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As a male gamer, there are certain privileges that I have: I can play online without prejudice, I can project onto 90% of the protagonists I play as, and I am constantly marketed to. There are a few places where I am not traditionally "supposed" to tread. One of those things is feeling emotionally attached to a videogame. Taking the dudebro shooters and multiplayer-focused games of this generation, the only thing I should be feeling is competition. But I am going to admit in front of you, dear readers, that there are about a dozen games that have made me shed the least manly of tears. From Telltale’s wonderful drama in The Walking Dead, to the conclusion of Deadly Premonition, to seeing a familiar furry face in Ghost Trick, to watching an ally sacrifice himself to right a wrong from several generations previous in Mass Effect 3, I have had my fair share of pity parties. The one I least like to admit? I actually cried a bit in Gears of War 3. The scene was actually put together really well, in a part of the game where it had some meaningful impact, and a pivotal moment in a series that I had been involved in for several years.
However, at the top of the list of games that make me feel at the bottom is Cavia’s NieR. Sitting on a paltry 68 on Metacritic, NieR has one of the most dedicated cult followings I have seen. Most of the YouTube videos for the game’s fantastic soundtrack are users reminiscing about their experiences, mourning the events of the game, with nary a negative comment in sight. Let me say this again: this game has united YouTube. That’s how good it is. Most of this comes from how the game sets up all of the characters and their individual motivations. The player, the main character, your party, the NPCs, the antagonist, the bosses, and even the regular enemies each have a reason for doing what they are doing, and as it gets explained, the plot gets complicated. All in all, this leads to probably a half dozen moments in the game that caused me to wipe out all of the eyelashes that just now decided to get stuck -- that's my story and I’m sticking to it!
Today, I want to focus on one of those moments. Needless to say, MAJOR SPOILERS FOR NIER.
For those who have never played NieR, here is the basic rundown: You play as a middle-aged man taking care of your daughter, Yonah. Your daughter has contracted the Black Scrawl, a plague with no known cure. You start the game by doing your best to gather ingredients to relieve her pain, until you learn that an ancient power in a talking book may possess the ability to cure the scrawl completely. You are told this by Devola and Popola, the caretakers of your home village. Your daughter constantly interacts with you: through cutscenes, through text, and through letters that you can view in the loading screen.
The letters are my personal favorite, as they cover subject matter that is so entirely trivial. Whereas most games would probably use these to advance the plot, NieR uses these to fill in the relationship between Nier and Yonah. It covers such things as how she spent time today singing with Devola and Popola to how she tried to make you dinner the other day. It is incredibly endearing, and really helped me associate with being this virtual girl's father.
Throughout the game, you continually return to your home village to say hello to your daughter, check your crops, return groceries for elderly citizens in town, and visit the local library. The library is your usual place for plot resolution and new quests, given out by Devola. Devola's twin sister Popola spends her time by the fountain in the town singing. I think half the people who played NieR have spent a few minute just sitting at the fountain to hear her singing. Devola and Popola both take care of the town and the citizens, which often involves sending you off, and keeping out your less than desirable party members (as to not scare the citizens).
In the second half of the game, the antagonist (called "The Shadowlord") kidnaps your daughter after a climactic fight in the main village. The second half of the game becomes a quest to find her, and save her from his clutches. After running through the world again, you finally gain all of the keys you need to unlock the path to his keep. One of the first encounters in the Shadowlord's Keep is Devola and Popola, who have now revealed that they are working for the Shadowlord. They both have dialogue and delivery that has this hint of regret -- they aren't happy for what they have put you through, and they seem like they genuinely wanted things to be different. As you progress further, you encounter them again, and they reveal the entire twist of the game, which is not the moment I am covering but could easily be another Save State: every enemy you have been killing is actually a human. You are not a human, but a shell for the human to return to once a cure for a worldwide plague has been cured. You are responsible for the death of thousands of humans, some children, some even babies. Every monster you have been fighting has been fighting for its own loved ones, its friends, and its family. They also reveal another important detail: Devola and Popola are the only two "shells" who did not have a human soul. They are the caretakers of the world, entrusted with making sure humans make it back to their bodies, and fixing any shells that break. The only catch is that because they have this responsibility, they cannot be repaired or recreated. Only they know the truth behind what is happening, and they have pulled the trigger to return your shell to its rightful owner, the Shadowlord.
Then the boss fight starts.
The boss fight is your standard NieR affair: a bullet hell style of attack, mashed up with shmup controls and action-RPG elements. What can I say, the gameplay in NieR is definitely... unique! You initially are only fighting Devola, with Popola standing out of range. As you and your party whittle down Devola's health, she finally falls and a cutscene triggers.
Devola is struck to the ground by the final attack that lands. Popola turns to her sister. The fight immediately stops. Popola cradles her sister in her arms. Popola begins to panic, realizing that she cannot save her sister's life. In the meantime, Devola is using her last words to try and reassure her sister, commenting on how strange it is that her sister feels so sad in this moment, because neither of them actually have a soul. Why would they bother crying if that was the case? Popola pleads, saying that she can't die, because if Devola dies, she would be entirely alone in the world. With her last words, Devola apologizes, then tells her sister she loves her. Devola's body falls limp in Popola's arms. The whole time the camera is showing this dramatic scene: a dying sister trying to give some last comfort to her still living sister. We see in the edges of the frame your party -- still standing weapons in hand, but not aggressive.
There is a brief, awkward pause. At this point, Nier comes forward and suggests that they stop fighting. Devola, while placing her sister on the floor, responds by saying that she can't -- not after you just killed her sister. Emile begins to protest, saying that it doesn't have to be like that. Before he can finish his sentence, Popola begins to speak. After you cut down her sister, do you really think that she can stop? Is this something she could walk away from?
It's too late to stop.
No one stops.
You can watch the scene right here:
The entire situation left me feeling the same as I did in Spec-Ops: The Line, to an extent. I changed from feeling like a hero to questioning why I did that. In a matter of moments, any satisfaction that I might have had for beating that boss was gone. (Note: I know Spec-Ops came out WAY later, but I think the emotions that game conjures are more universally recognized than NieR's -- one of gaming's greatest shames.)
This moment is one of the most "real" moments I have ever experienced in a game. To begin with, the way that the pace changes away from a boss battle is incredible. It never takes on that kind of feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon, where the bad guy is clearly vulnerable, so you should pounce. It is a pause, to show respect for the fallen, even if they aren't on your side. More so, this was one of Nier's friends, in a past life, and the player has a relationship with them, so it is an awkward moment to be rooting against someone you got to know throughout the course of the game like that. In most games, after you killed Devola, you would immediately fight a powered up Popola, but in NieR, Devola mourns her sister. It is that odd moment where the effects of your violence are so suddenly and shockingly put in your face. It isn't just these sisters, either: this is what you have been doing the entire game. To lovers, to families, to companions that have done nothing wrong.
The cinematography of the cutscene (for lack of a better word) really does a fantastic job as well. Your party stands idly by, still holding their weapons, seemingly unsure if their guard should be up, or if they should be rushing in. There is that feeling where you know you should say something, but there is nothing you can say that would have any meaning. The role of the protagonists changes in that scene, because it stops being about a fight, and it is one sister holding the other, while your party stands by, weapons in hand, clearly responsible, yet showing an odd kind of half remorse.
Then there is the dynamic between Devola and Popola. There is something so tragic about how Devola is trying to use her last words to comfort her sister. Her whole speech seems to be trying to calm her sister down, and make it seem like everything will be alright once she is gone. Her final words being "I love you, sis" is just... unreal. More than just the relationships that are built up around those characters though, this was tangible to me as a player. I would never be able to meet a talking book or a skeleton kid, but I can see an interaction between siblings in that situation going very similarly, even in a completely normal setting. It is one of the few times where I had effortlessly placed myself in a character's situation, and thought about my own personal (theoretical) reaction to similar events. I will never be trying to save the world. I will never fight a dragon. I will never be the man who single-handedly stops World War 3. But I have a family. And this scene cuts pretty deep in that regard. And I know what the fear of being alone is like.
In my personal world while playing the game, I had just finished college. Most of my friends had just moved to a different part of the state, country, or world for jobs or other education. I had a pretty solid group of friends, which hinged on three people: my girlfriend, my male friend, and a good female friend. I wound up breaking up with my girlfriend, and my male friend started dating my good female friend. Fearing it would make things awkward, he never spoke to me again. All of my mutual friends from both groups either took the other side, or gradually stopped talking to me, so I became very isolated. There were moments where I would see how long I could go without interacting with another human being, often going on for about 72 hours before I had to say hello in the hallways at work. Even today, one of my biggest concerns is trying to find a meaningful social network after all of that took place, so watching someone lose their connection to the world -- someone who deeply understood them -- really resonates with me.
As the scene continues, Nier voiced my exact words: Just stop. I don't want to fight anymore. At this point, I have clearly won, but at what cost? After crying a bit over that, I wasn't in the mood to fight Popola, too. I just wanted to walk away, and maybe cleanse my conscience a bit as well. We had all seen enough bloodshed; there was no point to any more.
And as much as I would have loved that to be the case -- where we both continue in opposite paths -- the response that she gives is perfect. She can't stop. In that situation, given all that has happened, given her sister's sacrifice, and the way that she was brutally put down, she can't walk away. And as the player, as much as it pained me to do so, I completely agreed. Were I in her situation, I would have to do the exact same thing. If the Shadowlord had hurt Yonah, wouldn't I be obligated to keep fighting? To me, my daughter was the world. To her, it was her sister. It would be impossible to walk away, so we had to fight.
And in that second fight, nobody really won.