Minor spoilers for Nier Replicant to follow.
I’ve never been into agricultural video games — or farming sims — so my emerging infatuation with Nier Replicant’s real-time gardening system baffled me at first. At the height of my obsession, my method was foolproof. I would harvest my crops each morning and plant the next batch. Routinely I’d come back in the afternoon for another play session to do a mid-cycle water for maximum output. Every day I’d go into town and sell my yield to the same village florist, and then spend a portion of my earnings buying some seeds off her to start the whole process again. But this whole meticulous daily routine… It’s not like me.
A few years back, I gave Stardew Valley a shot. I wanted to play a game that maybe, for once, wasn’t about destroying something. But I bounced off pretty quickly when I realized how much micromanagement was required to climb the treadmill. When lockdown hit and Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out I made the correct decision spending my $60 on Doom Eternal instead. The FOMO I felt by being out of the loop faded as quickly as my memories of Doom Eternal and all was well. But apparently I needed the apocalyptic setting of Doom and the agriculture of Stardew to meet in the middle. The disease ridden post-apocalyptic hellscape of Nier gave me just enough existential dread to find meaning in every bit of the world. And I found it in the very dirt of that world.
By all standards, the impetus for setting off down this path was innocuous. Recalling my personal experience with Automata and knowing Nier’s reputation as a game with a tendency for wasting players’ time, I did my due diligence going in. I knew you had to collect all the weapons to get Endings C and D and was well aware of the roadblock expensive late-game weapons could cause if you aren’t building up a hefty nest egg. In this process I became intimately familiar with the towns, quest-givers, and shopkeepers inhabiting the handful of cities in Nier Replicant’s dying society.
To me — a player who’s anxiety is spiked by the possibilities in an Assassin’s Creed game — knowing the end goal going in was important to engaging with Nier’s farming. I quickly found it to be the most reliable way to save up money over the course of the game’s multiple routes. But ultimately, farming served a higher purpose. It connected me to Replicant’s physical world, and by extension its people.
Nier Replicant’s world is small and dying, slowly being overtaken by disease known as The Black Scrawl. Mysterious Shades roam the land. Our eponymous white-haired protagonist is intent on slaughtering them, hoping it will bring him some sort of peace. His dying sister weighs on his conscience, pushing him towards vengeance.
The structure of Yoko Taro’s Nier games is all about highlighting what lies beneath the surface. Upon second glance, we realize most of our early assumptions were incorrect or manipulated without our knowledge. Replicant resonated deeply with me because I felt like I was taking an active role in this subversion of the characters. As the story took Nier in one direction, I tried my best to flesh out a softer side of him. One that is driven to provide for more than just himself and his sister and become a part of the community.
A big turn-off for players who bounce off Nier early on is the mundanity of most of the side quests, but it’s the mundanity that makes them worth doing. The reason is that Nier contextualizes its quest structure extremely well. In the first half of the game, your sister Yonah is dying from the Black Scrawl and, in addition to finding a way to save her (main quest) you must fill your time with tasks (side quests) for your neighbors to afford food and medicine.
Of course, this isn’t strictly true. In practice, you end up using that money to buy weapons and quest items. Nier is an action RPG, not a survival game. This isn’t Pathologic. Right from the opening bits, I grew attached to the characters. The storytelling was strong enough that I started making narrative justifications for how much time I was spending farming. Surely, Nier needs a chill way to occupy his time when he is not doing jobs for villagers or caring for Yonah. I mean, the guy needs a hobby and this one is pretty lucrative. I don’t know if the reason I fell into gardening was trying to get ahead of the financial curve or just a cure for my depression, but soon I was doing it for another reason. I was doing it for that same florist I’d see every morning. What if I didn’t show up? Would she be disappointed? I know she would.
As I explored my gameplay loop started to revolve more and more around each town’s floral shop offerings. The Aerie florist only sells Moonflowers. So now I know Moonflowers are indingious to that region. The world grows more real in my mind. Most crops have a 24-hour cycle from planting to harvest, but Speed Fertilizer can expedite this process. Speed Fertilizer is only sold at the Seafront item shop, a special presumably created by some genius in Seafront. I know I’ll be back soon, but I buy a few extra every time just in case.
This real-time cycle reinforces the ways Nier’s world and its inhabitants feel like they have lives away from the player’s interactions with them. Few of them stand out as memorable characters, but as a whole they make up the life-blood of Replicant. They aren’t even named, but I don’t know the name of my pharmacist down the street. Nor the name of the cashier who I always see at the French pastry shop across the street. Yet these people are part of the texture of my neighborhood, my daily life. They were here before me and they will be a part of the community long after I move away.
In the second half of the game you can discover a quest that requires crossbreeding of Moonflowers. Up until this point, I hadn’t found planting flowers useful; cash crops and some bountiful veggies like eggplant had become my bread and butter. Crossbreeding requires placing certain flowers next to one another, letting them bloom and die, and then harvesting the seeds of the newly created breed of Moonflower. The only way to acquire the rare and narratively important Lunar Tear is to go another layer deeper into the crossbreeding mechanic. Suffice it to say, I never made it past the introductory side quest. I wasn’t into Nier’s farming to master the breeding of the world’s rarest flower, no, I was in it for the feeling of being a part of something bigger.
I imagine the sense of your villagers living lives beyond your purview is one of the comforts of Animal Crossing. And while Nier Replicant is the furthest thing from a “wholesome game,” I found comfort in the crop cycle. It was a way for me to create life in a dying world.
When you first start Replicant, the plains that sprawl between your village and the surrounding towns are flush with livestock. Sheep, goat, and boar are plentiful. You can chill with washed up sea lions in Seafront. As the game progresses, these spaces become overrun with Shades; the livestock are dying off. The sea lions stop showing up. These are the consequences of living selfishly.
Nier, our vengeful protagonist, is driven by selfishness. Project Gestalt was birthed from the hubris of humanity. I, too, often live selfishly. I don’t need a video game to tell me that. No matter how poignant it is, I don’t think a video game could convince me to make all the necessary changes to my life and consumption habits.
Nier and I were born into destructive worlds we can’t change, but we can give back. I can give back. I can grow something with my own two hands.