So in case you missed the subhead, I’m going to go ahead and repeat it anyway, because it warrants repeating: if you haven’t already beaten or know of NieR’s E ending, I’m going to suggest you click the back button right now and pick some alternative reading material for the weekend. While NieR isn’t exactly at “Spec Ops: The Line” levels of “this game needs to be played blind”, the ending is a whole lot more impactful if you don’t know what to prepare for.
Got it? Good.
So, yes, I finally caught up with the rest of the gaming world and beat NieR, getting all five of the canonical endings, capping off with the E ending. Which, I can unequivocally say, is the best ending to a video game I’ve ever played.
I’d like to preempt this by saying that NieR is, on reflection, kind of a disappointment. It was great game, sure, I don’t want you to get the idea I’m not a fan, I totally am. How could I not love something with the best video game soundtrack ever made? But I’m not typically a fan of hack-and-slash games, is the thing, and while I obviously enjoyed NeiR enough to play it through at least three times, it wasn’t enough to change my opinion. Story, music, and characters aside, the gameplay simply wasn’t as fun for me as, say, Mount and Blade, my other obsession of the past few days/weeks. The only reason I call it a disappointment is because it was just so hyped before I got my hands on it, so absolutely praised, that I was expecting gameplay that would blow my mind. And while my mind was blown, it wasn’t by the slashy bits.
So no, don’t expect another huge wave of articles to come gushing out of my mouth, the way I did for Undertale of Dark Souls. But the true ending of NieR is a work of art that is unrivaled by any game this or any generation, and it’s an ending that will stick with me for many, many years to come.
And it’s all thanks to “Sarah”.
It’s no accident that I name-dropped Dark Souls in the above paragraph, because I think NieR owes a lot more to Dark Souls than people may realize. Yes, it, too, has a corpse-recovery system, but since the game is so easy (auto-healing chips break the combat) it’s not exactly punishing. Finding the bodies of other players and getting either buffs or allies from their remains is certainly interesting, and it can clue you in when you might reach an area that’ll prove challenging, but honestly, as far as I was concerned, I figured that it was all just so much window dressing, a nod on NieR’s part to a popular new mechanic that could be removed from the game without much consequence.
That is, until I got the E ending. Because the E ending is the ultimate realization of what Dark Souls first pioneered. The E ending is everything Dark Souls wished it could be. The E ending caps off the game and reinforces its message with a level of narrative and emotional conclusiveness that I am still struggling to wrap my head around it. The E ending, alone, is proof of what the medium can do for the people who participate within it.
As you should know if you’ve played this game long enough to be reading this article, the endings of “NieR” aren’t exactly happy. You can either kill off all the main cast, or you can kill off most of the main cast and the hopes of the machine lifeforms. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that leaves you feeling fuzzy, but then, this game was never about happy endings, was it? Name one side-quest that doesn’t either end with some kind of tragedy, or was prompted by some kind of tragedy.
The pushing crates one… and… the very first supply retrieval quests. Maybe the Jean Paul quests until you learn his arrogance caused a robot to go insane and start cannibalizing their fellow machines.
That’s the point it keeps hammering in, especially on the second and third play through, when you start getting different perspectives on the events of the game and learning more about the story. To stop expecting, or hoping, for happy endings. And maybe it does its job a bit too well, because it reached a point where many of the plot twists that take up the second half of the story could be predicted because it was the most logical way to make the situation worse. Pascal’s village’s fate (and his inevitable break from his pacifist ways), Popola and Devola’s sacrifice, the fact that 9S would have to fight clones of 2B, or that 2B was actually an execution model… yeah, I saw those all coming, and if the game had offered even a bit of levity or hope I might have been more caught off guard by the true turns
But it also meant that the fact that there was a “happy” ending all the more powerful. I’d gotten all the sad endings, and when I was prompted to face one last challenge to unlock a good ending? How could I refuse? For lack of a better term, I was filled with determination.
Starting the bullet hell section, there are three great elements that combined to make an amazing experience into an unforgettable one.
The first is the gameplay. At this point in the game, we’d played a lot of the bullet hell sections, so we’re prepared for what’s coming up: a grueling, close to 10-minute grind as you try to blast away the creators of the game as they fire waves of bullets at you. It starts easy. It slowly becomes manageable. And, slowly, by the time you hit the 2/3rd mark, you realize that you’ve hit a wall. Whereas before you got hit once or twice if you’re careless, now you were getting killed routinely. It never feels impossible, but it certainly comes off as daunting. And after making it so far, a mix of defiance and determination helps you avoid frustration.
The second, of course, is the actual online feature. Seeing the words of encouragement sent to me by other players, showing up one at a time as you keep dying, not only filled me with renewed vigor, but kept me going in case there was something more waiting for me. I wanted to see what these people had to say. And then, of course, “the call for help”, when you start to feel as if there really is no way to do this, but you’ve proven that you’re going to keep trying anyway, you get thrown a lifeline. And the brilliant part about accepting this lifeline is that you don’t know yet just what this person, Sarah in my case, had to sacrifice in order to give you the good ending. They save that revelation until after you beat it yourself, and leave you thinking “wait, wait, wait: they did that for me?”
It’s the missing component in the Dark Souls co-op, even if it’s basically similar in function. Both are about calling strangers for help in your time of need. But while Dark Souls rewards you for going to help other players, NieR actively punishes them. It’s taking everything you’ve gotten in the game, every tick of progress and every extra feature, and asking if helping a stranger is worth sacrificing everything you’ve gotten so far. It’s showing that people care more about each other than the game that they’re playing, stripping down conventional reward systems in games to show, hey, there are good people in the world who care enough about helping others that they don’t need anything other reward to do it. A revelation that, as far as I’m concerned, is the most uplifting “ending” a video game could ever produce: leaving you with the knowledge that the world is still full of good people who are rooting for you.
Third, of course, is the music. “Weight of the World” was already a brilliant, beautiful song, but the lyrics really come into sharp focus as they play during that segment, don’t they?
I wish that someway, somehow That I could save every one of us But the truth is that I'm only one girl
Maybe if I keep believing my dreams will come to life
That’s us. We want to save everyone in the game, but we can’t. At least, not alone. Once we get help, the help we need both in-game and in real-life, then we have that hope and strength we need to actually accomplish our goal. But we don’t get that help if we give up too quickly, do we? We have to keep dreaming, and believing, and trying, before we’re finally able to push forward to our goal.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end a game about tragedy. You give us a happy ending, but not without paying a price… and in doing so, you remind us that there’s goodness all around us. In the people all around us.
So thanks again, Sarah. For helping me when I needed you more than ever. And I hope whoever I helped with my sacrifice was as touched by the game as I was.
…and huge shout-outs to the first person to reach ending E without any help, and then made the sacrifice. Man, you are the real VIP.