Feenwager Challenge Field Report: Nier: Part Deux
I did my second playthrough of Nier today, and I can safely say that playing through it once means that you haven’t seen a damn thing. I’m not even sure how Endings C and D will expand on the second playthrough, but playing through the game a second time elucidates a lot of the head scratching moments in the first playthrough. I am about to spoil the hell out of the game, so if you intend to play it, or you haven’t done a second playthrough, you may want to stop reading.
Above all else, the narrative in Nier is told as an iterative process, which was probably a bad design choice in a game that you can spend dozens of hours screwing around doing sidequests and farming materials to upgrade weapons that are already stupidly overpowered.
(A brief side note before I get back to my discussion of the narrative:.) by the time you’re playing through the game a second time, your character is ridiculously strong. I was Level 32 or so when I started up NG+, and I could already kill most of the bosses with two or three hits from a weapon that I bought in a shop and upgraded exactly once. I have no idea why anyone would upgrade the weapons aside from Achievement whoring, but, oddly enough, I find the idea slightly compelling just to see how much more quickly I could end fights. I probably will not do this, however, because I already spent a ridiculous amount of time completing all of the sidequests. And, if you thought growing a pink moonflower was time consuming, obtuse, and silly, just wait until you try to grow the lunar tear. Though, I did find a trick that made the process quicker, if anyone else wants the achievement or access to a flower you can sell for a ridiculous amount of money.
There are two main additions to the story in NG+. The first is that you can understand all of the dialogue the Shades have. If you ever wondered why there were long scenes of Shades speaking Shade language while you just sat around, it’s because they were actually saying important, heartbreaking stuff. In addition to having their dialogue show up in cutscenes, you can also occasionally hear them speaking while you’re slaughtering them. It’s about as uncomfortable as it sounds, and the game becomes even bleaker with this addition.
Another addition that makes the game bleaker is the expansion of the story to an omniscient perspective. The first playthrough is basically the main characters story as told without any sort of external understanding. All you know is that this guy has this daughter who is dying of the black scrawl, and that he needs to kill a bunch of these Shades in order to save her. In the last 10 or so minutes of the game you discover that the shades aren’t quite monsters, but from your limited perspective, it doesn’t have a whole lot of gravity. Subsequent playthroughs completely flip this on its head.
All of the five bosses you kill to get the keys necessary to go to the Shadowlord’s castle are living, breathing people with hopes, dreams and desires. They shouldn’t be your enemies, because you should be able to just sit down and agree to not slaughter the fuck out of each other. Sadly, you can’t do this, so, as the player, you’re forced in to these super uncomfortable situations.
Here are a couple of for instances: the first extra scene you get takes place when you return to the Lost Shrine at the beginning of Part Two. This is where you fight Gretel, a big rhino looking monster who also has the first key. On the first playthrough, you don’t know dick about him. No problem. Use some magic, use your spear, kill him, get the key. On the second playthrough, as you travel through The Lost Shrine, you see Gretel awake in the room you will fight him, and he’s scared. He doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t understand why there are little Shades hovering around him. He becomes upset, until he realizes the Shades are simply curious and want to see what his deal is. Eventually, he becomes friends with them and agrees to save them from the noises you hear in the background (which are, incidentally, the noises your party makes slaughtering Shades.) Nier still has no understanding of all of this exposition taking place behind the scenes, but scenes that seemed relatively mindless on a first playthrough are imbued with a lot more gravity and heartbreak. (Seriously, did we expect anything less from this game?)
Remember the robot you fight in The Junkyard? The big combat robot that at one point rains shrapnel down from the sky and for some inexplicable reason has a Shade with it? Yeah, you just killed a child… Before you even reach The Junk Heap for the second time, you see a scene in which two shades are in a room in the junk heap. A larger Shade explains to her child that it needs to run far, far away, because someone is coming who will kill both of them. The mother locks him in a room, walks out, and you hear her being killed by Nier. The child becomes upset, scared, and sad, until it meets up with the robot that is the boss of the junk heap. You see multiple scenes in which the child and the robot are enjoying themselves and learning from each other. The child is just happy to have a companion, and the robot is excited to gain new knowledge of the world. Before you come and kill both of them, they discuss the possibility of leaving The Junkyard and exploring the world, because they both would like to explore and see the world for themselves. The child calls the robot “Beepy,” and your party kills both of them in pursuit of access to The Shadowlord’s Castle.
How about the wolf in Facade that wrecks the prince’s wedding day? Wasn’t he kind of an asshole, at least? Actually, no. One of the additional scenes you see in this storyline is the wolf shade kicking it with all of the regular wolves. You know that barren wasteland of a desert you have to traverse to get to Facade? All of that used to be a lush forest, and it used to be the wolves’ home. You’re encroaching on their land, and the people have pursued the wolves and slaughtered them. The wolf shade believes that, if he could just get people to hear him out, the wolves and people could have a symbiotic existence. It is not until the wolf returns to his den, to discover dozens of wolves with spears through their throats, that he decides to mount an offensive to get people to stop fucking with the wolves. After attacking the prince and being fought off in Facade, he realizes that death is imminent, and he gives one last speech to the wolves about their impending doom. When the king kills the wolf at the end of the battle, there is no glory. It’s all waste.
Additionally, I kind of wondered why the game was as gory as it was the first time I played through it. Shades will literally explode with blood when you deal the final blow, and it seemed like an unusual flourish. It makes sense now. Unlike Mortal Kombat where I am titillated by exploding someone’s skull or ripping someone’s spine out, the blood in Nier serves as a counterpoint to that type of feeling. You can’t feel good about what you’re doing once you know who the Shades are, and every time one of them leaves a bloodstained corpse, you’re reminded of how terrible you are.
Is this emotionally manipulative as hell? Probably. Does it work? I think so. As people who are relatively comfortable with the vernacular of games, killing everything that moves is a relatively rote experience for us. We kill stuff. We level up. We save the fucking day. That’s what we do. We’re big damn heroes. Only this time, our ignorance of the world around us shows us to be monstrous as fuck by following through with the actions that we don’t even question in other games. This is Squad material for sure, even if only a few of us are crazy enough to actually play it.
Since this was a long post, and I know I tend to read from the bottom up, I’m going to put the following disclaimer here as well: This post contains Nier spoilers. If you are avoiding those, don’t read this.