I recently wrapped up my time (for now) with Nier, a game I hadn’t been planning to play. On the strength of Trent Fingland’s extremely positive review, I decided to give it a spin, and now it has a place on my Game of the Year shortlist with BioShock 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Trauma Team. As Trent pointed out in his review, Nier doesn’t really do anything new. Instead it picks and chooses from existing influences ranging from text adventures to twin-stick shooters. One strength of the game is that each of these play motifs surfaces at just the right moment and feels completely appropriate. The other main strength of the game is impeccable characterization, which can be attributed to solid writing and excellent voice acting. Nier‘s unique “new game +” mode expands on the characterization of a major character in an interesting way, but in my opinion this worked ultimately to the game’s detriment.
Unlike most RPGs with a new game + mode, Nier begins the second playthrough more than halfway through the story. It also shifts the focus from the main character (Nier) to the secondary character Kainé. Kainé is interesting in several ways, and the additional characterization in the second round goes a long way towards adding depth to the “foul-mouthed hussy” persona built up in the first playthrough. One aspect of her character that gets a great deal more exploration is her possession by a shade, one of the creatures that serve as the game’s primary antagonists. Because of this connection, she (and by extension, the player) has the ability to understand what the shades are saying during certain battles. The new game + supplements this insight by showing the player cutscenes that add context for the various bosses that must be defeated in this part of the game. Jeffrey Matulef found these additional scenes to be pretty affecting, and I did too, but I also thought that the emotion of these cutscenes rang false.
The aim of the cutscenes is to humanize the shades and paint them in a sympathetic light. This is actually a pretty important goal considering the game’s story, but the developers take some unfortunate shortcuts. As the new cutscenes would have it, the shades are just sitting around having peaceful tea parties when big, bad Nier shows up and kills them for no good reason. The intent here seems to be to make the player feel bad for killing those bosses, but this is a pretty disingenuous emotional manipulation. After all, I didn’t make the decision to kill those bosses; the game said I had to kill them and didn’t offer any serious alternatives. Forcing the player to do something and then rubbing his face in how bad he is for doing it is just bullying.
Another problem with these scenes is that they are contradicted by the rest of the story. In several cases the shades claim among themselves or to others that they are interested in peaceful coexistence, but this cannot possibly square with the relentless hostility of the enemies you find out in the fields, much less with the massive assault Nier’s village suffers at the end of the game’s first half. The worst offender in this regard is the story of the wolves. The new game + cutscenes would have you believe this tale is a tragedy in which a poorly-understood wolf pack only wants peaceful coexistence with the humans but is brutally attacked and therefore must seek revenge. This, of course, completely disregards the countless occasions when the wolves attack your party unprovoked, not to mention the significant growth in headstones at the nearby graveyard, reflecting continued attrition in a nearby city due to wolf attacks.
One could, of course, defend this as showing “both sides of a story”, but this just perpetuates the sloppy false equivalence so prevalent in all aspects of modern media. That two sides to a story exist does not imply that both are equally worthy of attention or belief. The wolves’ side of the story is clearly distorted, but the game treats it every bit as seriously as the main narrative. As a consequence, the expanded content feels dishonest, and in turn that robs the other scenes in the episode of some of their power.
That’s not true in every instance. In the story Matulef liked best, a giant robot in the depths of a military base befriends a tiny shade and they accidentally become the focus of another character’s unreasoning rage. Although the cutscenes for this story were mawkish, I thought this expansion worked better than the others because the game made it clear, even in the first playthrough, that the character who hated them wasn’t a reliable narrator. That ambiguity made the idea of their innocence easier to swallow. Unfortunately, the other stories simply don’t leave enough wiggle room for this kind of reinterpretation.
There were other ways to humanize the shades. After all, acknowledging an opponent’s humanity doesn’t necessarily mean taking their side, although these days it seems most people are incapable of understanding this. The wolves are also portrayed as being outraged that human beings destroyed the environment; explaining their war with the humans in this way would make their actions relatable without necessarily arguing for pity or sympathy. I think a similar approach could have been fruitful in the case of Aerie as well, given that the town actually seems like a nicer place on your second visit.
One of the things Nier needs to be doing in the new game + mode is to make the shades more sympathetic and human. The story it presents in the first playthrough, tied as it is to Nier’s rage against the creatures that have stolen his daughter, has to be tilted against them, but the underlying reality of the game argues for a more nuanced view. Unfortunately, the second playthrough skips right past nuance and heads for contradiction, casting the shades as innocents being persecuted by the player and cranking the melodrama up to 11. The intent here was noble, but the result was a failure. Adding the shade’s stories to Nier’s story made both of them worse.