Editor’s Note: This piece contains spoilers for NieR Replicant ver1.22474487139…, including vague spoilers on Ending E.
I remember feeling a special kind of joy when the enhanced rerelease of the original NieR was announced. 2017’s NieR: Automata is an outstanding game that sucked people into its melancholy, empty world and pulled us along right until the end, when it ultimately bloomed into a vision of hope and empathy. NieR was a much more aggressive and angry game, but still beautiful in ways that Automata was. It was just a lot more inaccessible. I wasn’t just excited for people to finally get to play a definitive version of a game that was stuck on the PlayStation 3 and didn’t play the best. I was excited that new people would get to discover the queerness of NieR. It’s something I wish I’d noticed the first time I’d played both of these games.
I played NieR and Automata in 2016 and 2017, respectively, around the time I was trying to embrace my sexuality. I came out as bisexual in 2015. I was fortunate because my immediate friends and family just accepted it — I suppose the accidental Freudian slips over the years hadn’t gone unnoticed. I knew it was right, but now I see I wasn’t truly comfortable with it in 2015, 2016, or even 2017. I felt different playing both of these games. Despite the constant hopelessness, the pain, the sorrow, the bleakness, I felt safe. Accepted. But also shaken. Why should I feel safe in a world where humans don’t exist? Where androids and machines fight until the bitter end? Where one man saves his daughter/sister without maybe ever realising he’s doomed humanity?
It didn’t hit me until I started replaying Automata or until I played NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… why I felt so comfortable.
When you revisit something you love, you always bring extra baggage with you. After a year of being locked in my apartment alone, my sexuality weighed heavily on my mind. Not because I doubted it, but because I felt like I had to fit expectations to exist as bisexual. I beat myself up for thinking this way because I’d already seen how I wanted to be acknowledged in Timespinner. And queer representation is better than ever in video games and media right now. But still, revisiting this world, these characters, and these games, with this hanging over my neck, was hard.
In Automata, LGBTQIA+ people are allowed to live as they please. When Operator 6O calls 2B for the combat android’s “regularly scheduled contact,” only for her to blubber down the phone about being rejected by another girl, 2B just dismisses it because 6O is being melodramatic. She doesn’t question it once, though. There’s no need to because it’s the norm. And while the androids are ultimately just re-enacting human behavior, that means that this behaviour has already existed.
Yoko Taro, the director behind both NieR: Automata and NieR Replicant, said so himself in the creator’s Interview in Grimoire Nier:
“… “People like that exist. It’s simply the way the world works.” They’re labeled with “normal,” “unusual” and compared quite often, but the difference between people with certain sexual preferences lies purely in number. Some are quite abundant, some are not, but we’re all in the same world. I never intended for them to appear as special.”
I’m not the kind of person who puts the developer’s intent first and foremost, but it’s pretty validating to read something like this. We exist. In the same interview, Taro also confirmed that Emil is gay. I didn’t know this the first time I played NieR or Automata, but I particularly resonated with Emil. Kind and sweet-natured, his bond with the much brasher (but equally caring) Kainé struck a chord with me, and his shining optimism was something I always strived to project. Knowing Emil was gay the second time through this story, in Replicant, affected me in ways I never expected.
At the start of the adult arc, Nier, Grimoire Weiss, and Emil enter a research facility to find powers to cure Kainé’s petrification. Emil is forced to fight his sister, a fellow biological weapon, and then absorbs her powers. Engulfed by purple light and with Nier and Weiss unable to do anything, Emil begins to regain his vision. While we can’t see what is happening, Emil expresses shock as he presumably looks at himself. And then he shouts, “No! Don’t! Don’t look at me!” He emerges from the light, now a (very adorable) skeletal boy with rickety, thin arms. He’s crying. And he can’t look at Nier. Nier says nothing and just embraces him. And I can’t stop crying.
It’s an incredibly powerful scene, even without the context that Emil is gay. Nier reiterates something he said to the boy before, that “We’re here for you. No matter what.” And when Nier asks if Emil can see his face, and Emil splutters out joyfully, “You look really cool,” it’s a wonderfully validating moment for the character. Not only does Nier live up to Emil’s expectations, but Nier accepts Emil regardless of his physical body. If he can do that for his physical body, then surely Emil can also be accepted for his sexuality?
I saw a lot of my own insecurities in Emil. Not just about my sexuality, but about my identity, position in life, and future. My inner battle with my sexuality just amplified all of these feelings. I didn’t acknowledge that five years ago. But I did this time, which is why I couldn’t stop crying at this scene. Emil is a valid part of this family, and his insecurities were amplifying each other in the same way mine were and likely many others’ do. That’s why he resonates with so many, not just LGBTQIA+ people. But as a gay character, the nuance the game treats him with is beautiful.
This care is demonstrated again when Nier is gathering pieces of a key to access the Shadowlord’s Castle. It was a scene in the original that you couldn’t infer anything from, even with knowledge of Emil’s sexuality. I was hoping for this scene to be changed, to be more in line with the original Japanese release, but I didn’t realise just how much it would mean to me seeing it.
Nier and his friends are invited to the King of Facade’s wedding. The night before the wedding, Nier and Emil exchange words inside the king’s palace. Emil admits he wishes he was Fyra, which leads to this exchange:
“You’ll find a nice bride someday, Emil.”
“Huh? Oh, right. A…bride…”
The way Emil almost forces the words out of his mouth indicates that he’s uncomfortable with something Nier said. After you leave the room, Emil confirms what he was uncomfortable with without spelling it out entirely: “Yeah, that’s not exactly it…” Emil wants to be Fyra, the bride, because Emil wants to marry Nier. But he’s scared to say that to Nier because he’s coming to terms with it himself. Emil’s response in NieR Replicant matches the kind of response I’ve given when people at my day job assume I have a boyfriend or live with a man or that I’m dating guys. I’ll never spell it out for someone the first time because I don’t have to, and sometimes I feel uncomfortable. These assumptions (no matter how harmless they are) rub me the wrong way, and I’m conflicted by that. It’s just normal to assume that, right?
Well, no. I’m bisexual. And I’m not the only LGBTQIA+ person in the world either.
In just one simple interaction, Emil’s queerness is acknowledged and accepted. Just like that. Here is a boy coming to terms with many traumatic things, who also happens to be gay. Just like other people, Emil is allowed to have issues with self-confidence. He’s allowed to smile and have fun. But he’s also allowed to cry. The game refuses to treat him as anything but human, even as a skeleton.
He’s also treated as a human by his friends, his found family. Found family, or chosen family, is vital to me as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. My family may have accepted who I am, but I can’t talk to them about my sexuality, identity, or even many of my personal issues, the same way I can my found family. For people whose birth family rejects them, found families are invaluable. They allow people to thrive and be themselves, whomever they are.
Coincidentally, it’s also a pretty common JRPG trope. A group of misfits from all over band together to save the world, and these journeys take weeks, months, sometimes even years. So it’s natural for a group of people like this to grow closer and even change each other’s lives for the better. But specific to Replicant, the four main characters are a weird family unit. Nier himself is the most normal, just a young adult trying to save his sister. But then you have a floating book who enjoys being verbose and mighty and a skeleton boy who just wants to be happy. And then you have Kainé.
Kainé is a loner. She’s impulsive, hostile, defensive, standoff-ish, but also caring. And while the adult Nier accepts Emil into this found family, it’s Kainé who shares the first bonding moment with the boy. Before Emil becomes the skeleton we love, he’s a young boy who wears a blindfold because his eyes have the power to turn people to stone. He’s scared of this power. And after Nier, Weiss, and Kainé assist the boy, the pair stand outside to talk. Kainé touches the boy’s shoulder and then delicately lifts her hand to his face, then in front of his eyes. She says to him, softly, “Your eyes are not a sin. Don’t ever be ashamed of them. They’re a vital part of you. Do you understand?” She pulls her hand away, clenches her fist, and from her hand emits a black essence, a black scrawl — the essence of a shade.
Kainé empathises with Emil because she, too, is part-weapon, and like Emil in the second half of the game, many of her issues are tied up in her physical appearance. Possessed by the shade Tyrann, Kainé can use magic and is superhumanly strong and fast, but she cannot always control the powers she has. Just like Emil, she is uncomfortable with this power, but she has come to accept it. After all, she agreed to Tyrann possessing her. But there’s another reason she immediately takes a shine to the boy. She’s intersex. So not only do the two share an immense fear of their powers, but they also share a common identity struggle of wanting to be accepted just for who they are.
As a child, Kainé was bullied cruelly by the children of the Aerie. They kicked her, beat her, threw stones at her, because she was a freak. Before Tyrann even possessed her, these children despised her for simply existing, for being queer. At the beginning of Route B, the text section that relays this story to the player ensures you can feel the pain that Kainé felt in these moments. For every button I clicked, every line of text that scrawls across the black screen, for every piano note that gently and sorrowfully rings from the speakers, I felt the asphyxiating fear and pain that Kainé also felt. Just for existing, she was being bullied and beaten.
Only her grandmother, Kali, stuck up for her and cared for her. But it’s this love and kindness that balances out Kainé’s story. Kainé had a role model who just accepted the girl for who she was. The two loved each other and survived because of each other. She carries the memory of her grandmother, but she still struggles. When Kainé screams at Hook — at the Aerie the second time you fight him — about hating herself and her body, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I understood. I hated myself because of who I was too. And like Kainé, I pushed people away. But also, like Kainé, I found a home with friends.
That much is made clear in one of the new scenes in Replicant in Route B. After curing Kainé of her petrification after the time skip, the twins and heads of Nier’s village, Devola and Popola, regretfully announce that Kainé and Emil are not allowed to stay in the town as the inhabitants are afraid of them. They don’t fit the villager’s norm. So the two of them set up camp and exchange memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Kainé “comes out” to Emil, saying that her body is “different.” This comes after the text adventure, as though Kainé has relived the most traumatic memories of her life, but she has begun to accept herself as her grandmother accepted her. Emil’s positive affirmations back this up, and his willing and cheery declaration that he will cure both of their bodies, of their shade possession and skeletal appearance lift the mood and uplift Kainé.
Kainé’s story is handled so carefully by the writers. She defines herself on her terms. She is an intersex woman. She wears extremely revealing clothing to accentuate her feminine features. (This is a woman designed by a man, though, so this still carries some problematic connotations with it.) She swears and shouts and screams. And she builds a wall up to ensure she gives the impression that she’s cold. But really, she’s lonely, gentle, and caring. She defies stereotypes, no matter how you cut it, which is why I adore her, and I want to be more like her.
Thus, that trophy in Replicant stings even more. It’s an egregious decision to include a trophy that allows players to abuse their powers and rewards them for fetishising an intersex character. Kainé is vital representation for members of the LGBTQIA+ community who rarely get to see themselves on screen or on page. Their stories are rarely ever shown. Her story may start with trauma, but she rises from that trauma to define her path and place in the world. Automata has a similar achievement involving 2B, which itself is highly troubling. I’ve seen fans claim that this new achievement is a reference to that, but the original is harmful enough. It doesn’t matter that Kainé reacts by retaliating physically: the trophy shouldn’t be there in the first place, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see a character like this be potentially humiliated.
Her story doesn’t end in pain, at least. Ending E is the most positive demonstration of her character. But when I initially got this ending, it troubled me because I felt like it undid a lot of the pain and sacrifice Nier and I had been through. But then I stopped and asked myself, why don’t Kainé or Emil deserve some kind of happiness?
Kainé dominates the narrative and the tone of this route. She’s forced to experience some of the most painful moments in her life. She’s made to fight versions of herself. She has to fight Hook again, the shade that killed her grandmother. But she’s doing this for a reason — to regain the memories that she lost after Ending D. She pushes against the world that has been crafted around her. Even with a hopeless future, why doesn’t a queer character deserve one bit of happiness? Why can’t Kainé get back the friend she loved? Even if it’s hopeless, even if it won’t change the future, Kainé’s immediate happiness is at the centre of this. It’s a rare moment of peace and joy that she, Emil, and many other queer characters in media, aren’t often afforded.
Once I looked at it this way, I realised something I probably didn’t want to say about myself. Had I been compromising my happiness, my sexuality, just to fit in? It shocked me because I’m very open about being bisexual, but I felt like I had to fit a template. I wasn’t allowing myself to define things on my terms, like Kainé does. Replicant forced me to reflect on all of the difficulties I’d been through, which were tied to me coming out. I was involved in conversations where people brought up stereotypes with my friends or me in defensive ways. Because I’m bisexual, I’m this kind of person. I remembered the times I was bullied because I physically looked like I was interested in a particular gender. (Which doesn’t make any sense.) I’ve only dated heterosexual men, so am I actually what I say I am?
I don’t share the exact same struggles with Kainé and Emil, but I relate to both characters in different ways. I also wish I could be more like them. I’m lucky I have my own found family in the friends I’ve made over the years, who love me for who I am. But I haven’t ever really learned to love myself or make myself happy, because of who I am and what the world has taught me to believe. Kainé and Emil both get, or create, the opportunity to do that. Not every issue is resolved — the village never accepts Kainé and Emil, and Emil still hates his body at the end — but all of the issues don’t need to be solved. Watching these two characters lay their insecurities out on the table, seeing them go from hating their bodies because of their powers, because they’re rejected, because they’re queer, to being loved, respected, and to making their own space in the world, was a lot to take in. It was a lesson I needed to see.
It’s so important that NieR Replicant shows the queer struggle. I’ve seen countless times how media attempts to depict grief in specific ways for LGBTQIA+ characters or how their narratives are always wrapped up in tired tropes that often result in the death of a queer person. But Kainé and Emil’s struggles, while amplified by their queerness, are not exclusive to them. These two are people. And the struggle of humanity, the struggle for identity, is universal. Love and empathy are universal. While we all have our identities, we as people all share this struggle in common. And we all deserve love and happiness and should share that with each other.
It explains why I feel so comfortable in these worlds. Even if in Replicant, these two queer characters are not accepted because of who they are, they find a space where they’re accepted. By the time Automata rolls around, queerness is just part of the world. But remember, the androids have learned this from human databases, and the machines are just replicating human behavior. So they got this normality from 10,000 years ago. It’s always existed and forever been normal. Nier, or Weiss, never question Emil or Kainé’s identity. They’re simply their friends, and they are unique and loved. I knew this much in 2016, but knowing both characters are queer the second time around, taught me a few valuable lessons that I’ll cherish forever. And I’ll never compromise who I am again.