The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche Explained with 8-Bit Video Games

In the world of the 8-bit video game, there may be no more a frustrating, Sisyphusean task than completing the various iterations of Mega Man. Each successive level can feel endless, as one dies and starts again, time after time, with no glorious end in sight. It can feel like, as Friedrich Nietzsche might say, being caught in a cycle of “eternal recurrence,” destined to repeat the same actions, over and over again for eternity.

The videos here then—part of the popular trend of 8-bit shorts—use the graphics and bleeping sound effects and music of Mega Man to illustrate Nietzsche’s seemingly pessimistic ideas. First, with a nod to Rust Cohle, we have the theory—or rather the thought experiment—of “eternal recurrence.” Drawing on Arthur Schopenhauer’s interpretation of Buddhism, Nietzsche imagined a universe with no end and no beginning, an endless loop of suffering in which one is destined to make the same mistakes forever.

If this seems terrifyingly bleak to you, you may approach life through a haze of resentiment, Nietzsche might say, a bitter tangle of anger and blame that rejects the world as it is. The one who overcomes this snare—the ubermensch—has achieved self-mastery. Strong in the ways of the “will to power” is he, and delighted by the prospect of living in the present moment an infinite number of times, even if the universe is cold, cruel, and indifferent to human existence. The “will to power” governs all life, for Nietzsche, and human life in particular is weakened by ignoring this fact and clinging to moral systems of resentiment like that of Christianity.

Nietzsche’s argument against Christianity, as explained above at least, is that it encourages, even celebrates mediocrity and frowns upon excellence. That such is the general tenor of our current age—an assessment the narrator makes—is debatable. Yes, we may promote mediocrities at an alarming rate, but we also at least nominally celebrate uber men (almost always men), who may not truly be self made but who surely live by the dictates of the will to power, taking what they want when they want it. Whether Nietzsche’s characterization of this predatory behavior as the highest of human possibilities inspires you or not may depend on how far you feel yourself to be above the common herd.

Nietzsche’s amoral philosophy has appealed to some pretty predatory characters, but it also appeals to anti-authoritarian, post-modern types because of his critical stance toward not only religion, but also what can seem like its secular replacement, science. Nietzsche respected the scientific method, but he recognized its limitations as a means of describing, rather than explaining the world. All of our descriptions are interpretations that do not penetrate into the realm of ultimate causes or meanings, and cannot provide a privileged, god-like vantage point from which to make absolute judgments.

When, in the hopes of replacing the certainties of religious morality and metaphysics, we elevate science to the position of ultimate truth formerly granted to the mind of god, we lose sight of this basic limitation; we commit the same fallacy as the religious, mistaking our stories about the world for the world itself. Would Nietzsche’s extreme skepticism have made him sympathetic to today’s climate science deniers and antivaxxers? Probably not. He did recognize that, like the physical bodies where thought takes place, some ideas are healthy descriptions of reality and some are not. Nonetheless, our explanations, Nietzsche argued, whether scientific or otherwise, are contingent—effects of language, not exposés of Truth, capital T.

For more 8-Bit Philosophy, see our posts on Plato, Sartre, Derrida, as well as Kierkegaard and Camus, all illustrated in short, nostalgic recreations of classic video games.

Related Content:

The Philosophy of Nietzsche: An Introduction by Alain de Botton

Nietzsche Dispenses Dating Advice in a Short Screwball Film, My Friend Friedrich

The Digital Nietzsche: Download Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Human, All Too Human: 3-Part Documentary Profiles Nietzsche, Heidegger & Sartre

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • mark turner says:

    The Chomsky video is in the Friedrich Nietzsche link and vice versa.

  • Nicholas says:

    “Sisyphean,” not “Sisyphusean,” which sounds like a baby name I heard the other day in the Bronx.

  • Jordan Bates says:

    I’ve always felt Nietzsche’s “will to power” meme could be interpreted a little more gently. I don’t think it necessarily has to equate to “taking what [you] want when [you] want it.” If you come at it from the angle of power = becoming a being who accepts eternal recurrence, then perhaps the true Ubermensch would be something more resembling a kind of Zen acceptance and delight in the moment.

    I haven’t read enough Nietzsche to know if my reservations about the strict definition of “will to power” are justified. I just think that there are many types of “power.”

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