Six weeks after releasing Final Fantasy XIII in the West and a few months after its release in Japan, Square Enix published NieR, the latest game from oddball director Yoko Taro, on both PS3 and Xbox 360. NieR was a unique JRPG from Square Enix, aimed at mature audiences first and foremost with a darker narrative. Spun off from the Drakengard franchise, the game followed an older man/teenage boy on a quest to save their daughter/younger sister (depending on the version) who had fallen ill to a mysterious disease known as the Black Scrawl. Compared to the world-saving narrative of a lively modern world like Final Fantasy XIII, NieR was a more intimate story set in a desolate world where its characters were struggling to survive.
In comparison to the polished presentation and refined if controversially-linear gameplay of XIII, NieR felt crude and dated almost immediately. Textures were muddy, models were rough, and were it not for the HD presentation, a lot of elements about the game wouldn’t feel out of place in a mid-generation PS2 title.
Yet ironically, NieR is emblematic of change and a transition within the wider gaming industry, and now feels like a game ahead of its time in the wake of the phenomenal success of its unlikely sequel, NieR Automata. With a remake on the horizon, looking back at NieR’s place in the gaming landscape upon its release and the storied position it holds 10 years later couldn’t be more different.
An Initial Setback
NieR was never likely to be an instant success.
The game faced a mixed critical and commercial reception upon its release, even in Japan where sales were lower than expected. The game was overshadowed by Final Fantasy XIII and other major titles that released at the same time and received relatively little advertising despite the effort that went into crafting a separate experience with an older main character to better cater to international audiences.
As people have learned by this point, nothing is ever that simple with NieR. Just as it’s a massive oversimplification to label the game as a critical and commercial dud that got a second chance on the back of the success of its more polished successor, the story behind the reversal in NieR’s fortune is much more complex.
NieR spawned from the Drakengard series which found its birth at the beginning of the millennium in 2003 with the critically-lukewarm series debut.
Drakengard was birthed through publisher hubris and chasing trends: Dynasty Warriors was the new kid on the block and selling in droves, and Enix wanted a title that could capitalize on this success. What had been intended as a revival of a dragon flying simulator project soon became a hack-n-slash at the demands of the publisher to capitalize on the success of this recent mega-hit. The dragon-flying remained and light RPG mechanics were also introduced, and this amalgamation of the big trends of the day became a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas.
Drakengard was a hit, even if many elements of the game felt like they were protesting the same mandates that fueled its success. The game rebelled against the systems that were mandated for inclusion, re-contextualizing the mass-murder your character is required to commit as a recipe for insanity, and molding characters in this vein. The main cast is inherently dislikable, a ragtag group of cannibals and pedophiles on a journey to rescue Caim’s sister, who herself harbors incestuous feelings for her brother.
This was far from the norm for games of the time, which would rarely touch such mature subject matter. The controversial nature of some of these topics led to the game’s localization being amended to censor some of the more extreme aspects of the story. At the same time, the story in each version intended to explore taboo themes and challenge the perception of what stories and gameplay experiences were acceptable within the medium.
Gaming’s ‘Gray’ Potential
In a 2014 GDC talk discussing his work on the Drakengard series and NieR, Yoko Taro talked about his fascination with the ‘gray area’ of gaming potential. He noted on a simple diagram that what was possible within the medium of games could be found in white, while that which isn’t possible was black. The issue he brought up, however, is that within the white area, a gray also exists. While it may be possible to create an experience that is impossible to defeat or which isn’t fun, such games would never be approved or released; they’re possible, but they don’t happen. This is the area that excites Yoko Taro the most, as it requires you to break the rules.
Returning to NieR’s release window, Final Fantasy XIII and NieR couldn’t be more different in their approach to this diagram. With such a large budget and the weight of expectations behind it, Final Fantasy XIII was firmly in the white area of the diagram. The game would need a linear story, a goal to achieve and an evil to vanquish. This was how games were made, and a requirement to follow the rules deemed necessary to push the latest entry towards mainstream success and acceptance.
NieR, on the other hand, reveled in the gray. What initially appears to be a relatively-simple-to-understand game about saving your daughter or sister hides an experience intent on bringing your perceived idea on what a video game can be into question.
Generally, to attract the widest possible audience, games will aim for accessibility first and foremost. Systems of gameplay will be meticulously explained to the player by easing players into the action, and the goal of your actions will be clear almost immediately. To make the world more inviting to players, the story will be intriguing without being intimidating, indulging players in as much or as little world-building content as they want.
NieR is cryptic, and although there’s a brief explanation of the game’s controls in the opening moments, many elements of the game are left up to intuition and experimentation. Gameplay wildly varies from standard action RPG elements to dungeon crawlers to side-scrollers to text adventures, completely doing away with genre convention in the process.
As for the world you inhabit, your character is mostly disinterested in the disrepair of the world they live in, or how it came to be. All that matters is getting through the day. Where many games would be eager to explore the game’s lore, the game railroads you into your single-minded mission to save your daughter/sister until the history of this world becomes more relevant, and even then, much is left to speculation.
Characters are equally mysterious. The foul-mouthed Kaine joins you on your journey, yet for all we learn about her exile as a result of her hermaphroditism and her close relationship with her grandmother which explains her anger and lust for revenge, she’s still a mystery. We meet Emil and find out about the human experimentation he was forced to endure with his sister, but little else.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by this cryptic nature, especially when it’s compounded by the repetitive act of endlessly killing Shades. I walked away from NieR when I first tried it due to these issues, and yet these are conscious design choices that follow Yoko Taro’s design philosophy. The world is designed to be cryptic, while repetitive gameplay with only occasional variance forces you to reflect on your actions.
This is especially apparent when the game turns another convention on its head through the revelation of what the Shades are. Once you realize you’ve killed and continue to kill the souls of the humans who used to occupy the flesh and bones of the local population, you begin to question your whole mission and whether you’re even the good guy anymore.
Then you come to NieR’s final choice. After completing the game multiple times to reach the final endings, you can save Kaine, the women you love, at the cost of your save data and many hours of work. Most developers pride themselves on the amount of time spent playing their game. They want players to keep playing, and the data serves as a living record of the player’s achievements. NieR instead seeks to destroy it.
After it all comes through, the game explicitly makes it clear that you’ve been forgotten by this world as a result of this sacrifice. You can’t even make a new save file under the same name as the one you last used.
It’s not even like this is a heroic sacrifice. As a player you know you killed innocent humans through the re-contextualization of the Shade’s existence, while the defeat of the final boss seals the fate that everyone will die because of what you did. You are far from a hero.
Such ideas for games didn’t traditionally thrive at many companies, never mind Square Enix. As the rise in mature-rated games continued and the medium’s tendency to embrace competitive gameplay in single- and multiplayer experiences, few games were considering the consequences of such actions. Lots of attention was placed on how you kill, but there was less consideration surrounding the reasons why you should kill.
Yoko Taro’s history in games has often taken a meta look at the medium he is involved in, asking the question of ‘why’ about even fundamental mechanics. Combat and killing is just one part of this. Yoko Taro mentioned in an interview around the release of Drakengard 3 that the decision to consider NieR in this matter came down to the way the Iraq War changed his views on violence. Anyone can kill, as long as they believe they’re right.
Still, without a budget and the support needed to make his games mainstream success stories, Taro has mostly existed on the margins of Japanese game development with only a small, if dedicated, following. There’s experimentation at the core of many of his works, and though this is occasionally successful, it also occasionally backfired. NieR was a sales dud at launch, and it led to Cavia’s closure and the loss of regular work for a while.
In the years following its release, however, the name of this unique director and his work on this oddball RPG rose as many people discovered the title for the first time.
For many, Keiichi Okabe’s wonderful soundtrack that coupled the angelic voice of Emi Evans with ethereal sounds which acted as many people’s first exposure to the world of NieR. The soundtrack was soon bigger than the title which spawned it. By including vocals, even in nonsensical languages, the songs have more prominence within the work when they would usually fade into the background, and it made the songs more memorable as a result. It contradicted what was expected from gaming soundtracks and brought people into the experience who wouldn’t consider it otherwise, helping more and more people discover what made the game so special.
After playing the game outside of its initial launch window, complaints about repetitive gameplay were able to fade into the background. Gaming in the late 2000s and early 2010s was going through a tectonic shift thanks to the rise of downloadable stores and indie gaming, with these smaller titles able to shift ideas on what was to be expected from a video game.
The biggest early successes were far removed from what people traditionally expected from games and made players more open to different experiences, increasing acceptance for titles like NieR.
Yoko Taro’s NieR: 10 Years On
The legacy of Yoko Taro’s NieR is arguably far greater than its compatriot. Final Fantasy XIII was received with mixed reviews, and the work that went into developing new technology for future titles as part of the game’s development ended up falling to the side outside of its use in Final Fantasy XIII sequel projects and Dragon Quest X.
Now, NieR is one of Square Enix’s most beloved properties, and the dogged determination of Yosuke Saito to produce a sequel and the star-aligning collaboration with Platinum Games resulted in one of the companies most successful RPGs ever outside of their big two franchises with NieR Automata.
The landscape within Square Enix and the gaming industry 10 years on from NieR’s release couldn’t be more different. With NieR now an important property to Square Enix a new mobile game with Yoko Taro at the helm in NieR: Re[in]carnation, alongside a remake of the original titled Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… for Xbox One, PS4, and PC, are each in the works.
While NieR may not have pioneered Yoko Taro’s experimentation or the industry’s fascination with gray area gaming, the rise of indie titles and even major games like Death Stranding which betray player expectations and conventions on what games of all budgets and styles can contain have helped Nier to age gracefully as a game ahead of its time. Even Square Enix, with their take on the Final Fantasy VII Remake, has embraced the meta-narrative as a form of storytelling that had rarely been experimented with at the time of NieR’s initial release.
For all the flaws NieR has, Yoko Taro’s unique approach to storytelling, its wonderful soundtrack and dynamic cast of characters make this an unforgettable experience. It was the game that opened my eyes to just what was possible within the medium and stands proudly as not only one of my favorite games ever, permanently altering my outlook.
Luckily, the aforementioned remake should be an accessible and enjoyable way for people to experience the story and world of the original title for the first time. Even when looked at retrospectively 10 years later, in the bask of a far more polished sequel, there’s no experience quite like NieR.