Retelling Nier Replicant into Nier Refrain
(Warning: complete Nier spoiler, head to toe.)
NieR isn’t particularly well liked by the critics. This commercial failure also didn’t manage to save the studio from dissolving, and the game is likely to be forgotten. For good reasons too, when NieR do things poorly, it does the poorness without reservation. The frame rate is awful, the game play can be repetitive, and parts of the core story can be so narmy it is impossible to not roll my eyes as the core story progressed. Yet this is the one game powerful enough to shake me to the point of no return.
I am unable to see the name NieR without a visceral pain shooting through my spine. This, in spite of not being able to remember much of the finer details of the plot without fact checking. I will always remember NieRas the only game that drilled so hard at my heart strings that I will never be able to pick it up again.
NieR tells a well recycled tale, one of a dying girl Yonah and how the only person could save her is her last living relative – Nier. This fantasy flavoured post-apocalyptic world is in its decline, with the shadow-like creatures known as “Shades” overrunning and attacking the people at whim. Aided by a magical tome, Nier sets off to a blood-stained journey, slaying the shades, the creatures, the deities, anything standing in his way to save Yonah.
The story of NieR in a nutshell is this: in 2049 humanity is infected by a nasty disease, and the only way to stop humans from dying out is to take out people’s souls temporarily while the bodies are duplicated into Replicants for the souls to re-enter. However, things goes horribly wrong as the Replicants developed consciousness and reject the souls. 1300 years flies past, the original souls have nowhere else to go but to wander, finally succumb into corruption and turning into hostile Shades.
Nier is one of these Replicants. The original form of him is now a fully cognitive, fully sentient Shade who’s title is Shadowlord, and he has one goal only – also to save the terminally ill Original Yonah on his side. As the Original Yonah’s sickness is caused by poor timing at the time of replication, the only way to cure her is to kidnap the Replicant of Yonah and combine the two. This is what Shadowlord did, and this is why the player Nier went on the quest to take his Yonah the Replicant back.
There can only be one Yonah in the end, and neither side would give in. Nier is the only one left standing in the end – but as Shadowlord is the “fixative”, the moment Shadowlord dies all the souls will lose their intelligence and consciousness hence humanity would be extinct for good, and without the souls the Replicants on Nier’s side will soon to follow. Nier knows all these, but he is only interested in getting Yonah back. He kills Shadowlord.
With the usual in-your-face, tell-not-show family love that essentially comes across as just another “if it’s for love we can do anything we can destroy as many lives as we want and still pretend we hold moral superiority.” The central plot line is overwhelmed with tired trope, the only reason I powered through was because the ally characters– Kaine the damaged exile, Emil the cursed child and Grimoire Weiss the wisecracking flying magical tome–are interesting to me. Glad I did too, as the ending surprised me by not flat out condoning Nier’s destruction to the world in exchange to be with Yonah, which indicated that the creators may have eased the players into a slippery slope of gray morality from the beginning. I was so impressed, I decided to give the New Game Plus a go.
I wasn’t expecting NieR’s curveball: the New Game Plus that starts at the half point of the game. We now get extra scenes that reveal the Shade’s side of stories, the life and deaths of the bosses we have slain. The shades are struck down by the player, who perhaps has never thought about who those enemies are.
And what stories they tell. The story that’s striking, the story that is morally breaking upon returning, is the tale of the Junk Heap.
There are two Junk Heap orphaned brothers. They depend on each other to survive, scavenging an abandoned factor for bits and pieces of machinery that they take back to alter into usable items. On one of their treasure hunts, the younger brother Gideon gets a little careless at disturbing the extracting site. The area being a rundown factory, the entire section collapses, the elder brother Jakob dives to save Gideon and is crushed to death. Among the aftermath, the only image the Gideon sees is a functioning robot standing in the corner.
Gideon never recovers from that trauma. Five years later, Nier revisits the site. The now-grown Gideon hires Nier to take down the robot that he believed to be responsible for the brother’s death, a final vengeance that propelled Gideon to keep on going through the past five years.
The return to that level is devoted to the robot hunting mission, which ends in Nier’s party arriving to the stage to fight the robot and its side ally, a tiny Shade. The fight is easy until the half way mark, when this bastard of a boss transforms into this thing with makeshift wings created by magnetically sucking in the surrounding junk. It flies around, dropping things all over the stage, depleting party’s HP. Moments before our win, the robot then picks up the Shade and drills the roof, creating more falling debris. Finally, the robot gets destroyed, and the Shade it carries is struck down by the player too, as an easy post-boss bonus after such an irritating boss fight.
All is good in the Hero’s Land. Maybe it takes a few game overs, but Nier wins. Upon the mission’s accomplishment, Gideon bursts through into the scene, punching and kicking the bits of left over tins. This is all Gideon knows now. Nier fulfilled the brother’s wish, and among the obsession of revenge, Gideon has finally descended into the realm of madness.
Until the New Game Plus. The stage is no longer exclusive to Nier and co. With all the above incidents still played out, we get something extra – we get a glimpse of what is happening with the robot and the Shade, the duo of boss that we know are about to die in our hands again.
The tiny Shade unworthy of being called an opponent is still a child. He has a name: Kalil. He lived with his mother in the junk yard until they were both hunted down by Nier’s side of humans. Kalil’s mother used herself as a decoy, saving Kalil’s life but left him in complete isolation until the robot, P-33, finds him.
P-33 is a military defence robot. Its AI is programmed to destroy any intruders, yet P-33 is left so intrigued by Kalil’s tears and the suggestion of the creature “Mom”, P-33 decided to keep Kalil alive due to its own loss of its creator who simply could not match a machine in life expectancy. Unable to accept the same fate for Kalil, P-33 takes him under his big robotic wings as a Shade companion. P-33 may not ever feel love, but it is able to feel companionship, appreciation and the time with Kalil by its side it becomes more and more fulfilled. It adopts Kalil’s nickname “Beepy”, learns about the big wide world existing outside of the scrape yard, and makes grand plans with Kalil to eventually leave the yard and travel the world.
Then Nier comes in as the story we know unfolds. The battle is identical to the first playthrough except for that the words spoken by the robot and the Shade is now subtitled to the audience.
They never made it. This is what I have done.
If in the first play through I had the alibi of pleading ignorance, by the second I can’t unlearn what I have learned. I am a player who knew too much. I now know Gideon will never know that the robot was not responsible for Jakob’s death – it was a freak accident. Nier will never know that Beepy only fights to fulfil its promise to keep Kalil out of harm’s way, or to know that the only reason Beepy grows wings and drills the roof near the end is a desperation to flee the battle it knows it can’t win, so it used its last bit of strength to take Kalil to see the world.
While the core game story failed to move me, the extra side stories are such surprises, they re-sensitised me to the actions of consequences of video games violence, the reminder that in wars like the one fought in the realm of NieR there are only losers and losers.
And I have no choice but to strike them down. By meeting the objectives of the game, I have left lives tattered behind me. Virtual as these lives may it is still my doing. The Shades I killed because I couldn’t be bothered to take a long route. The Shades I killed because I wanted to try out a new magic. The Shades I killed because if I don’t, I cannot progress. They became more than just another minion .
NieR is meant to be linear. While the non-boss fights can be avoided it does not offer alternative choices for me to finish the stages without having to kill. It doesn’t even offer a morality bar to record down my deed. If the mark of the record acts as a guilt lever of my confession, with NieR it as if the awful act of mine has never meant a thing. This game is never about condoning limitless sacrifices for the sake of saving one being, nor that it is condemning it. by not making an explicit statement, it leaves the ball on the player’s court.
This is what NieR gets and many games failed to – the only real player agency we have is to turn off the game, and by that we freeze the harm that we have already inflicted, to prevent inflicting the same harm again. The only morally “right” action, for me, is to refuse to take part.