A few days ago, I posted a small commentary in response to the announcement at E3 of a “Final Fantasy VII” remake.  If you at all pay attention to video games, the odds are in favor of you having heard about this announcement.  Less probable by far is that you noticed this announcement:

“Nier” was described as a “cult classic” sort of game, largely flying under the radar when Square Enix released it back in 2010.  But I have a secret for you, friends, something that I have yet to share on this website:  “Nier” is was motivated me to begin video game analysis in the first place.

Regular readers will know that, about two years ago, I undertook my first project in game analysis by analyzing role-playing mechanics of notable video games and plays.  I have been publishing this work piecemeal on With a Terrible Fate over the past few months — in case you missed it, you can read the treatment of “Majora’s Mask” here, the treatment of Dishonored here in three parts (1, 2, 3),  and the treatment of “Deus Ex:  HR” here.  What readers don’t know is that “Nier” was the game that convinced me that such a project would be worthwhile.

I first came across a used copy of the game in a local GameStop in 2011, asked an employee about it, and heard only that it had received subpar reviews; he suggested that I would be better off playing “Darksiders.”  I took his advice, and — to his credit — I’ve been an avid supporter of the “Darksiders” franchise ever since.  But every time I walked into a GameStop thereafter, something about the cover art of “Nier” and the box’s promise that “Nothing is as it seems” would catch my eye.

Nier Box Art

It took me about a year from that encounter until I finally bit the bullet and bought the game.  As it pulled me through its mystery, through ending after ending, I became convinced that something much more than a simple game was at play here.  I began studying more psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and theater, all with the primary goal of furnishing myself with the background knowledge to understand, appreciate, and explain this game.  And somewhere along the way, it became clear that “Nier” was not the only game that deserved this kind of attention.  Eventually that led to the study I mentioned above; and later, it led to With a Terrible Fate.

Needless to say, I owe a lot to “Nier”; it’s more than a mere game to me, and I could not be more excited about the new entry in the series.  But I contend that it still stands as a masterpiece of a game that has yet to truly get its due, and it’s this of which I hope to convince you, dear reader.

I plan to write plenty of material on “Nier” in the months to come; for now, however, in honor of the E3 announcement, I wish to share with readers my original analysis of the game, which I undertook alongside an analysis of “The Man in the Iron Mask,” roughly two years ago.  The focus is on the peculiar role-playing dynamics of the game, and what they illuminate about identity, existence, Buddhism, and so forth.  I focus on what I call “meta-roles,” which are basically instances of role-playing in which the role-player plays a role (the “primary role”) that is itself also playing a role (the “secondary role”).  This treatment follows the treatment of “Majora’s Mask” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” so it may behoove you to read that before giving this a go, for context.  Note also, to reiterate, that I wrote this two years ago, and so the views contained within it are not to be construed as any current analysis of mine on the game.

One further note on the analytic method at work here (added 24 April 2017). From various commentaries on this work, it’s become clear to me that I wasn’t initially upfront enough about precisely how I approached this project of theorizing about Nier, which has led to some confusion about how the theory presented here ought to be understood. My goal in these studies of role-playing was to identify the structure of specific role-playing dynamics that play central roles in multiple works of art—that’s why, for example, this present work is a comparative study of Nier and The Man in the Iron Mask, as opposed to simply a study of Nier. In order to better isolate and understand these role-playing dynamics, I tried as much as I could to analyze each work of art as a self-contained fictional world: my thought here was that by focusing on only those qualities that are intrinsic to the work of art per se, I could better isolate the ways in which their characters adopted various roles over the course of the story. That means that, in the case of Nier, I was analyzing it purely on its own terms, without any reference to its origins in Drakengard. This is the reason why parts of the following analysis (e.g., the history of Nier’s world, the precise nature of the Black Scrawl, and the motivation for Project Gestalt) are inconsistent with the “canonical” understanding of Nier that does incorporate its roots in Ending E of Drakengard.

To be clear: the interpretations offered are not a result of “overlooking” the material of Drakengard; I’m just using a different analytic approach, which takes as its analytic target just the immediate contents of the work of art in question. It’s true that White Chlorination Syndrome, the disease from Ending E of Drakengard that canonically prompts Project Gestalt, is mentioned in Nier, but it’s only mentioned once, in a document that says “implementation of Gestalt mode can prevent the white chlorination syndrome we recently experienced.” Given my focus purely on Nier, I didn’t take this as a sufficient explanation of White Chlorination Syndrome to introduce it into the analysis; I thought that my alternative analysis did a better job of making sense of the narrative data provided solely in Nier.

Even given this work’s disconnect with the canonical understanding of Nier, I still contend that its treatment of the role-playing dynamics in Nier is illuminating with respect to the world and story of Nier, and I think these are insights that we can easily import to our canonical understanding of Nier. If you’re instead purely interested in canon-sympathetic analysis of Nier, then you would do well to peruse my much more recent work on NieR: Automata, which analyzes the metaphysics of Drakengard, Nier, and NieR: Automata, with a special emphasis on cohering with the canonical understanding of the series’ narrative.

I hope you enjoy this work that motivated With a Terrible Fate, and that you, too, may be motivated to embark on a quest to understand and appreciate this wonderful puzzle of a game.

The Vision of Nier

Treatment II

The Iterative Meta-Role: “A Version of You that was not yourself”

To whom does the true voice speak?

To whom does the true form show itself?

You must answer. –The Doves, “Nier”



  • “Nier,” Square Enix

“Nier” tells the tale of a father’s love for his daughter in a world where “nothing is as it seems.” Nier and his daughter, Yonah, live in a small village of a dying world, 1300 years after the fall of modern civilization. The earth has been ravaged by disease and a mysterious, monstrous race of dark, unintelligible, humanoid creatures called ‘Shades’. Yonah is afflicted with a debilitating, lethal disease called the Black Scrawl, a disease that Nier learns can only be eradicated by acquiring pieces of ancient dark magic known as the ‘Sealed Verses’. On his journey to acquire these Verses, he meets an animate book named Grimoire Weiss, who offers to help him. They learn of a prophecy wherein Weiss must destroy a rival book, Grimoire Noir, in order to eradicate the Black Scrawl. Upon collecting the final sealed verse, Shades storm Nier’s village, headed by Grimoire Noire alongside the Shadowlord, leader of the Shades. The Shadowlord takes Yonah, leaving Nier and Weiss broken from the Shade onslaught. Five years pass as Nier searches for the Shadowlord and his daughter, and he finally finds a path to the Shadowlord’s castle. After slaughtering enormous Shades and acquiring the five components of the castle’s key, he reaches the climax of his journey.

In the castle, Nier encounters the matriarchal twins from his village, Devola and Popola, who reveal that they have been working with the Shadowlord the entire time. They also restore Grimoire Weiss’s memory, revealing the truth: that they, Nier, and everyone perceived as human are not in fact human. 1300 years in the past, civilization had been falling apart, ravaged by a black disease. Research found that the disease could be circumvented by entering “Gestalt mode,” wherein people mutate their physical forms into the beings now known as Shades. They created ‘Replicants’ based on their physical forms, which contained their genetic code such that they might repossess them as their bodies after the disease died out. The Grimoires Weiss and Noir were created as catalysts to initiate the reuniting of Gestalts with their corresponding Repilcants; Weiss, upon being found by Nier and awakened, had lost all memory of this. The coming of the Shadowlord was the beginning of the reclamation: he was the original Gestalt, and Nier was his Replicant.    He took Nier’s daughter to reunite her with the Gestalt of his own daughter, and led Nier to him such that he might claim his body as his own.

In effect, Nier learns at the climax of his journey that he and his daughter are mere copies of real people, designed for the purpose of a contingency plan. He responds to this revelation by not changing his purpose at all: he destroys Grimoire Noir, executes the Shadowlord, and saves his daughter. The game then offers you a second chance to play through the second half of the game, with one key difference: that the words of the Shades, once mere guttural noises to Nier and the player, are now intelligible. At its core, Nier is the story of conflicting selves, and how/whether one may exist as a perfectly independent entity.

  • “The Man in the Iron Mask,” Alexandre Dumas, Narcisse Fournier, and Auguste Arnould (translated by Frank J. Morlock)

“The Man in the Iron Mask” is Dumas’ first treatment of the mythological rumor of a 17th century French prisoner who was made to wear an iron mask throughout his sentence; Dumas would later use the same subject as the basis for his conclusion to the “Three Musketeers” trilogy. The play chronicles the births of Louis XIV and his unexpected twin brother, Gaston. Louis XIII resolves this issue by sending Gaston away to the country to be raised with no knowledge of the kingdom or his birthright, rendering his existence unknown to the world. A Protestant lord of the court, Monsieur D’Aubigné, learns of this deception and conspires to take Gaston and use him to his own ends – namely, installing him onto the throne so as to end the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic hierarchy. However, Gaston is subsequently discovered and imprisoned in the Bastille, made to wear a mask of iron locked upon his face in order to remain anonymous. He remains there for twenty years, D’Aubigné seeking all the while to free him. Gaston finally suffers a seizure rendering him in a temporary death-like state, and D’Aubigné contrives his escape under the pretense of his death, allowing his extradition from the Bastille in a funeral procession. However, by Louis XIV’s orders, the guards mutilate Gaston’s body before placing him in the coffin, thereby ending his legacy of unwitting tragedy.

  • Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism, James A. Brenn

In this study, Brenn compiles a definitive history of the Buddhist practice of self-immolation in Chinese culture by tracing its development from its origins in the auto-cremation of the Bodhisattva Medicine King in the Lotus Sūtra to modern, 20th century examples. In so doing, he is able to assess the historical development of China as reflected in the evolution of this act, as well as placing self-immolation in a doctrinal context with the rest of Buddhism.

Using Brenn’s consolidation of a broad longitudinal cross-section of Buddhist history, we can extract a useful paradigm of doctrinally relevant self-immolation. Particularly useful is his chapter assessing 11th century monk Yongming Yanshou’s involved doctrinal defense of self-immolation as a Buddhist practice. As we will see, the Buddhist understanding of the body-spirit relationship is put in stark relief by the practice of self-immolation. Because mind-body questions are central to our subjects, and because “Nier” features actual instances of self-immolation in “Nier,” this book is particularly useful for honing our analysis.


Introduction: “A body without a soul, that’s what I’ve discovered”

René Descartes redefined the terms of self-conception when he declared ‘cogito ergo sum’. In his meditations, he submitted that we could be certain of ourselves insofar as we were that which thinks, based on our capacity to doubt, think, and be deceived. It followed from this that we are not our bodies – rather, our bodies are merely a component of the external, perceived reality, the verity of which cannot be determined solely by our perceptual faculties. Descartes went on to conclude the certainty of this external reality based upon the axioms of a perfect god’s existence and the perfect god’s desire that we would not be deceived; nonetheless, the cat had been loosed from the bag as far as mind-body separateness (otherwise known as ‘dualism’) was concerned, and this sparked a debate which continues today.

Are humans a mental apparatus – a “mind”? Are we merely composite matter – a “body”? Are we some synthesis of the two, or something else entirely? Mentalists and materialists have been arguing this question since Descartes (well, since well before Descartes, to be frank). This treatment does not intend to present a philosophy by which to attempt an answer to this question; rather, it explores the possibility of the philosophical dynamics of the mind-body problem being applicable to a particular paradigm of the meta-role: the iterative meta-role, a case of multiple self-concepts coming into conflict with one another.

When D’Aubigné, disguised as a guard, finds Gaston in the Bastille after 20 years of imprisonment, he marvels at the manner in which the life and memory seems to have drained out of the man in the iron mask: “At least you haven’t forgotten my name?” he pleads helplessly, “D’Aubigné! What, even my name? Ah, wretch – a body without a soul, that’s what I’ve discovered; save for your captivity, you don’t remember a thing?”[1] What is this body without a soul? In our previous treatment, on “Majora’s Mask” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” we presented a paradigm wherein the role-player was defined as a sum of many hybrid roles, used to create a comprehensive self over the dimension of time; though we discussed this in terms of the role-player taking on the roles of third parties, implicit in our analysis was the suggestion that the player himself was composed of multiple roles due to changes in the self over time. We are now in a position to explicitly examine this relationship of multiple roles assumed by the same person – where ‘person’, as we shall see, will need to have a more precise definition than previously, primarily due to the above mind-body considerations.

When Nier visits the Forest of Myth early in his journey, he must enter the Forest’s Mayor’s dream in order to free the Forest’s inhabitants from a disease which traps them within their dreams. Within the dream, he meets a cloaked man, whom he takes to be the Mayor. The man corrects him: “I am not the mayor you know,” he says, “Now listen to my words. Long ago, I saw a version of you that was not yourself.” This study is a treatment of the meta-role that is “a version of you that was not yourself.” We will consider its dynamics in regards to: the passage of time; the directive of consciousness; and multifarious self-perception/self-identification.

Walls of Identity: Real-Time Stratification of Self

When does one possess multiple selves at a single moment? We may differentiate between the ‘projected self’ – that is, the persona one projects outwardly to society – and the ‘self’ as one understands oneself. This difference between the two is put in stark relief through the theatrical device of ‘asides’: a method of speech in which an actor speaks to himself through the fourth wall, the imagined wall that separates the stage from the audience. Asides are often implemented when a character has a secret motive or purpose: the audience will learn his true intentions, while he simultaneously projects an innocuous, opaque persona to his fellow characters. The device is used with high frequency throughout “The Man in the Iron Mask” – a fact which is significant in relation to the play’s usage of multifarious personas and disguises, the significance of which we shall address later. Presently, we shall instead consider the general theoretical principles behind this technique, and see how it may serve our investigation of role-playing.

We begin by assessing the relationship between the audience and the drama of the stage in relation to the direct interface between the two: the fourth wall. We have previously described the stage as “a distinct but not discrete reality” which provides for the actor establishing awareness within the invented identity of a character, though still acting within his own body. The fourth wall acts as a window into this reality, whereby the audience may perceive the story, while normally not being an active part of the drama. A typical acting technique is “filling in” the fourth wall by imagining what its contents would be within the play’s reality; for example, if the scene is a professor’s office, an actor might imagine the fourth wall as a wall with two windows and a picture of a pastoral scene. This immediately poses a problem: how is mindfulness not irreparably prevented by the literal presence of an audience watching the play, contrary to the imagined fourth wall? The question is too involved to be exhaustively treated with our current purpose in mind; it will for now suffice to treat it in relation to asides.

When analyzing asides, the first question to pose is whether the character taking the aside is speaking to himself or to the audience. There is no doubt that there are certain cases in which actors directly engage the audience by speaking to them (and sometimes even expect answers). This is certainly not typical, however, it completely breaks the fourth wall and largely diminishes the integrity of the play’s distinct-but-discrete reality. Instead, in most cases the character taking the aside is communicating with himself. Yet there must be nuance in just what sort of ‘communication’ this is: for would the vast majority of characters who take asides tend to literally talk to themselves? Moreover, in such close proximity as a stage typically begets, should we expect that other actors genuinely do not hear what was being said? The aside must, then, be said for the audience’s benefit; it is theatrical convention that the other characters cannot hear this internal dialogue, in much the same way that they are “deaf” to any phones ringing in the audience during performance. This is to say that asides exist in a context neither belonging entirely to the audience’s greater reality, nor entirely to the play’s self-contained reality; it effectively bridges the gap between these two realities, much in the same way that the fourth wall does.

Recognizing the function of asides as a bridge between realities, we can think of “taking an aside” as “communing with the fourth wall.” As the fourth wall is a conventional bridge between two indiscrete realities, an actor’s aside is his effort to establish his character’s notion of self in the same way that one might think about oneself inside one’s head. When Gaston travels to the Louvre and is mistaken by Miss Aubrey for King Louis XIV, his twin, he remarks in an aside, “This woman is mad… Her error will serve me.”[2] Asides are often used to this effect: the character taking the aside is framing the plot through the lens of his own intentions. Through this dynamic, the audience is presented with not the singular distinct-but-not-discrete theatrical reality to which we have been referring, but rather to a multifarious image of a distinct world: they perceive what we might aptly call a collective reality, as well as any number of personal realities. The ‘collective reality’ refers to the composite image of events, character relationships, places, and the other particulars that create the perceptual world within which the play’s plot exists. Personal realities, as established by any character who makes a soliloquy or takes an aside, are “the world according to them” – in effect, it references the same chain of events are the collective reality, but provides a unique image of the character because it is distinctly how the character perceives the world – and, by extension, how the character perceives himself. Where there is discrepancy between the character’s behavior in the collectively reality and how they operate within their personal reality, the audience is able to further enter the reality of the play – and effectively perceive a richer reality than their own true reality – by virtue of knowing both the objective reality of the play, and the subjective realities of multiple characters. They see the character’s self-concepts and their personas all at once.

The aside, then, illuminates a duality of self which may be present at any given moment: the self as understood through the collective reality on the one hand, and the self as understood through the personal reality on the other. An interesting presupposition in this duality, which we must address, is that there exists a reality greater than the collective reality: that is, there is some reality that is the sum of collective and personal realities, which is what the audience can perceive from beyond the fourth wall. Can the same be said of personal and collective selves, as we shall call them, in terms more general than theater? We can begin to answer this question by considering the human capacity for metacognition – that is, thinking about our own thoughts. If we define the personal identity as the way one perceives oneself, we see that such self-perception may be well grounded in the mind’s capacity to reflect upon its own thoughts, feelings, etc. Such self-perception grounded in metacognition may be a process entirely internal to the agent, forming a self that is distinct from the persona one projects (in point of fact, the mind’s reflection on the persona may actually further influence the development of the personal self).

Theater as a craft serves as the ideal medium for introducing the idea of an iterative meta-role. The actor plays a character who carries himself in a certain way through the events of the play, but who has an altogether different, personal perception of himself, which may or may not be (though most often is) eventually revealed to everyone in a climactic event, leading to the other characters finally seeing him “as he truly is.” Every actor playing a character who partakes in either asides or soliloquys may therefore be said to be operating in the context of a meta-role. Adding to this the possibility of the same character donning a disguise or some equitable change in role invites the possibility of even higher-order degrees of role-playing. For simplicity’s sake, we shall not explore such higher-order role-playing, and will instead proceed in treating each of these meta-roles in the following pages as distinct cases of iterative meta-roles.


The Iterative Meta-Role: A Definition of Terms

The iterative meta-role paradigm is defined as an instance in which competing conceptions of self exist in a simultaneous framework of self-identification. We can graphically represent this model with the following diagram.

Iterative Meta-Role Paradigm

We see above two iterant roles, labeled iterant roles ‘A’ and ‘B’; they are represented as puzzle pieces that house something identical, present in both, which constitutes the link between each iterant role (this is the black point at the center of each puzzle piece). In our example of asides, we may define the personal self as iterant role A, the collective role as iterant role B, and the identical, inherent aspect as the actor (this inherent aspect will be treated in greater depth later). The two iterant roles are drawn together by the resonance of their identical cores, which necessarily causes friction: the two iterant roles are not identical, or, by definition, there would be no conception of separateness to them; thus, their being drawn together leads to incompatibility by virtue of their differences (this is shown by the puzzle pieces not fitting together). Though far more compelling cases of this friction will be seen in forthcoming discourse, it is evident in the aside case as the conflict which inevitably surfaces in instances when the personal self is ousted into the collective reality: when M. D’Aubigné is revealed to M. Saint-Mars and his guards to be a conspirator in the Bastille (a double-revelation, because D’Aubigné had also been disguised as a fisherman up to that point), all hell breaks loose and D’Aubigné’s plan to liberate and coronate Gaston goes horribly awry.[3] The gamble of establishing a personal self distinct from a collective self is the understanding that, should this personal self be discovered, other people’s perception of one will radically shift. This is a direct result of the separateness of the two iterant roles.

Determination of how the iterative meta-role paradigm fits the general meta-role rubric is not altogether straightforward. Where the player is assuming a role that is one of a pair of iterant roles, we might say that whichever one of these iterant roles the player is embodying at any given moment is the primary role, and that the other iterant role is the secondary role. This is valid, but we must take care to keep the specificity of this statement in mind: particularly because two iterant roles may be active within a single character at once (e.g. Gaston’s personal and collective selves), the definition of primary and secondary roles is contingent on the player’s moment-to-moment understanding of which iterant role he is currently inhabiting.

The following analyses will take this framework of the iterative meta-role paradigm as its basis and examine the way it operates in variant circumstances. We will consider: the nature of what is constant between iterant roles; the amount of choice one might have in moving from one iterant role to the next; the resolution of direct collisions between iterant roles; the co-occurrence of multiple operative iterative meta-role paradigms; and, of course, the implications of assuming such meta-roles for the player.

The Undying Death of a Bodhisattva: The Principle of self-destruction in Self-realization

“What greater evidence of emptiness is there than the ability to give up that which is hardest to surrender?”[4]


Nier’s journey is a point-for-point allegory for the spiritual development of self. Embedded within this struggle is commentary strongly in line with the Buddhist understanding of mind/body relations, particularly as evident in the Buddhist conception of self-immolation. We will begin by establishing the iterative meta-role paradigm as it presents in Nier’s world; we will then examine the particularities of Nier’s journey, incorporating the Buddhist conception of self-immolation along the way, so as to highlights the finer mechanics of this meta-role.

Reincarnation in Nier’s Iterative Dynamic

The overarching framework of iterative existence is “Nier” consists of Project Gestalt, as described in the above game synopsis. We can describe how this Project works in terms of a generic ‘Human A’: 1300 years before the events of “Nier,” Human A was afflicted with a black disease – i.e., the Black Scrawl. In order to sustain his existence, A entered ‘Gestalt mode’, replacing his body with a dark form immune to the Scrawl, while at the same time conveying his genetic identity to a Replicant, a synthetic organism designed to hold his bodily information until the Scrawl subsided, at which point A would repossess his body from his Replicant. The Replicant, self-identifying as human – in fact, self-identifying as Human A in particular, though lacking direct knowledge of the original Human A – may be called ‘Human B’. Human B perceives Human A, if they cross paths, as a Shade: an emotionless, humanoid monster.

We may transpose this framework into that of the iterative meta-role by equating Human A with iterant role A, and Human B with iterant role B. Project Gestalt, then, may be equated with a multiplication of the self: where once there was a single body and soul conjoined, there are now two distinct bodies and souls operating with the same sense of identity. Nier and the Shadowlord both personally identify as Nier. Inconsistency is avoided because each sees the other as something not-Nier: Nier sees the Shadowlord as the King of Shades, a monster bent on taking his daughter for reasons he does not wish to understand, and the Shadowlord sees Nier as little more than an animate puppet; he perceives Nier as his body, attached to an auxiliary sentience. Yet in spite of both entities self-identifying as “Nier,” the consciousnesses of the Shadowlord and Nier are separate entities. This is tragically highlighted in the endgame, where the Replicant Yonah, possessed by the original Yonah, stops the fighting between the Shadowlord and Nier and tells her father (i.e., the Shadowlord) that she cannot repossess this body, though it was originally meant for her, because it now belongs to someone else. “Dad…” she says, weakly walking past Nier to the Shadowlord, “stop. Please… I… I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t need someone else’s body. I don’t want it. There’s another girl inside this body. I can… I can hear her. She keeps crying. She says she wants to see her dad. This girl loves her father too, as much as I do. She loves him just as much. It… it’s not right that she can’t see him.” After apologizing weakly to her father, she walks to the curtained window, which then blows open, engulfing her in light; this light causes the Shade – the original Yonah – to evaporate from Replicant Yonah’s body. In so doing, the original Yonah commits the most blatant instance of self-immolation in the game.

The conflict of the game turns on the way in which the conflict of two clashing iterant roles can be resolved. When two discrete selves that self-identify synonymously encounter each other, what ends can be achieved? Are any such outcomes inherently more virtuous or desirable than any others? To further exacerbate the issue, two additional conditions color the iterative situation in “Nier”:

  1. Gestalt relapse cases. In a situation attributed to creatures “going Gestalt” too early in the restorative process, a state referred to as “relapsing,” a “total loss of self” results, with these creatures losing any former sense of identity and sentience, degenerating into meaningless violence. This, coupled with the fact that Gestalt speech is unintelligible to Replicants, serves to propagate the Replicants’ false belief that Shades are merely violent, witless monsters, to be feared and eliminated. Also compelling is a report on Project Gestalt, restored to Grimoire Weiss when Devola and Popola restore his memory, which states that “rise of relapses was due to an unexpected spike in the sentience of Replicants, as well as a genetic instability within the original Gestalt. (It seems the Original’s effect on bodies that have undergone the Gestalt process was not anticipated in advance.)” This explanation for relapsing immensely informs (and complicates) the dynamic of consciousness between multiple iterant roles.
  2. A potential “chink in the chain” scenario. A haunting fact that is never explicitly accounted for in the course of the game is that mankind was prompted to implement Project Gestalt because of the black disease that threatened their extinction, and, in present time, the Black Scrawl is methodically wiping out Replicants – a mirror-plot shown directly by scenes of the original Yonah ill with the Black Scrawl, virtually identical to the later scenes of Replicant Yonah struggling to cope with the disease. Likewise, the original Nier turned to Grimoire Noire to give him the strength to defend his daughter, in the same way Replicant Nier turns to Grimoire Weiss 1300 years later – both Grimoires being a part of the project designed to propagate humanity against the Black Scrawl. This invites the question of whether this may be, rather than a self-contained scenario, an instance of two chinks in a far longer chain. Could not the “original humans” themselves have been Replicants created by a previous iteration of humans seeking to ward off the Black Scrawl? The infinite history of humankind could be an endless chain of Gestalt Projects, fated not to end with Nier and Yonah as we know them, but, rather, to continue ad infinitum.

It is possible to argue for or against the existence of the chink-in-the-chain scenario in “Nier” because, as mentioned above, the relevant details of Project Gestalt are never explicated. The most compelling piece of evidence provided besides those already referenced is one of the Report Entries from the time during which humankind was implementing Project Gestalt: an early report on assessing the effects of the Black Scrawl concludes by saying that “dealing with the situation will require proving the multiple-origin theory.”[5] The idea of a multiple-origin theory is never elucidated within the game; however, given the above context, it could quite possibly reference a situation similar to our chink-in-the-chain argument. Based on this body of evidence, we will assume that such an existential framework is in fact at work in “Nier.”

A framework for the iterative passage of consciousness between bodies emerges: humanity exists in a state of iterative flux because of the recurrent destructive force of the Black Scrawl. If humans were once “organic” in terms of having natural origins, that was long ago, and they have ever since been the synthetic creations of the previous generation, purposed to propagate this previous generation. The rise in sentience of these synthesized bodies leads to a proportional loss of sentience in the previous generation. The progression of iterations is a transfer of consciousness through endlessly proceeding shells: it is, as the name of the game’s DLC indicates, “The World of the Recycled Vessel,” in which sentience cycles through bodies, ever-chased by the Black Scrawl.

Returning to the graphical representation of the iterative meta-role paradigm, we see that we have illuminated the way in which the “essential core” of each iterant role behaves in “Nier”: if this core is equated with consciousness, then we may say that it travels from one iterant role to the next in progression, as shown by the directional, dashed line through the middle of the diagram.[6] But then we have a problem: how can we assert that consciousness is the commonality between iterations, when we see that both Gestalt and Replicant have a sense of separate consciousness? We examine this seeming contradiction by considering the way possession operates within the iterative meta-role paradigm.

The House versus the Home: Possession within the Iterative Construct

Recurrent throughout “Nier” is the theme of possession, the assumption of partial or total jurisdiction of a sentient being’s body by another sentience. We have already mentioned Yonah’s possession of her Replicant, what may perhaps be seen as the central possession of the game. There is also a closely chronicled possession of Nier’s companion, Kainé, by a Shade, Tyrann; further, there is an instance of mass possession, in which a population of Shades possesses a village of Replicants. These three incidents will here be considered in detail to further refine the notion of transitive consciousness.

The Aerie: Restless Phantoms

Early in his journey, Nier visits the village of the Aerie, a collection of houses built into the side of two cliffs on the side of a gaping fissure, with bridges connecting each side. The villagers are shut-ins, aggressively distrustful of outsiders, including Nier, scarcely deigning to speak to him aside from demanding that he leave. An air of tension and fear permeates the village, lending a nonspecific sense of discomfort to the valley. Later, near the end of Nier’s journey, he has occasion to return to the village after Popola receives a letter purportedly sent by the chief of the Aerie, saying that he has information recording a piece of the key to the Shadowlord’s castle. It turns out to be an ambush: the letter was not sent by the chief, but rather by a Shade. Nier arrives to find the Aerie filled with villagers; he approaches one and asks if he has any information regarding the letter’s contents. The villager responds by asking if Nier and his companions are there hunting Shades. “Exactly!” replies Weiss, “Our aim is to defeat every last one.” “Every… every last one?” The villager replies, a tremor of fear in his voice. He repeats the words over and over again as he and the villagers around him shed their former appearances and reveal themselves for what they are: Shades possessing Replicants. Nier then must slay the possessed villagers, while those who are still shut into their houses decry Nier and his companions as “the true monsters.” A billowing dark vortex then collects in the center of the village, condensing into an enormous Shade resembling an eyeball sitting within a lotus. The screams from within indicate that the villagers have been swallowed by this mass – and, apparently, have lost their sense of identity in the process. “Our village…” the voices emanate from the eyeball, “our world… Where am I? What… am I?” This leads to Emil, one of Nier’s companion’s, faltering, saying “Wait, no, stop, I think those are people!” Weiss counters, steeling Nier’s will: “Hold nothing back,” he commands, “those are Shades!” Nier goes on to slay the Shade, with the battle culminating in Emil losing control of his power and engulfing the Shade and the rest of the canyon in a blinding explosion of energy, obliterating any trace of a village ever having been there.

On the second playthrough of the game, just before Nier returns to the village for a second time, a scene is presented to the player of the possessed villagers speaking. “We do not desire,” they say, “We do not desire needless conflict. If we can continue to live with humans… then we can continue to live peacefully. But that man [i.e., Nier] will come. Yes. That man will come. He will kill us all. He will kill our women and children. What should we do? What can we do?” The villagers speak with the monotonous affect of having been brainwashed. Further, those villagers who are seemingly not possessed still seem to bear attachment and affection for those who are. A poignant example is when Kainé is fighting a seemingly human, female villager, whom she knows to be a Shade, while the villager’s younger brother stands behind his sister and begs for Kainé to stop hurting her. Even after she sheds her human guise and becomes an obvious Shade, her brother stands by her: “Move back,” Nier admonishes him, “Your sister’s one of them now.” “I don’t care!” the boy defiantly proclaims, “She’s my sister and I love her.” He goes on to join the other townsfolk in decrying Nier and his companions, saying, “You people are the true monsters!”

We appear to have in the Aerie an instance where the Gestalts returned for their bodies, thereby establishing a microcosm of what the final fulfillment of Project Gestalt might look like. We see an imperfect dichotomy in the perception of this event in the villagers’ perspective and the Shades’ perspective: the relationship seems to sit very well with the Shades, whereas it leads the villagers to be distrustful, reclusive, and xenophobic. When Nier begins slaughtering the Shades, they cry out to him, asking him “Why have you done this? We just wanted to live our lives in peace!” The Shades seem to perceive their situation in the Aerie as a sort of bastion, comparable to the ballroom in the Shadowlord’s castle, which is literally referenced by the Shades as “our final bastion.” There, the Shades inhabit phantom silhouettes of human ballroom dancers; here, they inhabit shells of villagers. Both imply a clinging to something that is no longer truly theirs – particularly where as the Aerie villagers, with individuated consciousness, are concerned. So we see that the realization of Project Gestalt, designed to propagate human spirit and consciousness, results in a clinging to life that ought to exist in its own right, separate from the past generation.

The sentiments of the villagers (i.e., the Replicants) are more nuanced, probably because they are the possessed, rather than the possessors. They cling to their way of life and fear the outside, which creates a disconcertingly dichotomous relationship with Shades: they fear the eternal threats of Shades, particularly in the case of the enormous lizard-like Shade, which periodically lays waste to the village until Nier kills it early on in his journey; yet they cling to their family members – who, in large part, are all they have – even when they discover that these family members are possessed by Shades. The incident of the brother and sister related above is particularly telling in this regard: even when the boy’s sister is shown to be a Shade, the boy does not stop associating with her through the relationship of brother and sister. This implies that the boy identified his sister and the Shade as synonymous on some level; otherwise, he would not be able to transfer his feelings for his sister to the Shade so unreservedly. Thus, inasmuch as a third-person perspective is concerned, the tension between Replicants and Shades only seems present while Shades are seen as separate entities. Once they bear the identities of Replicants, the other Replicants seem perfectly willing to accept them.

There is, of course, the remaining question of how the enormous lotus-eye Shade plays into the relationship dynamics we have just enumerated. In order to place this Shade within our operative framework, however, we must first consider the Replicant-Shade tension from a first-person perspective – that is to say, how do the possessor and possessed interact as an internal system? Fortunately, we are provided with several instances, and one substantive case study, with which to understand this system.

The Kainé Complex

Kainé was as lonely as Skull Kid. Raised by her grandmother on the outskirts of the Aerie after her parents were chased from the town, she was brutally discriminated against and bullied by the townsfolk for being different; although this difference is never explicated, Kainé’s flashbacks to her youth suggests that this difference is that she is intersex – the town bully Dino taunts her by asking “Watcha acting like a girl for, huh? Everyone knows what you really are!” Kainé herself later comments in a similar vein to her grandmother, saying she wishes she was dead because everyone thinks she’s a “freak”: “my body,” she says, “It’s… it’s not… normal.” This difference labeled her as an outsider, and would have been the death of her if her grandmother hadn’t been a pillar of strength in her life.

When Kainé had grown to young adulthood, the enormous lizard-like Shade prowling the Aerie region attacked her home, killing her grandmother and mortally wounding Kainé when she sought to save her. She is ready to die, lost in the failure of not being able to save her grandmother; then, she is approached and subsumed by a vagrant Shade, Tyrann, who cohabitates her body in exchange for giving her the strength to live. This begins a long and dynamic symbiotic relationship, which we can trace over Nier’s journey to outline the possessor-possessed relationship – a relationship we shall term the Kainé complex, after its namesake.

Kaine Complex Part I

Kaine Complex Part II

Kaine Complex Part III

The above diagram illustrates the seven stages of the Kainé complex as derived from the case of Kainé and Tyrann specifically; we use as our template the most common symbolic representation of the Taoist yin-and-yang concept. In its barest form, yin and yang is the understanding of all existence as containing both components of a pair of opposite concepts (masculine/feminine, life/death, good/evil, etc.). In our model, the black side represents Tyrann (black in association with the darkness of the Shades, as opposed to any comparison between Tyrann and yin) and the white side represents Kainé. We shall see how procession though the seven stages traces a drastic transformation of self-perception, as well as alteration of the two iterative roles themselves.

i.  Establishment

When Kainé is left to die by the lizard Shade, she finds that she has lost an arm and an eye in the struggle.   When Tyrann, in the form of a primordial dark fluid, begins to bond with her, she finds herself being reconstructed.

The slime reached her face, crept up past her nose, and slowly oozed into the socket of her missing eye. The moment it touched her brain, Kainé was struck by the most powerful sensation she’d ever felt in her life. It was ecstasy. She wanted to scream with delight, but all she could manage was a small, whispered moan. “Feels good, don’t it?” asked the voice with a chuckle. “Yeah, what can I say? I know how to please the ladies. Now gimme that body. Come on, gimme the body and I’ll give you more of this feeling. It’s a fair trade.” A black lump began to protrude from Kainé’s side. As she watched, it grew longer and thicker, eventually taking the form of her missing arm. I can see better, she thought. My eye must be growing back, too.

Critical in the establishment phase is the precondition of a gap in the possessed, which the possessor can fill. If the possessor’s target has a sense of wholeness, then any possession that occurs will operate within a different framework, on which we will later touch. For a sense of symbiosis to be present in possession, establishment, in which the possessor convinces the possessed that he or she will be more complete with the possessor’s presence, must occur. Tyrann does this on two levels: he literally rebuilds Kainé, endowing her with the augmented strength of a Shade; but he also, in so doing, grants her the power to fulfill her wish of avenging her grandmother’s death.

“So, uh, listen,” purred [Tyrann]. “I know this whole possession thing seems a bit sudden, but it ain’t all bad. There’s plenty in it for you, too. I’m a very powerful creature, Sunshine. And now that power belongs to you. You got enemies? People you wanna kill? I can make it happen! That little fat kid who kept picking on you? That big ol’ Shade that squashed your granny? We’ll wrap ’em up in their own assholes! No more abuse for you, Sunshine! No more pain!” “W-wait,” said Kainé. “You’re a Shade. Why would you help me kill another Shade?” “What, ya think I’m some kind of racist? Some killing snob? I don’t give a good goddamn who ya murder, honeypants. I just wanna drink from the well.”… “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I think this can work. I’m gonna find that Shade, and I’m gonna strangle it with its own guts. And when I’m done, I’m gonna do the same to you, Tyrann. Count on it.”

This is how Tyrann cements the symbiotic relationship between himself and Kainé. She needs him to achieve her ends, and her hatred fuels Tyrann’s boundless bloodlust in return.

ii.  Desensitization

Equally as convenient for Tyrann’s purposes as Kainé’s gaps is her general hatred and resentment, the result of her grandmother’s death and conditioning at the hands of the Aerie townsfolk throughout her life. Tyrann doesn’t need to respect Kainé; in fact, his mocking tone and assertion of his own authority over her only furthers his ends by fueling the fire of hatred within her, compelling her to more killing and bloodlust, Tyrann’s own goal. Through this vicious cycle, Tyrann clouds Kainé with his own traits of hatred and bloodlust, and she becomes aware of any distinction between herself and Tyrann. This delocalized darkening of Kainé’s character accounts for her increased aggressive lone-wolf nature, lashing out at any outsiders, including Nier upon their first encounter. Her initial refutation of Nier’s offer to help slay the lizard-Shade illustrates this fact: she tells Nier and Weiss to “Stay out of my way!”, asserting that “He’s mine, you idiots!” Her personal vendetta, along with her cussing habits stemming from her grandmother, are the perfect entry points of negativity for Tyrann to augment, molding Kainé more in his image.

iii.  Disruption

Were the status quo at the point of desensitization to be maintained indefinitely, Tyrann would eventually consume Kainé, her aggressive instincts, hatred, and resentment amplified until she perfectly associated herself with the Shade. However, Nier’s intercession disrupted this process, sending Kainé on a different trajectory altogether. Partaking in Nier’s journey changes the way in which Kainé associates with her feelings of hatred, aggression, etc., because Nier is fighting with the same ferocity for his daughter. The difference is that, whereas Kainé fights with malice in her heart (thereby feeding Tyrann) out of the need to avenge her fallen loved one, Nier fights from the immediacy of love that comes from needing to save his daughter before it is too late. Nier can rightly be said to draw his strength from the same place Kainé did back when she was fighting to save her grandmother from the Shade, before it was too late.

Kainé’s journeying with Nier reawakens her to the sort of strength that does not come from vengeance. This is put in stark relief during the ultimate slaying of her grandmother’s killer and the immediate aftermath. Two pivotal events occur to precipitate strong disruption: firstly, in the middle of the battle, as the Shade becomes aware that Nier and Kainé pose a reasonable threat, it changes tactics, releasing a hallucinogenic vapor which causes Kainé to hear her grandmother calling out to her. “Come to your Grandma’s side,” coos the unsettling overlaying of her grandmother’s voice and the Shade’s voice, “You’ve been lonely for so long. So much suffering, so much pain, why go on living anymore?” These words snap Kainé out of the Shade’s spell, and she faces it with more determination than ever before. “My grandmother would never say something like that!” she shouts back to the Shade, “She’d never tell me to give up on life! Never! I’ve spent my entire life searching for a way to avenge her death. She gave me the strength to deal with this goddamned mutant body.” In directly examining her purpose for vengeance at face value, Kainé is able to reassert the seat of love from which her purpose is drawn, as opposed to the hatred that Tyrann embedded deep within her.

Secondly, after the Shade is slain, Kainé is confronted with a loss of purpose. She is physically and mentally spent, and when Nier tells her she’s “got to go on living,” she replies by asking him, “Living? What for? I had my revenge. Now it’s over.” Weiss chastises her by saying “A true warrior would fight! They would give all in the service of their friends!” “…Friends?” Kainé weakly replies. “Yes,” Nier tells her, “You and I are friends now.” In that single moment, Kainé gets up, and chooses to move forward from a place fueled by friendship and the present-tense compassion of friends, rather than from the grip of a vengeful past – the vengeance, Buddha would say, of the Hungry Ghosts. In this shift of perspective, Kainé is better able to marshal and contain the dark feelings within her, and asserts a self that establishes an existence that is defined more by her than by Tyrann.

iv.  Consolidation

As Kainé continues to marshal her darkness, she compartmentalizes the part of her that was cultivated by Tyrann, such that she might better embrace the new purpose she has discovered; all the time, however, she is cognizant that she cannot eradicate that compartmentalized part of herself, and she knows that, if it is unleashed, it will serve as a doorway for Tyrann, who will take total control of her. Consolidation is a combination of acceptance and fear, as shown when Kainé gives advice to Emil upon their first meeting. Emil wears a blindfold because his gaze petrifies everything upon which he turns it, and she tries to console him by relating her own isolating “power”: the Shade with whom she lives.

Your eyes are not a sin. Don’t ever be ashamed of them. They’re part of you. A vital part of you. Do you understand?… This arm? This creature? …It’s me. I thought I’d need it only until I found my vengeance. And once that happened, I figured it was all over. But there’s a reason I’m alive. …That my arm is alive. And there’s a reason for your eyes, too… But listen. If this Shade should ever…

At that point, she leans down and whispers instructions to the child that make him shudder and visibly recoil. Based on later evidence, we may presume that she is telling Emil at this point to kill her, should the Shade ever take control of her body. She recognizes that Tyrann is a part of her identity now, but sees him not as a cohabitant, but rather as a piece of her, as much as an arm, or eye. He is, of course, a very dangerous part, with the potential to seize control of the whole, but there is a definite sense of control that comes with consolidation.

The fear of losing control, also present in consolidation, is not unwarranted. After Kainé is mortally wounded in combat later on, Tyrann capitalizes on the opportunity to reanimate and take control of her body. When Kainé’s strength is extinguished, the consolidated power of Tyrann is unleashed, creating a stronger, more purely dark and animalistic adversary than ever existed in the desensitization phase. Kainé barely has time to warn her friends to get back before she transforms into a Shade manifestation, attacking them with avarice. Thus, as more control is gained by the possessed, more danger accrues in the potential relapse – a haunting paradox reminiscent of the increasing severity of each progressive occurrence of a thought that one is trying to suppress.[7]

v.  Equilibrium

Finally, the point of equality and balance that embodies yin and yang is reached. In the possessive-self dynamic, the implication appears to be that this harmony can only be achieved by the possessed, in the state of consolidation, relinquishing the fear described above and embracing the possessor from a place of compassion and empathy. Kainé achieves this with Tyrann at the game’s climax in the Shadowlord’s castle, when Tyrann is reveling in the unfolding slaughter of Shades – his fellow people, we will recall – and she calls him out, not in his capacity as her possessor, but as a person in his own right.

Tyrann [referring to a monstrous Shade attacking Nier & Co.]: Look at her! So full of scorn and hate! …She’s just like you, Sunshine [i.e., Kainé]! Bwah hah hah hah!

Kainé: …Like you’re any different.

Tyrann: Eh?

Kainé: Hate is just another crutch for you.

Tyrann: Hey now –

Kainé: You’re in pain. You’re lonely. No one likes you. So you try to dull it all with violence and hate.

Tyrann: I’m not like that at all!

Kainé: It’s okay.

Tyrann: …It is?

Kainé: Look, I’m the same way.

Tyrann: ……

Kainé: But just realizing that isn’t going to help. It’s too late for us now. It’s too late for everything. We’re too far gone, you and I.

Just as Kainé had to accept that the aggression and hatred of Tyrann were part of her, so too does she recognize that her story of rejection and loneliness is Tyrann’s story. On the most basic level, what real reason could there be for possession outside of loneliness? The speed with which Tyrann shifts from denial to acceptance indicates the truth of Kainé’s insight; now, Tyrann and Kainé see each other as indivisible pieces of their own self. This is by no means a happy ending – after all, their major point of unity is the fact that they are both “too far gone” for help. Yet it does allow for a certain measure of internal piece within the dynamics of possessive selfhood.

vi.  Bounded homogenization

In the Taoist conception, the yin-and-yang paradigm ends with the aforementioned harmony. In our possessive construct, however, we see that this harmony itself actually triggers two latter phases. The first is a result of both possessor and possessed gaining sense of oneness as a result of equilibrium, while still being two separate consciousnesses within one body. This homogenization is the first step to the dissolution of individuated possessor and possessed selves; it is visible in the game’s ultimate conclusion, when it is revealed that the Black Scrawl disease is in its final stages with Kainé, about to consume both her and Tyrann. It is a process, Tyrann says, which causes Gestalts to “lose their minds. [Kainé’s] memory and mine will be completely overwritten!”

In concert with this impending threat, Tyrann and Kainé appear to reach a level of “sameness.” Tyrann becomes overtaken by guilt for the death and chaos he has wrought with Kainé, while Kainé refers to Tyrann as “Sunshine” – the pet name he had used for her throughout their time together.

Tyrann: Y’know, Sunshine, that Black Scrawl has almost completely taken you over.

Kainé: Yeah. I know.

Tyrann: But goddamn, we had fun, huh? Killing and killing and more killing… What a rush!

Kainé: Yeah? Ngh… [in pain from Black Scrawl]

Tyrann: Wait… No. No, no, no! It wasn’t fun at all! I turned you into a killing machine! I spread evil and chaos around the world! But it all feels so empty now! Why!? I don’t understand!

Kainé: Sorry, Sunshine. Maybe I’m just nicer than you thought.

Tyrann: Stop! Don’t treat me this way! I hate it when people are nice to me!

In effect, though Kainé and Tyrann are still have their individual identities, they are both now identifying in a stronger way with the traits of the other; where harmony once existed, homogeny comes to take its place. Interestingly, it is at this moment of sameness, as Kainé and Tyrann seem to be slipping into a singular identity, that, after both their voices plead for Nier to kill them before they lose sanity, they both lose control over Kainé’s body, succumbing to the madness of the Black Scrawl.

vii.  Dissolution

We see from the dynamics of bounded homogenization that a state of oneness over and above dichotomous harmony is not peaceful, but is rather a violent, threatening process, destroying any measure of control held over the body by either sentience. When Nier is finished battling the out-of-control Kainé, Tyrann tells him that there are two ways to save her: “One is to plunge your sword into her chest [stabbing her in the heart]. That’s what she wants, after all. Freedom from burdens. Freedom from life…. The other way… is to make her a normal human being again. But to make that happen, you gotta trade your own existence for hers.” “You’re the Shade inside Kainé,” Nier replies, “Why are you trying to help her?” “Probably for the same reason you are,” Tyrann answers.

When all comes to all, the only solution to the problems of bounded homogeny is nothingness. Either the composite system surrenders rational command of its faculties, as seen in Kainé’s descent into madness; or, Kainé and Tyrann are liberated through separation from each other, which either must come at the price of separation from an operative body altogether (i.e., death) or by a rebirth through an existential trade (Nier erasing his existence for Kainé to get a normal human life). Therefore, the system of possessor-possessed, as it functions in the Kainé complex, is only functional so long as the possessor and the possessed are distinct entities. Once they become identical, functionality is rendered impossible; in all of the three above solutions, the body that has been the object of such a long territory dispute is forfeit to both parties.

Analysis of the number of unique iterant selves present in each phase of the Kainé complex allows us to answer our original question regarding the internal relationships and self-concept of a possessor-possessed system.

  • Establishment is the only stage where two discrete bodies – that of the possessor and the possessed – are present, as it is the process of two separate entities unifying. Both parties have a contained self-concept that is undivided; thus, the establishment phase is characterized by two bodies and two selves.
  • Desensitization is the procedural delocalized restructuring of the possessed, such that the possessed characteristics that favor the possessor are augmented. This is an alteration of the possessed’s sense of self, but not a discrete differentiation. This phase is therefore characterized by one body and two selves.
  • Disruption is predominantly a transitional phase, being the determinant of whether the system becomes entirely subsumed by the possessor, or if it instead follows the subsequent developmental trajectory of the Kainé complex. The major shift in self here is the possessed’s reclamation of their sense of purpose pre-establishment. The content of the possessed’s self, manipulated by the possessor, is still identified by the possessed as a part of that same self; it does not yet have the separateness of being directly linked to the possessor. Therefore, while the quality of the possessed’s self has again changed, the system is still in a state of one body and two selves.
  • Consolidation majorly shifts self-dynamics because the possessed, in establishing a greater sense of control over their realm of self, has solidified a sense of boundaries that have hitherto been fluid between possessor and possessed. As graphically depicted above, this process is undertaken through the possessed “walling off” a part of their self – a process which isolates the part of their character with which the possessor is intrinsically linked. In so doing, the possessed splits their self into two distinct entities: the self composed solely of those traits common to the possessed and possessor which the possessor augmented during desensitization, and the self which is all the remaining content of the possessed. Viewed through this lens, we can appreciate the element of fear which serves as counterpoint to the control in consolidation: anything which triggers or otherwise awakens this new self serves as an open door through which the possessor can seize control, because the new self’s character is identical with that of the possessor. Consolidation is thus a state of one body and three selves. (These selves, we ought to note, are not entirely equal in magnitude, because the newly-consolidated self is derivative of the possessed’s former sense of self.)
  • Equilibrium is characterized by the same process of consolidating a derivative self, but with the possessor’s self as opposed to the possessed’s self. The derivative selves of the possessor and possessed are antithetical in a similar way to the relationship between the greater selves of possessor and possessed, with the major difference being that, whereas the two larger selves create friction when brought into the same body, the two derivative selves, in corresponding to the opposing larger self (i.e., the possessor’s derivative self corresponds to the possessed’s larger self and vice versa), reduce this friction. We see here a system described by one body and four selves – two greater, two derivative.
  • Bounded homogenization complicates the notion of self because it presents a situation in which we can reasonably argue both that there are two operative selves, and that there are no operative selves. There are two selves in the sense that two distinct consciousnesses still exist – in our example, we see Kainé and Tyrann still communicating with each other during the time at which bounded homogeny takes place. Yet the defining quality of bounded homogenization is an inability to self-identify due to the intermingling of each derivative self with the greater self from which it is derived. This confusion and inability to identify suggests that there is no coherent sense of self extant during this phase. To resolve the difference here, we will clarify our language by distinguishing between consciousness and identity: two forms of consciousness still exist within the body, capable of receiving input and cogitating on the same; but their notions of what they are (i.e., their identities) are no longer coherent. What, then, do we mean by the notion of “self”? For our purposes, we may reasonably require that a complete self have both a consciousness and a notion of its own identity. Using this logic, this state is defined in terms of a single body and no selves.
  • As previously discussed, dissolution brings nothingness. It is the loss of the cohabited body, thereby fundamentally changing the two consciousness forms, if they remain. For the conscious forms to continue, a new bodily manifestation must in some manner be established. Therefore, the system as defined by the possessor, possessed, and body is concluded, the remaining conscious forms unbound to each other – and, by virtue of lacking a body, unbound to physical reality.

The progression of the Kainé complex may be boiled down to the following statement of change in self-concept: two separate entities become interdependent, establish unique derivative selves as analogues to each other, and finally lose their conception of self through a dissolution of boundaries between their larger conception of self and their compartmentalized derivatives.

There are, of course, significant differences between the mass possession of the Aerie and the possession of Kainé by Tyrann: Tyrann is an entity unrelated to Kainé, whereas those Shades seeking reclamation of their body appear to repossess their specific Replicants; Kainé, for the most part, retains control over her body, whereas those possessed in the Aerie seem to be literal shells, with the Gestalt-Shades being the sole operative sentience; and, similarly, Kainé and Tyrann have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, established in the form of an agreement between the two (even though Tyrann gave Kainé little actual choice in the matter), whereas signs point to most Shades who reclaim their “corresponding shells” doing so without regard to the will of the Replicant. These differences must be reconciled before we can return our attention to the lotus-eye Shade of the Aerie. To this end, with the theory of the Kainé complex in hand, we will examine the more presently relevant possession case of Yonah, and synthesize a modified framework to employ in the case of the Aerie and beyond.

Yonah: the timeless daughter

The progression of Gestalt Yonah’s relationship with Replicant Yonah is not nearly as extensively documented as Tyrann and Kainé’s relationship. As such, we will approach the comparative analysis by locating points of obvious discrepancy between the two relationships, and thereby synthesize an understanding of Gestalt-Replicant repossession.

We noted above that perpetuation of desensitization without a catalyst initiating disruption would lead to the possessed being subsumed by the possessor; this is exactly what seems to have happened in cases such as the Aerie villagers and Yonah. This is not surprising: we have shown desensitization to actuate itself through the possessor prompting the possessed to associate with it via delocalized augmentation of their common traits. Tyrann is able to initiate this process, and he is an entity entirely unrelated to Kainé. When the case is instead that of a Gestalt and its corresponding Replicant – a shell literally designed from the Gestalt’s genetic code – we should that the associative points available for exploitation in desensitization are far more numerous. In fact, taking as our foundation the notion that these iterations are connected by a congruent sense of self-identification (though separate consciousnesses), it follows that the entirety of the Replicant’s identity can be used as an associative point of entry during desensitization. Thus, the possessor proceeds to function as the body’s operative consciousness, taking over all operations formerly executed by the possessed’s consciousness.

Yet even though the possessed’s conscious authority is overridden, this consciousness is not erased. We know this from Gestalt Yonah’s account to her father, the Shadowlord, prior to her self-immolation: “There’s another girl inside this body,” she tells him, “I can… I can hear her. She keeps crying. She says she wants to see her dad. This girl loves her father too, as much as I do. She loves him just as much.” We learn three things from this: Replicant Yonah’s consciousness is still extant; her consciousness is inhibited from perceiving reality (her father, Replicant Nier, is in the room during this exchange, but she cannot see him); and she is in a state of anguish. In three ways, this is an inversion of the dynamics enumerated in the Kainé complex:

  • In the Kainé complex, the possessed retains most bodily control; in Gestalt-Replicant repossession, the possessor assumes bodily control.
  • In the Kainé complex, the consciousness not in control of the body (i.e., the observing consciousness) is aggressive and willfully present; in Gestalt-Replicant repossession, the observing consciousness experiences claustrophobic feelings of being trapped. Though the observing consciousnesses in both cases seek control, their tenors are diametrically opposed.
  • In the Kainé complex, the observing consciousness is fully aware of reality external to the body, as shown by Tyrann’s ceaseless internal dialogue on transpiring events; in Gestalt-Replicant repossession, the observing consciousness’s perception is barred from external reality.

The third of these contrasting elements is further articulated by the events surrounding Replicant Yonah’s return to control over her body. After Grimoire Weiss sacrifices his physical form to disarm the Shadowlord (another instance of self-immolation, to which we shall return later) and Replicant Nier subsequently executes the Shadowlord, Nier runs to Yonah to find her on the floor in a comatose state. As Nier stands helplessly before her, Weiss’s voice permeates the room, a sentience without a body, and tells him how to regain his daughter.

Your Yonah is safe. Do not mourn her, and do not give up hope. Instead you must call her back to you… Use your memories. Recall the times you spent with Yonah. Present her with proof that the two of you live still, and that your lives have meaning.

Nier’s consciousness then mingles with Yonah’s in a sort of spiritual communion, exchanging information about her favorite things.

What’s my favorite food? Cookies! What’s my favorite book? That’s my magic storybook! What’s my favorite place? Home! …As long as you’re around. What’s my favorite flower? The Lunar Tear, of course! Okay, one last question: who do I love more than anyone?

The player is then prompted to enter a name. The name the player has given Nier serves as the key to reawakening Yonah. She then opens her eyes, recognizing Replicant Nier as “Dad.” “Is this… my… body?” she asks Nier. “Yes,” he responds, “Yours, and yours alone… you haven’t seen me for a long time.”

Yonah: Is this… my… body?

Nier: Yes. Yours, and yours alone… you haven’t seen me for a long time.

Yonah: Have I been… asleep?

Nier: I think so.

Yonah: Wow… it’s like I’m a princess from some fairy tale… [looking out the open window at the sun] Dad! Look! It’s beautiful! For the longest time, someone kept calling out to me, wanting to see the light… And now, we can finally see it.

We may draw several conclusions from these events. First, our theory of desensitization is reinforced by the intimately connected nature of Gestalt Yonah’s consciousness and Replicant Yonah’s consciousness. The way for Nier to retrieve his daughter is calling her back with memories that prove their existence – in other words, he is drawing the specific iteration that is Replicant Yonah out of the shared identity in which she was subsumed during desensitization.

It is interesting to note the first question asked, and the answer – cookies. The game opens with the original Nier (i.e., the Shadowlord) foraging for food to feed his daughter in the dying world of 1300 years past, and his sharing a cookie with her. The cookie, then, represents a commonality of self between Gestalt and Replicant Yonahs. Importantly, this is the first question in the process of puling Replicant Yonah back into active conscious; starting with the commonality of self, Nier then draws out specificity through the ideas of home and the father-daughter bond. Both Yonahs, of course, share these concepts, but the referents of the concepts (i.e. the specific home and father) are different in each case. The commonalities of identity between the iterant selves are expressed through different literal objects in external reality.

The notion of food, too, is intrinsically connected with the body; it is the literal way of sustaining one’s physical manifestation. The first question is therefore also important because it establishes the state of Replicant Yonah’s conception of self before she is called back: she expresses a piece of identity that is common with Gestalt Yonah and which sustains the physical body. Thus we see that absolute desensitization has eradicated the consciousness’s conception of being possessed, as it equates commonality of identity with commonality of body; Replicant Yonah, in this way, sees herself as identical to Gestalt Yonah both in mind and body. This accounts for why Yonah asks whether her body is her body when she regains awareness: her perception of it has undergone a fundamental shift. We see this, too, in the fact that Replicant Yonah retains a special bond with Gestalt Yonah after being called back, by referring to them collectively with “we” in the way they can at last see the light.

In this way, the action of Nier calling Yonah back may be equated to a form of disruption: he is using commonalities and drawing out conceptual referents such as their actual home in order to differentiate his true daughter from the mixed Gestalt/Replicant identity. We see that memory is the specific disruptive force at work: even if the self is seemingly identical, the fact that Gestalt and Replicant literally lived different lives, even if these lives were equitable, establishes a sense of separateness. This reaffirmation of separateness is what allows Replicant Yonah to again become singularly conscious within her body.

We also learn that Gestalt Yonah feels trapped, like Replicant Yonah. She wanted to see the light, but was unable to due to her Shade state. In spite of existing within Replicant Yonah’s body, her Gestalt still exhibits the characteristics of a Shade, presumably because the bonding of her spirit to the Replicant shell takes time. It makes sense that only once any conception of separate consciousness between Replicant and Gestalt Yonah was eradicated could the mind and body truly be bonded to each other, and we see from the way in which each perceives the feelings of the other internally that this is not the case.

This invites a much larger question: who would Yonah be if these two consciousnesses were rendered singular through homogenization? The crux of Project Gestalt is repossession; if the exact consciousness of the Gestalt is not conveyed unto the shell of the Replicant, then how can the Project operate at any functional level?

We may formulate an answer by returning to the notion of commonality. As discussed above, the concepts of whom Yonah loves more than anyone (‘Dad’) and what her favorite place is (‘home, as long as Dad’s around’) are identical in the case of both Yonahs; only the literal objects to which “Dad” and “home” refer are different. It may help to analogize this to the Jungian model of the mind: common material and concepts exist between Yonahs, creating a collection of identity components similar to Jung’s collective unconscious. Their consciousnesses are only different insofar as they apply the content of their collective unconscious to different external objects.

The reconciliation of this disparity and propagation of the “Yonah spirit” (their “collective consciousness,” as it were) is then strikingly simple: eliminate the disparity between conceptual referents. We see that the obstruction to completion of the repossession process is the fact that the Shadowlord and Nier exist as separate entities; this is why the Shadowlord, before Nier arrives at his castle, is standing over Yonah, merely waiting for Nier’s arrival. “Soon my body will arrive,” the Shadowlord says to the sleeping, possessed Yonah, “Then we can be together. Just like before.” Taking what we have just determined into consideration, we see that this reunion literally cannot occur until the Shadowlord has also repossessed Replicant Nier’s body – until then, Gestalt Yonah and Replicant Yonah will exist as separate consciousnesses due to the difference in referents taken by their collective identity. The crucial consequence of this argument is that Project Gestalt cannot be successful in any single repossession’s case until every single Gestalt has repossessed by its corresponding Replicant.

Replicant Yonah believes that she has been dreaming during the time she was possessed. This reinforces the idea of the common identity between Yonahs as largely unconscious content, because, as we have said, her identity during the intermingling of her consciousness with Gestalt Yonah’s is entirely comprised of the common content of their identities. We may compare the differences in the conscious content of their identities to the antithetical, compartmentalized, derivative identities of the Kainé complex: the discrepancies in their conceptual referents actually reinforce their separateness, preventing them from becoming one and the same. Thus, a stage of equilibrium is established, as in the Kainé complex; but here, the derivative-self analogues increase tension rather than resolving tension – another distinction in Gestalt-Replicant repossession from the Kainé complex. They are that which is preventing true, unbounded homogeny in singular identity – that is, the Gestalt Project’s end goal – from occurring.

The Aerie, revisited

Having transposed the Kainé complex of possession onto the Gestalt-Replicant process of repossession, we now have sufficient understanding of the internal possessive dynamic to return to the case of the lotus-eye Shade in the Aerie. Viewed in the light of our newly structured framework, the Aerie’s case at first glance should appear odd: how can we resolve the apparently contradictory ways in which the villagers are living in harmony with their possessed family members, and the way in which they fear external contact, particularly with Shades? Furthermore, how can a measure of harmony between Shades and villagers exist when not all of the villagers are possessed? This seems to directly contradict what we determined in our above analysis of Yonah.

Firstly, we must not confuse equilibrium with harmony; simply because a system is in a stable state, it does not follow that this is a peaceful state for all constituents of the system. We see this in the fear and xenophobia of the villagers, particularly with respect to Shades. One particular exclamation by a villager locked in her home speaks strongly to this friction: as Nier and his companions slay Shades, she shouts “That’s my husband! He’s a Shade!” This frames the way in which the villagers fear the concept of Shades, yet seem to accept them insofar as they are related to their family members. It is the revelation itself that some of their family members are Shades that is rocking them, leading one villager to ask “who are the true humans?” There is clearly a measure of discontent in this system; yet, in the absence of Nier as a disruptive catalyst, it seems to be functional. But how can such functionality be? We have seen that the separation of consciousness, resultant from distinct referents of the concepts Gestalts and Replicants share, inherently creates conflict.

These apparent inconsistencies resolve when we introduce the concept of self-deception. After all, what is preventing singular self within possessed villagers if the Shades decide to assume the same conceptual referents as their Replicants? In so doing, they forget about the truth of what their own conceptual referents once were, but they also allow for singular consciousness with their Replicant, eliminating the inherent conflict of multiple consciousnesses in one body. Such a willful suspension of reality would account for the way in which, upon Nier’s discovering the possessed villagers, they dissolve into Shades, as opposed to splitting into a person and a Shade: this suggests a singularity of being, as would occur with a singular consciousness.

One might ask why the possessed villagers return to a state of being Shades upon facing Nier if the singularity of possessed consciousness is contingent upon the Shades renouncing their own sense of reality. This speaks to the farce of self-deception: their renunciation is made, in effect, because (in their own words) they “do not desire needless conflict” – in other words, they are seeking to painlessly effect a transition to the end goal of Project Gestalt, paving the way for their fellow Gestalts to join them in their own corresponding shells. In reality, this may be the only option available to Gestalts, barring some way in which they could all simultaneously repossess their respective Replicants. The result is that the intention of realizing the end goals of Gestalts leads to the act of becoming identical to the Replicant – and, in this way, the Shade remains a Shade though associating with the conceptual referents of its Replicant, as opposed to its own.

If this artificial synthesis of identity seems precarious, that is because, as Nier shows, that is very much the case. The introduction of an agent (in this case, Nier) with the intention, explicit or otherwise, of obstructing the end goal of the Gestalts causes the system to fall apart: the possessed villagers return to their “true form” of Shades, and the unaffected Replicants are exposed to the Shade’s plan. It is fortunate for the Shades that the associative bonds of consciousness seem strong enough to keep these Replicants loyal to their possessed fellows even after learning the truth; yet this does not prove sufficient to hold their plan together.

The lotus-eye Shade finds its genesis in a dark vortex that appears after Nier has begun slaughtering the Shades in the Aerie and slowly condenses, giving rise to its ultimate shape. It is described as “sucking up the villagers”; as noted in our initial analysis, villager voices are then heard from within the Shade saying “Our village… our world… Where am I? What… am I?” If we appeal to classical symbology, the eye is “the window to the soul,” while the unopened lotus flower is understood in Buddhism as the heart of beings, which “blooms” in the virtues of the Buddha. When the petals of this Shade are closed, the eye cannot be seen; when the petals open in “bloom,” the eye is visible. The Shade’s only point of vulnerability is its eye.

There is a great irony in looking at the eye of the Shade – the window to its soul – and hearing voices of those who have clearly lost whatever sense of identity they once had. Upon examination, the reason for this is clear: the soul of beings, as understood in the Aerie, was only reconcilable through the artifice of self-deception: when the Shades and Replicants are both made to understand the deception that has taken place (a process effected by the comingling of Replicant and Shade consciousnesses in the eye-lotus), any conception of identity is rendered untenable. This is expressed through the Shade’s very symbology: the being’s “essential center,”[8] shown here as the closed lotus, gives an artifice of singular existence; yet, upon opening the lotus, we see that the true “soul” of this being is without a sense of identity at all due to the confusion of multiple selves artificially treated as one. This being is a Shade without sentience, similar to the relapse cases discussed in reports on Project Gestalt. Upon analysis, the two cases are actually quite similar: a rise of sentience in the Replicant leads to a loss of the same in the corresponding Gestalt during relapse; here, the Shade lacks sentience because each component Shade (i.e., Gestalt) has artificially imparted its sentience upon its corresponding shell. Drawing a comparison to the Kainé complex, the final consequence of possessive synthesis between Gestalt and Replicant through the artificial unification of conceptual referents is dissolution, represented quite literally here through the obliteration of the lotus-eye shade and the village itself. All this, we must not forget, is the consequence of Nier’s headstrong gusto for eliminating all Shades – without his intervention, the system established in the Aerie between Shades and Replicants may well have sustained itself, perhaps even to the ideal point where all Gestalts had assumed their corresponding shells.

He who does not go gently into that good night: Nier as a unique disruptive agent

Throughout the game, be it in changing Kainé’s course, destroying the equilibrium of the Aerie, or slaying the Shadowlord himself, we see Replicant Nier (hereafter referred to simply as ‘Nier’) as the principle disrupter. There are systems at play and forces with vested interests of which Nier is completely unaware, yet he does not care about any of it – his only concern is protecting his daughter. There are many instances of Nier single-mindedly opposing Shades throughout the game, but his philosophy is best encapsulated in his final battle cry against the Shadowlord, after Gestalt Yonah has immolated herself and the Shadowlord is on his last legs: “You want me to understand your sadness?” Nier balks at the Shadowlord, “You think I’m going to sympathize with you? I swore to protect my daughter and my friends. If someone puts them in danger, they must stand aside or be cut down! Come on! Let’s go! […] I have something to defend! I have a reason to live!” Nier is effective as a disruptive agent because he never questions his purpose: to him, his daughter is his daughter, and his love for her cannot be warped or otherwise contorted by such alien concepts as “Gestalts” – this is why to him, his daughter’s body is incontrovertibly “[hers], and [hers] alone.”

Before treating Nier’s significance in further detail, we should pause to see how our arguments put forth thus far run when superimposed upon one another. The chink-in-the-chain argument suggests that the Gestalt-Replicant paradigm is cyclical; it is a long cycle at 1300+ years, but a cycle nonetheless. If this is so, how could Nier suddenly be a singular disruptive agent? If his consciousness is carried through many of these cycles, we would presume it either was just as submissive as everyone else to the propagative terms of Project Gestalt, or else that it would have stopped the cycle long ago at its original genesis.

One potential explanation for this is in the potential for the genesis of new consciousness over generations. The extant generation may be propagated through Project Gestalt, but this has no bearing upon their capacity to procreate; by procreating, they could generate new consciousness, which has not previously been propagated through the Project Gestalt process. Evidence of this lies, interestingly enough, not in the case of a Replicant, but rather in the case of a young Shade named Kalil.

We meet Kalil in the second playthrough of the game, where a scene is presented to us of him and his mother (also a Shade) deep within an ancient mine called the Junk Heap, being pursued by Shade-hunting Replicants. Kalil’s mother tells her child to run, and sacrifices herself to the hunters in order to give her son time to escape. Kalil later meets a robot called “P-33” (its model number), designed to defend the mine, which he befriends. The two are later blamed for an accident in which a Replicant was killed in the mine, leading the Replicant’s brother to recruit Nier &co in killing both Kalil and P-33.

While Kalil’s back-story obviously adds moral ambiguity to Nier’s quest, the value for us is in Kalil’s interactions with his mother and P-33 in respect to the Replicants. Kalil, a Shade (and, presumably, a Gestalt by definition), refers to Gestalts as human. Consider a representative exchange between P-33 and Kalil upon their initial meeting, just after Kalil’s mother was killed.

Kalil: I’m crying, you big dumb robot! I miss my mom.

P-33: What is crying? Who is Mom?

Kalil: It doesn’t matter. I can’t see her ever again, because she’s dead.

P-33: …..My creator is also dead. He perished hundreds of years ago.

Kalil: Hundreds of years ago? Really?

P-33: 874 years, 10 months, 14 days, 4 hours, and 43 minutes. …44 minutes.

Kalil: Aren’t you lonely?

P-33: I am incapable of being lonely. Or missing others. Or crying.

Kalil: I’m crying because I don’t want to die.

P-33: You…will die?

Kalil: If the humans catch me, they’re gonna kill me.

P-33: Why…will they kill you?

Kalil: *Sniff* Waaaaaaah!!

P-33: [after a pause] I will not permit the humans to kill Kalil.

The existence of a Gestalt who does not understand himself to be one of the “true humans” is difficult to understand without allowing for the generation of new consciousness through procreation – a suggestion underscored by the fact that Kalil is a child Shade, his childhood innocence extending so far as to include the basic nature of his existence. If Shades, whose physical forms are less human than those of Replicants, can undergo this process, it stands to reason that Replicants can do the same.

The question then follows as to how Project Gestalt, designed to propagate extant consciousness, may function properly in light of new, unique consciousness being generated by both Gestalts/Shades and Replicants. Interestingly enough, it may be that this is the exact reason why Project Gestalt is capable of functioning in a multigenerational context: the continual introduction of new consciousness feeds the sense of truth in existence which both Gestalts and Replicants feel; neither group appears conscious of iterations of this cycle prior to their own, which suggests that the synthesis of consciousness described in our discussion of successful possession effectively eliminates the past histories of possessor and possessed, making only the present iteration perceived and therefore considered truly extant. Like the case of the Aerie, this sense of surrendering one’s past seems precarious, and the support of consciousnesses such as Kalil’s, which genuinely are new, would go a long way in reinforcing this artifice. Though it may be something of a leap, this argument does find a corollary in the way in which Kalil’s relationship with P-33 indoctrinates the robot with emotions, to the point where P-33 actually cries as he and Kalil slowly die after Nier’s attack. In the same way, the genuine origins of some consciousnesses make the artificially propagated consciousnesses feel more authentic. They believe their souls are just as original as Kalil’s.

Let us allow, then, that Nier is one such newly generated consciousness with origins 1300 years prior to the events of the game. What makes this particular consciousness so inclined as to serve as the primary disruptive agent in the cycle of Project Gestalt? It is the combination of Nier’s fundamental characteristic – his single-minded devotion to his daughter – and the basic obstacle to completion of the Gestalt-Replicant repossession process – the discrepancy of the conceptual refents of Gestalts and Replicants.

The commonality between the Shadowlord and Nier is that each would do anything for his respective Yonah; similarly, they could care less about each other’s Yonah. The Shadowlord has spent 1300 years preparing for the moment when he could be with his daughter again by possessing their Replicants, which explains why, when his daughter says that she does not want someone else’s body, he responds by balking at her, “Someone else’s body? No. Yonah! They were ours to begin with!” His intentions to save his daughter are just as strong as Nier’s intentions to cut down anyone who gets in the way of his own mission. This identical trait puts them diametrically opposite one another, each fighting without relent with no sympathy for the other, who is like him in almost every way.

The crucial way in which they are different is intrinsic in the nature of Gestalts and Replicants: their Yonahs are not the same, but rather distinct referents of their concepts of ‘daughter’. Because they allow themselves to be largely defined by this singular trait of ‘protecting my Yonah’, they necessarily come into opposition, and not in the same way that the two Yonahs come into opposition. The Yonahs only experience conflict because as they are incapable of becoming a singular consciousness – because their operative commonality is a love for their father. This is a passive commonality because it does not necessarily require that the two Yonahs come into conflict with each other; it only creates conflict when a fusion between them is attempted. In contrast, Nier and the Shadowlord have an active commonality, meaning that, operating within the parameters of the Gestalt-Replicant paradigm, this commonality necessarily requires that Gestalt and Replicant Niers oppose each other. We can easily see why: the Shadowlord’s love of his daughter prompts him to seek propagation of her existence through Project Gestalt; yet it is this very process which establishes Replicant Nier, who cares just as deeply about his Replicant daughter, and fights with just as much fervor to oppose the Shadowlord’s will. We see therefore that it is the instantiation of a strong active commonality within the Project Gestalt cycle that enables the disruption effected by Nier.

Antidotes: absolving oneself of the body

Given this unique disruptive nature of Nier’s being within the broader existential framework of the game’s world, what can be said about Nier’s purpose in an iterative paradigm? To examine this, we take the established dynamics of the world of “Nier” and superimpose the Buddhist conception of self-immolation. We will see that, in spite of the two explicit self-immolations of Gestalt Yonah and Grimoire Weiss, the most poignant instance of self-immolation in the game is actually that of Nier executing the Shadowlord. We will explore this through two interconnected views of self-immolation: the practice as pursuit of purity, and the practice as sacrifice.


The body is like a poisonous plant; it would really be right to burn it and extinguish its life.



Benn introduces his treatment of self-immolation with the story of Chinese Buddhist monk Daodu, whose sixth century auto-cremation is well documented in Chinese Buddhist history. Daodu defended his approval of self-immolation before Emperor Liang Wudi, in part, with the above words.[10]   This encapsulates the theory of self-immolation as a purification of the spirit and release of karma. Though not the sole doctrinal defense of self-immolation, it is one of the more compelling ones, drawing its strength from the Lotus Sūtra’s account of the Bodhisattva Medicine King’s auto-cremation in homage to the Buddhas.[11]

The principle underpinning this form of self-immolation, as Benn describes it, is the selfless offering of the Bodhisattva’s physical form in an act of pure compassion towards all beings.[12] Mid-seventh-century monk Daoshi elaborates on this methodology in his own defense of the practice, drawn primarily from Mahāyāna literature: “The bodhisattva’s giving away his body is not a neutral act,” he writes; “Rather, it only results in merit, since it extirpates kleśa (defilement) and extinguishes the body, and one obtains a pure body. It is just like when you wash stained clothes with ashes and water: The stain is eradicated, but the clothes remain.”[13] Benn’s analysis states that “[when] the bodhisattva gives away his body, he does away with a defiled body – one that is born of karma – and exchanges it for a pure dharmakāya.”[14] As understood through a paradigm of purification, the act of self-immolation is an elevated act of pure dāna (charity), a principle defended at length by Yanshou centuries later.[15] Bodhisattvas exist in each realm of samsara – they can be animals, monks, kings, prostitutes, and so forth. Their seat of compassion in prajnā (wisdom) and the phenomenal action of dāna, as exemplified in self-immolation, liberate them from the wheel of karma manifest in their physical forms and grant them the spiritual, karma-free form of the dharmakāya.

The iterative nature of the Gestalt-Replicant cycle invites analogy to the wheel of samsara, and provides a natural explanation of Nier’s place as the disruptor. Samsara carries one through endless iterations, bound by the mundane forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance, until one is finally able to exit the wheel through Enlightenment, acquiring the insight of selflessness from which boundless compassion and no-suffering may flow. Likewise, it is the dark, destructive, mundane force of the Black Scrawl that pressures humanity into the endless iterative process of Project Gestalt. It is difficult to find a better metaphor for the Buddha’s description of humankind’s clinging to the poles of existence and nonexistence than the polar existences of Gestalts – hungry ghosts, by all accounts – and Replicants – those whose entire purpose is bound up in physical, temporal existence.

Nier is our bodhisattva analogue, which, through samsara, is able to step beyond samsara and destroy its existential artifice. He was created by our karmic analogue – replication via Project Gestalt; yet, through destruction of his karmic debt in the execution of the Shadowlord, he was able to reject the empty promises of samsara and replace them with pure compassion.

There are several immediate complications with our analogy. How can we see Nier’s execution of the Shadowlord as self-immolation when Nier is left standing at the end of it all? How can Nier be said to have transcended through compassion when he has relentlessly slaughtered every Shade that stood in his way? The key to resolving these differences is in seeing Replicant Nier not as an individual entity, but rather as one component of the consciousness reiterated from the Shadowlord unto him. The analogy is then much simpler: Nier is shedding his karmic past by literally executing it in an act of compassion for his daughter, meant to exist in her own context, and also in an act of compassion for the misguided Shadowlord, who was clinging, as hungry ghosts do, to a desire rooted in the past, which cannot be fulfilled – that is, his daughter’s continued temporal existence at the cost of another. Gestalt Yonah’s self-immolation, too, is selfless in the compassionate way: she restores Replicant Yonah’s proper existence to her, and releases her father from his insatiable hunger. Nier then completes the karmic excision by ending the Shadowlord’s pain, and allowing him to rejoin his daughter beyond time. Weiss’s self-immolation also cannot be ignored: we see Weiss revealed at the end of the game as a catalogue for data and instrument for the completion of Project Gestalt. He can thereby be equated to the body of corporeal knowledge tying us to the literal world of samsara. Therefore, the sacrifice of his body to incapacitate the Shadowlord may be equated to the surrender of false solidity at the moment of transcendence.

In this way, the three instances of self-immolation we see here (Gestalt Yonah, Weiss, and Nier’s execution of the Shadowlord) are all components of a larger analogy for the way in which self-immolation may be used as a means of departure from samsara. A man who clings to his daughter (Nier) sheds his hungry ghost (Nier executing the Shadowlord) through renunciation of the physical world (Weiss’s self-immolation) in order to recognize the uncompromising compassion for his fellow being, his very child, irrespective of samsara (Gestalt Yonah’s self-immolation). This last point also speaks to why Nier’s ceaseless killing of Shades is not incompatible with the bodhisattva’s seat of compassion. Shades may be seen either as hungry ghosts, or merely as those who willfully travel endlessly through the motions of samsara; either way, they are bound to the dark forces that perpetuate the artifice of existence within a karmic context. In a sense, by seeing them as subhuman rather than what once was human, Nier perceives the truth of their pursuits in a clearer way than they themselves do: he sees their degenerated spirits, and dispatches them from their artificial existence. Is this not compassion? It particularly seems compassionate because of the way in which Gestalt Nier and Gestalt Yonah are seen together, happy again, after both die – it is as though the bodhisattva-compassion of Nier’s freeing them from artificial existence has liberated their spirits to live together in harmony, outside the fetters of tim. This could well be true in the cases of other Shades, too – we see as testament to this the whispering of Shades to Nier when their blood passes into Weiss in the form of magic power, after each Shade is killed. Though mostly unintelligible, these whispers never have a hateful tone, instead sounding like either an inquisitive or a relieved murmur. Sometimes, the words “thank you” can even be made out. This is not the demeanor of spirits made wrathful by their killer. This also works on another level: compassionate karmic relief on Nier’s part educates Weiss through these grateful whispers, making the knowledge of tangible existence, symbolized in him, intelligible in a greater spiritual framework beyond samsara. Nier, then, is the lynchpin in Square Enix’s parable of ascension from samsara into deathless bodhisattva-compassion through self-immolation.


Marched at Gunpoint through Samsara: The Tragedy of Gaston’s Masks

In order to see the utility of the concepts Nier offers in a broader context, we wade out of the esoteric through the same way we entered: the medium of acting. “The Man in the Iron Mask” presents iterative dynamics similar to those offered in Nier, but within a realistic framework, free of Gestalts, Replicants, and the like. Synthesizing the ideas within the two works, we will derive a comprehensive functional model of the iterative meta-role.

It is intuitive that we, as people, go through different iterations of ourselves over the course of our lives. On a macroscopic level, we clearly are not identical to who we were ten years ago; apart from physical changes in our body, ten years of experiences shape and mold us in ways we could not have anticipated. On a microscopic level, it is equally apparent that we pass through different roles on a moment-by-moment basis; the same person fills in equal parts the role of husband and role of teacher, for example. The question in determining the iterative role’s applicability in a normative human context lies in what the fundamental impetus for a shift in iterations is. Is the smallest functional impetus of progression through iterant roles reincarnation, as in “Nier”? This is clearly not so, for we can intuit a similar dynamic in the maturational process of our own lives. This is consistent with our view of Nier as largely allegorical in nature. Is time, then, the most basic impetus for iterant shift? Perhaps; but, because there exists the above-described microscopic role shifts which occur over so small a change in time that maturation’s effect on the self is largely negligible, there is the potential for a still more fundamental unit of impetus. To resolve this, we need only determine what the basic driving impetus for iterant shift is on a microscopic scale.

Dumas’ chronicle of Gaston is the account of a man whose identity is pushed and pulled throughout his life by external entities using him as an object to advance their own ends. He is born into the title of dauphin, and is immediately treated as an obstruction to that office due to his being a twin to his brother, born moments before and already christened Louis XIV. There is a deep irony in this: Gaston’s being born second conveys him the rights to the regency, because he is understood (per the convention of the time) to be older; but this same “right” is what condemns him to be raised in isolation. As Louis XIII says in making this decision, “I am sacrificing my son to the raison d’etat [by raising him in isolation from society] – but I intend that if his brother Louis should come to die, Gaston will be put in his place.”[16] Gaston’s maturation is effectively dictated by the way others (in this case, Louis XIII) wish to exploit him for their own agendas. He is not just defined objectively at birth, however: rather, the progression of his life is entirely determined by the objectifying tendencies of those around him. D’Aubigné finds Gaston in the country near Semur, where he has been raised, and takes him away under the pretext of supporting the youth after Gaston elects to leave the country due to rejection by the family of Marie, the girl whom he loves. Marie’s father refuses him because Gaston’s caretaker, the King’s charge, acted to prevent the marriage by telling Gaston he was the bastard child of an invented Baron D’Orville.

Gaston: He’s taking his daughter [Marie] away – he will give her a spouse… I let her leave… Challenge them! The two of them are old. I would murder them.

D’Aubigné: Listen to me.

Gaston: Ah, I remember. Marie has a brother. He can wield a sword; he will answer for the two men.

D’Aubigné: He won’t fight with you.

Gaston: I will call him a coward.

D’Aubigné: He will call you a bastard, and he won’t fight.

Gaston: Ah!

D’Aubigné: Now would you like to leave?

Gaston: Right away!

D’Aubigné: But how? You lack money, horses –

Gaston: Well, I will find someone who will take pity on me. He will be my first friend.

D’Aubigné: The horses await you. As for money, here –

Gaston: I abandon myself to you.

D’Aubigné: (aside) God be praised! The party’s cause is won.[17]

Later, when D’Aubigné has indoctrinated Gaston with pro-Protestant sentiment and is about to bring him to a meeting of fellow conspirators, he takes a moment to revel in his true plans and their impending fruition, demonstrating the insightful nature of soliloquy that we discussed earlier.

Finally, the moment has come! Never did a conspirator have a prettier role. I hold in my hands the fate of the monarchy – and that of Europe, that of Protestantism!… The origin of the prince is written on his face! What ought we to do now? An accident – an illness – a hazard! Let Louis [XIV] rejoin his ancestors and the crown falls effortlessly on the head of his brother – a king of our religion! A king who in reality would be only an instrument in my hands! Faithful Catholics, then we will see your conversions by the thousands. The word of the master is so persuasive. But, I am forgetting myself. Gaston, perhaps, will not be a hostage in our hands.[18]

Taking these two exchanges together, we can begin to sketch a framework for the imposed nature of iterative roles. We see first an uncanny willingness with which Gaston throws himself into the services of D’Aubigné the moment D’Aubigné offers his aid in helping Gaston achieve his ends. The fact that Gaston has been brought up in the shadow of ignorance has put him in a position of unwitting dependency on others, a dependency ironically masked by an assertiveness which stands on the shoulders of others such as D’Aubigné. Furthermore, his assertiveness is provoked by still another imposed, false role: that of the bastard. The development of Gaston is architected by those who advance his sense of self through roles they design in order to advance their own ends.

D’Aubigné, meanwhile, demonstrates through the vehicles of the aside and the soliloquy that he views Gaston as an instrument to his ends. We discussed at length in our treatment of the platonic meta-role paradigm the way in which a player creates an artifice of solidity in someone by taking who they are at a single moment and inflating it into a platonic meta-role, and something very similar is going on here in our iterative framework: rather than the player creating solidity in an external entity, however, it is the external entity creating solidity in the player. D’Aubigné sees Gaston as the dauphin who can secure the prosperity of Protestants in France. In so doing, he imposes upon Gaston the singular role of ‘rebel leader’, much in the same way Louis XIII saw Gaston as ‘heir-on-reserve’ and relegated him to the role of an ignorant country dweller. By imposing their purposes upon Gaston, those around him with power over him usher him through purpose driven states of being, understood in our terms as iterant roles.

The most compelling instance of this in Gaston’s life is, per the play’s name, when he his captured by his twin and held in the Bastille for twenty years as ‘the man in the iron mask’. Irony runs deep here are well: it is Gaston’s divine right of regency – what we might term his right to the king role being played by his brother – that is the impetus for his brother imprisoning him in the Bastille, an existence inferior to that of a common man. Gaston’s last moments before seizing up, beginning the chain of events which leads to his death, are spent exclaiming this exact situation: “I am free,” he shouts, “Yes, I feel the air in my hair, around my face. Oh, don’t place a crown there, see the mask… they’ve attached the mask to that crown. Come, Marie, hide me. Let’s flee. Oh! My name, my glory, my kingdom for a ray of light.”[19] His role as king is inexorably linked with the “iron tomb” that is his mask and imprisonment – a sentence handed down by his twin.[20] In this way, it is not a single role, but rather the fated burden of every role into which he is pushed throughout his life, which crushes Gaston, until he is no more than “a body without a soul.”[21]

What, in the face of such pernicious subjugation, can the would-be king Gaston cling to as a beacon of hope – a beacon of self? As indicated in his final words, it is the idea of a name. After ten years of captivity in the Bastille, Louis XIV begins to fear him as a liability in his feuds against reformers, and so dispatches one of his lords, Monsieur Louvois, to offer him a deal: “You will leave France,” Louvois offers him, “under an assumed name, after having signed in front of me a formal renunciation of all your rights… The treasury of the state will be open to you.”[22] Louvois is offering him his freedom in exchange for renouncing his most basic identity – the identity that spurred the entire process of his being pushed from iterant role to iterant role. Gaston refuses, exposing in his refusal the faith that has kept him strong through all his oppression.

Renounce the rights of my birth, leave the kingdom, unknown, fugitive, alone!… They give me some gold and I give them a crown… It lacks only my name… My freedom at this price… It’s [Louis XIV’s] will that I suffer, that I be his victim. But it’s the will of God that I die king of France. Never will I sign… I hope for nothing, sir – but I will not sign… I bid defiance to my torturers. To cowardly renounce my rights! No, no, it requires more than ten years of torments to destroy my courage; still enough strength remains to me to suffer for a long while. Though my brother Louis die on the throne and I in a dungeon, I will still die king of France. That is my will.[23]

Gaston speaks here of the inherent right of regency as understood through the principle of a divine lineage of kings. By law, the older of two twins is he who entered the world second and the eldest son has the right of dauphin.[24] Thus, the divine right is conveyed unto him, and cannot be taken away, even though his brother was christened king, unless he were to renounce those rights himself. Though it was the impetus by which Gaston was pushed into every successful role throughout his life, it is also the one constancy he had. He had it even when he was not actively aware of it, and its power emanated from him even when he was imprisoned – this was why he was made to be contained secretly in the Bastille rather than simply killed, for regicide would violate the divine right of kings, adding to the horror of the final scene where the guards unknowingly murder him under Louis XIV’s orders.[25] This, then, is the immutable truth carried through all of Gaston’s iterations, true to him as his name. It is what constitutes his center of constancy described in our initial diagram of iterative meta-roles, because it is actually what establishes each iterant role and ties them together with a sense of cohesion.

In relating the iterative roles of Gaston to “Nier,” we may first consider the ways in which imposition of iterant roles upon Gaston by those around him relates to the Kainé complex. Our paradigm for possession if it were applicable in general socio-dynamic terms, and analysis of similarities between the cases of Kainé and Gaston offers promise in this regard. To this end, we shall recapitulate the 7 steps of the Kainé complex in the context of Gaston’s journey. The analogues for possessor and possessed throughout will be the iterant role imposed upon Gaston and Gaston himself, respectively.

i.  Establishment.  The first phase is characterized by the possessed feeling a gap in herself filled by the possessor. We see the same process taking place in the aforementioned molding of Gaston’s development through iterant roles. The instance of D’Aubigné taking him away from Semur is a fitting example: Gaston, by his own account, abandons himself to D’Aubigné when he sees that the lord can fill his immediate needs – in this case, a means of exacting justice and regaining Marie’s favor. The iterant role thereby offers a way for its subject to slide seamlessly into it, based on fulfillment of a need.

ii.  Desensitization. The possessor tightens its net upon its unwittingly submissive prey by augmenting their commonalities, making the possessed feel more at home with the possessor as a part of herself. Correlatively, the initial pretext under which the iterant role is assumed is supplemented by material compelling Gaston to associate in a stronger manner with it by virtue of similarities between the role and his character. In assuming the role of D’Aubigné’s protégé for the lord’s own ends, Gaston carries the same restlessness of spirit that occupied him at Semur. It is that flame of spirit that situates him also in the role D’Aubigné has provided him, as we see when Gaston speaks to D’Aubigné before the meeting of conspirators.

What have I to do, if not take life gaily? Once I had sworn boldly that I was the son of Baron d’Orville. Now, here I am, your nephew – without having obtained a better family for all that. My word, I’ve given up knowing mine. I thank you for having taken me from Semur where I was languishing! You promised to make me a traveler – and for two years you’ve truly kept your promise. But I would like to rest and see the world elsewhere than on the great highways. Paris offers me its pleasures and you refuse them to me. As for the court, I can’t approach it.[26]

We see that the assumption by Gaston of the role of D’Aubigné’s nephew is effected by the role’s simultaneous satisfaction of his explorative thirst and its perpetuation thereof. This makes Gaston feel comfortable falling “gaily” into the role, while providing him with the hunger required of one meant to eventually seize the throne of France.

iii.  Disruption. At this point in our original construction of the Kainé complex, we noted that, if desensitization were to continue interrupted, the possessed would become the possessor in full, and that some manner of disruptive force was therefore necessary in order to reassert the possessed’s separate sense of self. Likewise, if desensitization to an iterant role continues to completion, we can expect it to lose its iterative aspect – the player will internalize the role as a part of his inherent identity, and the role will therefore become a part of the “core portion” of him, to which we have referred throughout this treatment.

Interestingly enough, Gaston’s moment of disruption appears to be his revelation that he has a distinct core portion to his being – i.e., his discovery of his divine right. It is this which grounds his self-concept independently from his iterant roles; indeed, up until that point, as excerpted above, he was more than willing to accept himself as whatever iterant role in which he currently sat. Thereafter, however, he is able to assert a sense of individual self, even as he is pushed from one role to the next, as shown in his refusal to surrender his divine right. The implication here – one not previously considered – is that a provision of separate self in the role-player, given to him after he has been subsumed through desensitization, is sufficient to restore his sense of separateness from the iterant role. In other words, one can come back from full-on possession by finding one’s center.

iv.  Reconsolidation.  Reestablishment of the possessed’s individual self is followed by compartmentalization of those traits which were exploited in desensitization, stimulating an increased sense of control in the possessed, along with a corollary fear of loss of control – and the subsequent potential loss of self.

Gaston’s experience with consolidation, as with disruption, presents aspects of the complex not previously considered – in particular, the implementation of disguise. Gaston, in order that his identity may be kept secret in the Bastille, not only wears an iron mask, but also dons the disguise of “Marchiali, Duke of Monmouth,” imprisoned for crimes against the king.[27] Although this disguise, like the mask, is imposed by his captors, it nonetheless serves the purpose of consolidation in protecting Gaston’s inherent self (his identity as heir apparent) from the present iterant role of prisoner. The disguise is an intermediary, as it were, giving him distance from the reality of his imprisonment. This is supported further by the way in which Gaston’s identity and sense of self quickly degenerate upon the removal of the disguise.[28] This will be treated further after consideration of the remaining intermediary step.

v.  Equilibrium.  Characterized by a balance struck between possessor and possessed on the basis of derivative selves operating within each other. We see this state naturally flowing out of Gaston’s consolidation through disguise: the establishment of an interface between role and self, an intermediary role of sorts, allows the two to coexist in peace. Gaston imparts himself by the proxy of Marchiali to the role of the imprisoned man in the iron mask, who in turn is treated vicariously as Gaston. The three are, of course, contained within the same body and deeply intertwined, but this psychical separation provides a sense of dynamic equilibrium not unlike that which is established between Kainé and Tyrann.

vi.  Bounded Homogenization. The chaotic dissolution of difference between greater and derivative selves. D’Aubigné makes a bid to rescue Gaston by forging a letter of Louis XIV’s death; Gaston then reveals his identity as heir apparent, but is promptly thwarted and imprisoned once more when Louis is discovered to be alive. After the intermediary of the disguise is removed, Gaston breaks apart in a way strikingly akin to bounded homogenization, as encapsulated in his wild soliloquy, alone in his cell after 20 years of imprisonment.

Can the head of a man contain all his thoughts? When one is free, they spread outside; but when one is alone, reflecting every day, every night, you amass your thoughts like treasure and return to them ceaselessly, without respite. Oh! It is a fever then… that can drive one crazy. That’s what’s to be feared.[29]

Gaston’s mind was allowed fluidity and relative freedom by the intermediary of disguise; without it, he quickly becomes inextricably bound up in the iron mask, his mind as imprisoned as his body. His growing madness, culminating in his progression to the stage of dissolution, indicates that he is quickly assuming a dreaded sense of oneness with the iron mask. “This mask,” he tells Marie, when she comes to see him in the guise of a nun, “it used to choke me. It tore my skin, and now my hollowed cheeks cannot fill it.”[30] The mask has overshadowed his existence, and he is quickly withering within the role.

vii.  Dissolution. The only solution is nothingness – in Gaston’s case, a tragic, inevitable nothingness. As noted above, Gaston finally rejoices in his freedom from his mask upon his visit from Marie, then seizes and is rendered unconscious, in a state that the doctor deems “suspends life” in “profound lethargy,” making him appear dead to all but trained physicians until he becomes conscious again.[31] D’Aubigné then seeks to liberate him by means of a staged funeral possession, but Louis’ final orders concerning his twin are, upon Gaston’s death, to mutilate the corpse to ensure he is dead. Thus, the guards unwittingly commit regicide by following the orders of the king. Gaston’s collapsing sense of self completely falls in as it is subsumed by the role of prisoner; though he was able to comfortably live in iterant roles before he knew of his birthright, he could not stomach such a prison thereafter, which was why he only thrived so long as the disguise of Marchiali existed as an intermediary. In its absence, his consciousness itself fell apart, and his body was destroyed because of that same birthright which had for so long both given him purpose and been the bane of his existence.


Can Gaston be perceived in a Bodhisattva light, similar to Nier? All his life, Gaston is suppressed – and eventually killed – by his twin, whom we may be tempted to consider as a discrete iteration of Gaston. However, the tragedy of Gaston’s story is that, in this light, it is diametrically opposed to “Nier”: whereas Nier executed the Shadowlord for the sake of a compassionate release from samsara, Louis XIV killed Gaston in defense of samsara. He acted to preserve his own iterant role of king – indeed, it was only an iterant role in his case, as opposed to Gaston’s case of it being part of his inherent self, because the divine right rested with Gaston and not Louis. One might say that Gaston achieved some manner of karmic release in dissolution by freeing himself of adherence to iterant roles, but this is a stretch considering it is largely employed as a method of escape from an inescapable situation; and, regardless, it has no bearing on the cold-hearted, greedy, hateful, and ignorant act of Louis IV. Thus, we see “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Nier” as two accounts of the iterative meta-role paradigm, each used to express the opposite sides of spiritual transcendence and damnation.[32]


Synthesis: “You are acknowledged as Master; you may enter”

We began this treatment with an examination of collective and personal selves, and return there to sum up the material amassed in our examinations of “Nier” and “Iron Mask.” In theater, recall, the audience can potentially encounter a number of realities equal to the number of characters in the production plus one, because each character holds their own personal conception of reality (viewed by the audience through asides and soliloquys), in addition to the collective reality created as the sum of the selves that these characters project.

Our takeaway from this study first and foremost is that we are largely not in control of the roles we are made to assume. In examining the microcosm of the iterative meta-role provided by Gaston, we see that the fundamental impetus for iterant role assumption is imposition: the emphasis is on external forces driving Gaston to certain roles. In terms of our acting paradigm, the expectations of a character’s fellows as to what collective self he will project heavily influence the most basic nature of that collective self – and, as we have shown by analogy of Gaston to the Kainé complex, alteration of the collective self heavily influences any conception of a personal self. This may be so great an influence that, as was initially the case with Gaston, the imposed nature of the iterant role is taken to be an inherent part of the self, which does not change through iteration.

What is this sense of constancy, if it is so prone to being deceived and uprooted? Here we may wish to appeal to behavioral psychology in defining it as ‘identity’, where identity is understood as a pattern of disposition, behavior, etc. over a long period of time – or, in our case, over many iterant roles. One disquieting result of our treatment is the idea that there may be no limit to what content in this innate sense of self can be uprooted and shown to have its source in an imposed iterant role, meaning that the sense of constancy could itself be a construct imposed by collective reality.

This conclusion would please Buddhists, for it closely adheres to the Buddhist notion of the ‘no-self’, wherein all sense of individuated identity is artificial. This is supported in the mythos of “Nier” and “Iron Mask”: as we discussed regarding “Nier,” Nier turned this very notion of inherent nature against himself to transcend karma with self-immolation and Bodhisattva-compassion. The paradox of external separateness and attachment was only resolved by him through this pervasive sense of love – so, in shedding the artifice of a “core identity” by slaying the Shadowlord, he communed with the “true identity” of Being: freedom from reiteration through boundless compassion. On the other hand, Gaston clings to what he sees as his core and eventually experiences dissolution. It appears as though clinging to something inherent in an effort to surmount the iterative construct only binds one further to that construct, because a sense of constancy demands as a precondition change through iteration: therefore, even if we say that Gaston found peace through never surrendering his birthright, we must also accept that he, like his twin, adhered adamantly to the understood samsara-like iterative construct, whereas Nier, in combating himself through his own compassion, stepped beyond it.

We learned in our treatment of “Majora’s Mask” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author” that one’s operative conception of self is heavily influenced by a moment-to-moment perception of others insofar as we use them as platonic meta-roles in order to assume hybrid roles. The conclusion was a call to accountability in that we are all responsible for the development and understanding of those around us, and offering change as a paradigm of different changeless images created through platonic roles, all tending with time to coalesce into an image of selfhood. Our conclusion here is somewhat starker: our conception of identity is the sum of those iterant roles imposed upon us by external forces, which we do not understand to be iterant roles. When we mistake an iterant role for something inherent, like Gaston, we take it to be something belonging to us, rather than simply a role that we are filling. This result offers two distinctive perspectives more generally:

  1. Buddhism. Accepting that we have no personal identity can, as with Nier, paradoxically lead to great Self-realization through the process of destroying the personal self. Because time and change are only relevant insofar as they shift one from iterant role to iterant role and change the content of one’s artificial identity, there is no need to concern oneself with the time’s alternation of selfhood at all. The true self is timeless and permanent; all else is transient and artificial.
  2. Self-determination. The idea of no-self might appear daunting or undesirable; in this case, one might not see it as resolving anything, but only presenting more problems. Though Buddhists would argue that this daunting nature is an important step in relinquishing the false sense of self, there is another option for resolution that is implicit in our conclusion: if our identities are entirely composed of iterant roles which are externally presented, this may not mean that we have far less control over who we are than we thought, but, in fact, that we have much more control over who we are. Consider an undesirable trait assumed to be part of one’s identity, such as short temper: following our conclusion, this trait is no more part of us than the clothes we wear. By determining where the trait holds its roots (perhaps through therapy or other analysis), we can then stop conceiving of it as a part of who we are; we may also then, with this elevated understanding of its origins, work to distance ourselves from situations and environments propagating roles from which we derive short-temperedness. On the other hand, if we wish our identity had a trait it did not, we could seek out situations and environments propagating roles which beget this trait. If we do not know where to find the trait, but simply know we lack it, this may be a call to broaden the breadth of our experiences, such that we may proportionately broaden our role-exposure.

Upon reaching the gates of the Shadowlord’s castle, two doves question Weiss as to the nature of life and the world – an exchange from which this treatment’s epigraph is excerpted. When Weiss has explained by means of Socratic dialogue the iterant nature of the world, the doves’ voices boom out: “…Very well. …You are acknowledged as master. You may enter.” Weiss then remarks, “Well then! It seems the way is open.” Simply understanding the iterative dynamic of roles and its imposition on self-conception can go a long way in surmounting the seemingly inescapable difficulties of having a ‘self’ in a spatiotemporal reality. We must, after all, understand how the self is built, deconstructing it by piecemeal, before we can attempt to truly build one ourselves.

[1] “The Man in the Iron Mask,” Act V.

[2] “Iron Mask,” Act III, Scene II.

[3] “Iron Mask,” Act IV, Scene II.

[4] Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism, p. 129.

[5] Entries such as these are provided as loading screens throughout the game, interspersed with some diary entries from Replicant Yonah.

[6] It would be a leap to say in broad-sweeping terms that the common core is consciousness, and it ought not to be misconstrued that we are making this argument. Rather, in this case we can see that the idea of consciousness is inextricably bound up with the common core, and will pursue this particular facet, in the hopes that we might ultimately deduce a more fundamental nature of the common core.

[7] Cf. Daniel M. Wegner’s White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control (Guilford Press, 1994).

[8] Recall our earlier diagram of the iterative meta-role paradigm.

[9] Burning for the Buddha, p. 3.

[10] Ibid, p. 3-4.

[11] Ibid, p. 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, p. 107.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 121-125.

[16] “Iron Mask,” Act I.

[17] Ibid, Act II.

[18] Ibid, Act III, Scene I.

[19] Ibid, Act V.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, Act IV, Scene II.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, Act I.

[25] Ibid, Act V.

[26] Ibid, Act III, Scene I.

[27] Ibid, Act IV, Scene II.

[28] Ibid; see both the end of Act IV, Scene II, and the beginning of Act V.

[29] Ibid, Act V.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] An interesting sidebar to consider is the dynamic interplay between Louis XIV and Gaston as understood in Dumas’ final volume of the “Three Musketeers” trilogy, where he is a distinct character, as opposed to someone who is merely referenced as he is in Dumas’ play. Shakespeare Santa Cruz put on a play in the summer of 2012 adapted from the novel, where the same actor played the roles of Louis XIV and Gaston. Though it is beyond the task presently at hand to treat the dynamics of an actor playing two such roles in the same production, one can imagine the enormously increased potentiation of the effects of the iterative meta-role paradigm upon him. In principle, this would not alter any of the above reasoning; if anything, it would underscore the coldly samsara-bound way in which Louis XIV persecutes his own twin. In this case, he would truly be executing himself.

Aaron Suduiko

Aaron Suduiko - Founder and Chief Video Game Analyst

Aaron Suduiko is the founder of With a Terrible Fate and a philosopher of video-game storytelling. He specializes in the impact of player-avatar relations on game stories.  Learn more here.

With a Terrible Fate is dedicated to developing the best video game analysis anywhere, without any ads or sponsored content. If you liked what you just read, please consider supporting us by leaving a one-time tip or becoming a contributor on Patreon.

Join Our Email List For All Our Newest Articles


Simon · January 17, 2017 at 4:54 pm

I’m not even close to being finished, but so far I like most of what I read.
I can’t help but wonder though: Did you not know that Drakengard 3 and 1 are prequels to Nier? And that there are tons of information that were only published outside of the game?

Because so far it seems like you put tons of time into writing and researching and have a great understanding on interesting concepts, but all that is kind of destroyed by the lack of knowledge about the universe Nier plays in. It’s still very interesting and I will definitely continue reading, but so far it feels like a wasted opportunity.

What first made me notice that was that you don’t know what the multiple-origin-theory is. As I am on mobile, I’m just quoting some things from the wiki, in case you are interested:

Research on the corpse of the dead Dragon proves the “Multiple-Origin Theory”, which states that another world exists in a parallel universe from this one. The Dragon and the Giant of the 6-12 Incident are determined to have intruded from this parallel world.
Research on the intrusion from the other world reveals the presence of particles which should not exist in this universe. These particles are found to be remnants of the Giant of the 6-12 Incident. The otherworld element is labeled “Maso”.
The origin of the WCS is announced to be caused by Maso.
Breakthroughs in various technological fields come about with the discovery and study of Maso.
Research on the “Multiple-Origin Theory” continues and reveals that energy is stored equally through the multiple worlds.

The Gestalt Project begins in an effort to contain the spread of WCS. Research is conducted into “Gestaltisierung” – the process in which souls are removed from the human body utilizing Maso reactions.

Using Maso to absorb energy from other worlds, experiments succeed in breaking the law of conservation of mass by “creating something from nothing”

    Aaron Suduiko

    suduiko · January 18, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Simon. I actually don’t lack the knowledge about the Drakengard relation to Nier. Rather, although I’m not explicit about my methodology in this paper, I think one productive way to analyze and understand the worlds of games is to analyze the game as a discrete unit, not incorporating “canon” information established outside of the game. This is my typical approach across most of my work on video games. I think that functionality of a narrative video game, which establishes an intrinsic world with which the player must interact on its own terms, naturally invites that sort of analysis. That’s obviously not to say that a game can’t be understood as part of a broader series–it’s just to say that the nature of a video game equally invites discrete analysis of the game, which can oftentimes yield a different but equally insightful perspective on the content of the game.
    So I don’t see my work here as a “wasted opportunity” or “destroyed” by the perspective offered by a series-wide analysis. Hope this explanation has helped you, and that you do continue reading.

saikononeko · July 4, 2017 at 5:24 am

Walls of text don’t make for a fun Tuesday morning, but it was a very interesting read. I can’t say much when it comes to perceptions of reality and the only qualms I could muster were in reference to the general lore of the Nier/Drakenguard universes, but it appears the other comment addressed this for the most part. Overall it was an interesting read, far more indepth than I was expecting from the URL and from where I found it, being attached to some art of Kaine (I’m sure you know how it is nowadays so I won’t write a long explanation. People love certain identity arguments.) Good work, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

    Aaron Suduiko

    suduiko · July 4, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Thank you for your kind words, saikononeko–I’m so glad you enjoyed my work. I’ll admit I’d be interested to hear where you found the link, given what you said. Hope you get the chance to check out my other work on the series and on other games; please do spread the word about us if you like what we do.

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

All Articles

Time’s Arrow: Chester Burklight in Tales of Phantasia

In Tales of Phantasia almost 30 years ago, Chester Burklight taught us why the most important character in a story is the one shut out of it.

All Articles

Dymlos & Dein Nomos Teach You All You Need to Know About Free Will

Tales of Destiny and Tales of Vesperia tell two halves of one sword-themed lesson: how to act freely by empowering the stories of others.

All Articles

Tales of Symphonia: What Regal Bryant Taught Me

A case study of Regal Bryant casts Kratos Aurion in a new light and shows how Tales of Symphonia's relationship system informs its story.