A recent article by Jason Schreier about Yoko Taro came out last week and it was an interesting insight into the mind behind one of last year’s critically acclaimed games, Nier: Automata. It’s definitely a great read, but one of Yoko Taro’s comments made me pause. Specifically, it was his comment about his pessimism:
“While I’m pessimistic, I do hope that humanity will go in the right direction as well, so I do still hope for the best. I personally don’t think the world will change, or there’s hope for humankind, but I also think the younger generation, those at GDC or maybe Taura-san’s age, may come with another breakthrough that may give a brighter future to the world or a more optimistic insight into the world.”
Of course, a few comments zeroed in on the pessimism, which, if you’ve played his games (and if you haven’t, then thank you for reading anyway! Also go play them if you prioritize plot over gameplay) is not a hard thing to imagine; Yoko Taro’s games are full of assholes, monsters (both NPCs and enemy combatants) and have horrible things happen to characters that drive home the idea that life is just an obstacle course of adversity, manipulation, and hate. Things often go pear-shaped very quickly, and it’s a long journey of tumbling down.
There is, however, hope. As Yoko Taro says, there is hope in the next generation, there is hope for humankind, which in retrospect is ironic because this is about Nier, the original one. The one before androids versus machines. The one that presents a strong case of representing Yoko Taro’s idea of hope in spite of pessimism.
Suffice to say, there will be major spoilers for Nier (2010) and as a result, Nier: Automata (2017) later. There will be warnings. Relatively useless warnings but there you go.
The original Nier was released in 2010. While there were two versions released in Japan, here in the west we got the “Nier: Gestalt” version, where the protagonist was a father with an…interesting…face.
It developed a cult-following for its amazing story and music, while its gameplay systems were, rightly so, criticized for being shallow, repetitive, and boring. The premise goes that the protagonist, from now on called Nier (you can call him whatever you like), is a single father trying to take care of his daughter Yonah, who is bed-ridden (in the Japan exclusive Nier: Replicant version, Nier is Yonah’s older brother). You meet a host of interesting characters, including a talking book (Grimoire Weiss), a foul-mouthed lady (Kaine) and a little boy that can petrify things with his stare (Emil). In addition to the NPCs, your main combative enemy are shades, monsters that take many shapes and forms and effectively serve as the game’s enemy foot soldiers/bosses.
Minor spoilers for Nier (2010)
For the first 75% or so of the game, you, the player, control Nier (or whatever you named him) to save your daughter/sister from the Shadowlord, the shade antagonist that seemingly has control over the rest of the shades in the world. He even has his own talking book, the Grimoire Noire, to really drive home the antagonist angle. The shades, of which you have killed many, are There’s also quite a few side-quests to help out NPCs, including twins named Devola and Popola who act as, effectively, the village’s elders. After gaining access to the Shadowlord’s castle, the game introduces the big plot twist.
And now Major spoilers for Nier (2010)
Nier and co. are confronted by Devola and Popola. They’re working for the Shadowlord and need Nier to go with them to set things right. But…why?
It’s because they’re androids.
And Nier and everyone else are shells of humanity. The shades were the souls of people.
The shades, were, people’s, souls.
They were people.
As it turns out, in order to save humanity from a disease that’s killing them, scientists found a way to separate the human soul from the body. When it was deemed safe and the disease eradicated, Grimoire Noire and Weiss would forcefully merge the human souls (shades/Gestalts) with their respective human shells (Replicants). Unfortunately, the Replicants started to develop consciousness. As the Replicant gained increasing sentience, its corresponding shade would slowly go and lose its own sentience, leading it to go berserk (termed relapse). When they did, their respective Replicant would develop the Black Scrawl (an incurable, terminal disease) and die. The Shadowlord, being the one Gestalt that is able to maintain his sentience indefinitely, is able to prevent other shades from relapsing.
As a videogame, Nier doesn’t give a choice to the player to continue the quest or not. The only thing you, the player, can do is continue, even when you know that killing the Shadowlord and destroying Grimoire Noire is, effectively, damning all of humanity. Without the Shadowlord, all Gestalts would eventually relapse, causing their corresponding Replicant to develop the black scrawl. That doesn’t really matter to papa Nier though, because his singular aim is to save his daughter.
Without a doubt, it is a noble goal. Nier’s love for his daughter drives him to risk his life on countless occasions, witness horrific acts of destruction, and (unknowingly) destroy surrogate families, all for his daughter.
This brings us back to Yoko Taro’s comments about being a pessimist but still hoping for the best. Nier is, without a doubt, a driven individual whose purpose is to save his daughter. The power of love and hope for the best outcome is the primary motivator for Nier, and I think this laser optimism encapsulates Yoko Taro’s own ideas of hope: things will work out for the best.
Of course, on the grander scale, Nier’s actions also just damned all of humanity. So that sucks. It’s also reflective of Yoko Taro’s pessimism; the world of Nier starts off with, essentially, the end of days as humanity is dying from an unnatural disease. It is only from the powers of science (and magic!) that humanity is given a chance to survive…which promptly goes into the trash by the game’s end.
On the other hand, Nier saves his daughter! He manages to protect (some) of the people he loves! He’ll even sacrifice his entire existence if he has to! And there it is, the self-sacrificing optimism, the (relatively naïve) idea that things will be alright in the end despite the circumstances.
It’s important to remember that no one outright justifies the genocide except for the character’s actions, and the characters aren’t necessarily the mouthpiece of the author, but they sure as hell can be the manifestations of the author’s ideas. If the overall plot/world represents Taro’s pessimism, then the character of Nier represents his optimism; to hope for the best despite the worst case scenario. Alternatively, Nier’s actions could be construed that hope lies in the next generation, represented by Yonah. This also follows in line with Yoko Taro’s comments about the next generation bringing a hopeful breakthrough in the world. But in the case of Nier (2010), it really is a matter of a father saving his daughter/brother saving his sister, and hoping that everything else works out in the end.
....and things did work out in the end; Nier: Automata happened, after all! (I will forever love Drakengard 3 but woo boy, that game...)