Nier, New Game + and the Expanded Narrative
You have battled for what feels like ages. Kingdoms have been built, evil conquered and allies lost, all in the name of your great quest. You sit, now at the end of your journey, and reflect on all that has come before you. The trying moments that have defined your quest, the times you almost gave up, and the reasons you did not. It has all come to an end now, however, and your time for contemplation has passed. Now, it is time to look forward to what comes next.
Suddenly, in the middle of your thoughts, your concentration is broken. The credits roll, a wave of names you do not recognize flash before your eyes. It really is all over now, just like that. Your very own epic tale has become nothing more than the final chapter in a closed book.
Setting the Scene
The player’s experience through a video game is a strange one. Games, better than any other medium, manage to take the player on a ride that they genuinely feel a part of. It is because of this ability – to engross and immerse – that so many gamers find themselves constantly drawn back to their favorite games. Be it through a title’s thrilling experience, intriguing characters, or a narrative that dares to think outside the box, many of the most well respected video games have earned the title because of their ability for the player to forge a personal connection with the game.
It is within this idea of a personal connection to a game that the concept of a ‘New Game +’ feature begins to make sense. Generally, New Game + is a mode that is unlocked upon completing a game. Experience from the playthrough is carried over, weapons and other equipment often stay with the player, but the base game otherwise remains the same in New Game +. As such, New Game + is the perfect way for those who found themselves enthralled by a video game to dive back into it once more, all while gaining the added benefit of mowing through the game’s enemies and bosses without a second thought.
New Game + can also be an important tool to aid or expand a game’s narrative. While many titles include a New Game + option, only a small handful employ the feature in order to build upon the established framework of a given game. The games that do this, however few and far between they may be, are commendable. By taking a feature designed around replayability, some games are able to draw players back into its world again, giving them a different look at the events they have already seen.
Perhaps the best example of using a New Game + feature to expand a game’s already established story can be found in 2009’s Nier. Developed by Cavia and published by Square Enix, Nier is arguably one of the most under appreciated video games of the last decade; a title full of strong writing capable of evoking an emotional reaction from the player throughout its story.
Nier’s story is a difficult one to decipher at first glance. Following the titular character on a quest to save his young daughter from the deadly ‘Black Scrawl’, Nier’s story spanned across a lengthy time period, mixing and matching both genres and narrative structure throughout its tale of existence and the nature of humanity. Without delving too far into the story for the sake of those who have not gotten around to experiencing Nier for themselves, suffice to say that the game quickly shifts from what seems to be a budget JRPG experience to an expansive, if not exhausting, nihilistic ride.
Upon completing Nier, the game presents the player with a New Game Plus +. Upon choosing this option, the player is thrown back into Nier’s harrowing tale. Nier’s New Game +, however, picks up halfway through the game’s story, giving the player insight into the backstory and life of Kaine, the brash and troubled character who has been a constant companion of Nier’s throughout the game. There is much more to Kaine — as the player learns through a lengthy text section in New Game + — than meets the eye. This includes more details surrounding Kaine’s possession by a Shade – the enemies fought throughout Nier. Due to her possession, Kaine has the ability to understand the Shade’s guttural tongue, giving the player the ability to understand their strange noises throughout the second playthrough.
With this backdrop, Nier’s New Game + offers an entirely new experience. For the first time, Nier and company –including the player by extension– can see the Shades for what they really are. Additional cutscenes are granted to the player during the New Game + journey, giving further insight and characterization to the Shades, specifically the game’s bosses.
It is in these cutscenes that players are given a whole new take on the journey of Nier. The various bosses, once seen as nothing more than progress-halting foes, are given a whole new realm of depth. The humanizing cutscenes and dialogue illuminate upon the nature of Nier’s story, begging the question of whether or not Nier is actually ‘right’ in his actions throughout the game.
Seeing these boss characters in such a starkly different light is a feeling that is difficult to describe. As gamers, we are conditioned to defeat all that stand in our way. However, Nier’s New Game + turns this conditioning on the player, giving them every reason to regret their action. Roc, Nier’s feral wolf boss and P-33, the memorable robot boss, stand as the best examples of this notion, transformed from soulless enemies to something more along the lines of tragic heroes, cut down by Nier as they try to protect and defend what they love. Each boss defeated through New Game + has the ability to make the player take a step back and truly mull over their actions.
For a video game to produce such critical thought for the player is no small task, especially when considering that Nier managed to do so through a second, completely unrequired playthrough. In this regard, the merits of the New Game + can be seen. Nier’s narrative is complete, on a basic level, after the first playthrough. To truly comprehend and understand the game, however, one must dare to journey back into previously trodden territory – something only dedicated gamers may consider. As a reward system, Nier’s take on the New Game + feature is as smart and fulfilling (and absolutely heartbreaking) as virtually any other game released.
Ultimately, Nier sets itself apart from its contemporaries by the very nature of its existence. Billed and boxed as a budget RPG offering, Nier’s ability to transition from traditional – if not derivative – action RPG gameplay to something sometimes resembling a bullet hell or text adventure game, all while wrapping players into a story that touches on the very emotions that define our humanity feels like the video game equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle. Coupled with its brilliant use of the New Game + concept and the shocking lengths the game takes it, Nier is destined to be forever remembered by few but eternally praised.
The next time you finish a game and are prompted to begin a New Game + journey, consider diving right back in. You might just have your entire understanding of the game fundamentally changed.
This post was written as part of Critical Distance’s December Blogs of the Round Table. Other musings on New Game + from some seriously talented writers can be found below:
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