Surprises are increasingly rare. The medium’s vocabulary has become crystallized to such a degree that even the most virtuous of videogame examples seems incapable of presenting us with unexpected forms; a quick glance seems today more than enough to characterize works to their most intimate detail. “NieR”, though far from being a stalwart of the medium, deceives the uncouth look and carries the full weight of these times by presenting derogative superficial qualities which hide its inner beauty. It is surely a pastiche at heart, which is also probably why so few in the specialized press gave it second thought (it was shunned upon release, later leading to the disbanding of the studio).
If it were a painting, it would have in its center a scene straight from Kamiya’s brawlers (“Devil May Cry”, “Bayonetta”), even if deprived of their genial transgressive character; framing the action would be the structural architecture of an orthodox “Legend of Zelda”, only absent of Miyamoto’s elegant Nintendo-brand game design; the theme would be an outright theft of Fumito Ueda, both in its dramaturgy and dream-like aesthetic (misty landscapes, unsaturated color palette, massive ruins and bridges), and it would be elaborated through a J-RPG narrative, for this is Square Enix we’re talking about. Were our analysis to finish at such a point, we would discard “Nier” as an inferior product, undeserving of posterior reflection.
But the game proves beyond such reproval, for Yoko Taro (“Drakengard”) is knowledgeable of each and every one of his appropriations, knowing far too well how to use them to elevate both gameplay and fiction. Not only that, he revels in his capacity to evoke and parody the memory of classic videogame history. As an example, one quest sees you enter a small town amidst a misty forest; there, characters can delve inside villagers’ dreams, finding a realm where only words exist, every thought and action and dialogue now turned into white roman characters on a utterly black screen, heralding classic interactive fictions such as “Colossal Cave Adventure”. You’ll find a plethora of such far-fetched references wrapped in a subtle (for videogame standards) play of meta-humor – “Resident Evil”, “Diablo” and even bullet-hell “Ikaruga” make an appearance – and these will surely indulge the historically minded player looking for a test of knowledge, playing the “I know you know where I got this from”. Part of “NieR’s” appeal comes precisely from its uncompromising post-modern take on its references, as it builds a patchwork world wrought of unexpected aesthetic and mechanic convulsions which induce a sense of awe and bizarre that is exquisitely uncanny. Perhaps the most sui generis of these convulsions lies in the soundtrack (by Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi and Takafumi Nishimura): a melancholic ensemble of choral and guitar-stringed Celtic refrains which reflect the bitter and mournful spirit of the story.
It is the storytelling accent that assuredly elevates “Nier” beyond all reproach. Though characters are poorly designed in visual terms – adhering, self-consciously we might add, to strict role-play archetypes – the off-the-wall script and witty actor delivery successfully ground its emotional punch. In this respect, we are forced to mention Liam O’Brien’s Alan Rickman caricature as a spiteful flying book, which is charmingly delightful and whose comedy is, by itself, well worth experiencing the game for. At its core, you find the tale of a father whose daughter is on her deathbed, struggling to find a cure for her mysterious disease. It develops with sinuous contours, starting with a cheery Campbellian adventure set-up in search of mystical items, but then developing into bittersweet bounding scenes between father and daughter, only to then peak in its final revelations with profoundly dark and grievous sequences which question all of players’ actions. It’s clear enough that Taro set out to reprise Ueda’s “Shadow of the Colossus” tragedy and, perhaps for the first time since it, a game comes real close to evoking the same feelings of mourning, emptiness and sadness, even if by use of far more mundane and trivial mechanisms. It is that heart – such a rare quality in a videogame – as well as its vicious and subversive punch that help elevate it above mere inflexion on past titles.
Elegy, parody and tragedy all at once, “NieR” is as the Pygmalion, a poor and unrefined work dressed in the most lavish and fashionable apparatus. But while its exterior may often seem wooden, artificial and downright fake, it hides a soul yearning for authenticity. And so, what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in the honesty and thoughtfulness it applied in its study of genres and tropes, in the end showing far greater taste and vision than the supposedly creative mongrels that surround it.