The List: NieR (Part 3)

What of the story, then? What specific elements contribute to the thousands of words devoted to everything else? Does it truly hold up as you say, Zach?

Sit down, grab a cup of coffee, and begin. It’s going to be a long read.

The people who look like “humans” in the tale actually exist as Replicants, souless automatons whose purpose, originally, was to cleanse the planet earth of an extra-dimensional substance, caused by the death of a god, which caused human beings to turn into salt or turn into white colored death machines. In either case, humanity was on the brink of destruction during the early 20th century, and as a result had to figure a way to save their race. Apparently, the god which had died came from another dimension; in other words, the substance came from another dimension and did not follow the physical laws of this universe, or at least put them out of whack to the point that people were decomposing at the cellular level or going berzerk and blood crazed.

Obviously, either spells death for the human race, so human scientists discovered how to use “magic” – that is, extra-dimensional energy (called “Maso”, as far as I know). The alchemist’s dreams finally came true, to make something out of nothing. Thus, the goal was to transplant the substance back to its original dimension using the same forces that brought it here. However, the disease, called White Chlorination Syndrome (heretofore known as WCS), expanded too rapidly for the process to be completed until humanity’s total extinction. A last ditch effort was made: using maso energy, scientists discovered the process of Gestaltisierung, dividing a human’s soul away from the body using this same Maso. The souls, called Gestalt, were meant to stay in stasis until the Earth had been fully cleaned, while the Replicants were the cloned bodies of said persons, able to last forever because they were immune to the disease but unable to reproduce. Still, they lived forever, but the Gestalt hoped to reunite with their bodies at some point in the future.

Unfortunately, an unknown contingency lept into the fray: the Replicants began developing sentience, and while they still carried out their task with due diligence, this would prove to be a massive problem in the future. Still, that didn’t seem much of a problem. Popola and Devola, the “town mayors”, were Androids meant to oversee the task to its completion, goading the Replicants into this job without their own knowledge. As well, the Grimoires were developed as a means to forcefully re-insert the Gestalt into the Replicants, thus completing the process of Gestaltisierung. Not that this soul removal wasn’t without its own quirks. Some Gestalt would go insane and escape from their stasis, losing self-awareness, dying in the process. To solve this problem, a subject able to be Gestaltized without his original form being tainted – i.e., an “Original Gestalt” – was necessary. It’s something of a blueprint in the vein of the origjnal DNA – you’ve got the source code, and even relapsed Gestalt will be reintegrated into the system. This is the “Shadowlord” of the last boss fight in the first playthrough.

At the time the game begins, (prior to Replicants gaining sentience) the governments of the world are searching for a candidate who shares an affinity with the Grimoires, specifically Noir. At a food dispersal center, actually a test site for possible candidates, NieR runs after seeing several people turn into relapsed Gestalts due to their proximity with Grimoire Noir. Being chased by these Gestalts and unable to combat them, NieR accept the Gestaltisierung from Grimoire Noire and becomes the Original Gestalt. Thus, he continues to provide purified Maso to the Gestalts in exchange for his daughter’s safety in stasis, who you will remember was afflicted with the Black Scrawl – basically, she’s turning into a Gestalt by touching Grimoire Noir, and is relapsing quickly. Seeing no other way to save his daughter, NieR must do this to save here. This is approximately the year 2049 – hence, you can take a rough guess of when the game actually occurs.

Most of this explains, as well, why we’re looking at the exact same people: they are Replicants, newly endowed with their own consciousness. Do they have souls? I’m not sure, to be honest. I’d assume that’s what the writers want us to think, that a body cannot exist without a soul, and a soul removed from the body cannot exist. The problem, then, is reintegration of the mind and the body. Unlike in, say, the Matrix Trilogy, the realms do not coincide in this narrative. It is a decidedly less happy conclusion, and a sadly more realistic one if sinful mankind has anything to say about it.

The game begins with the same Gestaltisierung process continuing; Replicant Yonah develops the Black Scrawl, so Replicant NieR goes off to get the “Lunar Tear” by Popola. Of course, she’s knowingly sending NieR to Grimoire Weiss, the other half of the process. As the protagonists goes, he finds the various keys and such necessary to unlock the process, all the while Replicant Nier believing he is saving his daughter.

There’s one other element, however, that isn’t revealed until the second play-through – the Shades, which harass and attack you throughout the adventure are actually Gestalts, all of which retain their consciousness because of Gestalt Nier. Now, if that doesn’t sound too much of a revelation, let me phrase it a different way: THEY ARE PEOPLE. Yes, you are killing the souls of the human race, unknowingly. They attack you, sure, but what they see is different than you. You are the man who kills them, attacks their homes, and are part of the race that has now stolen their bodies forever, or at least until the Shadowlord revives them. I’d imagine you might hold a grudge too! The Gestalts, apparently, have no means by which to communicate with the Replicants, and thus they see them as invaders.

You’re a mass murderer, in other words. You’ve broken families, destroyed homes, made a mess of everything for just about everybody on the entire planet Earth with any degree of consciousness, and you’ve made the entire human race extinct to save your daughter. That’s a mess of a situation, to be sure, but one you can’t avoid. You can’t know this on your first play, anymore than Nier can as he slays the Shades – but Kaine can.

Kaine is a bit of a freak, a potty mouthed “hussy” who’s born (or, in our Replicant terminology, created and made incorrectly) as an hermaphrodite (intersex, for those in the medical community). However, she’s also possessed by a particularly malicious Shade named Tyrann, giving her the astounding combat abilities that she has throughout the adventure. She can hear what they’re saying. She doesn’t care, though; as a child. she was ostracized for being “different”, with only her grandmother to help her. After the Shades destroyed that happy relationship by killing her grandmother and mutilating Kaine herself, it’s time for payback at any costs, even possession by a Shade (she’s half shade, I believe). I imagine Tyrann is a Gestalt who hasn’t quite relapsed, but is starting to go insane in some respect. Still, his degree of humanity shows at the end of the third playthrough, where he gives you the option to save Kaine or kill her – either is a measure of compassion, believe me. Returning to the main line, one of your companions can hear their screams of pain and cries for mercy, and doesn’t say a single thing to you at all about this. Not that she’d want to do so, given her past. Kaine believe they’re all evil, so she has no reason to convey this information.

Of course, Kaine eventually begins to respect and even love Nier during the course of the adventure, seeing him live an upstanding life even in the face of adversity like hers. It’s what causes her to change into a better person in the end, although her fate is solely up to the player. To save her costs the player dearly, the erasure of Nier’s existence (and all your save files – an actual sacrifice in a game!). What this says about the player is interesting; neither person can coexist with the other, but that is the way of things in Nier’s bleak future.

Emil, on the same note, is the result of horrific experiments with Maso in the early days of the WCS crisis; he’s become something of an immortal ever since, and has abilities augmented by that Maso energy. Specifically, the ability to turn anyone he sees into stone; he can’t control it. Still, he doesn’t display the same anger and rage as Kaine; he accepts his situation, however horrible it appears to the player. His sister, however, isn’t so lucky; Halua becomes a super weapon (No. 7), and the player has to destroy her as well, finally transforming Emil into a giant floating skeleton who can now see people (No. 6).

Losing his sister, however monstrous she became, is devastating, but he learns to live with his odd new look and abilities as the group doesn’t feel any differently towards him. He even commits mass murder as well, by turning into a gigantic super weapon like his sister and destroying the Aerie, once a center of Shade/Gestalt activity – specifically, perfectly cognizant and rational Gestalts who only wanted to be left alone. Emil is devastated by these events, but he just has to dust himself off and move on. He’s the last person that will survive, given some of the later ending material, as a head rolling around.

But, I suppose all this sadness and inevitable heartbreak remains at the center of the NieR experience. Even doing the right thing leads to the wrong results. How can we know the results of our actions, or have any foresight in a world that’s so unbelievably complex?

The game’s progression lends to the coming end. Every event, even leading up to the end boss dungeon, is done for the sole purpose of the reintegration of the Gestalts into the Replicants through the process of the Grimoires. As I write this, I’m noting the intense similarities to Bioshock! Still, it’s not as apparent that something’s wrong with the whole business at hand when you begin the game, other than the prologue which hints at some larger problem in the NieR universe.

Gestalt NieR, or Shadowlord, gets what he wants –  his daughter saved from being a relapsed Gestalt – and the humans of the past get what they want – their bodies – if the process goes off without a hitch. This is why the Shadowlord kidnaps Replicant Yonah, as she’s beginning to relapse and he can’t wait another moment. Things don’t work according to plan, and Grimoire Noir is completely destroyed, thus severing humanity’s Gestalts from their Replicants forever and causing the inevitable extinction of humanity. Devola and Popola, who have the data to link Gestalts with Replicants, are also destroyed, causing most Gestalts to relapse permanently. That’s it; that’s all, folks, as Nier and his daughter walk out of the Shadowlord’s Castle blissfully unaware of what just occurred.

So, not only does every character in the game experience some form of devastating horror, they also cause the destruction of all people in the world (except Emil, who happily rolls along forever). It’s not that their goals were selfish in any way; they simply thought that these people were a threat, completely unable to understand what had happened a thousand years before. Even when Popola and Devola reveal the whole  process, Nier still fights for his daughter, not able to believe them nor wanting to believe them. He just wants to save his daughter, and that is completely admirable.

Not that the game bothers to tell you the relevant backstory with any forceful direction; a lot of this information has to be pieced together, as it’s very much focused on the actions of the player character for the first game; it’s only in subsequent game that you discover how the information actually works together. It’s interesting that a game would bother to let you have such a depressing experience. Why? Why go to all this trouble if the world goes to hell in a hand basket simply because you interfered with a plan set up long ago?

This is, for all intents and purposes, the Christian narrative without a God. Humanity tries to be its own savior, and the story ends with their inevitable decline, a civilization too clever for its own good. A stretch of a metaphor, you say? Not from my perspective. WCS seems like a problem that happens out of nowhere, but the fight between The Giant and The Dragon began in cavia’s other universe – Drakengard. That was one messed up game, with incest, violence, and horrible events strewn across its various events. Sin and death are rampant; it’s only bizarrely fitting that the problems of NieR’s universe comes from an entirely different timeline, yet still the same flawed human beings.

We might say, further, that it’s our reaction to the WCS in NieR that made it much worse. We used child soliders as a desperate last resort, cruelly experimenting on them to make Maso warriors like Emil. We dropped more nuclear bombs on Japan to kill the berzerker salt monsters, which actually spread the taint of the extra-dimensional chemicals. Even in the Gestalt process, who else but the wealthy were able to afford the Gestaltisierung? This stuff isn’t free, after all! Desperate situations bring out the worst in all of us. The sons pay dearly for the sins of the fathers; no wonder Exodus 20:4-6 states as such:

“ You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

And, in Exodus 34:

…“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

In this case, the idol was survival, and the inevitable lengths that humans went to preserve themselves at the cost of the whole. Soul removal can’t be cheap. You might wonder why an Old Testament God is angry – well, He is a holy God, and can’t accept sin. That’s why Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, why the Flood comes, etc., etc. That’s why you have Jesus Christ, after all; no one can save humanity from its sins except a sinless sacrifice, and that’s the long and the short of it. I’ve always wondered about this generational sin, but it happens all the time; it’s just difficult to perceive. The sins we commit as people now may effect those in the future; the way you raise your children affects the people they become. The way you treat the environment now may have grave concequences later. The way governments solve problems temporarily may lead the bankruptcy and destruction of entire nations sinking in debt today. The short term, small time solutions and gains of the present may destroy the hope of future generations (see: Social Security and Medicare). What you do never effects you alone. That’s something people have learned the hard way, yet we as a whole still act the same way.

In NieR, we don’t have a savior. The human race of the early 20th century had little time to develop a plan, let alone think about the results of their actions. Would Replicants develop sentience? Who cares, just do it! Even when problems developed later, the system was set into place with supposed caveats. It’s obvious that it was a hack job if these problems couldn’t be tested or developed in advance.

When the Replicants do develop sentience, what right do the Gestalts have to take that life away from them? They might be angry at the situation, sure, but it never gives them the right to kill these new beings or attack them. It’s the continuation of the previous problems in a new way. You could even think of it as a national dispute, as peaceful reintegration can’t happen. It is that the soul and the body must reunite; humanity lost its soul, literally and figuratively, through the WCS situation. That doesn’t mean certain individuals can’t perserve and change the tenor of the situation, as in Nier’s case. It’s not his fault that he must save his daughter from the Shadowlord; it’s a situation he was thrust into by nature of being the Shadowlord’s Replicant. Both really want to save their daughters, but it must be one or the other; you can’t have both Replicant and Gestalt Yonah, and a choice is made. Emil, Kaine, and Grimoire Weiss are all casualties of the inevitable conclusion, the sentience of Replicants. It’s all a result of sin, sin of the past, and people being selfish, prideful, and unable to comprehend the effects of their actions. To whit:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! They are poision-mixers, whether they know it or not. They are the despisers of life, themselves the decaying and poisoned, of whom the earth is weary; so away with them!

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

What a world Nietzsche would create! One where the strong survive, the weak rise again, and doom the rest of humanity to death and certain extinction. NieR is the same world as our own without a God to save it.

Still, there is hope. In both Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18, we see a discussion of the saying: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. In other words, the father’s actions have a direct link to the future situation. Both prophets contest this saying! Both authors wrote this (or passed it off to a scribe) around the time of the Babylonian exile. For those not in the know, the nation of Israel was originally divided into two different segments, based on tribes. Most of the tribes lived in the northern kingdom, called Israel (surprise), while the descendants of David’s tribe and Benjamin stayed in the south. The kingdom split around the time of Solomon’s death, with each side contesting the other for power to the point where they split the kingship and made a loose alliance. Not that they really helped each other all that much!

This, as you might expect, wasn’t God’s plan after all the problems that having a king created. YHWH originally intended Israel to be ruled by Himself through the mouthpiece of a prophet, but the people wanted a human king like the other nations. Why would you want a human being to rule over you if you had God Himself in your presence? Pride, of course! Samuel even warns them, by God’s command, in I Samuel 8:

10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who had asked of him a king. 11 He said, “ This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. 12  He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14  He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and use them for his work. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. 18 Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, 20  that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”21 Now after Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the Lord’s hearing. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “ Listen to their voice and appoint them a king.” So Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

It should surprise no one to hear that the kingship didn’t go as planned, and eventually split in two. Furthermore, these kingdoms continued to disbey the Lord and His commandments; God, though, is long-suffering, and never wishes to punish without due time to have His people change their ways. In 721 AD, however, He had enough of Israel’s sin and injustice (described vividly in Amos and Isaiah), allowing the Assyrians to invade and take over Israel. Judah, however, remained. Again, He hoped they would change their ways, but they did not; the Babylonian invasion and exile occurred in 586 AD, thus destroying once and for all the hold of God’s chosen people on their sacred, divinely appointed lands.

Still, these horrendous events and displacement (as well as cultural dispersion) were marked with prophets who warned the people in advance that their sin would overtake them eventually; no one ever escapes. So it was that we have Jeremiah before, and Ezekiel afterwards, prophesying about these events. Both, however, do not believe these are the result of generational sin; a person who is righteous and blameless does not suffer the sins of the father. A person who acts righteous, as Lot tried to in Sodom and Gomorrah, may be enough to save them all. Yet Ezekiel 18 also counters objections to the supposed prevailing wisdom:

“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20  The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21  “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22  None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23  Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24  But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.

25  “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26  When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31  Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

From the Christian perspective, the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible gives us insight into the past of God’s dealings with humanity, as well as into the future life of Jesus Christ. As such, personal responsibility is part and parcel even if sin is generational. You can’t blame circumstances on the past solely; you must work under the circumstances which you come under and the cultural assumption packaged with the whole of your life.  The new covenant, then, represents a shift. As Israel could not follow the Law, so God sets His plan for the redemption of the world. Jeremiah 31 describes this new covenant:

31  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

I think you may be seeing the picture fully, here. The Replicants, unforunately, must die, but their lives aren’t going to be given to the generations that came before them without a fight. Their destiny isn’t determined by the sin of the past. They can choose to move beyond this and not become another cog in the machine. They live without the knowledge that their actions cause the end of the world as they know it, but what does that matter? As individuals, they are not limited by the sins of the past, and shouldn’t have to be tied to that either! They have to act and be responsible given what they know, and it is this that transforms them into individuals in the player’s eyes. They seek their own personal redemption, and in the process this collection of odd-looking people and a floating book become better people. Even through the ostracism, even through rejection by the world, the collection of misfits still strives to help other people and create a better future (even if they destroy it).

Heck, this means as much in real life as it does in the game. Why blame everyone else for your troubles? God sent his Son for a reason – to make you a better human being and to save you from yourself.

And that’s the real message of NieR. If ending A shows us the world from Replicant Nier’s perspective, and ending B shows us the same from the side of the Gestalt,  I suppose we could say that’s why we have ending C and D for a very specific reason. You can kill Kaine, or you can let her live. Which one is easier and which one is better? That’s up to you. Finally, you are released from the decisions made about your future from the very moment you began playing – a moment of freedom in a sea of destiny and predestination. In the process of the game, you’ve learned all about her, so what will you do now? Is it better to give her what she wants, or to let her live? That’s why the decision is SO important at the end – because now you know everything. And now, it’s up to you to decide who lives and who dies, not some silly soul revival process.

Rather, the Replicants gain souls by contact with external stimuli, not people. It’s organic, not artificial. A forced insertion can’t work. That is why the plan fails, ultimately: humans do not understand themselves.  Thus, the artificial moves away, and natural souls develop. While they cannot exist for long, that’s the long and short of it. Taking a life to save your own was never the point! Thus, Ending D, erasing yourself, is obviously the ending for those who get this crucial point.

That, for me, is why NieR remains such an excellent game: it asks questions of you, how you would act, and what you should do, without actually telling you. It’s the most subtle of story devices, and truly takes note of the interactive elements of video games, forging a truly holistic experience. No wonder it’s a cult classic, and no wonder it’s on The List.

10,000 words later, here we are! I hope nothing ever reaches this length again, but it goes to show how much I like NieR!

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.