NieR, Violence, And The Humanity Spectrum: Part 1: Gestalt

Introduction

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[Goes without saying that this post will have major spoilers for the original NieR, though not Automata, that’ll be in Part 2 sometime later]

NieR and Yoko Taro’s other games are about violence, and what drives people to go to such lengths to kill and be desensitized about it, or even feel righteous about it. Obviously, games as a medium are predicated on enacting violence, whether shooting space invaders, or stomping turtles, or gunning down an enemy squad in an FPS, often without delving into it as a moral issue. And when they do, the attempts, particularly in the big budget AAA space, seem rudimentary, offering simple binary “good acts” and “bad acts”: Will you kill the cute little sisters to gain power-ups, but end up with a bad ending? or will you not go the selfish route and save them (which in the end you would recuperate all the missed power-ups anyways) and get a good ending? Commit violence, and while you may get immediate benefits, you will eventually be in a worse outcome. Do good, and while you may be at a loss at first, you’ll eventually be in a prosperous state. Many of the games that try to tackle the moral issue this way end up actually undermining their point, because they inadvertently give a tangible benefit for doing the the right thing, giving you a reward later on, like power-ups, a happy ending, or even simple stuff like a trophy or achievement. And that’s not the best argument for the morality of pacifism if you just end up roping it with a reward. Doing good things can sometimes get you a good outcome, but other times it doesn’t, and it might even put you in a worse place.

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So what the NieR games look into is “why” people resort to violence, what drives people to use such a measure to get what they want, without really casting an explicit judgement on it. Unlike other games that look into the issue of violence, there is no “pacifist no-kill” route, you are required to use violence to progress in the game, with no other way to pass through. And while the games have multiple endings, they’re not an assessment of how good of a person you were. There are no bad endings, or good endings, or middle of the road endings. Violence has to happen, and the games try to show you the motives behind it, on both the player and enemy side of things, so that you can understand, or maybe even sympathize, with the the committers, painting a dire hopeless situation with no out, where the most positive outcome of the clash is “well at least one side will get to survive, or get something worthwhile out of it”.

Both NieR games also examine the morality of violence enacted on a sort of “humanity spectrum”. What do I mean by that? Let’s just say If we were to grade any entity, living or not, on how close it is to humans (or more importantly, how they are perceived to be close to humans): we start from the lowest point with inanimate objects, then to tiny organisms like bacteria, then to plants, to animals, and finally to humans with “souls” (I’m sure there’s a better term for this but for now lets use the clunky “humanity spectrum”). Normally, the average person won’t have much of a moral quandary breaking inanimate objects. But they might when going up the spectrum to plants, to small insects, to livestock animals, to wild animals, domesticated companion animals like dogs or cats or horses, and finally at the top, to humans. People even use higher levels of the spectrum as a justification not to enact violence on lower levels: “Don’t go breaking that car with a crowbar, it’s not Larry’s”, “Don’t chop down this tree or it’ll effect the ecosystem, which will deteriorate the environment and hurt animals and humans”, “Don’t eat beef cause cows are conscious and have thoughts and care about their young ones, just like humans do”. Or they might use someone’s pacifism and sympathy for lower levels as argument that that person wouldn’t hurt entities in the higher level: “so-and-so wouldn’t hurt a fly, so how could they punch someone?”. Things get a little bit more interesting when it’s about violence enacted between 2 entities in different positions on that spectrum. People can tolerate the killing of an animal if it means saving a person’s life, if say a wild animal attacks someone. Sometimes, even humans can go down the spectrum based on what they did or how they are perceived. People justify capital punishment done on criminals because they have done such inhumane acts, like murder, and they cannot ever be redeemed and become genuine human beings again, or that going through with the execution is the only path for their salvation to be a good soul again. Not to mention a lot of horrible genocides and enslavements throughout human history were justified by claiming that people of a certain race or religion or nationality or any form of social group they ascribe to are “subhuman”. The people who believe and act on this say they are not cruel because they aren’t killing actual people, they’re killing “animals” who’s existence is a threat to real humans (or precisely, their very strict definition of real humans, who have a particular look or follow a specific mindset or social belief).

And so the NieR games examine this topic in an interesting thought-experiment way by having you play as literal incomplete-humans or human-like characters fighting other quasi-human characters. The funniest thing about the NieR games (aside from the fact that it is a series that canonically originates from a crazy joke 5th ending of the original Drakengard) is that it’s a series about humanity’s propensity for violence with no real true complete human characters, whether in the protagonist or antagonist side. In the original NieR, this fact was hidden from you, but in Automata it is clear from the outset. The NieR games also love to showcase this via multiple playthroughs, where the first playthrough casts the enemy as seemingly mindless vicious monsters hell bent on ridding you and your kind. But the second adds in a little more context, or puts the player in a different perspective, which will help cement the player’s doubts about the player-character’s motives and justification for using violence that was have built up in the first playthrough.

Part1: Gestalt

In the original NieR, you play as a father (or brother in NieR Replicant, but I’m going with the story of NieR Gestalt) named Nier (just to keep things straight, “NieR” = Game, and “Nier” = character) who wants to save his daughter, Yonah, and his village from the threat of Shades, which manifest as these creepy shadowy monsters that attack the villagers, or as a disease that possess and ultimately kills people, known as the black scrawl. So papa Nier tries his best to go around the world questing and gathering a party and leveling up and acquiring new weapons and magic abilities and other RPG stuff to become strong enough to save his daughter, which halfway through gets kidnapped by the leader of the Shades, called, appropriately, “The Shadow Lord”. After the final confrontation, mysteries are revealed, and you learn that these shades are actually what’s called “Gestalts”, which are the souls of humans that were intentionally separated from their original physical bodies for a long backstory reason, and were planned to be inserted back into artificial bodies at a later time (called “Replicants”), which happen to be YOU!!! THE PLAYER CHARACTER!, and your family and friends and all the other village people.  So on one hand, the gestalts, which were once real humans and sat at the top of the humanity spectrum, got corrupted, became mindless and violent, losing some of their sentience and sense of identity, and slid down that spectrum. On the other side, Replicants, which are mere meat grown in some sort of process, developed a sense of consciousness and identity, and rose up that spectrum. (The NieR wiki mentions that the gestalts “relapsed”, became corrupted and started attacking replicants because their corresponding replicants became more and more self-aware. But I prefer an ambiguous reading of it that doesn’t state which side caused the other).

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This is expanded upon in the second playthrough, when you, the player (not the character you play as or his party), can now understand what the shades are saying with subtitles that translate their garbled unintelligible speech (2001’s ICO on PS2 did a similar thing). The second playthrough also adds extra cutscenes that center around some of the prominent shades you fight. The biggest examples are the wolves attacking the town of Facade, which show that the pack and their shade leader are just enacting a retaliatory revenge attack on the kingdom by attacking the wedding and killing the just-married Queen of the kingdom, all because the guards were previously killing the wolves on masse so that they wouldn’t attack the village during the wedding in the first place. In an attempt to protect the wedding from an attack, the guards only provoked the wolves to attack. Violence begets violence.

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The other example is the little shade controlling the robot. The cutscenes show that the shade is a child that was saddened by the death of their gestalt mother. And that in the shade’s grief, a robot comes and befriends the little shade, becoming determined to protect the kid at all costs. So the battle against the robot doesn’t frame the shade as an entity controlling the robot, it shows that the robot, by its own will, simply wants to protect its friend from getting killed by Nier. (note that the young shade has the most shrill voice, one that is almost literally painful to hear because Yoko Taro is a huge jerk).

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These examples expand the player’s understanding of the shades, showing that they are intelligent compassionate creatures that care not just for their own, but for others like animals and intelligent robots, with sympathetic reasons worthy for those animals and robots to befriend or side with in a conflict, which Nier just cannot fathom to understand, let alone see. But the most important example that explains most about what Nier thinks of the shades is in the village of Aerie, as this shows an example of replicants like Nier recognizing the humanity of shades, and really shows what Nier thinks of them:-

[If you played NieR or watched the part above till 1:39:00, you can skip the next 2 paragraphs, which just describes the above video section at length]

When entering the cave that leads to Aerie in the second playthrough, a short audio-only cutscene plays where we hear that the villagers are talking amongst each other (in an odd possessed tone), being worried about “that man” who will kill everyone. Being that it’s the second playthrough, you, the player, know that this must refer to Nier. You also learn that the villagers wish to be left, with their shades, alone. That they’re not being invaded or oppressed by them. That the villagers and shades want to co-exist in peace and that they do not need saving. This is supported when Kaine confronts and kills one of the villagers, believing that it’s a shade, while the villager and her young brother plead Kaine and her crew to stop attacking. But a shade does indeed manifest out of the still warm dead body of the villager, and starts attacking Kaine and her crew, slashing Kaine and knocking her out, and through the ensuing fight you hear the shade speaking, saying that it and the villagers wish to be left alone, and that what you are doing is monstrous, that you are the true villains for going around killing innocent people, whether shades or replicants.

Then, during the boss fight with the giant orb boss (Wendy), Emil exclaims that what’s in the orb is not shades, it is in fact people, and he becomes hesitant, but Weiss denounced that, saying that it’s shades. The boss fight ends with Emil going nuclear and blowing up the boss and the whole village with it. After that, the party regroups at the entrance of what was just moments ago, a village full of people. Stricken by his guilt, Emil starts crying, but Nier consoles him, saying that if not for him, the group would have been all dead. “don’t look back”, he says, as the cutscene ends.

[Continue below]

This section is probably just as dire and tragic as the ending, since it shows a possible future of peaceful coexistence between the shades and replicants. We don’t know whether this is an ideal coexistence or not. It’s possible that a lot of the shades were inhabiting bodies that don’t belong to them (which is possible, as is the case with Tyrann, who is a shade that’s partially possessing Kaine). It’s possible that even if they did inhabit their own bodies, they would basically write over the self consciousness that the replicants developed, maybe completely or partially, but there’s at least some elimination of character happening. A lot of this isn’t exactly known or explored, but the tragedy is Nier and his crew didn’t even look at this, or give them a chance to work this messy coexistence out. He didn’t understand the situation, or rather, he didn’t seek to understand the situation. Maybe it’s because Nier himself can’t understand what the shades are saying, but if robots and wolves and other replicants can communicate fine with them, why not Nier? Even then, Kaine, being already partially possessed with a shade, have been shown to understand what shades say when she fights the boss Gretel and even earlier against the boss shade Hook. Emil certainly does understood the situation as well. And it’s hard to imagine an all-knowing all-powerful flying wise book like Weiss can’t understand shades. But Kaine holds a grudge against shades, Weiss seem to have forgotten some of his abilities and just history of who the shades are, and Emil just keeps getting pushed around by the other three to do their bidding unwillingly. It shows how people who know what they’re doing is wrong can be complacent helping someone ignorant of the situation, like Nier, continue to enact violence.

Still, there’s a tiny chance Nier was right and all those villagers lost their self consciousness and free will, that they were all possessed and that they could not be saved, that their cries and fears and complaints are mere show, enacted by the shades puppeteering the replicants to instill guilt and hesitation on Nier’s party. This is hinted at in the dialogue cutscene when you enter the area, where the villagers aren’t speaking in a normal tone, but rather an odd “possessed” tone. It’s possible that killing the shades and their bodies, and destroying the village, did prevent the threat of shades from expanding to other villages, but this is merely a comforting scenario that you can believe that makes Nier’s action at least understandable, or righteous.

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This all culminates in the final confrontation between Nier and his Gestalt mirror self at the end of the playthrough. Gestalt Yonah, after possessing her corporeal replicant body, sees that replicant Yonah is a real self conscious entity that seeks to rejoin her father, like herself. Gestalt Yonah recognizes Replicant Yonah’s humanity, and seeing no other way out, Gestalt Yonah sacrifices herself in order to save Replicant Yonah. Contrast her act to what Nier does immediately after that scene. The Shadow Lord becomes stricken with grief over the loss of his daughter and goes crazy trying to kill Nier. And Nier says something important that sheds some light on how he justifies his violence: “You want me to understand your sadness?”, “You think I’m gonna sympathize with you?”, “I have something to defend! I have a reason to live!”. This isn’t just ignorance from Nier anymore, he knows who the Shadow Lord is and what his goals were. It’s no longer ambiguous, there is no benefit of the doubt to be given, and there hasn’t been for some time before the final hour or so of the playthrough, but Nier doesn’t care. It’s very antithetical to what Gestalt Yonah did: Yonah saw her counterpart as a real human worthy of saving, even at the price of her own, while Nier and the Shadow Lord saw each other as a monster that has to be killed.

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NieR doesn’t cast sides as good vs evil, it just presents this sad hopeless dire situation as is. The shades and Shadow Lord particularly are far from innocent, even when they still have their sanity, and have not relapsed and gone into uncontrollable madness. It’s possible that a relapse is in itself a conscious act done by shades as they realize their own bodies grew their own consciousness, leaving no place for them to come back to, and they start killing or possessing replicants as a form of retaliation, or as some way to scare replicants from becoming conscious, or anything more than docile. A lot of gestalts never recognized the replicants’ humanity, so why should the replicants do?

In the end, after the player has gone through multiple repetitive playthroughs of the game, having to have collected all the weapons, NieR hopes that the player has learned from their experience by asking them to do something analogous to what Gestalt Yonah did. It asks if you, the player, have recognized the humanity of an in-game character who you have learned a lot about, how she was shunned by her hometown for her body, how she was raised by her loving grandma who was killed by a shade, thus igniting her life-long grudge against shades, and how she was possessed by a malevolent shade, corrupting her until she was completely taken. It asks you to do the ultimate sacrifice a game could possibly ask its player without probably venturing into illegal territory, all to save a video game character, to extend your gesture of goodwill across the TV and into the game’s world. It asks: “Are you a sympathetic enough dude to delete your save data to save Kaine?”

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Next part, we will be talking about the real reason I have gone and wrote this whole thing, which started out just as a preamble that was pretty long already, and just grew and grew, and I thought “this is just way too big to just put as a supplementary intro so may as well cut it into parts and post it separately”, and that is obviously NieR Automata, where it tackles violence but the major difference being with entities on both sides that don’t:

  1. Really die (seemingly?)
  2. Feel pain (maybe?)
  3. Fight as a means for survival due to #1 but also because they don’t care for survival as a goal (or do they?)
  4. Have language barriers and can communicate freely with each other if they want to

I’m hoping to get that done before the end of the year but I might get lazy or busy or whatever. In any case, hope you enjoyed reading this.

All screenshots were acquired from Maggie Mui Longplays channel on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-LYw1TIOjA3hNhriA7535g
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