Note: Because this blog ended up far longer than I’d initially anticipated, I’ve chosen to split it into two parts.
Upon starting Nier, we’re greeted with a litany of premises that would be instantly familiar to avid game enthusiasts, both when the game was initially released and playing it today. The camera slowly lingers on a world struck by some apocalyptic event, although what that event was isn’t immediately clear. Time continues to advance, but the human world appears frozen in time. Snow falls upon buildings that somehow look both pristine and destroyed, almost like a graveyard that hasn’t been tended to in ages. The lack of human characters in these early scenes further contributes to the desolation we feel while also adding an air of somber loneliness to the mix.
Eventually, though, we’re introduced to our two principal actors: a haggard old father (name unknown) and his teenage daughter (Yonah). Visually speaking, the father is an amalgam of semi-contemporary character design trends: a bit of Roxas from the secret cinematic in Kingdom Hearts, a bit of Solid Snake from the beginning of Sons of Liberty, and a strong amount of the generic white video game protagonists that dominated blockbuster video games at the time. The two of them fight a losing battle for their own survival, both because neither of them can scrounge up enough food to survive and because Yonah is dying of a mysterious illness. The only possible method of curing this disease lies in a book the two of them own, but it’s implied consulting this book is something of a Faustian bargain, given how staunchly the father commands Yonah not to use it. He can’t watch her for long, though, since he’s soon forced to defend what little he has when otherworldly beings encroach on their location.
The father grows more powerful with each swing of the pipe. We see him level up at an alarming rate (at least thirty levels in the span of a few minute), each increment reinvigorating him enough that he can continue fighting the monsters ad infinitum. Unfortunately, so wrapped up is he in dispelling these invaders that he forgets about his daughter. By the time he realizes his mistake, it’s too late: Yonah has almost certainly consulted the book (likely in an effort to cure herself and relieve the heavy burden her existence places on her father) and in doing so, has sealed her fate. The father calls out to anybody listening: “We need help! Please! Anyone! Help! Help us!” Yet his pleas fall on deaf ears. The shot fades to white, implying that Yonah has either died of her illness or will soon die of it. The power her father had just accrued can do nothing to avail either of them of this plight.
But it’s not this story which we follow; at least not for too long. Although this story lingers in the back of our minds throughout most of the game, the story we actually follow only bears resemblances to the first one. The general premise is still the same – an old father working to protect his daughter Yonah and cure her of the mysterious illness that afflicts her – yet where the initial story takes place in a world with at least some connection to our own, the world this father navigates is a thing of pure fantasy. To be more specific, it’s the type of medieval fantasy that would feel right at home in a role-playing game: you have the non-player characters who either send the father off on errands or who just contribute a bit to the player’s understanding of the world, the set of shops for stocking up on supplies (which nobody else seems to use), and the guards who ensure battles only take place outside the village’s walls. Play a little further in, and you find that Nier is a game that’s hyper aware of video game convention. It’s bursting at the seams with obvious allusions to text adventures, The Legend of Zelda, bullet hell shooters, Resident Evil, Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers, forced side-perspective role-playing games (think Faxanadu), and possibly even Valkyrie no Densetsu toward the end (spoiler warning on this last example).
Trivial as this may sound, I see both the constant and overt use of these conventions and the shift away from the more realistic world as central to what the game does. It’s not just limited to meta-commentary about why we play video games, either. That is part of what Nier does, but it’s only a part of what it does. Nier is a complex, bleak, and existential piece of fiction. (In fact, it could best be described as a typical fantasy hero story with despair substituted for heroism.) But most of all, it’s an ambitious work. The writers go to great lengths to explore topics like the instability of personal identity, the inability for people to fill the lack within themselves, the fundamental unknowability of the world around us, the unlikelihood of living peacefully in a world of others, and the destructive nature of fantasy. Given the set of assumptions many people have about how video games work, it just so happens that constantly and blatantly invoking video game conventions is the best way Nier can explore these ideas.
Before we can address any of this, though, it would help to look at some of the recurring motifs in the main cast, since they’re motifs that also recur quite frequently in other parts of the game. Putting aside the father figure for now (I’ll get back to him in a bit), each of the characters are, in some way, incomplete beings. They may appear relatively normal, but pry deeper into their being, and you learn that there’s something at the core of their being that they don’t understand and they have no real control over. Moreover, that something is a constant source of alienation that they’re powerless to affect on their own. Thus the characters are left with two options: they can either continue living their incomplete lives (and endure whatever suffering this will inevitably bring), or they can hope for something better; they can reach out to others and to the world around them, try to fill in the gaps, and make themselves whole.
In practice, taking the latter course of action entails giving up whatever pretense of normality the character originally had and accepting a grotesque dual identity. These identities are a source of great power for them, and for this reason, they can also be the source of completion and happiness they were looking for. But because that power is destructive in nature and beyond their ability to completely control, those same identities can be a source of great sorrow, both for themselves and for others.
Kainé, Yoko Taro’s prototypical foul-mouthed heroine who quickly resorts to violence, only engages in such violent acts because she’s resigned herself to such a fate. Ostracized and beaten by the only community she’s ever known, all Kainé ever wanted was a place where she belongs. Following the death of her grandma, the only person to have accepted Kainé for who she is, and her subsequent possession by Tyrann, a creature who delights in sadistic acts of slaughter (especially when he forces her to be complicit in such acts), Kainé accepts her role as a maiden of destruction and more or less gives up any hope of living a happy life. Emil, meanwhile, seeks to cure himself of his petrification powers, which he does after becoming one with his long-lost sister, Halua. Their union sees the former realize his identity as a destructive weapon. Try as he might to wield this power for good, Emil only barely understands his monstrous powers, and can only use them for destructive purposes. By the end of the journey, he’s left traumatized and resenting his own body.
This idea of dual identity is but one of the hallmarks of what I term Japanese existentialism. It’s a brand of existentialism that finds its origins in Japanese history following World War II. Japan was a nation that had both inflicted great harm on the world through military atrocities and suffered a unique trauma at the hands of another military atrocity: atomic warfare. Before there was any real time to process this on a national level, the country found itself thrust onto the world stage by its newfound success, driven largely in part by an American presence that shaped public policy and culture in ways that were convenient for America. Combine this with the turbulent events that occurred alongside that success and you have an uncomfortable new identity that nobody knows how to handle. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese existentialism isn’t solely the product of modern Japanese history, but has taken inspiration from other cultures as well; in particular, continental (French and German) existentialist thought and American science fiction.
No matter the source, the result has been narratives that focus on warped identities and ambiguous hopes for forging a future with them. They accept the fluidity of these identities, and sometimes, they even celebrate them, yet they can just as often remain skeptical of one’s ability to harness that flexibility for good. If the relationship that creates this new identity is with an Other, there’s a chance that it will be a tenuous one; one that ends in violence the narrative views as an existential truism. If there is no such Other (or if the Other’s role isn’t that emphasized), then the protagonists of these works will find their lives fundamentally changed by whatever newfound knowledge they’ve gained. That knowledge may empower or weaken them (leaving them psychologically broken at worst), but either option prevents them from returning to the normal life they once led. Other common themes include the unknowable divine/alien presence behind human existence, navigating the often-blurry divide between reality and fantasy, a mistrust of progress through scientific knowledge, and a fundamentally compromised personal identity (even before that identity is disfigured). (These are all points that Nier latches onto, as well.)
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese existentialism (at least as I understand it) isn’t an easily identifiable philosophical movement per se, but more of a literary movement. Perhaps more specifically, it’s a movement that manifests in pop culture works like anime, video games, etc. Difficult as it may be to name influential figures in this sphere of thought, I have no trouble naming major works in it: Serial Experiments Lain, Space Runaway Ideon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill la Kill, Kiznaiver, Parasyte: The Maxim, From the New World, Final Fantasy VI and VII, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, Atlus’ games (especially Shin Megami Tensei and the later Persona games), the visual novels of Stage Nana, possibly Kingdom Hearts, and to a lesser extent, Stella Glow and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Because a lot of these works are made by and for an audience well versed in pop culture, several of these works also have some meta function. They address the role a given medium or section of pop culture plays in society at large, or at the very least the genre conventions we take for granted. Evangelion, Persona, and the Final Fantasy games I’ve listed provide the clearest examples of this phenomenon.
I can say with confidence that Nier also belongs to this category of meta-existential works. Take the player/avatar relationship, for example. Mainstream approaches to video games would typically have us understand us as fully identifying with the character we pilot on screen. This is largely because such a mode of identification is the only ways players can see themselves as having a presence in the world, which has long been implicitly accepted as a goal of good game design. Other characters within the world never acknowledge this dualism, and the avatar is almost always a person with a life and identity completely separate from the player who controls them, but for all intents and purposes, as players, we embody these avatars during play. We see the world through their eyes. Their actions are our actions, and their bodies are our own. Player and avatar collapse into a single, perfectly unified being within the game world.
Of course, such a relationship doesn’t apply perfectly to all video games. Those that have you controlling multiple characters, especially from a distant vantage point (just about any strategy game), immediately breaks this mold. Nier, on the other hand, at least initially looks like it adheres to this model. Sure, the gameplay may change based on whatever whims enter the designer’s mind at the time, but the core holding most of the game together lends itself well to direct identification with an avatar. It exists at a comfortable nexus point between role-playing games and character action games: players direct the father through a typical fantasy world where they can undertake quests or use various weapons to battle creatures known only as Shades. This latter activity constitutes most of what you do in the game. In addition, the presence of a single character, the camera angles that cling closely to that character’s form, and the responsive controls (almost as if you were controlling your own body) all encourage us to identify directly with the character on screen. You can even name the father whatever you want (thus why I’ve continually referred to him as “the father” and not some other moniker.)
At the same time, we also control Weiss, a talking book whose magical abilities are at our disposal. Minor as this detail may sound, it completely disrupts the previous model of identification within Nier. After all, we can’t identify with both Weiss and the father at once, and while as players, we can control these two characters with ease, there’s nothing within the narrative reflecting that ease of control. The two may cooperate, but they’re also headstrong, independent characters who frequently butt heads. And barring the player, there’s no metaphysical link joining the two characters together. The conclusion I’ve come to is this: the existential identity the cast is forced to navigate is built into how we perceive and act within the game itself. The father/Weiss dualism is just an elaboration on the underlying player/avatar relationship: in an effort to complete themselves within the game world, the player adopts a dual identity. They may not entirely understand newfound identity (at least initially), but it affords them a level of power they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.
Remember, though: the way Nier conceptualizes it, this kind of identity is linked with destructive power. That much becomes clear when you consider the actions you’re allowed to take within this world. Violent actions come with ease, but creative powers are nonexistent. Neither the father nor Weiss can heal, repair, or create through their own being; they need outside help (items or Emil) to do so. However, I think the game is less interested in the destructive acts themselves as much as it is why we’re driven to commit these acts in the first place. In it eyes, such violence is born from a failure to understand the Other. That failure almost always results in a cycle of violence that forestalls the very peace we hope to bring about through our own action.