The world is a lonely and dangerous place, empty but for a small town and remains of an inscrutable society. You and your only daughter, afflicted with an incurable disease, struggle day to day as mysterious ephemeral beings threaten to take away what little you have. Only the gentle plucking of an old guitar and a soft voice, singing a delicate but despondent song in a language no one understands, carries you along your struggle to survive. No hope and no meaning are to be found here - only the tragic and downtrodden people of this world anxiously awaiting their uncertain but inevitable deaths.
This is (an admittedly dramatized version of) the world of the video game Nier. Released in 2010 to mixed reviews, Nier was polarizing as many critics were off-put by the game’s bizarrely depressing story, mediocre graphics, and clunky gameplay, while others hailed it as a unique masterpiece despite its flaws. Despite not finding commercial success, the game has gone on to establish itself as a cult classic, inspiring numerous tribute albums, an upcoming official sequel, and some wild fan theories, such as Aaron Suduiko’s enormous 20,000 word analysis from a Buddhist perspective (https://withaterriblefate.com/2015/06/18/nier-will-teach-you-everything-you-need-to-know-about-identity/).
The surprising long-term appeal of the game can be traced in part, much like its publisher’s bigger franchise, Final Fantasy, to one key element: Its gorgeous music. Almost all critics agreed that the soundtrack to Nier was astounding and beautiful, carving out its own niche by incorporating vocals from the excellent Emi Evans (who also sang the credits music to Dark Souls) into a medium that has been primarily instrumental for decades, save for outlier themes for openings and/or credits (like the infamous Castlevania: SOTN ending). Composed by Keiichi Okabe, who was previously known for his driving electronic works for the Tekken series, the soundtrack has developed a life of its own, culminating in a live performance of the soundtrack in Japan in 2016. In fact, if it were not for the overwhelming praise for the soundtrack (which I actually first found in the comments section of a TAY article!), this paper would have never been written, as I wouldn’t have even heard of the game.
As is customary with music reviews by non-musicians, however, very few of the critics who praised the music gave insight into exactly why the music was so excellent beyond its surface level beauty and melancholy. This paper will attempt to fill in that omission by examining ways in which Okabe reuses certain motifs to create unity and seamless flow throughout the game, while also examining ways in which the unity is disrupted to better suit the narrative.
I was surprised in my analysis to find that each song is really just a series of 30-50 second loops with varying orchestration. Unlike some games, however, Nier does an excellent job at maintaining the illusion of seamless continuity and hiding its simple structure. Due to the fact that every track is built on a relatively short loop, the in-game implementation of the soundtrack allows for one track to accommodate an entire scene without being boring or overdramatic by seamlessly adding or subtracting instruments from the orchestration as the scene demands. For instance, in the scene in which the track “Cold Steel Coffin” plays, the player enters a seemingly empty town and the orchestration is nearly all voices with few instruments, creating an ominous and uncertain feeling. As the action picks up and the scene shifts towards conflict, the voices remain but are accompanied by driving percussion, heavy brass, and running string lines, effectively transforming the same ominous chord progression and melody into an invigorating song for a dramatic battle.
Disclaimer: The notation that will be presented from this point on are not from the official or original manuscript (as I did not learn until near the end of the process of writing this paper that an official book of scores surprisingly does exist for the soundtrack, but I have not acquired it yet due to the importing process). Instead, the notation depicted is a combination of original transcription work and extrapolation from transcriptions created by other users online -A special thanks to Musescore user Zokque in particular, who had uploaded transcriptions of many of the songs and gave me an excellent starting point.
The pervasive emotional state of Nier’s music can be described as melancholy. Composer Keiichi Okabe, discussing the direction given to him by the game’s director, explained, “I was told that the feel of the world and the atmosphere of the story were ‘sad and gloomy,’ and so I did my best to bring out a sense of melancholy in everything. But I didn’t want the music to be just gloom, so I focused on expressing various sadness and gloominess, from a quiescent sadness to intense sadness, and so forth.” The goal of this paper is to figure out exactly what makes the soundtrack so effectively melancholy, primarily focusing on the harmonic gestures that are used throughout the entire soundtrack.
But first, a brief primer. I wrote this paper for an upper level theory course which doomed it to be filled with jargon that will fly past a lot of readers. In addition to the notation in the original paper, I will include links to the audio excerpts mentioned. Many people are great listeners who just haven’t learned the terminology to put what they hear into words. In short, melody is the part you sing/hum/whistle, whereas harmony is just about everything else with a pitch that you hear. Harmony creates the foundation of tension and release in music, and Keiichi Okabe excels at manipulating this in Nier’s soundtrack. So, when listening to the audio examples, try to listen to the sounds further in the background, instead of just the part that sticks out the most obviously.
Also, if anyone would like to take a look at the original paper with all of the terminology intact you can find it here: