The List: NieR (Part 2)

Story remains key to NieR, but this story integrates so well with the rest of the game that I can’t believe it sometimes. Not only does it remain enjoyable to play’ it manipulates the player’s expectations of “action-RPG” in more ways than one, from the position of good and evil within the narrative to the various genres to which NieR blatantly plagiarizes and lovingly respects at the same moment. It’s that way of drawing on your expectations that makes NieR more than just a video game – it’s video game art.

High praise, maybe? I don’t think so. In much the same way that Bayonetta could fit into that category, or Final Fantasy VII, each of these games brings something new to the table. They might make one characteristic of the experience the most important portion, or perhaps they integrate them. But rarely does a game intentionally mess with the player’s emotions and investment in the experience. Those who play NieR will find themselves replaying the game for the answers to their questions in the narrative, but they are there if you’re looking for them closely – subtle, perhaps, but isn’t that what you’d want? A game that doesn’t treat its audience like a bunch of drunk and high fratboys is something we need, and NieR delivers an engaging, thoughful, and non-trendy video game experience.

The game stars Nier, a father of a little girl named Yonah (not true in the “other” Japanese version, but I’m not writing about that one). In the not-too-distant future, the earth has experienced some apocalyptic event that has decimated the human race. Nier defends his daughter from the endless hordes of creatures called Shades while they slowly run out of food. To make matters worse, Yonah suffers from an unknown disease called the Black Scrawl, which will eventually turn a person into a Shade, black creatures that seem incorporeal and dangerous – many of them take humanoid form, but all seem intent to kill the last human beings left. Nier eventually loses to the Shades, and makes a Faustian deal with a book that offers power to beat back the Shades. Nier accepts; we jump to. 1,312 years later,  meeting the same two characters in a post-post apocalyptic setting where much the same situation occurs – humanity under threat of Shades, and Yonah with the Black Scrawl.

Already, the player is left wondering – what in the heck happened during the intervening 1,312 years, and why that exact number? Is there any significance? Why do I no longer see any cities? Are these the same people I saw earlier? It becomes apparent, quickly, that the world isn’t as it used to be, yet remains the same. Humanity exists on the brink of extinction, but not in the high profile sense of a Hollywoord blockbuster, but a more realistic take. If humans can’t reproduce, as in NieR’s world, we’d slowly die off – that is the situation in NieR, and no one can figure out why this is the case. That’s a pretty depressing setting for a video game, and a bold design choice. Nothing’s very marketable about this kind of experience; it’s more indie movie than Hollywood blockbuster.

Nier, as in the past, will do anything to save his daughter; hearing a hint from the town leader, Popola, he sets off to a derelict shrine to find a “Lunar Tear”, a plant said to be able to cure any disease. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and Nier eventually teams up with a floating, living book named Grimoire Weiss who says he can cure his daughter of the Black Scrawl if he makes a deal with him.

Whereas a story like Lost, for example, promises a payoff and doesn’t deliver, NieR does. This extends to the pacing as well, as the beginning is slow to reveal details but eventually picks up the pace as the inevitable conclusion is reached. In the vein of many a great narrative, the big reveal at the end isn’t so much a surprise if you were paying attention when navigating the game’s world. A subtle narrative that shows, but doesn’t say does infinitely better work than the traditional video game tale. You get the protagonist’s motivation, sure, but what about your enemies?

However, I’ve seen many, many, many persons say certain elements of the game are either meaningless or simply there for shock value, both of which are false. Obviously, these persons have only played the game once – subsequent playthroughs actually show completely new cutscenes, translate languages spoken in game, and change the narrator of the story (although Nier is always the player character). What seems like a simple “Father saves daughter” family-focused tale actually becomes much more grey than black-and-white. There will be no spoilers here, but let us say the full experience is absolutely mind-blowing, and definitely requires a solid memory to get the complete picture of what actually happened in the story.

Probably the most unique feature of this narrative is its effect on the actual game. Nier is a tragedy in every sense of the word – bad things happen, people die, and the emotional highs and low are unbelievable. There is true motivation for continuing as the protagonist – the things that occur make you WANT to kill the enemies with unbridled passion. I found myself relating to the characters, their dark and disturbing pasts, the feelings they felt, and the sacrifices they have to make. Towards the end of the game, it gets rather intense in its focus, and let’s say you’ll want the final boss to die a horrible death while feeling pity for him/her/it – honestly, I’ve never felt mixed emotions about a boss fight before. This certainly takes advantage of the player’s relative ignorance regarding plot details. NieR’s developers, cavia, usurps the player’s role in the story even while it gives them total control. That’s a feat in itself, and this awareness of video games trends makes this something equivalent to a muso listening to a Queens of the Stone Age album – it’s a delight.

The pervading melancholy really hits all the elements of human existence, and deals with issues most games wouldn’t bother touching within ten miles – prejudice, racism, hatred, murder, the meaning of laws, the existence of one’s soul, and some other unmentionables. As a Christian, it resonated with me beyond a simple tale of father/daughter survival and into a spectrum of human existence. Nier is, in many cases, a better human being than I have been. But he’s also as misguided and lost about what is truly going on in the world, and that makes the conclusion all the more sad, yet hopeful.

From a video game, however condescending that might sound, that’s quite a feeling to evoke. Why shouldn’t we demand this of all games, though? It’s as if we want to settle for less, and get something that makes us comfortable rather than something that could, in fact, change our perceptions of the world around us. We haven’t grown up with the medium, unfortunately!

The soundtrack certainly adds to these emotional highs and lows. Using the lovely voice of Emi Evans, singing in futuristic versions of various languages, the game enhances these emotional moments in a truly transcendent and intangible way. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but rest assured you’ll understand if you play it; at a moment, it just clicks. The score was handled by a team of ex-Namco composers headed by Keiichi Okabe under the studio name of MoNACA along with Takafumi Nishimura from Cavia, the development studio; it’s honestly a surreal and beautiful soundtrack, using a combination of folk, trip-hop, classical music (or art music, whatever) and soft, ethereal vocals, which creates a surreal and mystical environment. Honestly, there’s not enough praise for how the soundtrack really defines the game.

Furthermore, the story couldn’t come to life without great voice acting and cutscene direction; Cavia and Square-Enix (who I assume localized the title; correct me if I am in error) really went all the way here. This is definitely an anime cast, for sure, but they play these characters convincing and effortlessly. Grimorie Weiss usually gets the lion’s share of credit here, but I think the whole case deserves praise for a stupendous performance and dealing with some hefty material. Emil, a character one meets later in the game, gets a little sappy at times but I think there’s no other way to define that kind of character and background (take that as you will). The writing, as a result, is also superb and definitely self-aware of gaming conventions and how to write a logical tale, while also being able to convincingly make these characters, however they look, real people who change over the course of the adventure.

NieR, given its self-aware story, attempts to be a anthology of sorts in regards to game mechanics; certainly, this is an action game, pure and simple, with “words” substituting for equipment, and 3 kinds of weapons (one and two handed swords, as well as spears). Nier performs combos strings with taps of the square/X button, does special attacks with the triangle/Y button, examines things with the circle/B button, jumps with the cross/A button, and can defend, evade, or use various magical attacks with the shoulders buttons (they can be redesigned however you wish on that note). These attacks are given by Grimoire Weiss, and include some truly spectacular moves like magical lances, hands, whirlwinds, and the like. Each one fulfills a specific role and function for certain fights, though on Normal, there’s really no need to use them all; they are all optional in some sense during “normal” play, but they all find uses in later portions of the game.

I can see their necessity on Hard mode, but Normal is just a tad too easy at times; mostly, it’s just a matter of paying attention to enemy attacks and dodging accordingly. The combat, though is really a great deal of fun, and seems to combine various elements of action games in the past few years. There is a modicum of strategy in finding the most effective weapon and magic to use, especially when enemies wear armor and you must break their guard. Each weapon also works best against certain enemies and groups – they also attack you, so dodging, blocking, and not getting surrounded are critical. Much criticism has been leveled at the lack of a “lock-on” feature, and that’s exactly what I wouldn’t want here. There are too many enemies to have a lock-on that wouldn’t leave you vulnerable in some way or be unwieldy. Enemies move too fast for the manual camera movement at times, but all this requires of the player is adaptation.

Speaking of camera angles, the game will randomly switch to different camera modes. At one point, the game turns into various games. There’s a sequence reminiscent of Diablo, Resident Evil, any action adventure game thus far released, text adventures, overhead vertical shooters, and Zelda. Suffice to say, anyone who has knowledge of video games will definitely see some very familiar sights that still retain Nier’s mechanics. They aren’t just a novelty, as they require the player to adapt to a new perspective or limitations – exactly how all good games works. Mechanics in all games do this: present you with tools and requiring the player to get better to master obstacles.

Nier’s approach to this game convention just messes with video gamer’s heads by imposing new kinds of arbitrary limitations – that’s why they have gotten a lot of criticism. I understand it, but I don’t agree with it; that’s just trying to limit what a video game can do with its player, much like a movie like Shutter Island messes with the reliability of its narrator. These add to the experience, but they don’t give you horrible camera angle or prevent the player from playing effectively; he/she must simply adapt their tools to a new perspective.

Other than the combat, there’s lots of exploration and quests to do. The world of Nier is small and the quests that people give you are rather boring and common – Nier has received great criticism for this as well. What Nier doesn’t do in this case is provide arbitrary reasons for the “boring” quest and sidequest design. You are in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction, and noting this, the world of humanity (not necessarily the entire globe) would be small, and even the most common chores would be a great hassle and dangerous endeavor with Shades roaming the country-side. If the quests aren’t exciting, well, you’re just a father who does odd-jobs for people who need them done, and if not exciting they are consistent with the narrative.

And that’s why Nier succeeds – context. The context drives the story, drives the mechanics, drives the whole entire game. Even the graphics, though not the best out there, convey exactly the kind of world the developers wished the player to live in – empty, desolate, on the brink of destruction. Nier, for me, is successful on every level, and certainly an exemplary game.

Still, why haven’t I explained the story in more detail? A cursory overview might suffice for most examinations, but not when I’ve hyped the story so much! Well, there’s much to be said about it…

Continue to Part 3 (SPOILERS FOR SURE)

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.