Warning: this review contains light spoilers.
“You don’t have to be insane to kill someone. You just have to think you’re right.”
Series director Yoko Taro spoke those words in a 2014 interview for Drakengard 3. He was talking about the 9/11 terror attacks, and how that influenced Nier. I could understand where he was coming from; it was always a bit insane that videogames could gleefully praise the player for killing 100 enemies. Even though they’re abstract entities created specifically for the player to defeat, it’s just plain weird when you think about it. What kind of normal person would take glee in the deaths of a hundred people? This is a trick question, of course. Most games don’t really see that as an important question to ask - and it largely isn’t. At the end of the day, your foes are an abstraction, a challenge to overcome, nothing more than an obstacle unless the game deems it important for the story. For a while I thought this was just a bit of navel gazing from a developer with a lot to say.
And so Nier plays out as so many stories do, with a damsel in distress and a hero to rescue her, alongside the hero’s true friends and companions. He goes about the world, saving people and killing the monsters that roam across the land. All in a bid to defeat the dark lord and rescue the girl. The journey is fraught with peril, with loss and betrayal, with trials that test the hero’s resolve. On the surface, it’s formulaic. Yet the story that Nier tells is so much deeper, so much richer than that.
While other games like The Last of Us 2 will spare the player no mercy with how it portrays the protagonists as flawed individuals, Nier takes the slow approach. The nameless protagonist has a cause that many would say is undeniably just - his sister Yonah is in trouble. He will do anything to save her. And he does. His single-minded determination drives him throughout the entire game. Sure, he sounds a little too eager to kill shades - the mindless, shambling foes that threaten humanity - but it’s hard not to empathize with that. After all, they’re violent monsters that kill anything that approaches. They can’t be reasoned with.They are abstract entities created specifically for the player to defeat. And they drop useful items like medicinal herbs, healing salves, and stat-boosting consumables, alongside vendor trash like rusty knives, scrap metal, and schoolbooks.
Nier asks a very simple thing of the player. It isn’t “are you willing to do anything to save Yonah?” It’s “are you willing to see this story to the very end?” While you do get to name the hero, you aren’t literally the hero. Like how an actor assumes the role they’ve been given, you assume the role of the protagonist, guiding him through the motions that the story has set for him. We are not literal inhabitants of the world - we, as players, are both participants and observers, capable of influencing it within the constraints of the narrative, but helpless to change the story. Like the protagonists of the game’s sequel, Nier: Automata, you are perpetually trapped in a never ending spiral of life and death.
Yet in the face of hopelessness, in a world ravaged by monsters and disease, a world winding down for the end of days, Nier is ultimately a story about the power of conviction. The world might be half empty, but what’s left is still worth fighting for, its beauty still worth preserving. Even if our actions, ultimately, don’t matter in the end, it doesn’t mean we should just give up. Even through all the violence and pain, there is still something worth saving. Nier tells the story of a man willing to go through any lengths to save the ones he loves. It shows you the consequences of such tireless conviction. And at the end of it all, it left me wondering if it was truly worth all that pain and suffering.
This is what I love about Nier. I truly believe this is one of the best narratives in a videogame I’ve played. It is unashamedly about viewpoints, about ideals, about fighting for a cause you believe in. I’d beaten the game thoroughly, and the ending still sticks with me. In the end, I decided that it really was worth all the suffering. Nier has one of the strongest stories in all of gaming, and now that its blemishes have been smoothed over for a wider audience, there’s no better time than now to experience it.