(Throughout this essay, the game NIER will be signified with capital letters, while the character Nier will signified with a capitalised initial. Screenshots for this essay were sourced from The Dark Id’s Let’s Play of this game, which can be found here: http://lparchive.org/NIER/)
In cinema, there’s an adage for effective storytelling: “Show, don’t tell”. To put it simply, the audience will more readily believe something if it plays out in front of them, rather than having it described to them second-hand. For videogames, the equivalent could arguably be “Do, don’t show”. Videogame storytelling is generally far more effective if the basic story concepts are expressed to the player through gameplay rather than having everyone sit down for a twenty minute cutscene where they discuss, say, the power of friendship or why you shouldn’t allow yourself to be controlled by your genes (for instance). Of course, this is rendered moot if the integration of gameplay and story is too obvious (“Press X to spare the war orphan!”) The real masterstroke comes when this is done so subtly that the player is only subconsciously aware that this array of 1’s and 0’s in front of them has a point to make.
In NIER’s world, life is a struggle. After the game’s apocalyptic prologue, society has regressed to a pseudo-medieval form, with remnants of the old world dotting the landscape. The land is stalked by monstrous Shades, and people (including Nier’s daughter, Yonah) are inexplicably being stricken with the Black Scrawl, a seemingly incurable illness. Speaking to an NPC in the library reveals that the ocean levels are still rising, and the planet’s axial tilt has been so badly misaligned that it’s perpetually noon. There’s a general sense that we’re witnessing the twilight of humanity, and everything is simply winding down. In this decaying world, Nier ekes out a living by hunting Shades and doing odd jobs, whilst trying in vain to find a cure for Yonah. But ultimately, it’s just another raging against the dying of the light. All he can do is stave off the inevitable.
Over the course of Nier’s quest to find a cure for Yonah, both Nier and the player are time and again denied any form of catharsis or payoff for their trouble. In order to seal away a monstrous Shade attacking the village, Nier is forced to sacrifice Kainè by turning her to stone. He is powerless to prevent the King of Façade’s fiancé from being mauled to death by wolves. Defeating a particular late-game boss results in a major in-game settlement being wiped off the map without warning. And the culmination of Nier’s quest, defeating the Shadowlord, feels oddly anticlimactic, to say nothing of the dire implications of Nier’s actions in the context of the game’s supplementary material.
This extends to gameplay too; one maddeningly tedious sidequest which involves waiting at least 72 real-time hours to hybridise plant seeds earns you a mere pittance, and another which involves you accidentally forcing someone back into servitude to their criminal family has no reward at all. When the player is introduced to fishing, the beach next to where they start contains fish which the player has no hope of catching. Instead, the player is supposed to fish at another beach on the other side of the village (this infamously caused a number of reviewers to quit the game on the spot). And, as one final parting gift, in order to truly complete the game, Nier must sacrifice his existence, translated in gameplay as wiping all of the player’s save games from the hard drive.
NIER’s sheer sadism and outright spite towards the player can also be found elsewhere; No More Heroes’ deliberately empty world map and monotonous minigames were commentary on how Travis and player are obsessed with reaching the next ranked assassin as quickly as possible. Metal Gear Solid 2 portrayed Raiden as a clumsy, ineffectual dork who slips on bird droppings, never gets to finish off bosses, and even gets stripped naked, in order to make the player feel inadequate next to the legendary Solid Snake. By contrast, NIER’s goal is to slowly wear the player down through sheer exhaustion. At a couple of points, the characters outright stop and wonder just why on earth Nier is completing obnoxious and obtuse quests for rewards that are fleeting at best. The world is, after all, ending. Why bother?
The answer to this question forms the crux of NIER’s story and is central to the game’s theme of what it means to be human in a dying world. The characters that inhabit the game world are all likeable, flawed and believable, aided by the game’s excellent writing and top-notch voice acting. And all throughout, you get a very real sense that they care for each other, and given just how genuine they are, it’s hard for the player not to form their own attachments to the characters they meet. When Emil is mutated into a skeleton-doll monstrosity and breaks down sobbing, Nier draws upon years of experience of being a dad to comfort him. When Kainè lapses into a Shade-human hybrid and is afraid of losing control, Emil reminds her of how much she means to him and promises to always bring her back. When Yonah cooks dinner for Nier as part of a sidequest, the result will always be awful regardless of the advice Nier gives her, and yet he still eats it anyway because, as he puts it, “Only a real jerk wouldn’t appreciate the effort”. As it happens, Nier and the player both have quite a few reasons to bother.
And as Nier forges ahead to try to ease the suffering of those around him, the player also partakes in his frustrations, defeats, and small successes through NIER’s gameplay. The arduous quests are indicative of the trying times, and the meagre rewards are evidence that people don’t have much to give to return the favour. And yet, for all the times the game spites the player, it does occasionally see fit to throw them a bone. For the above-mentioned quest where Yonah cooks for Nier, seeing Yonah’s earnest enthusiasm to help her father in her own small way becomes its own reward. Convincing Popola and Devola to sing together in the tavern rewards you with a stunning piano and percussion cover of Song of the Ancients, the theme of Nier’s village.
Interestingly, while NIER’s goal is to wear the player down, it also understands that if the game is actually painful to play, the players may simply turn off the console and go seek gratification elsewhere. Therefore, to alleviate this, NIER features a number of interesting gameplay interludes to keep the player hooked; examples include the text adventure in the Forest of Dreams, the Resident Evil-esque fixed camera section in Emil’s mansion, and the dungeon crawler section in the mansion’s basement. Just as Nier himself explores new regions in a hope to find a cure for Yonah, the player presses on to see just what kinds of curveballs the game’s engine will throw at them. Of course, the player will still be spending 80% of their time using the game’s basic hack-and-slash mechanics, but while NIER’s gameplay may be mediocre on the whole, it’s never too frustrating to drive the player away altogether. Or, to put it differently, the gameplay is just good enough to achieve its purpose.
It’s rare that you would want to play a game that actively goes out of its way to frustrate and depress the player, but in a sense, NIER is an oppressive game for an oppressive world. Does Nier have the luxury of being able to give up his quest (and if he did, would he)? Can Yonah simply will her illness away? Can Kainè give up the hermaphroditism that has resulted in her being ostracised? And should the player be given a smooth ride through the game, when all of the characters have their own dilemmas that are utterly inescapable? In Nier’s world, life is a struggle. And through NIER, the player struggles with him.