Nier, Far, Wherever You Are: Experiencing The Beauty of Yoko Taro’s Masterpiece
With a pandemic still keeping the world mostly indoors, desperate to find new hobbies and expand collections that have grown stale, some folks have turned to the past. This journey has included my first Castlevania game (Aria of Sorrow), an attempt to revisit Final Fantasy XIII (to see if my initial disdain for it was fair), and, most interestingly, the wild world that is the Taroverse.
I’ve owned Yoko Taro’s Nier Automata for some time now, but quit after playing a short portion of it due to laziness and my general inability to finish games (which I’ve been rehabilitating recently). When picking up my old PS3 and looking for fresh games to throw myself into, I thought: why not try Nier? At a friend’s recommendation, I was also encouraged to buy Drakengard 3. So I went for it.
What seemed like one of the most bafflingly stupid games I’d ever started — opening with a brash, scantily clad woman with a large sword slicing through soldiers and spattering blood all over the screen with each cut, on her way to murder her five sisters with whom she shared magical powers and ruled various parts of this world — slowly morphed into something else. Despite having horrendous graphics and a frame rate that would break and freeze constantly, there was something soothing about a game as mindlessly repetitive as this. Each stage was simply moving from Point A to Point B, slashing anything that came my way, with a somewhat interesting boss fight punctuating the end of each chapter.
Boring and formulaic? Yes. But there was something charming about the way the characters interacted with each other through dialogue that was peppered throughout fights and save points. Flashes of sincerity in the way these horny violent individuals communicated with each other. By the time the game ended the first time, I found myself oddly invested in the journey I’d made. Yoko Taro had subtly made me care about these people and a childish dragon that pissed himself with fear despite knowing that I’d spent the last ten hours or so doing nothing but mashing buttons to get through each stage.
And then came the replay. Taro’s games, from what I’ve experienced personally and read from other accounts, are designed for replay. With Drakengard 3, I was faced with characters who seemed barely aware of the new path they were on and a seemingly omniscient narrator who was tracking each of these odd new branches that were happening. Thus, the game offers not one, but four unique endings. Each replay reveals new information about the characters, changes a number of sequences you experience during gameplay, and recontextualizes the journey that you’ve been on the whole time. All of the absurdity and insane characterization isn’t necessarily softened, but it becomes easier to understand and what was once funny becomes oddly tragic. Different endings lead to different timelines in the Taroverse, with one of them leading directly into the original Drakengard. From there, Drakengard itself has not four, but five endings. In the last of these, the magic of the Drakengard‘s world, Midgard, is transported to a version of our world via portal, leading to a final battle that results in the destruction of Tokyo.
This is where Nier (also known as NieR Gestalt, which differs from Nier Replicant by replacing brother with father) comes into play. After playing it for the last few days, I can comfortably say that Nier is a masterpiece to me. Yes, this sounds hyperbolic and it very well may be considering its flaws. Side quests are often hard to fulfill, in part due to the worst fishing mechanics a game has ever had and in part due to a broken drop/rarity system that will leave players reloading their game every time they don’t find something at the available spot. It, frankly, makes the journey towards the game’s third ending (of four possible) a bit exhausting. But, fuck, it’s so beautiful. And playful. And engaging. I couldn’t help but be sucked in by it within hours of starting. And, if I may be even more ridiculous, Nier is the best post-9/11 game that directly engages in dialogue with it that has ever been created.
Nier starts the player off in 2049 where the events of Drakengard have creating an apocalyptic world. Here, we meet a man and his daughter, hiding and trying to survive, faced with creatures called shades that the father fights off with dark magic and an iron pipe. After a dramatic battle, the game skips forward 1,312 years to a semi-medieval world and we are once again shown a father and daughter duo; a strong man taking care of a sick child and simply trying to find a way to heal her. Magic is introduced almost immediately and the same shades from the prologue seem to be invading all of the spaces surrounding the towns people inhabit.
Where Drakengard 3 had a rinse-and-repeat formula for all its stages, Nier pivots to being something of a traditional RPG. You do favors for those in town while focusing on your own goal of saving your daughter, and, along the way, you find yourself with new companions here to help you on this journey. All the while, there’s a talking book named Grimoire Weiss floating behind you and making all sorts of silly and helpful commentary. The more sidequests you do, the more the melancholic mood of the game washes over you. Some result in the usual gifting of gold, but others are more about the emotion. We all like to joke about the real reward being the friends you made along the way, but some of Nier’s sidequests are very sincerely just that.
One asks you to find a lost dog, only to discover he is dead and his owner has now died. The endgame to it? Reassuring the dead man’s son that the two are together in heaven now. Another quest asks you to find ingredients for a drink that has no real result other than getting to see two NPCs sing together in a bar. In a game that requires so much running around and fighting, it is deeply comforting to just sit and get to listen to a beautiful piece of music being played and sung (and, as an additional point, the game has one of the best soundtracks in gaming history). One of the most satisfying side narratives is that of a lighthouse keeper and the letters her lover sends her, with the end result of a number of quests simply being closure for one or more individuals. The real reward is no reward at all, just the experience of great storytelling.
But, despite complementing it, these moments exist outside of the main narrative, which takes the player through unique sections of the world and constantly finds itself challenging one’s expectations. One moment you could be comforting two young men who have lost their mother, after navigating something of a maze full of robots to find her body, and the next you might find yourself facing off against a massive creature that looks ripped out of Tite Kubo’s Bleach.
What’s most incredibly after the first of two acts of Nier is the way it navigates these shifts, not only tonally and aesthetically but through the gameplay itself. One of the games most creative sequences sends the player into a dream world that an entire town called the Forest of Myth has become trapped in. Rather than lazily throwing a foggy filter over the existing scenery or developing something entirely new, Yoko Taro instead darkens the screen and creates a compelling text adventure. You are given nothing but words on a screen, guiding you through a journey that you must read through to understanding. It is a mind-blowing shift that allows imagination to take over. As Weiss itself explains, “It is words that control the Deathdream, words that allow us to move from place to place. No matter how unnatural they seem, the words are absolute. Therefore, if the words tell us to sleep, then sleep we shall. And once we do, the story will continue.” This section of the game isn’t even limited to one dream, but three distinct forms of fiction writing. The first is essential to the main plot, the second shifts to a gothic horror story written in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure, and the third becomes an abstract desert journey.
The experimentation doesn’t end in the Forest of Myth, but extends to a mansion within Nier’s home village that, upon stepping in, shifts the game’s aesthetic entirely into one imitating classic Resident Evil games. The moveable camera is traded in for fixed angles, each hallway and room only visible through what the game dictates. The color has been sapped out of the mansion, intentionally designed to remind one of the zombie infested home in Racoon City (though, in this case, shades appear instead of zombies, but the giant spiders are still present). Doors are locked and require marked keys to get through them. The list goes on and on.
I’ll refrain from getting into any narrative details because part of the beauty of Nier is experiencing it firsthand, but one of the most pleasantly surprising things about the game, much like Drakengard 3, is how seemingly pointless characters slowly become someone you’re invested in. Nier and Yonah’s journey may be the driving force, and the introduction of supporting figures Kainé and Emil may seem almost frivolous at first, but, by the end of the game, your friends are the characters you have more fondness for. The second act of the game provides such an intense pivot for Emil’s character that humanized him beyond my expectations (especially considering he’s a bit of a nuisance you have to take care of for a minor portion of the game). It also reinforces Kainé’s presence and turns your trio into an actual party rather than three separate individuals while providing answers to many of the questions the first act raises and offering cool new boss fights (including one that looks like an Angel ripped out of Hideaki Anno’s concept designs for Evangelion).
By the time the player reaches the end of their first playthrough, it’s impossible to not want to immediately start it up again to see how things change the second time around. Multiple quotes in this last portion of the game directly make the player confront what they’ve been doing all along, reveal that character motivations may be far different than what one expected, and even hint at the future (pigeons that ask you how to survive a plague, with the resulting answer being “separating body and soul”, feel like a direct line to the world of Nier Automata). Where Drakengard 3 almost entirely changes its narrative with each branch, Nier is a lot less interested in introducing grand differences. Kainé in particular is expanded on tenfold, primarily through text adventure, with the reveal that she is intersex not being used as a gotcha but simply as part of why she is the person she is today. But the game is more fascinated by how minor details and the addition of new scenes can completely change the way one looks at it.
Without spoiling: Even something as simple as an item you pick up or a throwaway line an NPC says becomes a revelation of how foolish you’ve been the entire game. Every action has a reaction, but Yoko Taro directly challenges you, the player, in questioning whether or not that reaction was warranted.
With spoilers: The recontextualization of the shades as human after all, with the humans you play as essentially war criminals taking out the survivors of a humanity long gone, is soul-crushing. And, yes, this is where the 9/11 metaphor comes in. The reason that the tiny shades you fight drop coloring books and crayons? They’re children you’re massacring. The powers that be — in fiction, as with reality, they are the people who have sent you on your journey, give you tasks, and keep you and those you seek to protect, alive — have manipulated you into believing what you were doing is right. Those same powers that be were basically doing this for their own personal gain and agenda. You should feel the weight of whatever lives have been lost, on both the side framed as “good” and the side framed as “bad.”
When, upon making it through Nier three (or four) times, you reach the final conclusion, the game asks you to do one last thing: delete your entire save data. If you choose this path, which leads to the final ending, everything is deleted. All memory of you, as a player, is slowly whisked away as you helplessly experience the results of your choices. You, Nier, at the end of your journey, must choose to erase yourself for another’s life to go on. For a game that is all about the experience of living, and, more specifically, the experience of trying to stay alive at all cost, it is a profoundly weird moment to be faced with. But the world doesn’t need to know about your sacrifice. Even the people you risked it all for don’t need to remember you. All that matters is that, for a brief moment in time, you existed. And now, for a hopefully much longer time, someone else does. Few things are as satisfying as coming to that ending and, that, to me, is what makes Yoko Taro’s Nier a masterful work of art.