Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation on Nier, put together by Michael Hancock, book review editor for First Person Scholar. You can visit First Person Scholar here, and visit Michael’s personal blog here.
Cavia’s 2010 Nier is not a game that goes out of its way to endear itself to its players, and this indifference has been met in kind by the gaming public at large. Back when the game was released, there was a relative dearth of criticism in comparison to other games, and it hasn’t enjoyed a swell in popularity that sometimes happens with older games, which means that criticism has only decreased over time. Many of the best pieces written on Nier are on sites that have been abandoned, blog pages reachable only through Internet archives.
But in this case, the slow decay feels oddly appropriate. Nier reserves its rewards, such as they are, for those who persist with it, and it makes sense that even reading about the game requires a level of persistence. (It’s thematically appropriate too — while it’s reductive to say Nier is about any single thing, struggle against slow decay and entropy is certainly up there.)
But just because it requires persistence doesn’t mean it has to be done alone. Here, then, to aid anyone else interested in doing a similar search, is a Critical Compilation of criticisms on Nier. I considered grouping the pieces by major topic, but a lot of these pieces are hybrids (much like Nier itself, as we’ll see), and not so easily classified into a single category. Instead, look for bolded keywords that will highlight main topics that tend to crop up in multiple discussions.
First, there’s The Grimoire Nier Companion, a massive fan-based translation project which, among other things, translates the Grimoire Nier, a book of short stories that was packaged with the Japanese versions of the game. It includes not just those short stories, but also stories behind each of the game’s weapons, interviews with the game’s creators, and a translation of the transcription of the game’s accompanying radio drama. If you’re interested in the sheer depth of backstory involved in Nier that didn’t make it out of Japan, or some insight into the game’s design philosophy, this is the place to look.
There isn’t much of a body of sustained academic engagement with Nier. The sole exception that I can find is Damia Riera Pau Muñoz’s “Narrative, music, and transmedia in Nier: towards a new full artwork” (Spanish) from Characters: Cultural Studies and Critical Digital Sphere 2.1 (May 2013). Muñoz wants to draw a link between Wagner’s Romantic operas and videogames in general, and Nier in particular, under the basis that both are intensely multimedia, both use music to illustrate their themes, and both involve sacrifice and tragedy. It’s a comparison that has a lot going for it: it addresses the multimedia aspect of videogames, and does so in such a way that it assumes videogames are as much art as opera. And in terms of Nier, it unifies a discussion of much of its major points: the tragic story, the in-depth backstory, the genre borrowing, and the music.
As for the articles, to get things started, Elizabeth Bahm’s 2011 review for Hardcore Gaming 101 is a good place to get acquainted with what it’s like to actually play Nier. She also covers most of the game’s broad points, including the backstory, characters, and genre borrowing. Bahm reflects on how the game changes its cutscenes when doing repeated plays, calling on the player to replay the same game, but with different narrative cutscenes from the Shades’ perspective:
Ultimately, the effect is not so much one of moral reversal as near nihilism: you are left with the tale of two sides, equally justified in their cause and equally at fault for their sins, fighting over a world that may ultimately be little more than a husk.
Over at Theology Gaming, in 2012, Zachery Oliver wrote a three part retrospective on the game, titled The List: Nier, starting with looking at narrative in games in general, and then arguing that with Nier, it’s the repeated play and genre borrowing that gives it its kick. In his conclusion, Oliver argues that while many criticize JRPGs for their linear plot, Nier‘s many reversals and replays prepare the player to make its ultimate choice, emphasizing that while the player has little control over the greater consequences of their actions, what truly matters are the choices they make themselves (he also draws a fairly extended religious conclusion here; your mileage may vary on its efficacy).
Jack Menhorn, on his Gamasutra blog circa 2011, talks briefly about the quality of the game’s music design in his post “Let’s talk about Nier‘s audio while not making a pun on its name.”
Also back in 2011, PopMatters Moving Pixels’ Nick Dinicola looks critically at the game’s genre borrowing, and decides it doesn’t go far enough, in that it mimics other forms without really tying those borrowings to the story as it unfolds. The exception is the text-based portion of the game, which feels does well mimicking the sense of dreaming:
Dreams are intangible by nature, so its always struck me as odd when they appear in movies or games as a tangible, physical world. By leaving much of the visual world building to the player’s imagination, Nier‘s dream world retains a sense of the intangible: It’s not really there, to touch, to see; it’s literally all in your head.
Back on his older, gracefully retired blog Discount Thought, Michael “Sparky” Clarkson continues the negative criticism on Nier, with two posts from around the game’s original release in 2010. The first, “New Game Minus,” argues that the game’s repeated plays are also a detracting point, as the cutscenes on the second playthrough are heavy-handed, don’t fit with the original story, and attempt to make the player feel bad for actions she didn’t have any choice over to begin with (Oliver’s piece above addresses this third point somewhat). The second, “The curious case of Kainé,” looks at the subject of intersexuality of Nier, represented by the character Kainé. Clarkson notes that while her design may have an in-game justification (given her past, Kainé is trying to establish a gender identity through exceptionally revealing clothing), the extreme objectification goes way too far, and does the overall game more harm than good. As an editorial aside, I’ll say I agree with him 100%.
In fairness to Clarkson, he gives a more positive, yet still even-handed second opinion of the game on Game Critics. Among other things, he compliments the game’s unique approach to pacing in the early sections:
Nier uses this diversity of game styles to keep your interest while it’s introducing the characters. Instead of weighing itself down with interminable expository cut-scenes, it lets the gameplay keep your focus while Nier‘s (and the player’s) relationship with the secondary characters grows.
(All the following links are from 2010 unless stated otherwise.)
On Game Set Watch, in “Defying Design: Alternate Perspectives,” Jeffrey Matulef speaks in favor of the repeated plays, arguing that presenting different perspectives in the New Game + allows the exploration of viewpoints that wouldn’t fit tonally with the forward thrust of the first playthrough.
Also on Game Set Watch, speaking more broadly, Christian Nutt argues that most of time, many games lack proper characterization; in “Opinion: Characters, The Building Blocks of Your Reality,” he points to Nier’s bond with his daughter as creating a more meaningful connection for aging gamers. In particular, Nutt addresses critic Seth Schiesel’s argument that Nier illustrates a step towards games as art, and while he doesn’t entirely agree, he does agree that it’s a positive step, wherever narrative is going:
A lot of critics and developers think we should be pushing narrative in games because narrative helps bring us closer to a vaguely defined goal — of making games art. Schiesel argues that this is, in fact, the outcome with Nier. But my argument is simpler: pursuing meaningful characterization will simply help bring us closer to the goal of making our worlds — our games. And if it happens that we accidentally make art in the process, well, it’s serendipity.
And since Nutt mentions it, Nier got a New York Times feature: “Wielding Swords in a World of Sharp Tongues” by Seth Schiesel. As Nutt notes, the review is less notable for the commentary on the game (Schiesel praises its characterization and its genre borrowing very effusively), but for the fact that, in a period where the Supreme Court was considering whether violence in games should be legally obscene, Nier was Schiesel’s immediate example for the depth a game could offer. What did he think of the game?
Nier does many different things at such a high level of sophistication and accessibility that I cannot think of another single game of recent years that more faithfully represents the sheer intellectual breadth of modern video games.
More recently, in 2014 on Game Church, Jonathan Clauson summarizes in English an interview with director Taro Yoko, offering a reasonably clear account of Yoko’s design philosophy, both in general and for Nier more specifically.
It also delves into Yoko’s conception of what violence means in videogames: in particular, Yoko recalls coming up with the basis for Nier shortly after considering the response to 9/11, and wanting to explore the idea of morally justified killing: “That’s why I made Nier a game revolving around this concept of ‘being able to kill others if you think you’re right,’ or ‘everyone believes that they’re in the right.'”
Back in 2010, Justin McElroy gives a brief post on why Joystiq will not be giving a full review of Nier, based largely on his troubles with the game’s fishing mini-game. I’m including this here not because it provides any particularly useful insight on Nier (except perhaps a point in the favor of the argument that its side quests are deliberately designed poorly), but because it became a talking point for Nier, and — according to other game journalists at least — the video played a part in Nier‘s negative reception. The podcast below gets into this issue in more detail, specifically where McElroy’s own actions made fishing more difficult, and what sort of ethical responsibility a game reviewer has to a game at hand.
On Chronoludic, Chris Green responds to the general original negative reception of the game, driven in part as a response to Justin McElroy’s fishing video. In particular, in the course of “Nier — More than just a fishing mini-game,” he argues that much of what McElroy singles out as bad design was deliberate, pointing out how the game uses Weiss to mock the game’s ridiculous parts, and the way most of those parts are genre borrowing from other games. (Note: this is the first, but not last, item on the list that requires The Wayback Machine to view.)
With another perspective on agency and repeated plays comes this post by Jeff Feeser of Spectacle Rock (another Wayback Machine entry). Feeser argues that lack of agency to do anything differently in response to the new perspectives offered by the second playthrough is a positive thing. In fact, it functions much like the lack of agency in BioShock:
Forcing a player to act in a way that doesn’t appeal to their morality at all can make for a very uncomfortable and introspective experience, one that ends up being far more memorable in the long run.
And, as has been illustrated, many articles comment on the repeated plays aspect, Alan Williamson’s “Nier Death Experience” in Issue 4 of Five Out of Ten (2013) is the one that most draws out the game’s final ending and its significance. Williamson gives one of the better overviews of the game in this respect, starting with its narrative connection to Drakengard. The piece is really a testament to the value of magazine format (or at the very least, a testament of Williamson’s writing), as the multiple pages give time for it to slowly unfold and provide the details and background necessary for Williamson’s argument.
Nick LaLone’s “Images of Women 12: The Final Bout” is another post now only accessible through the Wayback Machine. It’s a fairly complicated piece, as it’s the culmination of a series of posts by LaLone that looks more generally at videogames and popular culture with regards to gender and intersectionality, but it’s also a study of Kainé and the game’s representation of intersexuality. What distinguishes LaLone’s approach from others (aside from his references to Hegelian dialectics, Deleuze and Guattari, and sociology as a discipline) is that he takes an intersectional approach, by contextualizing Kainé within Japanese culture. Specifically, he argues that Kainé is best interpreted as a moe character, the embodiment of an idea in a character, and that Kainé’s general design and intersex state reflects the game’s commentary on transcending binary oppressions regarding the body.
Sinan Kubba’s “Nier the Caregiver” (another accessible only by Wayback) is a brief, more personal, piece, looking at Nier’s role as caregiver for his daughter Yonah, a perspective similar to, but distinct from Christian Nutt’s earlier take. The NPC barks in Nier’s home town are well-meaning inquiries into Yonah’s health that become grating over time, reinforcing Nier’s lack of control over the situation, a sentiment Kubba can relate to.
Though Kubba’s speaking of providing care for someone with an ongoing, debilitating illness rather than necessarily a father caring for a child, it may be interesting to compare Nier’s relationship with Yonah to more recent surrogate father relationships in games (for example, the repeated statements from BioShock Infinite developers prior to the game’s launch that Elizabeth was going to be “useful” to the PC) — or for that matter, comparing the relationship to that in Cavia’s other version of the game, where Nier is Yonah’s brother.
Nightmare Mode has two 2012 pieces that also delve into more personal reactions to the game, addressing directly how Nier presents violence to its players. First, Big Shell goes into detail on the changes involved in the cutscenes featuring the Junk Heap (one of the game’s later areas) after seeing things from the antogonists’ perspective. She argues that by doing so, the game leaves the choice up to the player in a manner more subtle than videogames usually manage. One of the most interesting aspects is one the author addresses in the comments, regarding the game’s final ending. It’s usually interpreted in terms of the player’s perspective, but Big Shell questions what it would mean to the character Nier:
What was Nier’s intention? Was it out of altruism…? Was it redemption for his own actions? Or was it a cowardice of leaving the mess he created so he didn’t have to deal with the shortcomings himself?
In the other Nightmare Mode piece, Alois Wittwer presents a different take on Nier‘s violence, suggesting that its genre borrowing functions like the alienation of the Epic Theatre movement. That is, it’s meant to draw players’ attention to its status as game, to force the players to address their own complicity in the game’s violence. It’s an argument that works very well with director Yoko’s own account, available from the previous Clauson link. Wittwer ends on that note of complicity:
You’re the one who willingly submits to the game’s arbitrary requirements to unlock everything while it screams at you to stop and think about what you’re doing. This set up shatters the false reality of fiction and places the ramifications of murder solely on us, rather than our avatar. But if you’re capable of dismissing the violence you commit on screen, Nier is more than happy to treat you the same way.
Finally, for those who prefer their discussion distilled into a single podcast rather than dispersed over multiple links, Big Red Potion’s 2011 podcast “Nier Far Wherever You Are” includes commenters Sinan Kubba, Jeffrey Matulef, Eddie Inzauto, Brad Gallaway, and Chris Green. The podcast runs a little over 1 hour and 20 minutes, and covers such topics as the game’s negative reception; its genre borrowing; the way the game’s repeated plays adds to the overall game; its tragic tone; and the sexualization of Kainé, the game’s intersex character. While most of the points they cover are covered elsewhere (including in things that some of them have written elsewhere), it’s worth noting that it was thanks to this discussion that the connection between the genre-borrowing of the early half of the game and the story deconstruction of the latter part really clicked with me.
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