There’s a thing that Nier Replicant does where, upon walking into a hallway or small room, your default over-the-shoulder camera angle arcs around to the side of the protagonist and presents a cross-section of the room that looks like something you’d find in a 2D platformer. I’m not sure why it does this. As the game’s constant backtracking and text adventure-as-budget-workaround sections seem to suggest, these perspective shifts cost the team money they didn’t have. It is not a killer feature that helps sell the game, and it doesn’t bring some compelling emotional punch. Instead it reads like some kind of statement; a stylistic line in the sand that prioritizes the game’s freedom to experiment with genre over its content volume and overall polish.
In an interview with Japanese videogame publication INSIDE, Nier Producer Yosuke Saito raves about the brilliance of the game’s initial pitch, describing its many perspective changes as a way of “interactively responding to the player’s actions,” and as “an homage to games from old and new, east and west.” In hyper-fixated auteur fashion, Nier Director Yoko Taro phrases it much more plainly: “I wanted to make a strange game.”
Maybe Nier’s tendency to switch up perspectives is strange for videogames, but in the wider scope of media at large, it’s practically par for the course. When the game’s camera sweeps upward to give us a top-down perspective, it brings a sense of flow and style to the action the way rhythmic cuts bring urgency and clarity to the chaos of Mad Max: Fury Road’s chase sequences. When you enter the dream world of Nier’s Forest of Myth and the game gradually devolves into a lush choose-your-own-adventure text segment, it hits with the off-angled impact of a typography change or diagram placement in Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
There’s no reason why the simple act of rotating a camera or adding text sections to a game should be seen as some kind of avant-gardism. It’s a hangup, really: how rigid is the videogame medium that any deviation from an over-the-shoulder camera in a third-person shooter immediately warrants “experimental” status?
Then again, videogame genres have always been broken. Calling Dragon Age: Origins an action role-playing game is helpful in telling players they’ll spend the next 40 or so hours of their lives scrolling between combat and character menus and drip-fed cutscenes, but even that description does very little to capture the meatiest details: the over-the-shoulder dialogue sequences. The edgy prestige TV opening act that’s such a back-of-box selling point they named the game after it.
The problem is that videogames have a stupid, if practical, tendency to conflate genre with mechanics. It’s a vestige of a relatively recent era where all you did in a game like Prince of Persia was jump from platform to platform. It was so cut-and-dry at the time, it made more sense to just name it a platformer and call it a day. But the medium's changed, and it’s been years now since the average game has given you one single thing to do, or one single way of looking at things. It hardly even feels right to call Super Mario Odyssey a platformer when the game’s central mechanic has you hijacking military tanks, taxicabs, and any number of inanimate objects that alter the flow so drastically that they effectively make strict genre definitions moot.
And then there’s the growing subcategory of games that simply don’t define themselves by their mechanics at all. With little to no shooting or puzzling or inventory management in sight, they stuff themselves into the clown car-esque “walking simulator” genre, a bloated mess of a tag that’s been stretched to cover everything from Davey Wreden’s interactive mockumentary The Beginner’s Guide to the heady terrors of late-era Amnesia. As a nomenclature, it’s not as bad as it could be—as promised, it does tell us what you do in the game—but as the bloat of additional, non-walking features reaches its bursting point, the “walking sim” tag, along with many others, begins to feel about as adequate as “chapter book” as a way of describing Ulysses.
The impulse to classify games by their mechanics is a symptom of yet another impulse that tells us that videogames are, exclusively, defined by what they allow us to do. There is no room for artistry, only systems. No message, only medium.
Nier is broken, it’s messy, it’s repetitive. But as a game whose contemporaries include genre-perfect RPGs and shooters and sandbox games in the form of Mass Effect 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption, its willingness to compromise is more groundbreaking than critics at the time may have given it credit for. Nier is an authorial coup, a forceful seizing of power over the form by way of mechanical eclecticism. Whether it’s the absolutely busted fixed-camera section of the game that pays homage to Resident Evil, the (Replicant-exclusive) ghost ship puzzle box section that plays like a point-and-click mystery, or any number of sweeping paradigm shifts that punctuate the game’s biggest moments, Nier triumphantly throws its middle finger toward a limp videogame medium whose very genres are as restrictive as steel boxes, further enforced with tight budgets that allow minimal wiggle room beyond their tightly-managed walls.
I still don’t understand why Nier shifts to a 2D side angle whenever I walk into a tavern or house. It doesn’t do anything for me. But maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s just an indulgence, a little Yoko Taro-ism sprinkled into an otherwise rote bit of traversal. It’s those details that add up and come to define the work, like the gothic tendencies of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or the lavish costume designs of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Artists have been doing this stuff for centuries, and while it’s undoubtedly more expensive to execute stylistic flourishes like these in videogames, it clearly wasn’t impossible for Nier more than a decade ago, and in fact, it might present the only practical path forward for any modern game developer with ambitions for artistic originality (read: pretty much every modern game developer). Basic authorial flexibility is worth an initial monetary compromise. This is Nier’s stance. It’s not a revelation, it’s the way things should be.
Joshua Calixto writes about technology and culture. Find him on Twitter @hitherejosh.