It was theorized by Aristotle that the core of tragedy in fiction is the reversal of a great man’s fortunes. That descent, in turn, causes a kind of emotional cleansing for the viewer due to experiencing the suffering of another. This is sadistic in a way, but inherently true, and that is why great tragedies have managed to stand the test of time.
It is decidedly rare, however, for a tragedy to appear in video games. Would it work? After all, the emotional response is effectively a reflective one, and it is hard to be emotionally cleansed while slaying mooks.
Maybe that’s what makes Nier so special. Maybe that’s the core of what didn’t work about it- that the emotions the player are supposed to feel aren’t triggered when the player takes on the role of the one experiencing tragedy.
However, perhaps that is, in fact, what makes Nier brilliant. One thing the game unquestionably succeeds in is making the player feel. It is hard to know exactly what the purpose was behind the game’s development, but there is nothing else like it. And that is why its status as an overlooked gem is such a goddamned shame.
Nier is a game which does not have any interest in doing what you expect it to do. The game seems actively designed to defy expectations, in fact, even with the little things. Look at the wintery, modern-day opening; the on-screen text declares that what you are witnessing is summer. Surprise.
The game then cuts, with no explanation whatsoever, to a completely different world with the same two main characters present. Surprise.
That action/RPG game you thought you were playing? Well, now it’s a bullet hell shooter. Or an isometric, Diablo or Gauntlet styled game. Surprise.
Did you really think that female lead was actually female? Surprise.
And on and on and on.
Nier is a game about a man who loves his daughter. His daughter is very sick, and you can tell by the sound of Nier’s trembling voice that she is running out of time.
This is a fine enough time as any to congratulate the game’s utterly fantastic lead actors. Jamieson Price, Nier’s actor, has established himself and his baritone as one of the voice industry’s go-to strongman performers. It is incredible, then, to hear as he allows himself to become weak. Nier constantly has his daughter in mind, and you can pick up as the adventure goes along how all of it is wearing on him; you can hear how this man would want nothing more than to stay home and tend his garden and pretend to love the terrible food his daughter cooks. But he can’t; that isn’t his fate.
Laura Bailey, old hat at cutesy voices in her many, many roles across games and anime, has seldom few lower-pitched, darker tones in her roster, which is a shame, because her performance as Kaine is award-worthy. At the very least, we have never heard the actress this foul-mouthed before. As with Nier, though, the underlying weakness of her character shines through when it matters; Kaine pushes people away because she has been pushed away and knows no other way to handle human relationships.
So Nier goes on a journey to find a cure, but he doesn’t find a cure, because that is not the way of this tragic story. Other things happen- people die, good people, wherever you go. There comes a point when you start to wonder if you will ever find a land of people who can live without the tragedy that follows Nier everywhere, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. For the first half of the game, there isn’t even a singular villain to point to and hate; even once the villain is introduced, the great tragedies are not caused by him. He is doing other things. He isn’t the reason why the good people are dying; the inherent cruelty of Nier’s world is what makes good people die, and that constant fall and inability to find some kind of justice is so real that it pangs at your heart every single time.
It is impossible to discuss Nier without discussing its music. The game’s visuals are not special. There are fields and towns and a pretty seaside village and a desert city, but this is not Skyrim. There is something strange about the visuals, but it could very well be that that feeling of strangeness stems from the astonishingly beautiful soundtrack. There are vocal pieces (sung in a gibberish language not unlike those crafted by Yoko Kanno) which on their own stand a chance at bringing the listener to tears. There are motifs which drift in and out as the player encounters certain people and objects and areas; listen close to the woman playing a beautiful acoustic guitar piece in the village, and then to the dreamlike rewrite of it in her twin sister’s library.
Listen to “Shadowlord.” My God.
I posit an addendum to Aristotle’s theory: is it not possible that tragedy can be more than the fall of a great man? Is it also possible for tragedy to be the world crumbling around a man who is on the verge of having nothing?
Nier doesn’t even bother to ask the question, because it has enough faith in the player to hope he or she will wonder on their own. Maybe that’s where Nier failed, and why it will go criminally unknown in the history of video games.
I can promise you something, though: if this is a journey you choose to undertake, you will never, ever forget it.