Much like our present day and age, the original Nier (2010) is a slow-unfolding tragedy. It begins with one the player won’t initially understand: main character Nier fends off a swarm of shadowy monsters while trying to find medicine for a child named Yonah, but when he returns, her condition has worsened. Before the player finds out what happens to Yonah, the story skips ahead and we meet them again 1,312 years later in a changed world. Where the first few minutes of the game took place in a modern convenience store (albeit a very ruined one, with chunks of concrete blocking much of it), Nier and Yonah live in a comparatively low-tech village after the time skip. Gone are the concrete and metal; the quiet village where Nier and Yonah live has no machines or electricity. Despite the new setting, we soon find out Yonah is still suffering from the Black Scrawl, the incurable illness she had in the prologue. To make ends meet, Nier works odd jobs for other villagers.
Yeah. Nier is a game about an illness with no known cure ravaging a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a game about a family struggling to survive chronic illness and the gig economy while surrounding towns sink into the ocean. This is an intense premise that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, would have been relevant. Nier’s struggle to find medical treatment for Yonah is depressingly real when you live in a country where healthcare is a privilege—a luxury, even—and not a right. Video games are no stranger to the gig economy, which is almost required in just about any open world RPG, but Nier’s interactions with other characters make it clear they need the money to afford Yonah’s medical care. It is impossible to read this dialogue without recognizing the way it reflects real-life America, where the cost of medical care is so exorbitantly high that medical bills are the number one reason people file for personal bankruptcy.
The apocalypse came and went in the 1,312 years that pass between the introduction and the first act of the game, but the village Nier and Yonah live in isn’t post-apocalyptic in the way we so often generalize it. The other villagers wonder about the ancient humans in the passive way we might think about what it would be like to churn butter or hand-sew a garment by candlelight. There are scattered ruins, but Nier’s world is missing many of the elements used as shorthand for disaster: you won’t find the rusted cars or shredded movie posters or doors with spray-painted messages or any of the other “usual” hallmarks of apocalypse. In Nier, those wounds have long scarred over, as though the characters live in an age of post-post-apocalypse. It’s green, organic. Despite everything Nier has gone through and will go through before the game’s end, it’s largely peaceful. Though shadowy and malicious creatures called shades roam the plains outside Nier’s village, they generally leave the villagers alone. The villagers’ most prominent concerns seem to be poverty and harvesting enough to eat, rather than the shades.
Where the Japanese version of Nier depicts a young boy (Nier) trying to save his sister (Yonah), the Western version of the game featured an older protagonist attempting to save his daughter. Nothing fundamentally changes about the game’s plot with the age difference (the team simply thought an older protagonist would appeal more to a Western audience), but it does change my perception of Nier as a character. It’s still a tragedy, but one that emphasizes the importance of care to subvert the nihilist aspects of the story, which changed my understanding of Nier entirely.
There’s a certain archetype I have come to expect in parent-centric games in which kids are central to the plot. God of War’s Kratos, The Last of Us’s Joel… both resent the journeys they are on and, to some extent, the children who are on those journeys with them. Even The Witcher’s Geralt, who loves his adopted daughter Ciri enough to bend time and space on her behalf, is not exempt of the surly personality that defines so many main characters.
At first glance, you might think the elder Nier would fall into that archetype. His hair is white and wild, his brow is permanently furrowed in a scowl, and his posture suggests he’s always ready for a fight. Nier’s behavior, however, is a sharp contrast. He’s never resentful toward Yonah—even when she goes exploring without telling him, he’s concerned for her safety above all else. Instead, we get a father who is doing his absolute best to care for his chronically ill daughter and make her happy, even if that frequently involves eating her dubious home cooking. Like countless other RPG protagonists, Nier makes money by taking on odd jobs and random hunts for the others in his village, and his kindness extends to the community, too.
One of the first quests you can take on in The Witcher 3 is called “A Frying Pan, Spick and Span.” It’s instantly recognizable to probably just about anyone who has played the game—Geralt comes across a woman standing outside a hut, and when the player stops and speaks to her, she tasks you with breaking in and retrieving her only frying pan. Many of The Witcher’s sidequests are lengthy, involved stories that expand significantly on the political narrative or determine certain characters’ fates, but “Frying Pan” is not one of them. It’s a simple quest about doing a favor that doubles as a way to teach players about specific game mechanics.
Most of Nier’s sidequests fall closer to the frying pan end of the spectrum. The most complicated are the ones assigned by Popola and Devola, the village’s leaders, and even those are often simple delivery or fetch quests. The sidequests have little bearing on the story; they’re just… Nier doing favors for people. The quests that determine the eventual ending of The Witcher 3 don’t occur until hours and hours into the game, but that doesn’t mean the frying pan and other early quests don’t matter. Rather, they help the player figure out what kind of witcher they’ll be.
In games, even the simplest sidequests can construct a narrative of their own. In Nier, everyone is struggling; everyone’s lives are in danger because of the shades. That Nier takes on the most insignificant tasks is a significant aspect of his characterization, whether or not it was intended as such. Nier’s quests may not determine the game’s eventual outcome, but they tell the player a lot about Nier. He’s kind, he’s a doting father, he’s a dependable protector for the village. Beyond that, it’s an acknowledgement that, yeah, the villagers matter too. It feels rare and necessary to see kindness for the sake of kindness in games, especially when Nier’s plot, at its most general, mirrors aspects of real-life current events.
When the world goes up in flames in a video game, the people in it tend to feel like an afterthought, second to the main character’s development. In Nier, they don’t feel like an afterthought. In the first act of the game, Nier isn’t saving the world, he’s saving the community of people we just spent 27 hours doing favors for.
Though the events of the game don’t change whether you play as adult or teenaged Nier, I think the narrative’s context changes significantly. There’s a difference between an orphaned child helping other villagers run errands and an adult doing the same, a deeper social power imbalance between a young Nier and the villagers. Video game teenagers, though remarkably self-sufficient, are still governed by certain societal expectations. I think, if I was playing as the younger Nier, I’d feel the weight of those expectations—a feeling of owing those favors to the adults in the village because they helped raise Nier and Yonah.
An adult Nier helping other adults erases the power imbalance. In some cases, Popola or Devola give Nier jobs that pay for food or medicine, which feels like an equal exchange instead of a kid risking his life to save his sister’s. In other cases, though, Nier runs into people who need aid, and the game gives you the option to accept a quest. Upon completion of certain quests, Nier tries to refuse payment, which has different implications on the narrative depending on whether you play as brother Nier or father Nier. To me, it speaks to the age imbalance. A teenaged Nier might feel like he hasn’t done enough to earn a reward or like it’s his responsibility to do favors. With an adult Nier, it feels more like he’s choosing to do the favors without expectation of reward because he’s an innately kind person.
For Nier to complete these tasks and favors isn’t true altruism, but maybe it’s something close to it. Though Nier doesn’t expect rewards for completing these tasks, the player probably will because that’s just how most games work; Nier is no exception because quest-givers reward you regardless. I don’t think it’s possible to achieve true altruism in this type of game since you can’t help someone just for the sake of it and without reward, but the inclusion of these quests balances the more tragic aspects of the story. Nier’s journey isn’t possible without the support of those around him, and by including these tasks in the narrative, Nier emphasizes the importance of care: for loved ones, for community, for strangers. Only through this reciprocal care is Nier able to understand what’s happening to Yonah and prevent further tragedy.
Nier’s journey isn’t possible without the support of those around him, and by including these tasks in the narrative, Nier emphasizes the importance of care: for loved ones, for community, for strangers. Only through this reciprocal care is Nier able to understand what’s happening to Yonah and prevent further tragedy.
Still, Nier is a tragedy, and a story about failure. Though the main goal is to save Yonah, Nier fails to do so in the introduction and at the conclusion of the first half of the story. In a major battle that marks Nier’s halfway point, one of Nier’s companions sacrifices herself to save his village from a particularly strong shade while another shade kidnaps Yonah. Later, we learn that no one would have survived the disease that was killing Yonah in the introduction; in a last-ditch attempt to save its people, humanity separated souls from bodies and created disease-resistant clones. The Nier and Yonah who live in the sleepy village aren’t the ones the audience meets in the introduction, but their clones. Eventually, humanity was meant to reunite the separated souls with the replicant clone bodies, but the replicants formed their own identities while the souls became the very shades Nier is fighting.
It would be easy to look at the story and call it nihilistic, but I don’t believe that it is. Nier is a game about failure, but it is also a game about our ability to persevere and the value of connections. The peace of the post-post-apocalypse was never going to hold, but until then, we can enjoy the quiet moments with Nier—whether he’s fishing or helping another villager find a lost dog. Nier is a game about saving the world (or trying to), but more than that, it’s a game emphasizing the little moments, the everyday kindnesses, because those are the things that make life bearable.
Madison Butler writes about advertising by day and about video games the rest of the time. She can usually be found crying about Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata on Twitter @madisonrbutler.