Images courtesy of Square Enix.
People have been telling me to play 2010's Nier for years, largely predicated on the idea that it's worth stumbling past the mediocre gameplay in search of its unconventional story. The roadblock, of course, was time, especially since truly understanding the plot of Nier isn't as simple as beating the game; it requires finishing it multiple times in very specific ways. I always found a reason not to do it.
Given how many games from 2017 that I haven't managed to spend enough time with yet, there's just no way that I'll get around to Nier before starting its sequel, Nier: Automata, out now for PlayStation 4 in the States. (The PC version drops worldwide on March 17th.) There's a world where I convinced myself to put off playing Automata for a few months, hoping to find a way to integrate playing Nier into my coverage at Waypoint, but the stellar reviews for Automata mean I need to pay attention now.
And let's be realistic: I probably wasn't going to play Nier. What's a person to do?
On Twitter, several people started linking me to a 18-minute recap by YouTube video creator Super Bunnyhop, aka George Weidman. You might be thinking to yourself, "18 minutes? Is he one of those YouTube personalities that doesn't know how to edit themselves down?" That's not the case; putting Nier in context really takes Weidman every part of those 18 minutes, and it's time well spent. Check it out for yourself below.
After finishing the video, people were right. The story is bonkers, yes, but tragic and thoughtful. If an 18-minute video is too much, here's the true TL;DR version of Nier:
While mankind was being wiped out by a plague, they extracted the human soul from those who remained and constructed humanoid bodies for them to later inhabit (called Replicants). While the quest for cure went on, the Replicants developed their own form of consciousness, and went on to form their own society, unaware of their complicated origins. Ultimately, Nier is about what it means call oneself human, the very definition of being "alive." And those enemies you've been fighting in the game? They aren't evil creatures; they're humans who fell victim to the plague, their aggression driven by a desire to return to a human body.
(You find out the last part during a subsequent playthrough, where distressing subtitles are attached to the creatures you were, until then, thoughtlessly slaughtering because they were "bad." Does this mean you are?)
It's even wilder when you learn Nier is built upon one of five endings for the first game in the Drakengard series, which was also overseen by Nier designer Yoko Taro (who spoke to Waypoint back in February). The fifth one, the "e" ending, involves the main characters being transported to another dimension (modern Tokyo). Shot down by some military jets, their magical properties begin to spread a—you guessed it—plague around Tokyo, setting up the events that roll into Nier.
Taro is fascinating, a designer I've only appreciated from a distance, either watching videos about his work or listening to people passionately argue he's a criminally overlooked genius. One things fans don't hand-wave away, though, and what makes appreciating him difficult, is how Taro's eccentric stories have been matched with not-so-great gameplay. By partnering with Platinum Games, a studio that's second-to-none at their best, Automata is possibly the best of both worlds.
And while Automata might not look too similar to the original Nier, featuring new android protagonists and a greater action focus, its narrative directly follows on from its predecessor's fourth ending.
If you're fascinated by Weidman's video and want to take a deeper plunge into Nier's weirdness (and more on its connections with Drakengard), this 27-minute video should suffice. (And if you're feeling braver still, there's a complicated game lore timeline to check out, here.) Good luck. You're going to need it.