The world has ended, calamity has come and gone and new life has developed among the ruins. Humans live on, build and organise into communities in the picked-clean bones of the old world. A mysterious illness known as “The Black Scrawl” ravages the human population while otherworldly beings known as “Shades” assault them outside of their walls. Nier is the tale of a man desperate to cure his daughter. A man valued by his community for his capacity to fight: killing shades, hunting and taking on jobs for the people of the town he lives just outside.
Garnering little in the way of critical acclaim and releasing to a scene that didn’t know what to make of it, Nier stood little chance of mainstream adoption. Its unpolished core gameplay and the relatively sparse quality of its graphical output do not present a compelling face to many. Worse still is the standard “Sad Dad” plot the your quest hinges on, nowadays a jokey standard for what the generic video game story will entail.
The true charm of Nier lies outside of its main action mechanics and the outline of its plot. The soundtrack is a thing of beauty and probably the most widely discussed aspect of it. The music is haunting and emotional, it breathes life into scenes where graphical quality fails, and builds up an audio-emotional language that becomes very affecting. The seemingly nonsense languages of each song are designed to mimic real world languages after 1000s of years of linguistic mutation granting them a strange otherworldly yet familiar quality.
To call the gameplay “bad” would be an unfair reduction of another wildly creative component to the game. While the best that can probably be said of the combat mechanics is that they function and are unobtrusive the same cannot be said of many of the scenarios crafted for their use. Nier uses its unfocussed nature as a strength here, switching identity at will to become at times a top down shooter, a character action game, a bullet hell and even a text adventure that has the characters reacting to the reduction of their reality to narration. Flowing between all these different genres and sometimes mixing them together grants a compelling quirkiness to the game, reflecting the identities and struggles of the main cast.
Wonderful though its soundtrack and playfully experimental nature are, they serve to set the stage for the emotional core found in the interactions between the cast of weirdos you cart around the world on your quest. The world of Nier is harsh and no hope of a better future seems to really exist. The friends making up your party find themselves rejected, hated and feared by what communities remain. Abrasive, self-loathing and isolated, the the cast is introduced with a pre-title screen moment of a woman yelling profanity-laden demands at and about names we do not know. Gradually the player and the characters alike come to understand one another through their mutual pain, stumbling together united by their Other-ness.
Acceptance and the nature of community are themes running through every plot thread in Nier, underneath the extreme apocalyptic fantasy trappings lie painful, understated human stories. Kaine is a ludicrously dressed, hilariously foul-mouthed action character who is possessed by a shade that threatens to take her body from her. Emil is a young boy turned weapon of mass destruction mutated into a monstrous skeletal form. Weiss is a living book of spells who seems to absorb the blood of the Shades upon death. What is truly important to each however is their struggles with their own identity and place in the world.
One of the most powerful moments in the game for me was a sequence that plays on a second playthrough in Kaine’s memories. Presented in the form of raw text on a black screen (backed up by the ever powerful soundtrack) the story of Kaine’s childhood of rejection and discrimination was enough for me to feel a dark satisfaction at the destruction of the village that had inflicted it on her. A child mocked and assaulted by other children at the encouragement not only of each other but implicitly their parents and the general culture they live in. “I don’t get you, freak. Whatcha acting like a girl for, huh? Everyone knows what you really are!” Kaine’s suffering is a reality for a great many people and it greatly informs the defensive posturing and aggressive distrust defining her outward personality. She is able to assert her identity and survive through her suffering by pushing back against the world, finding power in her place as a fearful outcast. The player character however at no point even intimates that there is anything “wrong” with her. He reacts with baffled anger to his own town refusing her entry, stating that if she sleeps outside then so does he. Small acts of kindness are what Nier is truly about, even if they are eclipsed by the world around them. The profound difference Kaine’s adoptive grandmother makes to her desperate, suicidal internal monologue in her memory sequence show the strength one can grant another by acts of kindness.
Kaine’s internal monologue is core to a second playthrough of the game. Events of the game are infused with entire new avenues of meaning as with your glimpses into Kaine’s internal battle with her own shade you are given translations of all the garbled nonsense speak the enemies previously shouted seemingly as standard video game flavour. A re-contextualisation of the actions of both the heroes and villains the narrative has been preparing you for all along. Navigating a foreign society obsessed with nonsensical and hyper-specific rules, ultimately find their way to befriending them and forging a mutual understanding. Emil’s struggles with what his body has become and his capacity for destruction, soothed by his new friends who love him despite what he looks like. Kaine’s subtle growth into a nurturing figure to Emil, a child she sees her old self in, her back-and-forth insults with Weiss belying a deepening attachment to one another. All of these components telling you to look beyond common sense understandings of the world around you, to not trust first impressions and to look deeper into people’s lives seeing them for who they are.
Cast in this new light the shades become the true last remaining humans, their souls separated from their bodies as a defence against the disease consuming the population. The humans you have known throughout the game are creations of a millennia of still ongoing failed experiments to forge bodies immune to The Black Scrawl. Though this casts much of the actions of the Shades as being conducted in self-preservation the story is not simply reduced to a kind of “gotcha!” switcheroo moment. Instead it is opened up and laid bare, the motivations and the positions of all aired out. Perhaps the main character and his shade version are both the villains or perhaps neither are. A great many perspectives can be had on this topic and such reflection was naturally the intent. Ultimately the main character’s actions bring an end to the possibility of continued human procreation and the death of a lot of innocents, the perspective of the Shade’s struggling to the end in their translated speech bringing a particularly tragic tone.
To him however the Shades have only ever presented themselves as a directly aggressive force, one that he knows nothing of and of which he cannot comprehend. The Shades are driven by the desire to reclaim the bodies they cast off, even at the expense of the new consciousnesses those bodies have developed. Their plans as such amount to industrial genocide, an apparently necessary sacrifice to the continuation of their society and existence. This is Kaine’s experience with her home village writ large, bodies of a created outsider class sacrificed to define the existence of community. It is notable that the events leading to the destruction of her village begin with the revelation shades lived among them, attacking the party as they reveal their intent to continue killing Shades. In whichever way one looks at the scenario it seems clear the conflict between the two sides cannot end peacefully.
Nier is a tale of finding community and making your own family out of adversity. It is a tale of rejection and isolation, of survival and dependence. It is a tale of historical processes and what it means to base a society on an outside and an inside group. Between the player character and the main villain it is also a tale of how far people are willing to go to protect the existence of people they love, motivated by the preservation of the same daughter. The capacity for violence in acting out the role of the father figure is clear in both, one setting up a system that sacrifices countless cycles of replicated humans in attempts to become human again, the other fighting relentlessly and bloodily to reclaim his daughter from the former. In the end though the player’s version gives up the entirety of his existence to save Kaine from her possession, freeing her from her link to the shade latched on to her hate, fear and anger. Where one positioned himself a king of a dead world the other erases himself entirely even from memories (masterfully presented to the player by having them watch each and every stat, spell and item they acquired being erased one by one until their save is deleted entirely).
The player character is the only member of the party who is in not in some way an outsider to society, being the body of the leader of the Shades. Nevertheless he aggressively stands up for his friends and places them above himself when his society rejects them. His quest brings them together and gives them space to find themselves in each other, much of which happens off screen, as despite all this they remain not of his world. By being granted proximity to the importance of the standard protagonist they are given lives and the chance to be fully realised characters. It is only through the protagonist’s willingness to step back from his position of narrative privilege, culminating in his own deletion, that this is allowed to happen. His destructive rampage crashing to an end as he gives up the narrative power he possesses, a reflection of his willingness to give up his standing in community for the people he befriended.
Nier presents video game narratives for the bloodthirsty and selfish things that they are and shows us a possibility of escape only in their rejection. In focusing on the stories of people who aren’t centered by society we can find much more warmth and humanity even when their existences are framed by the degrees of violence seemingly inherent to the medium. The protagonist of Nier plays out his role as the Sad Dad figure doing what he has to for his daughter, playing out the standard heroic but dark and gruff male figure of video game fantasy. What sets him apart is his acceptance of and interest in those who aren’t like him and eventually his ability to see that they can be saved by changing the world into one that does not centre him or any other versions of him.
You have your own motives, your own desires… and we have ours, I fear it really is that simple.