Thursday, July 3, 2014

Nier: A Criticism Guide

The goal, at the moment, is to take everything I found useful in essayatic criticism for Nier and synthesize it into one place. Unfortunately, instead of doing that, I spent all of the last post summarizing the Grimoire Nier Companion project and Nier's labyrinthine pre-game plot. So this time, we'll do the actual criticism part. Here, then, are the major topics and posts on the funny little mess that is Nier.

First, it should be noted that there isn't much of a body of sustained academic engagement with Nier. In fact, just searching for it on Google Scholar is a pain, given that "Nierven" appears to be German for kidney and "cavia" German for "guinea pig," which is producing all sorts of results that have nothing to do with what I'm looking for.

The sole exception that I can find is Damia Riera Pau Muñoz's "Narrative, music and transmedia in Nier: towards a new full artwork," from Characters: Cultural Studies and Critical Digital Sphere 2.1 (May 2013). It looks to be a Spanish publication, and what I'm going from here is the Google Translate version, so bear with. In essence,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, 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 backstory, the genre borrowing, the music.

As for the articles, to get things started, Elizabeth Bahm's 2011 review for Hardcore Gamingis 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, genre borrowing. She also reflects on how the game changes its cutscenes when doing repeated plays, playing again past the game's ending: "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 playand genre borrowing that gives it its kick. In conclusion, he 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 you have little control over the greater consequences of your actions, what truly matters are the choices you make for yourself.

Jack Menhorn, on his Gamasutra blog circa 2011, talks briefly about the quality of the game's music design in the post Let's talk about Nier's audio while not making a pun on it's[sic] name.

Over on Pop Matters, also back way back in 2011, In the Many Genres of 'Nier', Nick Dinicola looks critically at the game's genre borrowing, and decides it doesn't go far enough, in that it mimicks 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.

Back on his older, gracefully retired blog, Michael "Sparky" Clarkson continues 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 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 addresses this third point a bit). The second, The curious case of Kainé, looks at the intersex aspect of Nier, critically at 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), 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% here.) And in fairness to Clarkson, he gives a more positive, yet even-handed second opinion of the game on Game Critics.

On Game Set Watch, also in 2010--okay, I'll spare you some dating, all the links now are 2010, unless stated otherwise--Jeffrey Matulef, in Defying Design: Alternate Perspectives, 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, Simon Carless argues that most games of the time lack good 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. (It's worthwhile to note that Nier came before the coming onslaught of daddy protagonist games.)

And since Carless mentions it, Nier got a New York Times feature, Wielding Swords in a World of Sharp Tongues by Seth Schiesel. As Carless notes, the review is less notable for the commentary on the game (Schiesel praises its characterization and its genre borrowing most highly), 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.” I think he liked it.

More recently, in 2014 on Game Church, Jonathan Clauson summarizes in English an interview Yoko Taro gave, in Drakengard 3 Director Taro Yoko Discusses Killing in Video Games. It's a reasonably clear account of Taro's design philosophy, both in general, and for Nier more specifically; he recalls coming up with the basis for Nier shortly after 9/11, and 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 to 2010, on Chronoludic, Chris Green responds to the original negative reception of the game, driven in part as a response to Justin McElroy's fishing video (below). 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. This may be going beyond what Green would say, but saying that the bad design is in there to mock other genres that rely on these conventions is essentially to say that Nier is a videogame attempt at satire. Does it then further imply that Nier isn't a particularly effective satire, given how so many of the people who played it didn't seem to get the joke? (Editor's note: this is the first, but not last, item on the list that requires The Way Back Machine to view. I've been wavering back and forth on whether to include such items on the list or not. If you've got an argument either way, let me know.)

With another perspective on agency and the repeated plays of Nier comes Jeff Feeser of Spectacle Rock, in A Slave Cannot Obey (the other Wayback machine entry). Feeser argues that lack of agency to do anything differently during the new perspectives 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."

*EDIT: added August 18, 2014*
While many articles comment on the repeated plays aspect, Alan Williamson's "Nier Death Experience" in issue 4 of Five Out of Ten 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.

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: Hook, Line and Stinker: My failed Nier Review.(The video of the actual fishing is no longer there; here's a link to a functioning one.) I'm putting the link 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 designed poorly deliberately), 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. If we're still thinking of Nier in terms of being a satire of JRPG elements, I think it's safe to say that McElroy didn't see it as a particularly effective satire.

For those who prefer their discussion distilled into a single podcast rather than dispersed over multiple links, Nier Far Wherever You Are is Big Red Potion's podcast on the subject of Nier in 2011, with commenters including Sinan Kubba, Jeffrey Matulef, Eddie Inzauto, Brad Gallaway, and Chris Green. The podcast runs a little over 1 h, 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; the sexualization of Kainé, the game's intersex character. While most of the points they cover are covered elsewhere (and frequently in things that some of them had already written), it's worth noting that it was in 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.

*UPDATE: Added August 19, 2014*
Nick LaLone's Images of Women 12: The Final Bout is a 2010 piece from his blog What Happens Before Game Design, a post now only accessible through the Way Back Machine. It's a fairly complicated piece, as it's the culmination of a series of posts by LaLone that looks more generally at vidoegames and popular culture with regards to gender and intersectionality, but it's also a study of Kainé and the game's use of intersex. 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 intersectionality 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, that Kainé's general design and intersex state reflects the game's commentary on transcending binary oppressions regarding the body.

*UPDATE: Added August 19, 2014*
Sinan Kubba's Nier the Caregiver is another 2010 piece accessible only by Wayback, from his defunct blog You Have Lost!. It's a brief, more personal piece, looking at Nier's role as caregiver for his daughter Yonah. 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 could 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.

So that's the list. Sadly, it didn't turn up much for my specific research interest, which is how Wiess is used in the game, although Green's piece is one I think it could use. Still, I feel these links are representative of the most interesting aspects of Nier: its complex backstory, its genre borrowing, the repeated play feature, its original negative reception, its tragic tone and the way the game treats its intersex character.

If you know of any relevant links I'm missing, or you'd like to discuss anything Nier-related, feel free to post a comment below.

Later Days.


Alan Williamson said...

I wrote about Nier in issue 4 of Five out of Ten Magazine - the piece is called 'Nier Death Experience'. You can find it here.

Zachery said...

Nice, somebody actually found my thing! Thanks for posting the link.

NieR is one of those hidden gems that will be thought of rather positively long after the initial furor dies down over its flaws. Too bad cavia as we know it is deceased...