The Trouble with Bodies

A Trans Reading of Nier

Cayla Coats is a transfeminine gamer living and working in the Bay Area. They are primarily concerned with the intersection of the construction of queer spaces and narratives within digital cultures. bio-twitter

Last year, my friend convinced me to play Nier for the first time. Upon initially booting up the title, it seemed like a typical grimdark male power fantasy with severely floaty controls and a muted, masculine aesthetic. Today, I consider it the only mainstream video game I have played that embodies the trans experience. Over the course of my time with Nier, what at first seemed to be a weak narrative scaffolding attempting to justify fetishized violence transformed into a subversive work of empathic queerness. The game has a series of endings, each building upon the last, culminating in a nuanced network of meaning-making. Through these multiple playthroughs and endings, a cohesive queering of the text emerged in my player experience, with the intersection of my own lived-in qualia of being a trans person and the game’s transgressive body politics acting as the thematic core. What follows is the result of this—a deeply personal close reading of Nier as a triumph of trans narratives.

Nier is a game obsessed with flawed bodies. Yoko Taro, the director and writer behind the game, engraves this narrative concern onto the main characters themselves. The titular player-character wears an eyepatch in the second half of the game, after a traumatic mid-game battle results in the loss of his eye and the kidnapping of his daughter. Your two NPC party members bear similar markers. Kainé, an intersex woman who lost her family and was outcast by her village, wears bandages on her left arm and leg in an attempt to disguise their possession by a malevolent entity. Emil, a young boy trapped in perpetual childhood after undergoing horrific experiments, is introduced blindfolded to restrain his Medusa-like powers of petrification. Later in the game, after defeating his berserker sister, Emil’s body is transformed into a grotesque, grinning skeleton-like form. In all of these cases, the characters bear these visual markers as signifiers of trauma: Nier’s failure to protect his daughter, Emil’s childhood abuse and, later, mercy killing of his sister, and Kainé’s deeply painful history of marginalization and loss resulting from her possession.

A screencap of a skeleton creature from Nier

The protagonists’ bodies are maps of trauma.

The game also fixates on anatomies as sites of transgression. Emil’s floating, spooky visage and Kainé’s compounded bodily identity of possession and intersex code both of their bodies as para-societal. This is addressed canonically through a short narrative beat wherein the player-character notices that Kainé and Emil always camp outside the city walls while he goes to sleep at an inn. The two are sensitive to the fact that their ability to traverse social spheres is mediated by their visually transgressive bodies, and they relegate themselves to sleeping in the wilderness. Theirs is an existence untenable within the matrices of social expectation. The only option is to walk out into the value-neutral plane of nature. In this universe, bodies record trauma inflicted upon characters, and the more trauma one endures, the less access they have to societal privilege. In Nier, bodies are both the loci of conflict and the levers of power.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the main conflict of the narrative, which I will attempt to summarize here. Over the course of the story, the player kills scores of faceless, vaguely humanoid enemies known as Shades with the aim of rescuing the player character’s daughter. While the Shades are comprised of interwoven, iridescent strings of light, they noticeably expel familiar red blood when attacked. This visual cue pays off in the late game revelation that you, your party, and every character you have allied yourself with over the course of the game are not humans. Thousands of years before the time of the game’s story, humanity was on the verge of extinction because of a devastating disease. An experimental procedure was enacted that separated the souls (referred to as Gestalts in the game’s parlance) from their bodies, thus allowing the surviving humans to live on in their immaterial forms until the disease died out. Years later, a program would construct new “Replicant” bodies that the Gestalts could then return to, finally reuniting body and soul. There was an error in the program’s code, however, which resulted in the Replicants gaining sentience after their creation. Shades are the Gestalts, desperately fighting to regain the physical forms they lost centuries ago, and the protagonists are the Replicants, procedurally generated intelligences under attack by an unknowable force.

The entire conflict of the game is one of problematic bodies. The Gestalts’ inability to control their corresponding Replicants signifies a collective anxiety and mistrust of anatomy—the fear of the physical self rebelling against the mental self. In this battle between Replicants and Gestalts, bodies are the medium of power. They are what’s at stake for either side.

Nier’s fascination with flesh and all that it implies can be contrasted with another narrative in games:Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid titles. Video game journalist David Shimomura writes that Kojima uses characters’ injuries and bodily harm as a way to dehumanize them. Eye patches, robotic prosthetics, and nanobot-suffused blood all serve to transform the different iterations of Snake into tools for privileged entities to use. This replacement of flesh with technology robs Snake of his autonomy and humanity, resonating with the larger narrative theme of macro-level power structures erasing the subjective realities of the individual.
If Kojima utilizes bodies to delete humanity, Yoko Taro uses them to explore it. Nier is awash with the qualia of its characters. The game explores a vast amount of backstory for its main cast through typical expository cutscenes, but also through collectible data files, and, most effectively, through protagonist dialogue that’s triggered as you explore in real time. The player may be wandering a desert, on their way to the next waypoint when Emil will begin talking about how much he enjoys camping under the stars with Kainé, anecdotally detailing a small but illuminating bit of character development. This sort of supplementary exposition gives the player a densely textured sense of each of the main characters.

A screencap of three characters from Nier. One is comforting another.

The characters of Nier are a triumph of fictional empathy.

As you play through the game a second time, through a clever narrative trick you begin to understand the language of the Shades, and thus can understand what they say as you attack them. What was once a genre-typical fight with faceless hordes is subverted—the Shades you fight will become hysterical as you murder their friends, commenting in real time on the deaths you cause. Yoko Taro is dedicated to retaining the humanity in every single one of his characters, even when the player-character is slicing through them with a broadsword. Taken in tandem with the dialectic of bodies as sites of trauma and power, these empathic vignettes serve to deconstruct the marginalizing forces of society within the game. If Emil and Kainé are denied their basic humanity by the power structures at work within the cities of the game, they regain it through the story confronting the player with the unmediated truth of these characters as humans. In this way, Nier privileges marginalized voices within the narrative.

The ultimate example of this sort of narrative empathy occurs right after beating the main story for the first time. Upon beginning a second playthrough, the player is given the option to jump into a bit of post-game content titled Kainé’s Dreams. This content is comprised of a series of short stories, presented as a visual novel. It is within this section of the game that the player learns that the half-possessed Kainé is also intersex—that her body is the site of multiple intersecting and oppressed identities. Based on the strictures of the society she was born into, Kainé’s body is coded as both male and female, human and Shade, and, because her body resists easy categorization, she is marginalized. She is the victim of social, emotional, and physical violence.

This segment of the post-game resonated closely with my experiences as a trans person, and is what initially got me thinking about the possibility of reading Nier as a trans narrative. Hated, feared, and eventually exiled, Kainé’s sense of self was irreparably damaged. She states plainly in these stories that she hates her body, that she wishes she were dead. Society fears and hates a body that resists demarcations of sex or gender, and the owner of that body will inevitably take on that fear and hate. This is a narrative I struggle with personally every day of my life.

Significantly, Kainé’s Dreams stops the ludic momentum of the game. There is no player control, no visual distraction. It’s the game distilled down to a textual narrative, meted out paragraph by paragraph. Nier confronts you with the violence society enacts upon Kainé, and it forces you to wade through it, to dwell within it. This segment of the game pierced me to my core. Reflected in these stories, I saw my own experiences, a shared and resonant pain resounding through my mind.

I do not intend to appropriate the very real and distinct lived experience of intersex individuals. Nor am I trying to imply that Kainé herself should be read specifically as a trans person. Trans and intersex issues are so often conflated by the layman, and I do not want to risk any misinterpretation that could lead to this sort of confusion. I only wish to illustrate that the intense conflict hinging upon Kainé’s body, an anatomy that defies easy classification, is a conflict in which I saw myself. “Being trapped in the wrong body” is a common narrative construction deployed by (and about) trans people in order to contextualize and explain the pain of dysphoria. Kainé exists within a largely similar framework—her body is at odds with the hegemonic ideation of what bodies should be. This narrative sparked a deeply empathic reaction within me. Kainé, for this trans gamer, is the essential core of a major release game that explores the relationship between transgressive bodies and power in a way I haven’t seen before or since. She is not necessarily trans, but she resides at the center of a thoroughly trans narrative.

A feminine character from Nier is lit by soft light

Even when we are brutalized by the world, we remain beautiful.

I composed my undergraduate thesis when I was undergoing a mental breakdown over my gender. As my final fall semester wore on, my attendance became sporadic, I avoided my thesis advisors, and my days became a blur of alcohol, frenzied writing, and intense bouts of panic and self harm. By December, somehow, a sense of resolve had crystallized within me, and I finally started hormone replacement therapy. The slow work of repair had begun.

My body was an atlas of trauma demarcated by tangles of maddening hair, bony protrusions, and the seismic violence of chromosomes and testosterone. Ever since the first pubertal flood of hormones in middle school, my anatomy was a site of betrayal, a map of the ever widening gulf between my inner sense of self and the self I showed the world. I felt outside of society. I felt outside of myself. It is through this lens of experience that I read Nier.

In the final ending to Nier, the player-character sacrifices his entire existence to save Kainé from her (at this point) lethal possession. The player-character disappears from the screen, and then, as if Yoko Taro himself wrested away your controller, your map screen pops up and fades into nothingness. Then your items, quests, weapons, and everything else dissolves away. All of your progress is literally erased from your console’s memory in an act of complete ludonarrative resonance. This loss extends beyond the confines of story and into the player’s reality. This choice has a palpable weight.

It is only after this sacrifice, on both the part of the player-character and the player themself, that we get to see one last sliver of cutscene. It shows Kainé, free of her affliction, shedding an involuntary tear as she struggles to remember what just happened. The cutscene decentralizes the player-character as the narrative focus, with Kainé taking on the role of primary character. Through this focal shift, Nier privileges the marginalized Kainé in a sort of unexpected narrative apotheosis.

To me, as a trans person, this ending means everything. If Kainé, with the weight of systemic trauma hung upon her transgressive, outcast body, is one of the main characters of a video game… if her voice within the narrative is just as privileged as the main character’s… if she is worth saving, maybe it’s okay that I exist. Maybe there is some value to be found within the edges of this broken, beautiful body of mine.