Let’s talk about NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (including but not limited to why it could possibly be called that). SPOILERS of various magnitudes for the NieR series throughout. I won’t be going out of my way to explain any more than necessary—these games are so bizarre that you can eat up a lot of words just describing what happens in them, thereby making most NieR-related articles closely resemble each other, and I’d like to avoid that—but there’s no real way to talk about the new ending without, you know, talking about how these games end.
For the uninitiated, and for the initiated but still confused: The first version of this game was NieR Replicant, released in Japan in 2010. Replicant came to North America and Europe soonafter, retitled simply NIER and localized in an all-but-unique manner: The protagonist was aged up from a teenager to a grown-ass man, and was now tasked with protecting his daughter Yonah rather than his younger sister Yonah. (This version made it back to Japan as an Xbox 360 release called NieR Gestalt).
By making this change but otherwise leaving the text largely the same, NIER gave us a vision of masculinity that was a lot more layered and human than the self-serious, sedan-sized mantagonists on whose popularity the publisher was attempting to capitalize. But equally interesting is the simple coexistence of both versions, neither more definitively canonical than the other, in a medium and a genre often obsessed with abyssal canon-gazing.
Which Nier is the real Nier? Well, all available Niers are real, but none of them is the real one. This of course applies both to NieR the game and to Nier the character(s). To keep it as brief as possible, the big twist in the first NieR is that you’ve been playing as a replicant, a “shell” of a human body meant to withstand a society-ending plague before eventually being reunited with its corresponding soul, or gestalt.
Moreover, the seeming villain of the piece, Shadowlord, has been your own gestalt the whole time, and his not-precisely-evil plan was to make both himself and Yonah whole again. (His name already seemed absurdly on-the-nose, a bad guy named Shadowlord and all, but no, it’s not just that: He’s shadow in the Jungian sense. He’s the you who you deny and reject).
By this time, of course, replicants are sentient and self-sufficient. You know this both because you’ve been playing as one, and because you’ve seen other replicants forming families and communities, forging cultures and traditions… You know, human stuff. Replicants aren’t the “true” humans, true enough, but if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it forms in-groups and out-groups like a duck…
Automata takes this theme and runs with it—this idea that on the one hand, failing to see each other as human is the source of a lot of human misery, but that at the same time, that us-and-them impulse is as human as anything. If we do make artificial peploids that outlive us, the traces of us that they carry are likely to include not only intellectual curiosity and aesthetic pleasure, but also unjust hierarchies and destructive bigotries.
Yet at the same time, as Nic Ruben said,
NieR:Automata’s hope comes from a belief that the future’s going to be just fine without us. From saplings stretching through tattered asphalt towards stray sunbeams, to the husks of amusement park rides creaking against gales, the will to persevere, it says, will survive us, because it was never uniquely ours to start with.
I too find the NieR games oddly hopeful, even as they insist on being the most desperately sad shit of all time. They’re stories about impossible perseverance, stories about what comes after what we (maybe quite rightly) consider the end of the world, stories about how the end is never actually the end. They’re stories about how human nature is stubborn and cruel, but also inventive and adaptable—and that it’s therefore not too late (maybe never too late) to start getting better at this whole being human thing, if that’s even the right thing to call it.
You’re probably aware that a player has to go through the NieR games multiple times in order to see all they have to offer, the repeating events gaining new meaning by their sheer repetition (like you’re becoming a scholar of the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave) and also via added context (like you’re getting glimpses of what’s casting the shadows; often this means you can hear the monsters talk, and find out that they aren’t monstrous at all, or that they’re monstrous for perfectly understandable reasons, much like yourself).
In that way, the NieR games insist on multiplicity. No one view is ever quite complete. There isn’t just one NieR, like there isn’t just one Nier. There isn’t just one ending, or even just one true ending—and if there ever is anything you could feasibly call a true ending, it’s pointedly something that you could just as soon call a new beginning.
This is the joke (or one of the jokes) behind the title of the newly released NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… It’s not only that we live in a boom time for remakes—I do seem to spend most of my PS5 time playing PS3 games—but also that this hunger for revision and remastering shows no signs of abating. It would be folly, or a polite fiction, to think of this NieR as the Definitive Edition, or the Director’s Cut, or whatever. It’s the best and final version, and the one you can most easily buy for now, is all.
And don’t get me wrong: It’s a lovely version. We in the Occident can finally play as teenage Nier, which is neat, and just about all of what was beautiful in the original is beautiful here. It’s playful, and crushing, and earnest, and strange—and meanwhile, some of its cruelties have been mitigated (but not removed!) for the luxuriance of Today’s Gamers. Movement and combat are smoother, bugs less obtrusive. (And the visuals are pretty faithful, fairly prettified).
There are also more specific mechanical mercies for those determined to see the experience through to 100% completion. For example, the drop rates on some raw materials remain deeply cruel, but you no longer have to upgrade every single weapon in order to get the weapon upgrading trophy, so you can opt out of one or two of the specific material grinds that you find most onerous. The grind hasn’t been eliminated, but it has been given a pressure valve or two.
That the grinding is still there at all is, of course, a pretty clear signal that it was always there for a reason. One of NieR’s big formal accomplishments always was using typical JRPG fetch-and-gather quests to make combat into labor. In one sense this valorizes the player’s actions: You’re just a working stuff supporting an ailing family member. Simultaneously, though, it manages to turn murder into drudgery. It feels good and it feels bad, both on purpose.
For me the difference between grinding in a NieR game and grinding in an MMO is the difference between consensually kink and someone looking you dead in the eye and saying that traditional marriage and traditional gender roles should be compulsory. Glorying in being a pervert relies on everyone involved knowing and accounting for our desires being a bit perverse. Informed consent.
The NieR games are indulgent and shameless, while also being deliberate and thoughtful. They fully and unapologetically engage with base desires, from grinding for drops to looking at butts, and they engage with operatic emotionality, and they engage with heady themes. You could maybe call the overall approach horny post-structuralism? Thirsty existentialism? These games try, I think, to incorporate the whole messy, highbrow, lowbrow business of being alive.
With that reading in mind, let’s get into the two games’ [E]ndings. As in, the big, as-final-as-it’s-going-to-get, properly endingy ones.
Nier:Automata is a largely standalone sequel, with the parallels to Replicant initially existing at the margins. People (like me) who started with Automata wouldn’t know who Emil is, or that the presence of those twins carries a greater significance, but there’s no real reason they’d have to know those things. It really isn’t until you start getting into the serious endgame shit that Automata’s narrative starts to rely on some familiarity with the events of Replicant.
That was a big reason that I sought out of PS3 copy of NIER, after all, and I know I wasn’t alone in this. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. And I’ve continued working my way backwards through the Drakengard series, with which the NieR series technically shares a continuity, albeit one connected only in abstract, half-serious ways.
That is, until the new Ending E, added to NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139...
In short, Ending D in the original NieR required the protagonist to give up his existence—as in, not only will he cease to be, but everyone else in the world will forget him ever having been—and the game represented this by deleting your save. Like actually, genuinely deleting it, and showing you line by line all the in-world worldly possessions and knowledge being lost, from much grinded-over weaponry to especially large and hard-won fish.
NieR:Automata’s Ending E repeated this trick, but added another layer to it. The final end credits sequence is a vertical bullet hell shooter, and an all-but-impossible one. You almost certainly fail it over and over, the game goading you to give up and walk away, even this close to the end. Then other ships, with names, start helping you out, and with their help you succeed. Then the game explains that these savior ships were players who sacrificed their saves, and that you can go ahead and return the favor, helping a stranger in exchange for giving up your data.
Replicant’s own new Ending E is, first and foremost, well hidden. After Ending A, you get a pop-up message about how to get to Ending B, likewise past that for Endings C and D, but after Ending D, you just get a “Thank you for playing!” The game plays it straight, like you really are done, as indeed you were at this point in the every previous incarnation of the first NieR game.
So you’ve done Ending D, and as far as you can tell, your old save is gone-gone. But even if the internet hasn’t tipped you off, you might start playing again, because you’re actually not ready to let go and/or because you almost certainly didn’t get the speedrun achievement (which asks you to get to Ending A in under 15 hours) on your first playthrough, and hey, that sounds like good fun. You could do it in much less time than that, so why not. You hit New Game.
The one and only indication that this new playthrough might play out differently is that, if you try to give your new file your old file’s name, you see this:
Otherwise, nothing is different at first. You can’t understand the monsters’ words like you can when perusing Endings B, C, and D. There are no added conversations, no fourth wall breaks.
Then when you get to the point where you’d normally recruit the character Kainé to your party, suddenly you are Kainé, and there’s an hour or so of brand new denouncement.
In the same way that the latter bits of Automata only make sense in the context of Replicant, this last part of Replicant only makes sense in the context of Automata. Each game sort of assumes you’ve maybe already played the other—Automata because why would you even be playing if you’re not a member of the NieR niche, Replicant because oops, actually Automata was a massive hit and Replicant is almost certainly not your first NieR game, dear player. In addition to the one game being a semi-soft sequel to the other, there’s now a recursive loop between the two.
Replicant’s very last image even potentially ties the whole shebang back to Drakengard in more concrete terms, which is quite the full-circle gesture, and a not-insubstantial feat of brand management to boot. It’s one thing for me to get curious and continue working my way backward through Yoko Taro’s messier, full-on weird feelings for weird people phase. It’s quite another for the series to keep doing that. This new Replicant makes all the business sense in the world, but like, when do we start looking forward rather than backward?
Replicant‘s Ending E seems to address that directly, what with Kainé saying “I’m not going back” in a tone of defiant frontierswomanshood. But more than that, it manages to subvert Automata’s own, already-pretty-subversive Ending E.
Deleting your save in Automata is about asking yourself what more you want from the game. There comes a point where you’ve sort of done it all, and where helping someone else almost certainly means more to you than being able to boot up the game and run around a big, already-conquered world, overleveled. If you want to play again, you can always start fresh (and if you want to back up your save before deleting it, there’s nothing actually stopping you).
Ending E in Replicant gives you a reason to play ball and not manually un-delete your deleted save, but more than that, it also adds an important thematic twist by saying, Actually, fuck dying heroically. Fuck self-sacrifice. Helping others is heroic, but as a practical matter, helping others generally means sticking around and doing the often mundane work of living. The most heroic thing you can do, in a sense, is to give up on being a hero as such.
This adds a new profundity to, for example, the fact that completions will likely unlock Replicant’s flower-cultivating achievement last. This is even more true in ver.1.22474487139... on PS5 than it was in the original on PS3; plant growth in NieR is tied to real-world time, and current-gen consoles have fewer options for clock manipulation. So here you are, after the end of everything, gradually Gregor Mendeling your way to that Platinum. Your last great in-game act could be disappearing in a blaze of glory, but it could also be making your garden grow.
Where Automata’s Ending E asks you why you’d want to hang onto your save anyway, Replicant says, That’s your business. Do whatever you want with it, or don’t do anything in particular with it. It’s yours. Your save is, after all, your life in this metaphor. You don’t need any concrete plans for it in order for the simple act of taking it back, of claiming it as your own, to be profound.
You don’t have to justify just living. Similarly, you don’t have to choose between thinking deeply about life and looking at butts. Shamelessness is a word I always, always come back to when I’m trying to explain why I so treasure the NieR games. There’s so much glorious country to explore beyond the borders of good taste, so much philosophy yet to be dreamed of in our philosophy—so much beauty and joy and discovery still ahead of us if only we can remember to give a shit about each other, and to think of being better at being human as an ongoing project.
The past is made up largely of absurd mistakes. The future doesn’t have to be.