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The Last Of Us Didn’t Get There First

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by Bronwyn Fraser

There was once another fairly prominent game that featured a father-daughter relationship, and it deserves a fond looking-back.

Remember Nier? Probably not. But if you played it, and are lucky enough to have a mindset that appreciates more than your stock-standard FPS, I bet you do. Released in 2010, published by Square Enix and developed by Cavia (now absorbed into its parent company), Nier was one of those rare surprises. It did not receive a great deal of attention pre-release, and not much after it, either. On this list of 30 most anticipated games of 2010, its year of release, it does not even register. Even ModNoation Racers makes the list. Nier fell flat on its face as often as it succeeded in exploring topics video games often avoid or simply don't bother to address, it has not aged particularly well (in two years, the action genre has changed quite a bit) and its third act is about as engaging as a house cat, but Nier had a lot to offer and got very little credit back.

Naughty Dog, developers of Uncharted, are trotting out The Last Of Us and proudly trumpeting that it is, despite having zombie-like plant/fungi-infected mobs of, well, zombies, is not a zombie game - instead it is about a father-daughter relationship, I thought now would be a good time to note that Naughty Dog are not at all pioneers here. See this quote from VG24/7: What the firm wants to accomplish with The Last of Us, and is willing to talk about, is how it is striving to create a game it can “change the ****ing industry with,” because it feels as though “storytelling is so poor right now,” according to Druckmann.  I have all praise for Naughty Dog and Niel Druckmann here, That Last of Us creative director and writer. "Good" storytelling in the games industry is not so much poor as it is hard to come by in massive titles. Even Skyrim struggled to find something special, just as lost as we were amidst its brilliant open-world, which took, perhaps rightly, precedence over story. We're still finding our feet in this medium, so maybe that's why we're struggling to perfect this technique of storytelling though interactivity, but the only way we will improve is by critiquing, sharply and honestly, as Naughty Dog above more or less is.

But Nier had a father-daughter relationship. It had a father-son relationship, an elder sister-younger brother relationship and a bro-mance between a book and a hardened soldier. The characters in this game are not gaming icons, but they are fully three dimensional and human. The close-ups of Nier’s face as he silently reveals all the pain and loneliness of the past five years without his daughter to the newly awakened Kaine, the only one who would truly understand – apart from perhaps Grimoire -  make even the stoutest heart tremble. Grimoire’s pompous trumpeting of elitism and snark reminders of his apparent superiority over every other living creature nurse a smile and often a genuine laugh, which is turned into a sincere feeling of loss at the game's conclusion. It had a story featuring characters with personalities that reflected more than just their drive or purpose for being in that story. But for some reason, this goes under the radar. So, it is time for retrospective.

Nier is a hardened man - enough to make Marcus Fenix look like a spoilt schoolboy. The narrative surrounds Nier (though you can rename him - an annoying trope of RPG's that really had no reason to be here as Nier's customisation is limited - he is his own character, not yours) and his attempts to find a cure to the mysterious terminal disease called the 'Black Scrawl', which his daughter has contracted. The beginning of the game dumps you in some kind of post-apopalyptic modern city, where you familiarise yourselves with the remarkably awesome magical controls on hordes of strange enemies made out of words called 'Shades'. And then, for seemingly no reason at all, the game transports you to a more fantasy-like setting after the tutorial, which is, reversely, 1300 years after the beginning (which, you eventually discover, was not the beginning at all). No explanation is given. The mystery of the story could risk deterring the player, as it is so abrubt and frankly a little absurd, asking the player ‘hold on. I’ll get there. Trust me’. However, fantastic voice-acting helps accentuate Nier's personality and you can't help but be immediately interested in what he has to say, and are therefore enticed to be a part of his journey.

Soon enough, Nier is directed by secondary character Popola (who helps make the third act so awful) to the terribly named 'Lost Shrine' in search of a cure. He instead finds Grimoire Weiss, a talking, floating almanac. Weiss (who, when referred to as such flies into an elitist rant of three-syllable insults, a running gag throughout the story) is more than just a talking book, however, he is one of two books (the other being Grimoire Noir - no prizes for guessing which moral alignment he falls into) that can control devastating magical powers (well, there is at least one more, but it's not 'real', per se). Grimoire grudgingly teams up with Nier to help him search for a cure for his daughter. From there he takes on the role as sidekick and teammate, though all of Grimoire's attacks are blended into Nier's combat controls, so the two feel like one. The two begin looking for 'Sealed Verses'. Boss-Shades, which still exist in this new fantasy world, are eventually found to carry the Verses. Go to a location, kill a boss, find Sealed Verse, gain new magical attack, move onto the next section. But the formula is not linear, which definitely helps the player feel like they are actually in an adventure rather than just a rollercoaster. Nier’s combat is not brilliant. The magic system is fun if over-powered, but take that away and by todays standards the physical fights are clumsy and repetitive. Bayonetta and the Arkham Batman’s have taught us perfect reflex equals a perfect dodge, no matter what. Nier’s evade delivers no such thing. You must evade at the first sign of danger, or you risk being knocked to the ground where it becomes harder to wrestle with the controls to find your feet again. The magic almost makes up for it, but the story is really the saving grace of the game. The way you handle a battle can be interesting, you have twelve abilities but only  four buttons to assign them to. Each is good for a certain situation, so equipping yourself correctly is often satisfying, though it does clumsily pause the battle, wrecking the pace.

Soon after teaming up, Nier and Weiss encounter Kaine, a foul-mouthed half-shade who agrees to accompany them only after Nier goes on for five minutes, in typical Japanese cheesy-fashion, about how living is important and yadda-yadda-yadda. It was a sign for things to come, and the stories worst moments are when the characters simply become inundated with emotion. Second companion Emil is prone to this.

Kaine is an interesting character. Despite her highly sexualised image and hat-trick of near-fatal encounters in which she requires assistance from either you or Emil, she is without a doubt a strong female anti-hero. Her cusses and curses feel natural to her character, and the segment of the game before the main menu features possibly her best performance in the game. She is also intersexed. You only discover this detail in the game's strange but not completely irritating novel segments, which feature the use of audio to underscore the pace of the writing, a fun gimmick, after you have finished the game.

Yes. You finish the game, and then are taken back to a specific section to complete it again with fresh eyes. You discover more, more about Kaine, the Shades, adding extra dimensions to characters. A simple sentence Kaine my utter has now changed purpose, a word or two that before seemed to hang mysteriously now bursts with meaning.

It was audacious, almost, for the game to ask you to play it twice. How many games make you complete the same level twice not as punishment (dying, for example) but simply because it’s part of the game. We all know the frustration of losing a save and having to replay a segment of a game for no good reason other than technology spazzing out on us. And this game actually tells you, play this twice. And then a third time as well.

I did not have the patience at first. Upon being told to play it again without reason, I scoffed and set about polishing some skills on Halo: Reach. It took somebody to tell me I was missing out on a serious surprise from Kaine and the Shades to go back. The Shades, you are told in the first playthrough, are actually human beings’ souls separated from the body in order to escape a terrible disease. When the disease had passed, they would return to their proper bodies called Replicants. Kaine, Nier and Yonah are all Replicants. There are some truly heartbreaking stories to be told from the Shades on this second playthrough. I remember feeling much frustration whilst fighting a gigantic robot which had befriended a tiny Shade barely worth a swing of my sword. I took such pleasure finally killing that Shade, only to find in the second playthrough that that Shade was actually a small child, alive only because his mother sacrificed herself to let him escape from Replicants, who wanted to explore the world with his robot friend.

 

Sucker punch. And it is not the only instance. My heart was further rent upon the discovery that a savage Shade wolf was not all it seemed, in fact it had more in common with Nier himself than I could have possibly imagined. It was only doing what it had to for its family’s survival, brought up on the kindness of its human owner long ago. Bastion is the only game I can think of which equally created a scenario in which fighting really hurt inside, but you knew you had to do it, or else the people you really cared about were at risk. Grimoire Weiss, Kaine, Emil, Yonah – all were at risk if I failed to kill that little boy. This opens up a whole other can of worms on moral choices that the likes of Fable do not even compare to. It is a pleasure to feel pain here, knowing that you are being emotionally invested in this fictional universe.

 

The voice-acting in the game was praised upon release and, to my memory, the best I have ever heard. L.A Noire wavers upon comparison, Uncharted 3 or, released in the same year, Mass Effect 2, feels bland and tasteless. The power in the voice acting is the personalities they imbue. If Naughty Dog want their new title to be more story-driven than others, I hope they put their money towards quality actors. Grimoire Weiss, Nier and Kaine really carry the emotional load of the story, other Master Chief needs a full body suit of impenetrable armour and the removal of facial expression to fully complement his determination, strength, resolve, etc. From his depiction on the game's booklet (which trumps the cover by far), to his dry sense of humour, his cynicism, endless determination and iron will, Nier never falters as the hard-as-nails, soft-as-butter good-guy. And he is no different than his Shade counterpart to which he is Replicant. At all. The mirror image is obvious, and meant to make your stomach tighten in pain - both are fighting for the same thing, only one is going to get what they need for their daughter to survive.

As always, there is so much more to say, but we will have to finish here. In the end, this action-adventure-RPG becomes a story of empathy which asks to you remember to see though another’s eyes. Curiously humanist for a blood-soaked action title, fantastically diverse for a video game.

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