Confronting violence in Nier
I’ve killed a lot of people in video games.
There weren’t many games that chastised me for killing until Nier, though. Shadow of the Colossus certainly tried, but it’s difficult to feel guilty when you can unlock power ups via Time Attacks that encourage your violent behaviour. Fumito Ueda’s questioning of violence in games is muddled by the inclusion of video game tropes. In Nier, Cavia embrace the familiar design points of games and use New Game + to illustrate how easily we commit violence in games. Nier does not coddle you, though. Yoko Taro, the director of Nier, is a man who doesn’t want your approval or respect. He wants to teach you a lesson.
In the early to mid-20th century, a theatrical movement entitled Epic Theatre came about as a reaction to the popular melodrama and naturalistic acting style employed in theatre productions at the time. Epic Theatre stressed that the audience were complacent and fat; incapable of any grand thoughts or moral teachings as modern plays were designed to uphold the illusion of naturalism and merely entertain. At all times, Epic Theatre seeks to remind the audience that they’re watching a play, arguing that the audience are only capable of rational thought when they’re able to emotionally distance themselves from the performance in front of them. While the mediums are different, Cavia have taken the unique tenets of Epic Theatre and re-contextualised them in a video game. The first playthrough of Nier jumps from its central beat em’ up sensibilities to a text adventure game, a classic survival horror game, and even a top-down bullet-hell shooter. Each genre shift is contained inside of the various dungeons throughout the game, and there’s a distinct segmentation of overworld exploration and dungeon diving. The jarring genre shifts call attention to the medium and separates Nier’s gameplay into consolidated fragments rather than a cohesive whole.
The Shades, the monsters you fight throughout the game, fit into the basic geometric-shapes-as-enemies rubric of most Japanese games. You know the sort – enemies so powerful that we feeble humans can’t hope to comprehend their thoughts, let alone their appearance (Orphan’s true form in Final Fantasy XIII anyone?). At first, it’s easy to dismiss the Shades as strange robots by their mechanical-like design, but they bleed when struck. There’s an awful lot of blood. They also differ in appearance. The first you meet are child-like in stature and attack you in swarms, but later mobs are larger and more aggressive. The smaller Shades drop picture books upon their deaths. The larger Shades eventually start wearing armour, and are seen dancing together in an extravagant hall during the endgame. It feels like there’s an ecosystem in place. There’s a nagging unease in how Nier, your playable character, relishes any opportunity to kill Shades, despite these questionable events popping up as you move through the game. You’re inhabiting Nier as he searches for his daughter, but you have no choice in how he views the world, let alone whether or not to kill. You kill things because you have to.
The characters you meet all fit into archetypes. There’s Weiss, a magical talking book with a snarky attitude who thinks himself above us lesser mortals; Kainé, an abusive, foul-mouthed woman who dresses provocatively but has a heart of gold; and Emil, a young and emotionally insecure boy who turns people into stone simply by looking at them. Weiss and Kainé trade mean-spirited banter which gradually evolves into a strange form of respect, and Emil functions to show a softer side of both Nier and Kainé. At the centre of the narrative is Yonah, Nier’s sick daughter, and Cavia spends a considerable amount of time developing her. A simple quest like travelling to the nearby port to catch a fish because Yonah wants to cook something is immeasurable in fostering a strong connection with her. The small letters and diary entries written by her that pop up during loading screens portray Yonah as an enthusiastic, loving child who simply wants to be with her father. When Yonah is kidnapped by the Shadowlord, the leader of the Shades and another indication that these creatures are more than simple monsters, you’re willing to do anything to ensure her safety because you’re emotionally attached to these characters.
This emotional connection pushes you to the endgame where all of Nier’s subtle clues about Shades are revealed. A thousand years ago humanity faced extinction due to an incurable disease. We engineered Replicants, vessels resistant to the disease, with the hope we would place our soul, or Gestalt, into our replacement bodies once the disease died out. Over time, however, the Replicants grew personalities of their own, and the Gestalts slowly transformed into Shades and grew increasingly hostile to them. Our Nier is the Replicant form of the Shadowlord, who stole Yonah in order to place her Gestalt into her new body. The Gestalt Yonah urges the Shadowlord that she can hear the Replicant Yonah inside of her, and that she has just as much of a right to live as she does. She abandons her body and Nier and Yonah are reunited, but only after you murder the Shadowlord.
Ending A of Nier is distressing and reinforces the lack of control you have over Nier’s actions. Where you were once a hero, you are now a villain. Nier tries to appease your conscience with a tender moment between Nier and Yonah, but the melancholic music that plays over the credits suggests something deeply depressing and wrong with this scenario. The Shadowlord was simply trying to save his daughter much like yourself. The Shades may have killed countless Replicants, but your body count feels much more substantial when you realise you’ve murdered men, women, and children.
A prompt shows up at the end of the credits that tells you to load your clear data in order to unlock Ending B and see Kainé’s story. Out of all the characters in the game, Kainé’s story was the only one unresolved. Emil sacrificed himself to protect Nier and Kainé as they hurried to rescue Yonah, and Weiss turned out to be partially responsible for the creation of the Replicants in the first place. Kainé simply walked off when Nier and Yonah were reunited and you never uncovered why she was travelling with you, or what she got out of the situation to begin with. Nier’s artificial notification that there’s more story about Kainé distracts you from the problematic elements of the plot.
The second playthrough disconnects you from Nier entirely. The Shades are humanised bit by bit through new cutscenes depicting their point of view throughout the adventure. These are divorced from Nier’s perspective and the fly-on-the-wall camera positioning makes it feel like you’re peeking into a world you don’t belong in. The little Shade riding on top of the giant robot in the first playthrough is now the little Shade whose mother was killed by humans and found its only friend in the aftermath. The vicious pack of wolves that attacked the city of Façade for no reason before were, in fact, retaliating against a prior assault by the city’s guards. Worse still is the initial reason you subjected yourself to the second playthrough feels insignificant. You learn that Kainé is intersexed and had an abusive childhood, that she almost died and was saved by making a pact with a demon. This is engrossing, emotionally fulfilling stuff but all of it is conveyed through simple text on a black background. Your “reward” doesn’t feel significant because it’s delivered so cheaply in comparison to the painfully detailed Shade sequences. And Kainé still walks off at the end of the game; her story left untold. What you’re looking for in the narrative – the emotional climax and growth of these characters – is not what this story is about.
You’ve pushed through two playthroughs of Nier and both endings were ambiguous and unfulfilling, asking more questions and refusing to answer them. Another prompt at the end of the game asks you to collect every weapon to make one final decision that affects the story. A glimmer of control is given to you and – repetition be damned – you will chase after it. The third playthrough no longer resembles any form of emotional engagement as you’ll likely have a FAQ placed next to you to find every weapon in the world. You’re running through a glorified checklist and you might even start skipping the cinematics in order to appease your guilty conscience. It’s here, at the end of it all, where Nier reveals its most horrifying choice.
Kainé lies in agony, her illness finally overcoming her. She will die. The demon inside Kainé asks you to save her. You can either kill her and put her out of her misery, or trade your life for hers. The third playthrough has transformed from pragmatic to intensely emotional, a sleight of hand not at all appreciated by Nier’s insistence to approach it as a video game. Both choices are equally horrifying but you can still treat this sequence as another checklist… if you don’t have a heart. You kill Kainé by stabbing her through the chest and realise all your efforts to ensure she would be okay have only resulted in her death. You suddenly, finally, feel horrible.
But, simple save scumming ensures you can make one choice, rewind, and then make the other one. The fourth playthrough never has to happen if you cheat the system, and after all Nier has done to you, you feel more than happy to do so. There’s a lingering animosity of expectations – of privilege that games should revolve around you – and maybe, just maybe, everything can be made alright if you commit to this final selfless action.
Opting to save Kainé greets you with four reminders that, yes, this is a sacrifice and all your progress in the game will be erased. After these notifications, a keyboard pops on screen and asks you to type in the player name to be erased. After all of this, the game opens your inventory menu and systemically erases every single page and sub page of content right in front of your eyes. All the weapons you’ve collected, all the levels you’ve gained, all the stories you’ve unlocked – everything is displayed momentarily before disappearing. Then your save file deletes itself. All of your hard work to unlock everything and collect everything and see everything is gone and will never be given back.
A short cutscene plays where Yonah and Kainé address each other in a manner resembling two strangers striking up a conversation, both of them not sure what to say or even what’s happened. There’s an uncomfortable stillness to the exchange, and there’s no suggestion that Kainé or Yonah will go on to lead comfortable and fulfilling lives. It’s a hopeful, morose ending that feels so heartbreaking because you’re no longer involved in it. You could never be involved in it.
At the end of Nier, you must finally accept the responsibility of your actions. In your wild chase to hunt down every fragment of story, you willingly killed innocent people despite what you witnessed. The familiar comfort that you needn’t feel guilt over your actions because you’re inside a fictional world was too strong, even after experiencing the Shades’ side of the story. But Nier is not some repository of information that travels with you each time you restart your game. He only learns what the Shades are at the end of the game and, like any parent would in his situation, decides his child’s life is more important than a guilty conscience. You’re the one who bares witness to and guides Nier to that outcome each and every time, knowing full well that you have no control of what he does. You’re the one who willingly submits to the game’s arbitrary requirements to unlock everything while it screams at you to stop and think about what you’re doing. This set up shatters the false reality of fiction and places the ramifications of murder solely on us, rather than our avatar. But if you’re capable of dismissing the violence you commit on screen, Nier is more than happy to treat you the same way. Oh, so all this killing doesn’t mean anything? Your save file doesn’t mean anything too, then. You don’t need it. Video games are only frivolous entertainment, right?
The credits finish. The game informs you that your system data is saved and erases your save data. Operation complete. Thanks for playing! You get the distinct sensation that Yoko Taro is somewhere out there in the world, laughing at you because he hates you.