This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on September 28, 2015. (So way before Automata was ever announced, just FYI.)
Let me preface this by stating clearly and unequivocally: I haven’t played beyond the opening sequence of NieR. I’m also going to call it just Nier, because I’m assuming the capitalised R is for Kool Stylez purposes and not some significant plot point.
Then again, Nier seems like the sort of game that could prove me wrong on that one.
Nier opens with the words ‘Weiss, you dumbass’, and let me reassure you that the only way is up from that one. To understand why that opening salvo of ass-itude comes as a bit of a surprise, one need only look at the box art. While we’re careering off topic with all the direction of Wile-E-Coyote on one of those minecart things, I may as well point out that this is not going to be a standard review. I’ve already come out and admitted that I’ve barely played the game, and now I’m taking ‘start from the beginning’ to a whole new level: the box the game came in.
But we can go back further than that.
I bought Nier based on the fact that it crops up in a lot of TV Tropes articles. Frequent perusers of TV Tropes will know that potential spoilers are greyed out when casually browsing, and like any of EL James’ novels, Nier was giving me nothing but pages of grey. That’s a bit frustrating, to say the least, and thus I found myself on eBay looking for a copy of Nier for the simple reason that I didn’t like not knowing why it was notable enough to maintain a decent presence on such an upstanding and well-cited website as TV Tropes. I could have just revealed the spoilers, of course, but where’s the fun in that?
While I waited for my copy of Nier to arrive – from China, as it turned out; I’m not good at reading item descriptions, but hey, it was cheap – I checked out a couple of reviews. They were characteristically mediocre, tending towards the top end of middlingly fun. High praise indeed, I thought – a fairly standard Internet’s eye view of modern JRPGs, at any rate. There was nothing really to suggest that the game would be anything other than the usual Squeenix fare in a post FFXII-world, apart from a vague mention of multiple endings, and when my little Chinese parcel arrived and I took a look at the box I felt a reaction I can only describe as extremely mild intrigue. What is this game, I wondered, that spawned such interest that somebody would take the time to go on the Internet and write about it? (Side note: people on the Internet will write about anything. You only need look as far as some of my past blogs for proof of that.) The box art was generic as all hell: a big-lettered logo (turns out Nier is also the name of the main character, by the way, in case this game wasn’t seeming generic enough) floating dramatically over the head of a white-haired, eyepatched, asymetrically shoulder-pauldroned man.
JRPG, I thought.
So I put the disc in, had a quick glance at the back cover, which said something about a disease and a daughter and included some lovely screenshots of what appeared to be a browngrey version of any Final Fantasy overworld ever, and loaded up the game. And that’s when things got a bit weird.
‘Weiss, you dumbass!’ said somebody.
‘Huh,’ said I.
The opening sequence of the game puts you in control of Nier, as you might expect. Thing is, Nier seems to live in that time period I like to call the GLF, or Generic Leather Future. You know the one: not many people about, aluminium buildings, trenchcoats so long they could be tucked into socks. With little explanation, we begin an epic fight scene. As far as I can tell, it’s one of those Assassin’s Creed-style openings TV Tropes refers to as a taste of power: Generic Leather Nier has seemingly every ability he could ever possibly need, from magic shadowy hands to magic shadowy lances. I’m pretty sure I managed to get a magic shadowy shield at one point, but who needs a shield when you’ve got a magic shadowy chainsaw? (I’m not sure that’s actually something you can get, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.) Combos and screen-shredding area-of-effect attacks rain down upon Nier’s magic shadowy enemies, destroying them with ease. It’s pretty fun, if a little long-winded. I mean, I’m sure if I’d continued to play the game I would eventually have unlocked all these abilities for myself, and I’m sure that at that point I would have remembered my first taste of power and thought something to the effect of ‘Ah, sweet’. I’m easily impressed.
The fight continues for some time. I’m fairly sure either my 360 or my copy of the game had a bit of a crisis, because there was a portion of the battle where enemies kept glitching around the screen and respawning for about 40 minutes, so it probably doesn’t usually take that long – but it’s a fairly lengthy grind nonetheless. At the end of it all, the player – and Nier – is rewarded with…
… a time-skip (or possibly a dimension-skip? I have no idea whatsoever) into the browngrey Generic Fantasy Overworld we were so convincingly promised by the game’s marketing. Then you get asked to go and find some sheep or something. I don’t know, I gave up at that point. There was a bridge, and a plant, and everything was just so big – which isn’t usually a problem, but I tend to navigate with memorable landmarks and I just didn’t see any worth mentioning. There was a sheep, but it was unhelpfully mobile.
All of which is to say: I like the opening of Nier. I actually like it quite a bit. It’s a fun fight, it promises much, and it got me excited to play the rest of the game. I wanted to know who Nier is, why he fights, what he fights. And that’s an effective opening, by my standards. The problem I had with Nier was neither with the opening nor what came after, but the dissonance between the two. I would be absolutely fine with playing as a Generic Fantasy Tradesman-cum-Father of the Year, as I would with playing as a Generic Future Leather Badass. The bait-and-switch, though, the promise of one only to be unceremoniously presented with the other, that was what turned me off.
I’ll probably go back and play through Nier at some point. I’ll probably enjoy the story, the gameplay – it’ll most likely turn out to be right up my street. But I think my first experience with it goes to show the power of not just a good opening, but a tonally consistent one. I can’t knock the classic technique of the differentiated opening, which works so well in many places. I can’t even deny that it’s important to vary the chapters of a narrative for various effects. But Nier just didn’t do it in a way that sat right with me.
I suppose I can deal with games (and this goes for other media too) that use their openings wisely, however they choose to do that. In a lot of cases, that will mean variance between the prologue and the body of the work. What I essentially couldn’t be bothered to deal with on this occasion was being presented with a mysterious, dark, intriguing world that I wanted to learn more about before being ungratifyingly plunged into an enormous field. There are no mysteries in an enormous field.