Nier and the art of pulled punches
You don’t save the world at the end of Nier. The main character is trying to, certainly – or, more accurately, he’s trying to save his daughter and saving the world is a fortunate byproduct. But by the end of the game and the subsequent replays, it’s clear that you aren’t saving the world. You aren’t saving your daughter. You aren’t even saving yourself. All you’ve succeeded in doing is…
Well, that’s something best hidden behind the cut. Because there are going to be spoilers here, so fairly warned be ye. Even though the odds are you won’t get to play this game.
Nier is the last game developed by Cavia, better known to people who would bother knowing about it as the same studio behind Drakengard and Drakengard 2. As you could also probably guess from that pedigree, it is completely messed up and manages to put forth a post-apocalyptic world that’s actually worse than the world in the throes of the apocalypse. It’s arguably not even post-anything; what you witness through the game is the death throes of the world of humanity, the last shuddering gasps before extinction and failure.
Trying to untangle what’s going on in Nier requires a bit of backstory, because it’s a sequel to Drakengard without being the sequel. The most difficult ending in that game sees the main characters fall through a portal into modern-day Japan… only to be shot out of the sky by Japanese fighter jets. In a game where each new ending is more depressing than the last, this was believed by nearly everyone to be a pure joke ending meant to screw with the player, not the foundation of an actual story.
But the man behind Drakengard wanted to have a sequel from every possible ending from the first game. Nier is the sequel to that would-be joke ending, where magic more or less infected the modern world after that event, along with a horrible disease that claimed most of the human race. What followed were the long-term death throes of humanity, and when you first start playing the game, you’re treated to what you know must be the end of time, with the eponymous protagonist fighting off waves of enemies. Then you’re thrown 1300 years in the future, meeting another man with the same face and name, fighting to protect his daughter who seems to be in just as much danger, not understanding the connection until the very end.
And much like Drakengard, as you progress through the game, it starts out bad and only gets worse. Unfortunately, whether or not you can experience that yourself depends on whether or not you’re willing to pay upwards of a hundred bucks for the game if you can even track down the copy, which becomes all the more dubious a purchase when you consider that the actual game is both not very lengthy and not really all that great as a game.
Seriously, the game is a button-masher in the extreme, and it falls victim to more or less every single sin you could imagine. Enemies scale poorly as you level up, most of the challenging moments comes through cheap mechanics and unavoidable damage, and the whole weapon upgrade system is basically nothing but fluff. If there’s something you can’t handle killing with the Phoenix Spear and some appropriately buffed magic, you are doing something wrong. What makes it enjoyable is the bleakness of the story and the usual descending ladder of the game’s endings.
(Curiously, unlike Drakengard, it seems as if the only real difference between the endings is the one choice you make on your third and subsequent playthroughs – the events of endings A and B take place no matter what you do.)
But oh, that bleakness. The game makes it clear with little ambiguity that all you accomplish over the course of the story is accelerating the extinction of humanity. The monsters you spend the entire game fighting are the real humans, and the people of the world aren’t meant to do anything more important than serve as bodies for those actual human beings. Your ultimate victory buys you, at most, a generation of humanity growing up before inevitable destruction, extinction, and failure. It’s debatable whether or not the antagonists would have been any more successful, but they at least knew what was going on; you didn’t, and you’ve basically become a bad ending to a retelling of I Am Legend.
That being said, the game offers up an interesting contrast to Spec Ops: The Line. Something you may have already guessed. After all, here’s another game wherein your course of “do what the game tells you to do” finishes up not with a triumph, but with a realization that you’re a monster. Yet Nier doesn’t get the credit for doing what Spec Ops: The Line did. Why?
A few reasons. One of which is, quite frankly, the fact that Nier shields you from that realization.
Playing through the game the game a second time allows you to start hearing what Shades are saying, adds extra cutscenes to the game, and generally shows you a lot of what you missed out on the first time around. It makes a lot of the already sad portions of the game even sadder. But you only get that your second time through the game. For that matter, your triumphs are still treated as triumphs by the game. The ending does not tell you exactly how awful you’ve made things with point-blank savagery, something that Spec Ops does at every opportunity.
Equally important is the fact that the fantasy divorces us a bit from the horror. I mentioned that part of what sends the message home in Spec Ops is the fact that you don’t get to forget these are real people, that this is uncomfortably close to the real world. By setting Nier in an almost-fantasy setting, you never get that same visceral bite from the various atrocities you find out you’re committing through the game. You learn about them, realize just how bad your actions really were, but you don’t see the cost in the same way. Your actions lead to death and misery, but not directly to the death and misery of those around you. That’s always inflicted by other sources, and you remain free of consequence as a result.
Again, the default ending, on a surface level, makes it clear that Nier and Yonah reuniting and facing the future together is a good thing. It’s not, you have doomed humanity, you have probably doomed both characters to imminent death at that, but the ending doesn’t make any effort to remind you of that. This moment is happy.
In some ways, it’s almost postulating that the end is a good thing.
Nothing positive happens to anyone, good or bad, all the way through Nier. The most happy moments, the most heartwarming ones, are the points at which it becomes clear that even though something terrible is happening and people are dying, something has been done to ease the pain. That even as the world sinks into misery, as crops wither and food vanishes, as ever human left on the face of the planet is struggling to pull the mess of existence back together and failing… there’s the possibility of easing pain a little bit. In the end, we can’t end suffering. All we can do is try and minimize it, to bring a sort of joy that momentarily salves the agony.
In many ways, that’s what changes the atmosphere. In Spec Ops, you have noble goals but monstrous methods, and as time goes by you sink more and more to the monstrous approach just because it’s easier. In Nier, your goals are noble and everyone is a monster, whether it’s you with your unintentional cruelty or others with their wide-angle plans that completely ignore the fundamentals of humanity. It has a different focus. You aren’t to be blamed for being horrible – everyone else is, too. At best, you have a window into your own monstrous nature.
Which, ironically, makes it a perfect companion piece.
It could be easy to write the game off as an earlier game wit the same focus, but it really isn’t. It’s a shame more people won’t get to experience the story firsthand, although that would be nicely fixed by adding it to the PS3’s store for direct download. (Hint.) But if you push through the lackluster game mechanics, you get something that really can’t be matched. Yes, you are monstrous, you have done monstrous things, and that’s the nature of the game and the environment. But there’s more to it than that, there’s more to examine. You aren’t a good person, but even horrible people can ease the pain.
If we’re all going to go, let it be in the arms of the people we love.
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