There is something special about NieR: Automata. Developed by Platinum Games and released in 2017, NieR: Automata is a sequel to the cult classic game NieR (Cavia, 2010). Set thousands of years in the future, NieR: Automata is an action role playing game where the player takes control of androids 2B, 9S and A2. Their aim is to rid the earth of alien machines and pave the way for the last humans, who have settled on the moon, to return to earth. Keichii Okabe, the composer for NieR/NieR: Automata and the Drakengard series, uses adaptive music rescored from previous games with aims to induce emotions within the player-character connection.
NieR: Automata (NieR) uses a variety of gameplay styles, tapping into many game genres and moving the player between; different third person camera angles; side scrolling platforms; 3D open world movement; 2D movement; shoot ‘em ups; and bullet-hell styles. Therefore, the music must be adaptive to communicate the game’s everchanging intentions, alongside character emotions, to the player through its adaptiveness during these multiple types of gameplay and narrative. In 2016, Keichii Okabe spoke of the music in NieR before its release:
A character may feel sad during a battle, and usually a battle sequence would have fierce music, but for NieR, if the character feels sad, I made sure to have that kind of feeling in that fierceness.
NieR puts a greater focus on player-character advancement, overall moods and emotions, when participating in important story moments of the game, allowing them to be completely involved with larger narrative plots, as opposed to these situations being scripted and put into a cut-scene. An example of this is the Abandoned Amusement Park boss, Simone, where the player fights with what looks like a machine that has crafted themselves into a giant opera singer. The introductory cutscene to this fight is a mere 30 seconds long, showing Simone scream diegetically at the introduction of a non-diegetic vocal line, throwing the player full force into a boss battle; the player has already learnt the basics of combat, why would a boss need a longer introduction/tutorial when the player already has the tools they need? To explain, diegetic is a source of sound or music that originates from within the game/film world, like speech, whereas non-diegetic sound originates from outside of the world, like a soundtrack.
The music reflects the speed in which the player enters combat, beginning with soprano vocal lines of unidentifiable language which mix with Simone’s diegetic speech, driving violin lines, and relentless timpani accompaniment that portray the desperation of both Simone, to be beautiful, and of 2B and 9S, to overcome this machine.
This gives the player control of these higher emotional story points, causing a higher sense of achievement when the player defeats the boss, in this case Simone, as they have more physical involvement with the game and its surrounding adaptive soundtrack.
NieR is essentially a video game, as opposed to an interactive film. What I mean here by interactive film is the influence that contemporary Hollywood has on the approach to video games now, causing them to become gradually more cinematic and ruled by cut-scenes. For example, games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017) are excellent open world action role playing games (RPGs) which use cutscenes and cinematics to create breath-taking visuals. Unfortunately, although this works for controlling the narrative, it takes away from gameplay moments which the player should be most involved in, especially due to the high number of hours committed by a player.
NieR’s use of adaptive music moves the game away from the threat of an interactive film, attempting to immerse a player with character emotions and general story moods. This is done using vertical layers that turn on/off cues of material in the game world. This works at its best, and most noticeably, with area themes, focusing on adapting each theme to a quiet, medium, and dynamic version which all run both with and without vocals.
What’s interesting about this approach is that the adaptiveness is not randomised to create variety, but is scripted to change depending on where the player is in the story. The quiet area music occurs when the player first discovers each area, identifying with the player’s basic knowledge of this land type, and as time and narrative progresses certain cues are turned on to adapt the music into its medium or dynamic variations. What this gives to the player is a sense of momentum as they progress through the game and gain more experience with the world and its characters; connecting players with the gained experience of the characters in their control.
Quiet plays only the cue’s accompaniment, medium usually introduces the overarching theme, and finally dynamic introduces the countermelody, increasing the instrumentation and rhythmic patterns. The vocals are added to any variation, acting as a countermelody and emotional height, causing the subsequent music to appear as accompaniment whilst the voice takes centre stage. What is noticeable about this adaptiveness is its relation to the player and where they are in the narrative and game world.
In terms of gameplay and soundtrack, NieR is highly regarded by players for being well made and implemented. The entire game is incredibly focused to player engagement, both physically and emotionally, through adaptive music and gameplay.
Jennifer Smith is a first year Ph.D. candidate studying Ludomusicology (video game music) at the University of Huddersfield. She’s researched the effects of immersion and flow on a player’s emotional and physical connection to the game world and its characters, and she’s now now researching the reception of Japanese video game music in the UK. She also live streams the online card game Faeria at Twitch.tv under the name JumpStartGB.