Thursday, July 3, 2014

Nier: So many article titles with the same pun

In my last post, I promised that I'd be following it up with the actual results of my research. Also that I'd be doing it tomorrow. Well, this particular tomorrow is now over a week ago, and there's a lesson there: always say "next post" not an actual date. Regardless, we are here. So, after the break, there will be a collection of links for Nier-related resources, and a summary of what my research on it has found.

First, the introduction. Nier is a 2010 Japanese action role-playing game, developed by Cavia and published by Square Enix; the developer has since folded, though many of its designers went on to Access Games. In the game, you play the titular character Nier, a white-haired fellow who does odd jobs around his local village to care for his ailing sister who has the black scrawl disease, a disease where strange words appear on the body of its victims. The game is set in the far future, where the remnants of humanity have regressed into a number of villages, and are constantly attacked by violent shadow creatures called Shades that roam the countryside at will. Life starts to get interesting for Nier when, in an old ruin, he comes across a sentient book that bonds itself to him and gives him the nifty ability to shoot red-colored balls at things. He also serves as a droll, wisecracking companion, and the game's menu interface. Magic attacks, a menu, and comic relief--Wiess is the traditional triple threat! Well, the threat for videogames, anyway.

This odd couple is soon joined by Kaine, a foul-talking, super strong woman dressed inappropriately even for videogames who is both half-Shade and intersexed (and yeah, more on that later); and Emil, a very gentle boy who walks around with a blindfold on his eyes, because anyone he looks at turns to stone, as a result of him being genetically modified a thousand years earlier as a living weapon. The plot thickens about two thirds of the way through the game, when a master Shade carrying his own book, the Grimoire Noir, shows up, and kidnaps Yonah. As is traditional, the heroes band together to save her, sacrificing all to save the day. We're venturing into the spoilery stuff next paragraph, but it will soon become very, very clear that when this game says "sacrifice all," it is not kidding around.

Some may have noticed that earlier, I referred to Yonah as Nier's family member, rather than specifying an exact relationship. There's a reason for that. In Japan, two versions of Nier were released. The Xbox 360 version was called NieR Gestalt, and featured Nier as an older man struggling to save his daughter; NieR Replicant for the PS3 features a younger, more svelte man trying to save his sister. (The reason for calling the two versions Gestalt and Replicant will become clear in a bit, though it'll also raise more questions.) And only the Xbox 360 version ever reached the rest of the world. The differences, besides the extra voice actors and changes of a few key words are pretty minimal, though I have found interviews that claim young Nier is less physically powerful. The reason for the split, at least according to the lead designers, is that young Nier sells better to a Japanese audience, and old Nier to a Western audience. (Considering that old Nier became almost by accident the lead of the daddification wave of games, they might have a point.) Right out of the gate, then, we have an adaptation/translation studies issue. This isn't just a matter of releasing the "pure" game then modifying it for a broader Western audience, which also happens fairly frequently with Japan-ported games; in those cases, there's usually a sizable Western audience claiming that there's been a deviation from the game's original vision. But in Nier's case, the two versions were originally created side by side--but with the dual audiences in mind. You could draw some very interesting cultural perceptions from the differences in Nier.

Okay, that's the surface stuff out of the way, but Nier is basically like an iceberg; it's hundreds of square kilometers of ice and in severe danger thanks to global warming. I mean, most of what's interesting about the game lies below the surface. And there's no greater evidence for that than the Grimoire Nier Companion. To further the theory that we poor weebos have gotten the short end of the Nier stick, the Grimoire Nier was meant to be a companion book for the videogame, containing a number of short stories and background information that was meant to be read alongside the original. However, the book is only available in Japanese. Enter the Grimoire Nier Companion, a massive translation project not just of the Grimoire Nier, but also of the Nier Drama CD (a short story about Nier's universe done in the form of a radio play), and various interviews and other bits of information. It's not entirely clear from the Companion what's part of the original Grimoire Nier and what's the information gathered elsewhere, but it's certainly a thorough documen-it runs 83 pages on a word document, edging towards 40 000 words. And that's not counting the short stories, which were linked as separate documents. There's a lot of interest here:

  • each weapon in the game originally had a story attached to it that was advanced each time the weapon was upgraded; the stories are almost universally terribly depressing and grizzly. From the rot and corruption of the Beastlord to the children murdered by their parents in Fang of the Twins, the stories hammer home the idea that these are not morally neutral tools--these are weapons of horror and pain, designed only to bring about more of the same.
  • There are names and descriptions of various enemies and NPCs, and what really comes out here that went over my head in the original game is that many are named for fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel are the Shades protecting Grimoire Weiss; Hook and Wendy are the Shade monsters in the Aerie; creatures from the Junk Heap are P(innochio)-33, Defense System Geppetto, Cleo. And  so forth.
  • Creator's Interviews. A series of interviews, which include director Yoko Taro, scenario writer Sawako Natori, and Jun Eishima, novelist for the short stories. The first big one covers the game's reception in Japan (which was pretty positive), Kaine's "gender" (not exactly the most enlightened approach to intersex here); and their comments on the game's backstory and multiple endings (Oh, I haven't even started on the endings yet). There's also an interview with Emi Evans, the singer/writer hired to come up with the lyrics for the game, in which she was instructed to invent made-up languages that sounded vaguely like existing languages.  
I suppose the backstory is worth fleshing out too; it's not particularly relevant to enjoying the game as a whole, but it'll help me keep things straight to write it all out. I might have wide swathes of this wrong, because it is a very, very complicated story. So bear with. First, we start with another Cavia game entirely. In one of the non-canon bonus endings of Drakengard, the PC, his dragon, and the giant queen monster are transported to modern day Japan; if the player succeeds in beating the queen here, they are immediately all killed by the Japanese military. But killing the extradimensional creatures releases a virus known as White Chlorination Syndrome. Everyone infected either dies, or goes insane and joins a group army called Legion that exists only to attack (and infect) others. The world governments fight a series of losing battles against Legion, and even when Legion looks to be wiped out, the disease remains. These losing battles also give rise to armies of modified children, which is where Emil comes from, and, as one of the short stories reveal, where Grimoires Weiss and Noire came from as well. (They're sophisticated programs in the shape of books, rather than talking books, because, well, that would just be silly, wouldn't it?) Let me repeat the highlight here: Nier is basically a spin-off of a non-canon ending of another videogame entirely. That's weird. And we've hardly started yet.

This, approximately, is where the radio play happens. It features kid Nier, and the idea is that he and baby sister Yonah are orphans; they sneak onto a government official's estate during a Legion attack, and they're hidden by Kaine, whose grandmother just happens to be the official in question. After the estate falls, Kaine helps the two escape, but they ultimate go their separate ways. How are Nier, Yonah, and Kaine existing at this point, still a thousand some years from the story's start? Well, stay tuned.

The solution to the utter eradication of the human race comes in the form of the Gestalt process, an experimental procedure that separates a human's soul from its body. The soul then becomes a disembodied force, and the body an empty husk, but neither can be infected by White Chlorination Syndrome. The immediate problem, however, is that the soul portion (called gestalt) tends to go insane fairly quickly, and at the same time (probably as a result), the body portion (called replicant) gets the black scrawl disease. That's where Nier enters. To continue the Gestalt experiments, the World Purification Organization had been enticing refugees from the wars to come to them, so they could then perform gestalt experiments on them. This is where the opening scene of the game comes from: it's Nier and Yonah in an abandoned supermarket, fighting Shades. (Did you assume, then, that Shades are those driven insane by the disease? Close, but no. Also, it's made clear elsewhere that what looks to be snow in this scene is really the salt from the disease; those who die are transformed into salt, so the piles of snow are really piles of diseased corpses. Charming.) 

 The encounter convinces Nier that he can't protect Yonah by himself, and he goes to the World Purification Organization center, and undergoes the process. There's something special about Nier, and he keeps his consciousness in the splitting. What's more, the scientists quickly figure out how to transfer what makes Nier special to others, though it requires a frequent reinforcement by Nier, as the patient zero, so to speak. Yonah doesn't fare quite so well, and starts immediately showing signs of craziness and Black Scrawl. So Nier strikes a deal with the project's leaders: they keep Yonah alive and keep searching for a cure, and in return, he'll keep donating his mojo to the cause of saving all of humanity. He's all heart.

And so, with the Gestalt Project now a success, a plan results. The remnants of humanity will all undergo the Gestalt process. A series of androids (oh, did we mention people make androids now? No? Yeah, it comes a bit of nowhere in the original too) are built to monitor the level of White Chlorination Syndrome pathogens in the environment, and generally keep an eye on the Gestalt and replicant herds. Under the idea that some day a mass rejoining of gestalt and replicant will happen, the scientists (or the androids, it's not entirely clear) bind the reverse process to a sentient program in the form of a book (Grimoire Noire), and then lock it up, putting the lock in another sentient program (Grimoire Weiss) and some loose pages, all of which will have to be gathered up to make the process work (and the books have to be jumpstarted with the lifeforce of children, which is apparently something we learn to do in the future, by mucking around with that extradimensional disease-causing stuff). And the androids do their job, for a few centuries

. But little wrinkles start popping up. First, the replicants have to be periodically remade; unlike the Gestalts, they're not functionally immortal. So they're cloned from the Gestalt data. They don't have the capacity to have children, so the androids have to keep the bodies around, presumably because you never know when that rejoining has to happen. The replicants, however, develop free will, and start building villages and cities and all those other things that come with civilization. The androids are concerned, but keep things going. Worse though, is that the insanity in the Gestalts kicks in again, despite Nier's additive, which means that replicants made from them are made from faulty data, giving them a fair chance of contracting the black scrawl disease (which, it seems, is totally unrelated to the major disease that wiped out humanity hundreds of years before). The crazy Gestalts take to roaming the country in packs, killing any replicants they come into contact with. So--and this is never made entirely clear in the game itself--every person in the world is now actually a replicant, and the actual souls of the people are roaming about in crazy shadow creatures. You yourself play replicant Nier, watching helplessly as sister/daughter replicant Yonah wastes away. What's more, every time you kill a Shade in the game, you're eventually dooming its replicant as well, since there's no more source to make the next generation of replicant from.

Finally, the biggest two wrinkles: Gestalt Nier still has all his memories, and with the resurfacing of the crazy Gestalts, he realizes that the androids haven't been keeping their part of the bargain: he's supplying the stabilizing element, but they never found a cure for Yonah, and she's still slowly dying. So even though the androids haven't given the all-clear signal for the world to be 100% White Chlorination Syndrome free, he decides the time for rejoining is now, while his sister is still alive. He convinces Grimoire Noire that acting now is the best choice, and the two set off to find Grimoire Weiss and the rest of the missing pages to force everyone back into their bodies, androids willing or not. But in a strange echoing of his own actions, by the time they get to Weiss's hibernation place, he's gone, already picked up and bonded with Replicant Nier, who believes that Weiss holds the key to curing Replicant Yonah's Black Scrawl. So: without revealing in any way the larger scheme, Gestalt Nier kidnaps Replicant Yonah so that the body's on hand for the rejoining, and forces Replicant Nier (your PC, in case that wasn't clear) to gather up the final pages so the two Grimoires can be merged and the rejoining occur. 

From Replicant Nier's point of view, he's just been blackmailed into serving an evil creature for his sister-daughter's sake. At this point, a lot of stuff happens: there's an assault on Shadowlord's fortress, the androids finally pick a side, and most of Nier's team ends up sacrificing themselves in the name of saving Yonah. But in the end, the PC Replicant Nier slays Gestalt Nier, and rescues his sister--only what the non-Grimoire Nier-read player doesn't know, in doing so, he's really made a mess, as there's no more stabilizing element to keep the Shades sane, which eventually means no more material to make more Replicants, so all of humanity is doomed.

It's important to note at this point that director Yoko Taro considers the game one of the happier ones he's ever made. 

Anyway, this is an insane amount of background information, most of which is never even referred to in the game proper. It raises some interesting questions of paratext, as given the larger picture, a fair case could be made that the Grimoire Nier Companion is the "real" main story, and the actual videogame is its paratext, as it's just a smaller piece of the whole. Are the players who are unaware of this foundation worse off? Is it bad design to put so much of a game outside of the game itself?

This whole section wound up being much longer than I thought; let's put the actual criticism towards Nier into the next post, and let the Grimoire Nier Companion bask alone in its near incomprehensible complexity.

Later Days.

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