header is screenshot from Nier Replicant ver.1.22
A Growing Perspective
Rosarie Teppelin

This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Nier Replicant, Automata, and Drakengard 1 and 3.

At GDC 2014, Yoko Taro gave a talk about his scriptwriting process, and the concepts which inspired his work on 2010's Nier. He mentioned that the 2001 World Trade Center bombings served as one of the major inspirations for the game. 9/11 made Taro question the nature of the morals he had learned throughout his life, seeing an event that was clearly tragic, yet was ultimately driven and caused by varying perspectives. It's a rather basic commentary, arguably simplified by the stiffness of translation. Nonetheless it's immediately clear when engaging with Taro's works just how fixated on this concept of perspective he became. 


Drakengard, Taro’s first game, and the direct predecessor to Nier, is a straightforward meditation on gaming’s fixation with violence and death and how it’s celebrated. However, it didn’t start that way; Drakengard was originally intended to be a game styled after Onimusha or Dynasty Warriors. When Taro was appointed as head of the project, his ideas and fascinations changed the project completely. The cast became villainous, the soundtrack oppressive and cacophonous, and scene direction oscillated between unnerving and upsetting

Around the time of Drakengard’s 2003 release, game development had reached a foothold in making complex three dimensional environments with much more realistic visuals than ever before. Many games were creating worlds increasingly indistinct from our own, with characters more readily discernible as people rather than cartoonish representations. Taro and writer Sawako Natori used Drakengard as an attempt to expose the effects of all this realism. Certainly, the absurdity of slashing through hundreds of soldiers at once in Dynasty Warriors can be appealing, but contextualizing human lives as so expendable—distilled down to a combo number increasing on the side of a screen—can be a disturbing notion.

By modern standards, Drakengard is rather limited in scope, even verging on an outright condemnation of violence in any form as representing an inherent evil. At the same time, it was one of the earliest games in a mainstream format to really take a step back and ask “is this what the medium must be?” Should games become a bastion for war, for experiences where extravagant clashes of man versus man are celebrated and cemented as cultural iconography? 

With its protagonist Caim, as well as the other playable characters, Drakengard delivers the somewhat heavy handed idea that the perspective of the player isn’t necessarily the perspective of a hero. Drakengard is, at its core, a story of selfishness, one man’s narrow minded desires and beliefs tearing through thousands of lives and gradually destroying the world itself under the thin guise of justice. Taro’s ideas on perspective begin here, where great horrors are wrought out of what each side believes to be just intentions. Throughout its multiple endings, Drakengard posits that atrocities will only beget more atrocities; that there cannot be any end that justifies using means such as these.


A decade later with 2013's Drakengard 3, Natori and Taro revisited the series with different goals in mind. Instead of criticizing the standardized perspective of the player, they were more interested in using the structure of a game’s narrative and presentation in order to deliver several “what if” scenarios. Though it has a definitive, fixed “end,” Drakengard 3 also shows how different viewpoints encourage different actions. Rather than condemn violence outright, its messaging shifts to suggest the possibility of someone who's both socially deviant and fighting for what’s right by their own measures of a greater good.

Largely though, Drakengard 3 is more of a direct reaction to Drakengard and route-based games than it is an in-depth study on perspective and meaning. Each route reveals new sides of each character to the player. It’s also interesting in a wider cultural sense for the main actors of a game to be sexualized women who are placed in roles of control and power. While the banter is crass and often used for comedic effect, there’s something novel about how casually it’s all delivered. Here, sex isn’t something to revere or to hide away from or be ashamed of, but is presented as an inherent part of existence.

Drakengard 3 is about challenging cultural perspectives, and conversely Taro's more commercially successful Nier Automata is based on the dangers of not challenging perspectives, and taking things at face value. This point is made in nearly every aspect of the game. For example, the main character of 2B and much of her fellow YoRHa soldiers are designed fashionably and overtly sexualized because of the way our society most commonly portrays women. The colloquialism “women and children first” is subverted from being a precaution to how military forces should actually be structured. Areas like a far-future Pearl Harbor become important for instigating instances in characters' lives, its name having become synonymous with the sparking of conflict. Automata wants to show that not only is it important to understand other groups’ ideas and cultures, but that it should be just as important to question your own.


Originally released in 2010, Nier Replicant is the most well realized of Taro’s explorations of perspective. Every aspect of Replicant, from conception to presentation, is predicated on the notion of exploring varying viewpoints, and doing so through means beyond just the written word. While Drakengard 1 and 3 operate on a more mechanical level, retooling tropes of violence and heroism across the medium of games as a whole and forming stories around them, the Nier series wants to play not just with the perspectives of players, but with those of other characters in the narrative.

Each character in Drakengard speaks with certainty, and the game's surprises are directed towards the player rather than the characters themselves; in Nier, most characters’ motivations and thoughts are locked behind internal monologues presented as visual novel sequences, with most spoken inferences shrouding another meaning. Drakengard neatly alternates between brawling, Dynasty Warriors-style combat and air battles akin to Panzer Dragoon's, while Nier’s camera constantly changes: behind the back third person to explore the outside world, top-down room by room for dungeons, and side-locked perspective shots for communal places like a home or tavern, emphasising the cozy, intimate interiors. Even the conceit of Nier looks at another side of Drakengard, taking the earlier game’s joke "Ending E” where the protagonist teleports to modern day Tokyo to do a rhythm game, and turning it into a dire, apocalyptic scenario.

On an initial read, Replicant can come across as a subversion of Japanese RPG storytelling, as well as Japanese fantasy tropes surrounding a “maō”, or demon lord. One man gradually builds a group with different skill sets and backgrounds, travels across several lands, and eventually faces the villainous demon lord to restore peace to his world. While Replicant takes some creative detours, at its core it is channeling and deconstructing the ideas that have become inherent to this genre of fiction. Replicant examines what everyone’s thoughts and feelings in a situation like this would be; What the purpose of the most mundane villager would be, what reality lies behind seemingly inane fetch quests, and what your enemies represent and believe in, pitted against the beliefs and existences of the main cast and the player. 

Where Drakengard was comparatively simplistic and naive, Replicant realizes that things can’t be so easily pared down to absolutes. With a wider view on moral relativism, Replicant believes that even in actions one might assume to be wrong, there's no real standard of objectivity against which they can be held. Something one community sees as a way of life, a staple of their identity, is just as easily a sin for another. Replicant does not suggest we attempt to overwrite our own personal morality with a faux unbiased acceptance of all, but rather that the judgements and restrictions a society enforces should be evaluated holistically.


The twist of Replicant’s "Route A" ending is that the “shades” the player has been fighting throughout their journey are actually malformed souls of “true humans.” The game’s human cast, including both non-playable and player characters, are but an anomaly. They're replacement bodies for those souls, bodies that have become self-aware in the souls’ absence and developed identities of their own. It’s a common enough trope, a big gotcha moment, a classic manipulation of perspective: you were the “villain” all along. But Replicant doesn’t make things so easy. Though veering on condemnation at times, it’s made clear that while it’s reasonable to look towards some sort of objective ideal, some theoretical greater good to justify your actions and beliefs, reality makes it harder to wholly commit to such a notion.

The actions of the protagonist and their friends are certainly intended to be “wrong,” their ignorance begetting evil, but this wrinkle doesn't deprive these characters of their humanity. When we see Kainé’s traumatic origins in her dreams, we come to understand more of how her community failed her, how the nature of her misfortune has turned her into this woman who’s become jaded and detached from the world. Emil may be the “Ultimate Weapon,” instilling fear and wreaking destruction on a ridiculous scale, but his thoughts and understandings are clouded by a perpetual childhood he can never escape; youthful naivete as a double-edged sword. 

Each facet of Replicant comes back to Taro’s fixation, that idea of trying to figure out what makes one believe themselves to be right. Several sidequests present the player with choices that have no real tangible effect on the world, yet force the player to question their ideals. Would you reveal a lifelong lie to a woman on her deathbed, or maintain the comforting facade that’s become her reality? Do you tell a man who managed to move on with his life the tragic fate of his old beloved? Where most games deliver their morality through binary systems or sliding scales of good and evil, Replicant doesn’t tangibly punish or reward you for your choice. It simply leaves you with your thoughts.

The most impressive thing about Replicant is its skill at not only making compelling and weighty adaptations to the player's perspective, but using that perspective and the mechanical design of the game itself as a metaphor. As the young, pre-time skip protagonist, the world is vast and dangerous, your means of engagement (weaponry) is limited, and the only way to get somewhere is through expedition and adventure. That sense of optimism and wonder vanishes as the player character experiences more and more hardships, the world’s barriers are defined and understood, and the darkness filling its corners becomes evident. While becoming an adult brings with it skill, mastery, and access (including a limited fast travel system), so too do you notice what's been lost with age; populations growing sparser, the disappearance of wildlife representing a dying world.

One of the most commonly discussed aspects of Replicant is the ending to "Route D," in which the player chooses to erase their save file in return for a character’s life. To the player, a save file is something taken for granted; that which is crucial but often overlooked. For the characters in a game, the state of the world is tied to the player’s save file, so when a character sacrifices themselves for the sake of a narrative, the player feels what's intended. With the deletion of the player’s save data not only is the player character turned into a sacrifice, but the player becomes party to that experience of loss. With the erasure of Grimoire Weiss, the perspectives of player and player character become shared, and the game forcefully presents the long-winded deletion, menu item after menu item disappearing in turn, to make that sharing undeniable and textual.

While I absolutely adore both Drakengards, and hold 2017’s Automata as the culmination of Taro’s ideas, it’s Replicant that’s stuck with me. Its creators’ interweaving themes and concepts melding not effortlessly, but beautifully with its own characters and world. Replicant is a perpetual open question, asking the player what they believe in, and what should be considered “right.” Years later in NieR: Automata’s concluding "Ending E," Taro seemingly responds for himself, “Perhaps now we understand that not everything has to have an answer.”


Rosarie Teppelin is a games writer focused on examining critical themes and industry trends. You can find her on Twitter @horngal or her VTuber streams at twitch.tv/currydraco.