answers, since changing cultural contexts requires re-evaluating previous answers” (Arjoranta, 2022, p. 10). While there may be no final answers, there can be a successful interpretation where there is a fusing of horizons between the interpreter and the interpreted (Arjoranta, 2022; Gadamer, 1988) -- or, in the language of Mantzavinos, a nexus “when the actor engaging in [any] behavior interprets it against the background of his goals, his beliefs, and his other mental states while interacting with his natural and social environment” (in Klosinski, p.4).

What makes NieR: Automata a compelling case study for this topic is how it illustrates such an interpretive process by actualising it in the text, therefore showing how real-time hermeneutics prompt game hermeneutics. This process can be used to describe Sicart’s ethical player, “explaining how the player operates as a reflective, moral being” (Sicart, 2009, p. 85).

Taking control of different protagonists while replaying many of the same events forces the player to apply new understanding to past events. By offering a plurality of perspectives, the game shows how interpretation and action are contextual to the individual (Vessey, 2009). This emphasises the complexity of phronesis when “each situation is utterly unique: its strangeness exposes the inadequacy of general rules. Rules by their very nature can never be programmatically applied to specific cases” (Lawn, 1996, p. 269). However, due to the limitations of the system, the player has limited choices in how to proceed (Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2010; Tulloch, 2014). The underlying principles of real-time hermeneutics force the player to proceed in a way that plays out the protagonist’s journey: a journey in which they move from relative ignorance to new understanding over time (Meakin et al., 2021; Ryan, 2008). However, the player’s awareness of how the androids misunderstand their world is the space in which the player can engage with game hermeneutics
-- they can evaluate the game’s meaning, messaging and its quality (Sicart, 2009; Tanenbaum & Tanenbaum, 2010).

The incongruity prompts the player to interpret not just the world as it is, but also the context that each character finds themself in, and how that context effects each character’s interpretation and behaviour. When this process is compelling, the player will be forced to interpret their own position relative to both the diegesis of the game and the game as a cultural object -- going through a process of self-understanding necessary to fuse horizons (Arjoranta, 2022; Gadamer, 1998; Sicart, 2009). The player emerges transformed, just as the protagonists are, by revelations. However, because the player seeks to understand the game on the level of game hermeneutics, which have no definitive answer, the player can only apply the information to themselves and their own prejudices. This means that meaning is profound because, in this way, it is unique to the player. The engagement of question and answer, between the object of interpretation and the interpreter, is a dialogue (Gadamer, 1998). As Vessey states:

“[T]he dialogue is a success if … the participants have acquired a new understanding of how they each originally valued the evidence so that they arrived at conflicting conclusions about the subject matter. They have either revised their evaluations, or they have set their evaluations in a larger context of possible evaluations. Either way they have acquired a new understanding of the subject matter and of the contingency of their own perspective on it.” (Vessey, 2009, p. 535)

The game asks for the player’s perspective (or challenges them on it) in two key moments during play. The first includes Pascal, the leader of the pacifist robot village, who the player comes to know over the course of the game. He has made it his life’s work to cultivate the robots’ “human” emotions and has been educating them to this end. Due to certain events, Pascal and the “child” robots end up under siege in a shelter. In a combat sequence, Pascal and the player character fight off the enemy robots, but when they return to the shelter, they find that the children, out of fear, have all committed suicide. The player is then given a choice: Pascal, in grief, begs to be killed or have his memory wiped. However, a third choice exists where players can simply leave him with his pain. Here, the player’s limited capacity dictates what they can do, and it becomes a question of how to apply the phronesis that they have personally cultivated within that limitation. There is no right or wrong answer, but it is likely that a player will have a sense that one choice is better than the others based on their updated understanding of the game world and their own ethics. The second moment where the player is given an explicit choice is in the final ending of the game, when the fourth wall is broken, and the player is offered the choice to sacrifice their save file to support another player attempting to this ending. The player is asked to sacrifice something personal. It is a moral question borne out of the game but reaching beyond it. Interestingly, this sequence concludes with the androids (who perish in the other endings) being “remade” in a world where they are free to make their own choices.

Figure 4: Final Ending Save File delete (Platinum Games, 2017). Click image to enlarge.

Both examples show how the constraints of a game (which can be articulated as real-time hermeneutics) can provoke questions beyond its interior world; questioning an ethical stance and modifying an evaluative judgment as the player looks beyond real-time hermeneutics into game hermeneutics, and potentially beyond even these. It is again when the event, or, in Vessey’s terms, “a question situation” (2009, p.530), is made actual that we have the most explicit case of how a player’s interpretation includes what is in the text, and what can be extrapolated from it. The text provokes the player to interpret across these multiple levels of meaning and understanding.


Gadamer notes how an experience is distinguished from the rest of life “in which ‘nothing’ is experienced” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 61) and therefore the experience has a “unity” and coherence that distinguishes it from everything else (Gadamer, 1998, p. 63). He calls this “a determining feature of the foundation of art” in which representation allows for an experience that “tears the person experiencing it out of the context of his life, and yet relates him back to the whole of his existence” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 64). Interestingly, Gadamer relates this type of experience (Erlebnis) to “an adventure” that “interrupts the customary course of events but is positively and significantly related to the context which it interrupts” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 63). In this case, the player goes on an adventure by playing the game, yet the context that it interrupts, and therefore relates to, is their own life. The viewer, reader or player, if so affected, incorporates this experience into themselves and recognises themselves in the text. As we have seen with NieR: Automata, the player is also challenged and provoked:

“the work of art captivates us and calls us to change our life. A strong bond connects the experience of truth and our self-understanding in the horizon of human finitude and incompleteness. Hermeneutic understanding of the human being concerns not only particular aspects of life as if the human being were only a thinking being. It is rather an attempt to understand the human being in its complexity and totality without ever losing the perspective of the essential fragmentarily and incompleteness of any human insight and cognition.” (Wiercinski, 2009, p. 13)

As part of a more granular look at the foundations of ludo-hermeneutics, Gadamer’s terminology provides a way to discuss the entangled and mirrored interpretive journeys of the protagonist (as the contextual anchor in the plot and themes of the work) and the player. Sequences of events challenge and unmake previous understandings, and force horizons to shift. This prompts self-reflection for the player and brings with it the potential for personal resonance. The events function as a question situation that locates the player in the game’s meanings and actions, but also makes the text relevant so that “it possesses a mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being, as if there were no distance at all and every encounter with it were an encounter with ourselves” (Gadamer, 2018, p. 1). Here player anticipations, as prejudices, meet “discovery, a disclosure of something previously concealed” (Gadamer, 2018, p. 3). The gameworld is revealed to contain unseen depth, but the discoveries found there are made tangible and unique through the player’s active interpretation of them.

With terms such as horizons, prejudices, techne, phronesis and more, there is a way to outline how a game instigates and controls player expectations and interpretations while also prompting the player, as an individual, to make the material privately resonant. NieR: Automata is a self-selecting example in this case, as it uses cycles of interpretation as a structuring device. While it remains to be seen how much game-specific nuance the multifarious study of ludo-hermeneutics will need, Gadamer’s language seems to apply with conscious translation here.



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