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.
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.
The general conception of adventure games, much like JRPGs, is that they’re enjoyed primarily for their narrative value. Yet unlike JRPGs, I get the feeling that people are more ready to defend adventure games on ludic grounds. “They’re not just about the story”, they’ll tell you. “They’re also about working out the internal logic the world runs on, and then using that understanding to conquer whatever challenges the story throws your way.” Conveniently, this explanation slots well into the historical narratives the gaming community has created around the genre. It explains why the genre died during the late 90s (because games like Gabriel Knight 3 relied on arbitrary logic that made for unfair challenges), and why it rose from its own ashes about a decade later (either because games like Machinarium reined in the genre’s excesses or because games like The Walking Dead obviated the need for puzzles at all).
Still, this reasoning relies on a set of assumptions about adventure games that I don’t think would hold up that well in practice. By grounding the genre in pure logic, we assume it operates like a set of dominos, even though a lot of games are too free form and open to exploration to fit that model. This is where Sam & Max: The Devil’s Toybox comes into play. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary adventure game: here are some puzzles, here are some pieces, get to work putting it all together. But the more you play it, the more you realize just how much the game questions adventure game form. While its experiments never outright contradict or negate that generic framework, it still does a lot to complicate it, getting us to ask questions like, “How does this genre function?” and “What’s my role in all this?” For a certain amount of time, at least.
It’s no secret that video games (or at least American made games) have a sort of love affair with Hollywood. In fact, it feels like a cliche just bringing it up. How many games can you name that clearly ape movies? Still, I find it especially useful to bring this up with Just Cause 2, a game that’s well aware of its inspirations. The game uses said inspiration for comedic effect wherever it can, from the narrative to play to the visual design etc. How, I’m not sure how well that approach works in the game’s favor. I’m not outright dismissing the game, mind you; I’m legitimately unsure. The action movie format does the game so much good and so much bad at the same time, that it’s hard for me to know what I feel about it.