This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Nier Replicant.
More than any other song on Nier Replicant's lush soundtrack, "Song of the Ancients" is likely the centerpiece. Lush and forlorn, the song accompanies much of your experiences throughout the game's nesting doll adventure. First, it's the theme of the protagonist's village, a song sung by caretakers and allies Devola and Popola. Later, it becomes more than that, a paean to the pain at the story's core, the theme of the most wrenching and pivotal boss encounters in the game. Early on, you're told the song, in its imagined language, tells the story of Grimoire Weiss and Grimoire Noir, a fable of heroism and preservation of the future. But in practical terms, this isn't true. For the player, "Song of the Ancients" ends up being something more intimate, more sad.
"Song of the Ancients" is about the tragedy of Devola and Popola, and it's always, for me, been one of the most hypnotic parts of this game.
You meet Devola and Popola almost immediately after the game's startling, continuity-wrenching introductory segment. Popola is the keeper of your village's library, playing an almost mayoral role as the overseer and caretaker of the settlement. Devola, meanwhile, spends her days at the bar or in the fields, singing her beautiful, sad song and helping where she can. For the young Nier of Replicant, they emerge as parental figures, guiding the boy as he tries to protect Yonah, his terminally ill sister. Later, they help Nier unravel the mysteries of the "Shadowlord," prodding him toward his eventual fate.
In the second half of your quest, though, the pair grow increasingly distant, uncomfortable. At the moment of no return, they meet you in Popola's study and ask if you really want to go through with confronting the Shadowlord and trying to save Yonah. The dread is piercing. Then they appear, waiting for you, in the Shadowlord's stronghold. Weapons drawn. And the truth comes out.
Nier Replicant, whether remake or original, tells its story via a series of revisions. By forcing the player to repeat her own experiences, Nier rewrites itself, inserting new details, tweaking events here and there, opening up new avenues of understanding and tension, release and sadness, as the story unfolds again and again. It does this as a means of forcing the player to hold simultaneous contradictory understandings at once, an overlapping mess of individual truths and thematic concerns that meet in a melodramatic gridlock.
Devola and Popola are not the most written-about characters in Nier, but they're central to these revisions. When you meet them in Shadowlord's Castle, they're no longer mentors. In fact, they never were. They're androids, tasked with watching over you, guiding you, and using you for the sake of the broader human race. They're administrators. Guards. And, ultimately, enemies.
There, as a new version of "Song of the Ancients" plays—a dynamic, high-tempo version subtitled "Fate"—you cut Devola down, and Popola nearly kills you before taking her own life in a magic conflagration. Revision: a found family rent apart, mentorship rewritten as manipulation. The use of the song here is deliberately jarring, pulled from the almost lullaby-like context it builds over the course of the game as the lilting, soothing theme of your home base. One beautiful song, now about a bloody, inevitable tragedy.
But it wouldn't be Nier if Devola and Popola weren't still incredibly sympathetic, even as they're revealed to be your enemies. The twins are ancient, a thousand years old by the time that you meet them. They're being crushed by time, and by the immense historical forces of mankind's extinction. They preside over the failing Project Gestalt, a last-ditch effort to rebuild the human race, and their responsibilities are drowning them. The replicants (that's you) have become independent, sentient people, while the gestalts (like the Shadowlord) are either going feral or becoming rebellious. A millennium of tension is bursting at Devola and Popola's door, and no one could possibly be ready for that.
This tension leads Devola and Popola to the awful conclusion Nier gives them: fighting to the death with the protagonist and his party of misfits, trying and failing to keep them from tearing Project Gestalt apart and ignorantly dooming the entire human race. Replicant adds a handful of new scenes with the twins, during the third revision of the game's story ("Route C," I guess). Here, they talk about your progress with worry, unease. They wonder if they're doing the right thing, and express how trapped they feel. How trapped they are.
In a famous interview, director Yoko Taro relates the thematic basis of Nier to his real-world feelings about the War on Terror, and what motivates people (even people we perhaps sympathize with) to commit acts of horrible violence.
"The vibe I was getting from society was: you don't have to be insane to kill someone," Taro says. "You just have to think you're right."
But the story of Devola and Popola illustrates, for me, something a little different. Devola and Popola don't know if they're right. They just have no choice in the matter. They are stuck in the workings of a machine that is infinitely larger than them, crushed by systems of violence and control, hope and despair, vastly beyond them. Devola and Popola don't try to kill you because they think they're right. They try to kill you because they think they have no other choice. This is true, really, for the other characters in the story as well. Everyone is breaking under the weight of the systems mankind built to manage the world. Like the impersonal weight of capital, or distant political machinations, Project Gestalt and its unintended side effects destroy these people. And, ultimately, destroys itself.
After killing Devola, the protagonist asks Popola to stop the violence.
"Stop?" she cries. "Stop? You want me to stop? You think I have the luxury to stop? You cut down my sister like a goddamn animal+ and you tell me to stop? No one stops. It's way too late to stop!"
This feels, in many ways, like the real controlling idea of Nier Replicant, at least in its relationship to violence. "Those two have watched the world wither for time immemorial," Grimoire Weiss says. "The cruelness of such a fate is difficult to imagine."
There are no escaping forces like that, and no fighting them. All you can do is persevere, and try to care for those close to you until such time as the world tears you apart.
No one stops.
+ The profanity here is not in the original translation of Nier Gestalt, and is instead an addition in Replicant, one of not that many changes to the original scripting. It's incredibly effective.
Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Austin, TX. She’s formerly a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on Twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches.