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Analysis: Alternative Perspectives & Shifting Stories In Nier

Jeffrey Matulef analyzes games that only fully reveal their stories upon multiple playthroughs for Gamasutra, looking at how Cavia did less with more in its underdiscussed swan song, Nier.

Jeffrey Matulef, Blogger

September 16, 2010

6 Min Read

[Columnist Jeffrey Matulef analyzes games that only fully reveal their stories upon multiple playthroughs for Gamasutra, looking at how Cavia did less with more in its swan song, Nier.] When it comes to strange and underappreciated games from recent years, few could top Japanese developer Cavia's swan song, Nier -- specifically the Xbox 360 version, in this case. Notable for a variety of reasons involving various shifts in perspectives, a memorable cast of characters, and a wonderful foray into surreal text adventure territory, the aspect of design I find most perplexing is how it only fully reveals its story through subsequent playthroughs. The first time you complete the game you'll have a somewhat murky grasp on Nier's narrative. However, much more of the story is revealed on its new game+ mode. For example, upon beating the game, several wonderfully written short stories are unlocked, revealing the rich backstory of one of the main character, Kaine. We hear of her origins and struggles she endured as a child as well as tragedies that befell her prior to her entrance in the game. This focus on Kaine permeates the second playthrough. Throughout the story her character was partially possessed by a demonic scrawl in her arm. On the new game+ mode we hear it taunt her. i.e. we hear the voices in her head. It's unsettling and allows the player to gain far more attachment to her without abandoning the linear structure of the game. Initially I felt like saving this for a second playthrough seemed like a lazy way to pad out the experience by insincerely dangling a carrot in front of the player and enticing them to play through it multiple times (the back of the box even promises four endings, meaning you have to play through it as many times to achieve them). But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be done this way to tell a complex story without compromising the limited third-person perspective. Kaine's Side The first time you play through the story it's told through Nier's point of view. Thus we shouldn't know any more about Kaine than what Nier is able to glean from his time spent with her. The second time, however, it's told via her perspective. Cavia, being a small developer lacking the time and resources to create all new environments, missions, assets, etc. had to do more with less. As such, the new voice serves as a commentary of sorts as one would expect in a DVD. But unlike a commentary, it doesn't break the fourth wall, but rather operates within the game's previously established fiction. Furthermore, in one especially unconventional design choice, the new game+ mode deposits the player a whopping two-thirds of the way through the story, ensuring that Kaine is present almost the entire time (she only leaves when Nier goes to his hometown, as the villagers fear her. Presumably she camps out during these sections, so we're not missing much). This way the designers are able to tell the same story from another perspective without altering the core adventure by having you play as her or adding new missions. There's another major change on the second playthrough that warrants discussion. Upon entering a new level on new game+, the player is treated to a series of cutscenes showing that level's bosses' backstory. In one especially haunting scenario we see a lost boy shade (the shadowy primary enemies in the game) befriend a giant benevolent robot. He names the robot "Beepy" and rides upon its shoulders in a Freak, The Mighty fashion. Years later Beepy discovers two brothers scavenging for parts in the derelict factory where they live. The boys are on unsafe footing, Beepy tries to save them, but alas, the older lad dies. The younger brother sees Beepy's Iron Giant-like gait looming over his dead brother and holds him responsible. Hellbent on revenge, he hires Nier and company to destroy this machine once and for all. The first time you play through this sequence it begins with the brother hiring you, oblivious to Beepy and his young companion's plight. The creature is destroyed, you gain one of the magical seals needed to progress, and for all you know, all is well. New Drama It may initially seem like a poor choice to relegate Beepy's moving tale to an unlockable bonus, but it makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. If the player were able to see the villain's story first it would not only feel incongruous with the rest of the game told from Nier's perspective, but would ruin the mystery of what devilish monstrosity lies beneath the steal catacombs. The second time playing the mystery is already ruined, so it rewards you in a different way; by unveiling new perspectives on what previously transpired. This isn't the first game to fill in gaps of a story on subsequent playthroughs. Resident Evil 4's PS2 and Wii ports came bundled with an unlockable add-on called Separate Ways, where you play as Leon's ally/rival, Ada. Her story parallels Leon's and shows what she was up to when off-screen during the main campaign. Most of the scenery and enemies were lifted straight from Leon's adventure with only one new level and boss. While I wouldn't call RE4's plot or characters particularly interesting, Separate Ways is still fascinating as a remixed version of familiar ground, offering enough new twists to warrant a repeat trip to its ghastly Spanish villa. More Is... More? It should be noted that more doesn't always equal better. The European version of Ico offered similar bonus content by translating it's ghostly romantic interest, Yorda's, made-up language into English. I'm less enthused about this as I feel like the communication barrier made the story more open to interpretation. Hearing what Yorda says to Ico is like hearing whatever Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation. It's never as satisfying as what's in your mind. The problem with Ico's European unlockable isn't that it adds new layers to the story, but rather undermines the ones it already had. Retroactively altering a story is a bold decision and one wrong move can cheapen an already great work. Just look at what befell the original Star Wars trilogy when George Lucas didn't know when to quit. Still, a revisionist retelling of a story is a noble endeavor and one I love to see developers take a stab at. Books can't be altered once written, and while DVDs may have commentaries and deleted scenes, they exist outside the core narrative. Games, however, with their rigid requirement hungry structures can allow players to peek behind the curtain only when they're ready to, revealing different perspectives and more information than they could as a single unchanging story. [Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer for G4TV.com, blogs about games at JumpingMoustache.com and is a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]

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