You Guys, Nier Is Even Better Than I Thought

nier kaine and nier

When I first wrote about Nier about a month ago (original article here), I called attention to its music, its minimalist storytelling, its pastiche of familiar titles and genres, and its flawed brilliance.  When I wrote about it, I was almost to the end of the game – I’d beaten it, but not quite… or so I thought.  Since I’m fanatical about spoilers, little did I know that when I “beat” the game, it was only the beginning of the game’s true brilliance…

I’ve written about movies where the real pleasure is watching them again after you know the twistNier takes it a step further, since it’s a video game and you’re controlling the character.  So not only do you see events in a different light after you figure out what’s going on, you get (are forced) to be a willing (unwilling) participant in some pretty heartbreaking actions.

Before I go any further, let me just say, if you’re planning to play Nier, stop reading this right away.  You’re cheating yourself out of a pretty amazing emotional roller coaster if you read the fine details of the plot before you actually play it.  That being said, if you’re just here to read a fascinating way a video game takes advantage of your assumptions as a player of video games, read on.

But first, a beautiful piece of music from the game to get you in the mood.  One of the sidequests exists with no reward other than to get you to hear this song, which is a pretty cool sidequest reward, when you think about it.

Now then.

Setting the stage:  You are Nier.  You live in a post-apocalyptic world of swords and magic and steadily receding humanity.  Every year Shades – faceless monsters of shadow – encroach further and further onto humanity’s little outposts.  The only thing in the world you care about is your daughter Yonah.  Yonah is stricken with a wasting disease called the Black Scrawl.  Naturally, you have to go on a bunch of adventures to save her.  Kill lots of Shades, collect pieces of an ancient key, defeat the Shadowlord, yadda yadda yadda.  Pretty standard RPG fare, almost cliche, even.

Which is exactly what they want you to think.

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Seems like a pretty solid Evil Overlord, right?

But here’s the rub.  As you storm the last castle, two characters you thought were on your side – the twins Popola and Devola, who incidentally are the characters singing that lovely ballad above – turn out to be agents of the Shadowlord.  Gasp!  But in a double twist, you learn that maybe the Bad Guys aren’t so evil after all.  In true JRPG fashion, the real story is told in flashes and hints, and it takes some real thought and dedication to put it together, but from all the clues, you can come up with a pretty good grasp of what’s really happening in this seemingly black-and-white world:

A long time ago, there was a terrible disease.  The only way humanity found to save themselves was to separate their souls from their bodies, clone the bodies so that the clones would be immune to the disease, and live as spirits until they could figure out to how mash themselves back into their clones.  But something went wrong, because of course something always goes wrong.  A percentage of the spirits – called Gestalts – started losing their humanity and turning into aggressive monsters, and a percentage of the clones – called Replicants – started developing personalities of their own.

The hammer drops.  The Shades you’ve been cheerfully slaughtering are Gestalts, the original humans, and you, your daughter, and everyone in your village are Replicants.

That realization would be enough, on its own, to make you really ponder things, but the game does something brilliant.  It takes you back to a key moment about halfway through and starts you over, only this time, you can understand the Shades.

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That wasn’t an unholy evil alliance of Shade and robot trying to mindlessly destroy you, that was a scared little boy who’d lost his mom and his robot pal.  Yeah, you basically end up ruthlessly murdering Hogarth and the Iron Giant.  Suck on that, childhood memories.

As the game takes you once again though Nier’s single-minded, ruthless pursuit of his daughter’s cure, the game takes on a soul-crushing new light.  And it’s totally surprising, because you never, ever, ever question it the first time.  The first go-round, when you can’t understand it, do you really try, need or want to understand this guy when he makes scary noises at you and then attacks you?

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No, you don’t.  Because your knowledgeable gamer self recognizes that as a miniboss.  You fight it.  That’s what it’s there for.

You have no way of knowing that it’s just trying to protect its friends, that to it, you’re the monster.  In the second go-round, as you’re fighting it, killing it, you’re also understanding it.

It’s the Buggers in Ender‘s Game all over again.  The message Ender gets from the last Queen, after he’d killed the rest of them: that it was a war of misunderstandings, that they could have lived in peace if only they’d understood each other.

He felt then what the hive-queen felt, watching through her workers’ eyes as death came to them too quickly to avoid, but not too quickly to be anticipated.  There was no memory of pain or fear, though.  What the hive hive-queen felt was sadness, a sense of resignation.  She had not thought these words as she saw the humans coming to kill, but it was in words that Ender understood her: the humans did not forgive us, she thought.  We will surely die.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

The real dagger though the heart in Nier is that not only does the game let you see things from the Shades’ all-too-human perspective, it makes you slaughter them as Nier all over again anyway.  Brutal.  And if that’s not enough, you still get to play over cheerful moments like this one:

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The whole concept of why we enjoy grief and tragedy in fiction is a totally different – and interesting! – post, but given that we do, and if you yourself do, then Nier delivers a pretty wonderful punch to the gut.

So go get punched in the heart with a hammer of frozen tears and play this game.

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