The Emotion of People and Place in Nier

Nier was one of the cult hits of 2010: clearly not a game for everyone, but still deserving of a place among my favourites. Several things make Nier special, but right now I want to talk about how its towns and cities feel (to me, at least).

The unnamed village Nier calls home is a somewhat idealised rural setting. Green fields extend to the north and south, and the marketplace is active, if not exactly bustling. The background music in the village is tinged with sadness, but always manages to feel like coming home. The waterwheel turns, the farmers fatten their stock, and residents share a drink at the local tavern.

Many have talked about how they felt the first time they loaded up Ocarina of Time and experienced the wonder of a green, three-dimensional landscape laid out in front of them for the first time. I don't share those memories, so was a little surprised to see so many comparisons between Zelda and Nier, but I suppose I understand the familiarity of an idyllic, rural setting more generally.

As it turns out, this is one of many places Nier makes the most of its unoriginality. Bucolic doesn't really do it justice.

If I pay more attention to what's going on in the lives of these villagers, the above description is quite misleading. Life is rough for these people. They fear the increasing attacks by shades (the game's major enemies), and start to suffer food shortages as their fields become unsafe. The children are restless, the traders are going broke, and the tavern becomes a retreat for the desperate.

People genuinely worry about their future, and their hardships are expressed to the player frequently. But no matter how many villagers complain about safety on the roads or struggling to feed a large family, the idyllic atmosphere of Nier's village is never threatened. The grass is still green, the river is clean and full of fish, and the market stays open.

In other words, the villagers' difficulties are understood rather than felt. I don't know if this was intended, but it has some interesting side-effects.

For one thing, it further emphasises that even though Nier lives in this village, he's also an outsider. He's not well enough integrated with his community to completely share in its suffering. Nier is welcome here: he receives expressions of sympathy and help looking after his daughter. But he's frequently away from home, and (more importantly) not really respected. It's easy to look down on the man who gratefully snaps up demeaning work, and throws himself into a seemingly hopeless quest for years on end. It sets up a permanent barrier between him and the rest of the village.

Another result of being disconnected from local suffering is creating a place with layers. One way of looking at it is a feeling of secrets or hidden darkness. The truth hiding behind the false perfect surface. Personally, though, I prefer to think of it as multiple layers of reality existing simultaneously. Each layer is a valid truth, able to co-exist here. Without giving too much away, the mixed message is highly appropriate to Nier's premise and undercurrents.

To the south is a seafront town, which is a larger and more populous than the village but shares a similar vibe, dominated by expanses of blue sea and sky. Instead, I'm going to move northwest, to another small settlement known as The Aerie. It's structurally very impressive, consisting of a series of small houses and walkways built high over a deep chasm. Breathtaking, certainly, but it feels exposed and usually looks deserted. Aurally, it hits me with a wall of haunting choir voices. Add dull colours and sometimes fog effects, and we're in an oppressive and unsettling environment rather than an open and airy one.

Nier Screenshot

The Aerie. A misty town of suspended bridges.

My initial reaction to The Aerie was that its people must be rather eccentric. It would require some very determined engineering at this level of technology just to keep the place stable. But it's highly defensible, in a short-sighted way: there's one path in, and cutting off that walkway will isolate them completely.

The Aerie residents are usually shut up in their houses, and yell at me to go away if I try to coax them out. My main understanding of the place comes from snippets of conversation overhead through the walls. Dealing with them means overcoming fear and prejudice. We're not only an outsider here, but also a potential enemy.

Over time The Aerie becomes progressively more crazed, as fear gives way to other emotions. At the extremes, people become shades themselves and are forced to turn on each other. At one particularly memorable point, I overheard a child's voice as I passed by their house, begging their mother to stop hurting them. I froze for a few seconds to let the wave of horror wash over me. If I could have broken down the door I would have.

The Aerie does not set up mixed messages: it's very clear about what it is. Its self-destructive path also gives a clearer view of some of the layers present in the village, which suffers from its own insularity, prejudice, and even child neglect. Zelda this is not.

I would like, now, to travel to the desert-city of Facade. But that requires a long journey, and a large cultural shift. It's enough of a departure to tell a separate story, which may belong to another day.