When you think about it, Nier‘s message is one that runs counter to what many other video games propose. As Becky Davnall elaborates on here, mainstream conceptions of realism (materialism/naturalism, as she terms it) in games go hand in hand with our ability to affect change in and exert power over the worlds presented to us. This is why, for example, the same space that prizes hyper-realistic blockbuster games like Half-Life 2 will also shun more reflective games like Dear Esther: because while both games present very similar types of realism (they run on the same engine, after all), only the former allows the player to actually do anything with it.
As straightforward as this claim looks at first, it actually comes bundled with a much larger set of assumptions. Simply affecting the world around us isn’t enough. Objects have to be built for us to affect; the way we affect them has to be clearly and immediately reflected in the world*; and those affectations have to serve some larger purpose in the game. If narrative/world-building are seen as significant parts of the game experience, then this purpose has to hide itself as a naturally occurring element of the game world. In other words, it has to exist within the world itself rather than simply in how the player perceives it. Otherwise, the player realizes they’re being catered to, the illusion is broken, and their power means nothing. On the one hand, this invites the player’s presence into the game. A mystery has been presented for them to solve. Knowledge unfolds and their understanding of the world grows, even if this knowledge and understanding only matter insofar as they facilitate action within the world. At the same time, it also justifies that presence as completing the world in a way that it could not otherwise be completed.
Needless to say, Nier completely upends this framework. Not in the sense that the actions you take serve no purpose; it’s often clear what purpose a given action serves. Rather, the world we’re presented defies any coherent understanding of it. Consider how the story is presented to us. Given how bleak and capricious the world is, it would make sense that the narrative presenting it would be equally bleak and capricious. The plot doesn’t advance in an orderly manner, but in arbitrary fits and bouts. If there’s an item the father needs in his quest to save Yonah (the Sealed Verses, keys to the Shadowlord’s Castle), then he’s bound to receive them in an overly convenient fashion. Likewise, major plot developments generally occur independent of whatever actions either the player or the main cast take. As lucky as this may sound, it ultimately means the characters aren’t in control of their own fates. There’s either no logic behind the world at all (leaving its inhabitants at the whims of chance), or, if there is a logic, it’s one that lies beyond whatever the characters could ever hope to comprehend.
This is only reinforced (and paradoxically contradicted) by the nature of the game’s internal reality. As a result of the aforementioned player/avatar divide, that reality constantly threatens to fall apart at the seams, even if it never does completely unravel. At times, it may appear mundane to us: much of the destabilization comes from the heavy invocation of ludic devices (like magical orbs flying at you in bullet hell-esque waves), meaning those familiar with those devices can navigate and view this world with ease. Yet it’s worth remembering that the characters who actually live in this world are excluded from that group. To them, both the waves and the monsters from which they emanate amount to divine, otherworldly horrors. We are left with but a few options, neither of which are satisfying. We either acknowledge that the game can only be understood as artifice, thus upsetting our relationship with the game and undermining the idea that what we do in it serves some clear purpose; or, in an effort to identify with the world that’s we’re navigating, we suspend our previous understanding and assume what we’re seeing lies just as much beyond our comprehension as it does the cast’s, even as the method of completing it impresses itself upon us.
Meanwhile, the reality we’re presented with is continually disrupted in such a way that it could only affect us. Perspectives are shifted; details are omitted; various genres are briefly invoked; and the characters handle this with relative ease. Our own sense of the world is defied while theirs remains relatively intact. As a result, Nier ends up raising more questions than it could ever hope to answer. What caused the world to revert into medieval fantasy? Are there gods, as the story occasionally implies, or have they left this world for good? What exactly are the Shades? What role were Emil and Halua intended to play in the enigmatic Project Gestalt? Even if Nier never provides concise answers to these questions, it’s happy to encourage the player into believing such answers might possibly exist. Everywhere you look, you see features that prey on your desire to understand more about the world. Tutorials pop out of fallen enemies long after you’ve acclimated to the game, and each ending strings into the next with the game clearly spelling out for you how to obtain it.
Yet once again, we find the common themes of futility and disempowerment, for if these features do contribute to your knowledge of the game, then it quickly becomes clear that knowledge alone isn’t worth pursuing as its own end. The former simply overload you with useless information, and the latter frustrate the idea of a whole experience by offering something to complete the game even when you’ve personally completed it several times over. It feels like a cruel joke, the game goading the player into enduring whatever adversity they’re presented with and then laughing at their inevitable failure to grow from it. This isn’t like Drakengard 3, where the story loops back on itself but ultimately advances forward. Instead, Nier resembles a continual journey to and from Plato’s allegorical cave: having emerged from a world of shadow and into the light, the player treks back to the cave once again. While they’ve gained knowledge, they now find themselves powerless to do anything with it.
Moreover, the knowledge we do gain of this world isn’t knowledge that we can act on, or if we can act on in, not in such a way that we can bring about the change we wish to bring about. This is where Nier’s existential themes really come into play. Especially during the second and subsequent playthroughs, the game is concerned not only with humanizing the enemies you fight, but through that humanization, also contextualizing the violent atrocities you carry out against them. However, it doesn’t commit the same fallacy that Spec Ops: The Line does. Nier doesn’t take a fetishistic delight in confronting you with violent destruction. Like Evangelion, it’s more interested in the effects that violence has; the consequences we’re forced to live with in its wake. There’s no celebration or spectacle present in these scenes. They’re raw, brutal, and difficult to endure.
The characters in these scenes especially have a difficult time processing what they’ve gone through. Their pain is palpable to even the most casual observer, as our focus is always on the loss they’ve just sustained. As grievous as this experience is for them, they can’t dwell on their pain forever. More often than not, circumstances compel them to continue living before any real healing can take place. Feeling themselves compelled to take action but forced to realize that no action they could take could hope to restore that which they’ve lost, the sufferer’s pain congeals into anger and turns to the very brutality that caused this loss in the first place. Whether that brutality is a necessary defense against further loss or simply a sadistic indulgence in harming others, a cycle of violence has been set into motion. So long as the parties involved refuse to understand one another, and so long as they treat the other as beyond understanding, it’s a cycle they’re forced to endure in perpetuity. This isn’t to say the gap can never be bridged. In fact, we see several examples to the contrary, whether it’s the protagonists learning the customs and language of Facade, the relationship between Kalil and P-33, or Gretel learning to live with the Shades. As far as Nier is concerned, though, these are exceptions and not the rule. Whether by luck or by design, it sees humanity’s fate as becoming like the Shades: reduced to our suffering and our resentment.
What does this make the player, then? Remember: the father only has destructive powers at his disposal, meaning the player is forced to act on the world largely through those destructive powers. In this light, it becomes very difficult to argue that the player’s presence makes the world complete, given how frequently your presence (not to mention your actions) destabilize that very world. At best, the world was already complete well before you stepped into the picture. But given everything that happens outside the player’s sphere of influence (Gideon’s descent into madness, the wolf attack on Facade, the Aerie’s continued xenophobia), I see this as a naive reading of the game. The father still has to cure his daughter, the Shades will still attack the village, and he will still see violence as a convenient method of killing two birds with one stone. The player is simply the method by which the father converts those sentiments into action. I see two possible conclusions to this predicament: either the player completes the world in such a way that it will never find resolution, or they end up being the force that prevents it from becoming whole in the first place.
The player/avatar split doesn’t help this situation, either, considering the father is still a relatively violent figure. True, he may not resort to violence for violence’s sake, but he does see it as an effective way of achieving his goals, and he continually rejects any attempts to understand the world further than is required of him. The player comes to understand things better, but because they can only act through this figure, they’re fated to follow the same path he does, rendering them powerless to act on whatever understanding they’ve gained.
The world, then, comes to be understood as the product of those living in it. The areas you explore are just as vast and open as those of Xenoblade, but where the Bionis’ size invokes a mythical sense of awe, the world of Nier feels evacuated of any such divinity. Size gives way to emptiness, which itself gives way to loneliness and decay as the father slaughters those he comes into contact with.
Even prior to these individual acts, the world stands witness to a subtler form of destruction. Namely, the destruction of reality in favor of one’s personal fantasy. Finally, the connection between the initial prologue and the much larger narrative becomes crystal clear: that movement from a (somewhat) realistic world beset by problems just outside our control to a world of fantasy where those problems are more easily mitigated mirrors our own retreat from reality and into the game world. Such a retreat is inherently destructive, the game argues, for the only way this escape into fantasy can come about is through the destruction of the reality we currently inhabit. While it can come about in several ways – trapping ourselves within our own individual realities, clouding over the reality we know – the effect is the same. The world around us is suppressed in favor of something more simplistic and thus easier to grasp.
Yet this suppression is incomplete. Lingering traces of the original remain; they resist being erased and stand testament to destruction that’s been wrought upon the land. We see it in the steel roads and bridges, out of place in a fantasy setting and thus remnants of whatever world came before this one. We see it in the central conceit of the father helping his daughter with a mysterious disease, that tragic tale we re-enact time and again in the vain hope that this time, our efforts won’t be in vain. And we see its reverberations time and again throughout the story as Nier’s world falls further and further into decay. That world may not have been perfect when we first set our eyes on it, but our continued presence only sees things get worse. Where enemy encounters are relatively sparse in the early moments of the game, they’re a commonplace occurrence by the time you hit the all important second half.
As dismal as all this may sound, I don’t think Nier is all doom and gloom. Rather, I think the game leaves us with an ambiguous hope at the end. This isn’t a hope for the world, mind you; it’s safe to say the game has resigned itself to affecting change on such a large scale. It’s a hope for the characters. It falls upon their shoulders to find their own personal worth in a world that’s beyond redemption, and it falls upon the player’s shoulders, too, when they encounter the final two endings.
How the story ends depends on how the father answers a difficult question: he can either kill Kainé, claiming another life but also freeing her from a suffering she would otherwise be forced to endure for the rest of her life. Or he can sacrifice his own existence (not his life; his very existence, as the game is quick to warn the player) and let Kainé live with a fully human identity. We don’t know what she’ll do with this second lease on life. She may never be accepted by those around them; the pain she suffered may never abate; and she may not even be equipped to handle this new world she’s about to enter. Yet couldn’t the same be said of the player who wishes to remain in this world and continue fighting for a cause that will never come to be? We know for certain the cycle we’re bound to repeat should we choose to continue playing. But should we choose to give her another chance, even though we don’t know what the future holds for her, we can remain reasonably optimistic that Kainé will find her own value in life.
*I’ve heard some people argue that this is why aggressive acts in video games are so common: because their effects are so easy to recognize after we’ve committed them. While I’m not sure how well this argument holds up (a cursory glance at the early history of video games pokes holes in it), it may still be useful to keep it in mind when thinking about Nier.