Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an action-RPG video game in which you fight through various areas, such as a forest, an old temple, a desert, a community by the sea, and a factory full of robots. A prophecy foretells that someone will defeat a vague evil whose name involved references to darkness, e.g. “The Shadow Lord.” While the game in question is 2010’s Nier: Replicant, and its 2021 remake Nier: Replicant ver. 1.22474487139…, these elements are hardly unique. While Nier is much more than this generic set-up, it’s actually a harrowing story about the inevitability of death and the rapidly-dwindling amount of time we all have left on this earth, it does have some very recognizable elements in its assembly. Certain design or mechanical elements of video games have simply become ubiquitous over time: fire levels, ice levels, defeating and dethroning God, etc.
That Nier has a handful of generic settings and asks you to replay through them multiple times isn’t new now, and it wasn’t new back in 2010. What was new in the game’s original release, and what remains fresh in this year’s remake, is how Nier makes these repetitive aspects of its world meaningful because of their cookie cutter familiarity. By maximizing this repetitive world (especially for players who go through it multiple times to get all the game’s endings), Nier: Replicant hammers home its many thematic ideas about cyclical history, the inability of people to change, and the effort it takes to break free and make something new.
Before we examine what meaning we can interpret from Nier playing all of yesteryear’s action-RPG hits, we should acknowledge the simple material explanation for these familiar components: the game’s developer, Cavia, was strapped for cash. Nier was actually the final game developed by the team before being disbanded and absorbed into AQ Interactive in July 2010. The development team, with the help of publisher Square Enix, had to design responsibly. Sticking with recognizable and broad area concepts like Seaside or the Junk Heap kept costs down, and the extensive amount of backtracking and grinding helped pad out the game’s run time. These material decisions are neither good nor bad—they’re just how the business side of video game design works. Plenty of games from this generation did the same thing—thus why the tropes are so recognizable. Crucially, however, Nier is a game that is aware of what it’s doing.
The generic-seeming locales and aspects of Nier’s world serve a larger metatextual purpose; you, the player, have been to these places before in other games, just like the world of Nier has been in this state of disrepair before. The player and the character are enacting a cycle of repetitive destruction, so beholden to these ideas and concepts that have become so commonplace. Going to visit yet another magical forest, or yet another crumbling shrine, has a metatextual layer of meaning for the players who are picking up yet another Japanese action-RPG from the publisher that puts out Final Fantasy. Nier’s cult following is comprised of a lot of fans of the genre, who have swung their fair share of giant swords. Nier knows this—it’s a continuation of the fifth ending of the original Drakengard, after all. Some required reading, or at least some genre literacy, is assumed.
The sense of having “been here before” is crucial to the world of Nier, which begins with two siblings huddling in a ruined world for the tutorial, then jumps ahead exactly 1,412 years to a new world, which still has what appears to be the same siblings depending on each other. We’ve gone so far into the future that it feels like medieval past. We’ve been here before, or at least, we’ve been somewhere that felt awfully similar.
Narratively, the game has a lot of interest in cycles and repetition. You live in a world that’s trying to recapture its old ways after a massive societal collapse. Certain forces in the game are taking drastic, world-ending steps to maintain or restore their status quo. People cling to cycles even as they try to break the systems others seek to reinstall. This massive, century spanning cycle of behavior, of screwing up, scrambling to fix it, and struggling with the fallout, extends into the far future seen in 2017’s sequel game Nier: Automata and its narrative left-turn from fantasy to hard science fiction.
For the first playthrough of Nier: Replicant, it plays through the well-worn beats of its hero’s journey with a relatively straight face. Your protagonist fights to rescue his sister, uncovers a source of great magical power, goes on adventures in all these familiar locales that bring him into contact with other outsiders who help him on his quest. The final enemy, called “The Shadow Lord” represents a cosmic, existential threat that our heroes barely comprehend. Our hero kills him and saves his sister. There’s more to it, of course, but the shape of the thing is formulaic.
The game also does a brief tour of the history of horror games, imitating the fixed-camera exploration of Resident Evil, the isometric action of Diablo, and the generations of classic text-based games, some of the earliest video games to try to have any kind of narrative. The history of video games is constantly bleeding through within Nier, presented both in a new context and as it always was. Cycles of the past existing within other cycles. People are trying their hand at the old ways to see if they still work—characters, designers, and players alike.
Only by replaying the game’s second half do we learn more about the enemy Shades we’ve been cutting through with abandon, and grasp more the precarious nature of this world living in the aftermath of a deadly magical plague. There are also a third and a fourth ending, wherein you learn slightly more context, and get access to additional endings that shake up our understanding of just how successful we actually were in saving the world. You don’t just have to play through the same boss fights at least three our four times; you have to go through the same desert, the same forest, the same factory—the same capital V, capital G, Video Game-ass settings. Over and over, again and again. You could, of course, just play other games. With other desert levels and forest levels and factory levels—Video Games remain Video Games, after all. But you might as well play through this one four times and really get to the bottom of things.
That “bottom of things” is complicated even more by this year’s remake, which adds a fifth and final “Ending E” that contains story content which previously only existed in a Japanese-exclusive book of short stories called Grimoire Nier. It requires players to play through much of the beginning of the game yet again after getting all four endings, which is recursive enough in its own context without adding in the idea of original Nier fans, having gotten all four endings of the game’s previous release, braving the game again to get four more playthroughs to finally reach this fifth and final ending. This ending, which is both new (in the game) and not new (having existed in the book for years). What’s old is new again—or at least, it’s being used in a new context.
In Nier, what is familiar or recognizable or repetitive is still different. Playing through the Junk Heap for the twelfth time isn’t exactly the same as the first, because you the player now have eleven runs of muscle memory built up. When circumstances repeat, the only thing that changes is the people who know they’re trying something again. That repetitive grind may be frustrating for some players, but it does have a purpose beyond the mercenary need to pad out the game length—by trying, trying again, Nier wants to make sure we earn any ending we get, happy or otherwise.