Words: 2415 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes
Spoiler Warning: NieR features a major twist to its narrative around the 50-60% mark. And that twist is necessary to talk about in order to talk about NieR’s themes. So if you have not played NieR for yourself, I suggest taking the time to do so if you do not want a major component of the experience to be spoiled for you.
Before talking about a game, I need to talk a bit about a piece of history. Almost every reader will know that on September 11th, 2001, a group of terrorists hijacked several planes and flew those planes into specific targets. Two of those targets were the World Trade Center, specifically the two largest buildings known as the Twin Towers. It was an event that many people across the world saw, though it naturally had the deepest and most profound affect on American politics and culture.
I bring this event up because it was, in a manner of speaking, a moment in history that “inspired” the creation of this video game called NieR. And yes, before you ask, I am going to keep stylizing it like that. The game’s director, Yoko Taro, pointed to the attack and the response thereof as a puzzle: how can the people on these two opposing sides commit such atrocities, and yet do so with the full conviction that they are in the right? How could someone justify shedding an incredible amount of blood, and feel that it was not merely a necessary evil, but the morally correct thing to do?
It is this question that NieR proposes to investigate, and in doing so explores a compelling theme that is relatively common throughout art. And yet, it is also a theme that can be difficult to capture.
And so I wanted to take some time to investigate NieR’s theming and how the components of the game fit together.
What does it mean to see the world through another’s eyes? It is an important philosophical and ethical conundrum, because by our very nature we are stuck within our own minds. We can only access the thoughts of others through imagination. To sympathize with another person is a process in which we pretend to feel what we think someone else is feeling, and hope that our pretending approximates what the other person is experiencing.
Stories usually provide a shortcut for this process. The characters that we sympathize with are themselves fictional, meaning that their feelings are given to them and generally known to us as the audience. We are told, in some capacity, what to feel.
But in constructing stories, while we usually have multiple characters, our major emotional anchor is usually a single character. We are made to sympathize with that character’s struggles, usually by showing their inner world to us in a way that we are hindered from seeing the inner worlds of others.
So stories can often trap us within a single perspective. They do not need to do this, but it is often an effect of crafting a good narrative: in trying to tell a cohesive story, we generally want to focus on a single character’s journey.
NieR follows a single character’s journey, but in doing so, highlights the problem of perspective to us. That is, the game’s theme is attempting to remind us of the limitations of our perspective. By doing so, it forces us to imagine situations in a new light: how might the same set of facts appear to someone else? Especially, how might they appear to someone that we disagree with?
In talking about other games, I’ve usually focused on breaking a game apart into a few components to help explain how those components all work individually in supporting the game’s theme. The premise with that structure is that there was a central theme to the game, but these different components conveyed that theme in different ways. For NieR, though, the components can’t really be picked apart in this way. Everything sort of meshes together. And so the structure of the essay will need to do the same.
The basic story of NieR is as follows. You control a character living a post-apocalyptic world: everything has been overrun by these strange human-like creatures called “Shades.” They resemble people, but appear to be made of a shadowy substance. The Shades attack any person they see, and are very dangerous. As Shades have started to grow in number, the number of remaining humans has dwindled over time.
Your character lives with his younger sister in a village, and you perform odd jobs, though most of them involve fighting Shades. As you do various jobs for the village you make some friends who travel with you and help you out.
And then one day there is a massive attack on the village. A gigantic Shade shows up, and in the chaos your sister is kidnapped by a special Shade called the Shadowlord. Which sends your character on a quest of revenge to rescue his sister. And of course, leaves your character with a powerful hatred of the Shades.
The story continually presents the Shades as monsters who are terrorizing innocent people for no apparent reason. The individual story beats that you are taken through all involve some side character you have been introduced to undergoing some trauma at the hands of Shade, and your job is to defeat the Shade to make things right. So obviously you are led to sympathize with the main character’s journey and perceive the Shades as essentially evil.
But if you aren’t familiar with the narrative, then you can likely guess where this is heading.
There is a major twist near the end of the game that reveals the history of the world you’re in. Due to a complex set of events (themselves linked to a previous game directed by Yoko Taro called Drakengard), humanity was facing potential extinction. The idea was that humans were essentially facing off against a powerful demon. The demon would essentially give each human it came into contact with an ultimatum: either join its army, or refuse and be turned into salt. Not exactly the best choice to make.
So in order to allow humans to avoid this problem, they needed to separate their bodies from their souls – the demon could apparently not deliver this ultimatum as long as the human was soulless. Therefore humanity developed a technology to accomplish precisely this: the souls would be kept in stasis while the bodies would fight the demon army. Once everything was safe, the two parts would be fused back together.
The problem was that by the time the big war was finished, the human bodies had developed personalities – read “souls” – of their own, and therefore were unable to merge with the old souls. And as time went on, the old souls started to break down. This caused them to become more erratic and violent. And so the old souls turned into Shades.
There’s the basic lore reveal from the narrative. It is meant to get you to realize what you’ve been doing. The entire time you’ve been playing you’ve seen yourself as a human – because you look like a human – and you’ve seen your enemies as monsters. And yet, it turns out that the things you’ve been killing are humans as well.
This story reveal is then accompanied by a gameplay shift. After you beat the game, you are invited to beat it again. More specifically, to replay the second half of the game. You retain all of your abilities and levels, so everything goes much faster. But that doesn’t mean it’s the exact same.
Two important changes occur. Firstly, there are now more cutscenes, which reveal the Shades’ sides of the individual stories you’ve been experiencing. As an example, one of the major plotlines paying a visit to the king of a desert city that you had helped out and befriended before. When you visit, you find that he is getting married, and he wanted you to attend the ceremony. Everything seems fine until suddenly a gigantic Shade wolf attacks the wedding and kills the bride. In the initial game, all you see is those events, and so you help the king to kill the wolves in vengeance.
But in the new playthrough, you learn about that Shade wolf’s background. It was actually a dog belonging to an old man, who had had its soul preserved just like the humans. When the soul turned into a Shade, it fell in with a pack of wolves and became the pack’s leader. The Shade attempted to help the wolves survive in harmony with humans, but it was difficult since they were living in a desert, and the humans were aggressive. Before the wedding, some soldiers from the city go out to the wolves’ den and slaughter a number of them: the reason being that they wanted to make sure that the wolves wouldn’t disturb the wedding. When the Shade sees this carnage, it is enraged and declares war, leading to the attack on the wedding.
The second change is that you can now understand the Shades’ speech. You can hear the various Shades uttering strange noises, and one of your companions will even react to those noises. But on your first playthrough those noises won’t make any sense. It’s not until the second playthrough that you are given translations for their speech. Though importantly, the translations are only for you as the player. Your character still doesn’t understand what the Shades are saying. The Shades all talk in a very accusatory manner, telling the main character that things are “their” fault (usually referring more to the human bodies, not necessarily the main character himself), or saying that they just wanted to finally live in peace.
This new information puts the entire event into a new light. Whereas before the Shades’ behavior was mindless or erratic, now the behavior makes sense. In fact, we can begin to sympathize with their actions in a way. In fact, if you reflect on many of the behaviors of the Shades that you encounter out in the world, outside the context of these big story beats. And those behaviors will often reflect the behaviors of humans.
It even puts mundane events in new contexts. For instance, the very first mission you are given in the game is to kill some small Shades outside of your village. The Shades themselves don’t really seem to pay attention to you, and just seem to be having a good time. It’s not until you fully realize that the Shades are humans that you fully realize what you did: your first mission was to kill children.
The point of these two changes is to shift your understanding of events. Again, both of these changes are things that only affect you as a player. Your character’s understanding of events never changes in the slightest. But by revealing these little pieces of information, you are given a new perspective on events. In a sense, your character is doing something right – he’s trying to protect people and save his sister. But he’s also doing something very wrong – he’s killing humans, including kids and bystanders. Likewise, the Shades are doing something wrong – some of them are attacking and killing people. But they’re also doing something right – they’re often fighting you in self-defense, or retaliating for some wrong previously done to them.
It is this shift in perspective that helps us to learn to see things from other points of view. It is, in a way, training us to step outside of ourselves and conceptualize the “Other” as someone who isn’t merely a monster, but as another human being. That when we reduce the people we dislike to mere “monsters,” we ultimately push ourselves to commit atrocities – and in so doing encourage that “Other” to commit the same kinds of atrocities against us.
And so the purpose of the game’s narrative and gameplay reveals is to get us to realize what we have been doing. That there is no choice is important to the theme. It is about realizing how the limitations of knowledge – locking ourselves within our own perspective – leads to this hatred and violence.
Having spent years studying political and ethical philosophy, I’ve been broadly interested in issues of perspective and knowledge. We as humans are fundamentally trapped within our own heads, and while it may be possible to dislodge ourselves from the trap, it requires an incredible amount of effort. These questions and problems have been discussed for thousands of years, and so NieR’s theme is by no means new.
But the interesting thing about NieR is how it uses its status as a game to promote that theme. How it makes the character complicit in heinous actions. The value of stories in general is the ability to engage in imagination – to pretend what things could be like, without having to make those events real and, you know, kill people to make it happen. And while stories have portrayed this theme of perspective in other ways – one of the oldest stories, Homer’s Iliad, explores the perspectives of various warriors so that we sympathize with them all and see the carnage inherent to war – NieR is able to incorporate the player’s interaction into the story. The player is present within the story, the player’s own actions propel the narrative. It is only through killing that the player continues, and the player feels justified in killing because they accept the basic perspective given to them: that they are protecting others. It is by revealing this new information after it has all been done that we then can look back. What have we done in the past that might have seemed good to us, but would have appeared wrong to someone else? If we knew this information, what would we have changed? And by realizing that, we can learn to rethink what actions we take in the future.
 There are actually two versions of the game: NieR Replicant and NieR Gestalt. The only difference between the two versions is the age of the protagonist and the relationship with the young girl. In Replicant, the protagonist is a teenage boy with a younger sister. In Gestalt, it’s a middle-aged man with a daughter. For the premise of this essay, I’ll be focusing on the Replicant variant, if only because it is the version that was remastered and released recently.