Contains spoilers for the first half of the game
Early in Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…, the forthcoming update of 2010’s Nier, Kainé urges a young boy named Emil not to be ashamed of his eyes. She brushes against the bandages he uses to cover them, then presses his hand to her arm, showing him the fulminating spark of her curse. Kainé is possessed by a Shade, a shadowy creature that thrives somewhat parasitically inside her body. Shades claim anyone they come into contact with, and slowly threaten the few civilizations left standing in the world. For this reason, Kainé is seen as a grim omen, a lightning rod who attracts disaster wherever she goes. Emil, meanwhile, has a Medusa-esque ability to petrify anyone he looks at. It’s an extraordinary ability, but one that forces him to live a lonely life separate from other people.
Later, we learn Kainé is an intersex woman. After being violently bullied by the children in her village, she lived on the outskirts of society with her nurturing (but foulmouthed) grandmother. We also eventually learn that Emil is gay—he wistfully wishes he and Nier could marry. This recontextualizes Kainé’s plea for Emil to accept himself as not just being about their individual bodies, but about their apparent queerness as well. Denied of a community in an already decaying world, Kainé and Emil share a unique connection and a similar struggle despite their wholly different personalities. This echoes my own queer experience; we aren’t necessarily drawn to people who are particularly similar to us, but instead our chosen families are disparate.
Kainé and Emil both have bodies that are deemed as dangerous. Despite their persecution, both are entirely selfless—they dedicate themselves to helping Nier in his quest to find Yonah, and assist in saving Nier’s village from Shade invasions. Nier creator Yoko Taro is known for incorporating themes of post-trauma nationalism in his games, and Nier Replicant is a prime example of this. Living in constant fear of terroristic attacks, the denizens of Nier’s village and those of neighboring settlements treat their own with suspicion and ostracize those who transgress popular ideas of how people should look and behave. To them, it’s a means of survival; for Kainé and Emil, it’s proof they’re freaks, people who could never live a traditional life and rely on themselves to get by.
Midway through Replicant, the story skips ahead by five years. Emil has desperately been seeking a method by which to save Kainé, who he was forced to petrify to seal away a vicious Shade. In his search, he learns that he and his sister were once used and exploited as weapons by a research group. He’s able to absorb some of his feral sister’s abilities to revert his petrifying eyes, but it comes with a cost—his body transforms into a skeletal form with a smiling skull. Emil cowers after his transformation, fearing he finally looks like he feels inside: grotesque, alien, and inherently unlovable. He’s shocked to learn that Nier is not only unphased by the change, but embraces him.
Queer people are often told that their bodies are unworthy, ugly, or loathsome unless they are somehow useful. Because of this, young queers often fear rejection unless they present some sort of functionality—are they entertaining? Do they ascribe to popular beauty standards? Do they have some kind of talent that contrasts their otherwise repulsive selves? A queer person fitting into mainstream society is possible, but requires a level of submission and assimilation. Being used for the purposes of conventional society is dehumanizing and to be as frightfully messy as Kainé is a death sentence—her unyielding honesty is synonymous with chaos.
Queer existence isn’t defined by suffering, though, and Kainé and Emil’s lives are no different. Emil acknowledges he often conflates Kainé with his sister, and their relationship certainly echoes this kind of sibling bond. After being banished from the village, Kainé and Emil camp just outside it, where they exchange stories of their childhoods and memories. These interactions are the closest thing to a community the two can achieve. They demonstrate that, despite her fierceness, Kainé isn’t defined by her anger. She is gentle and kind, and is more than a skilled killer.
Kainé teaches Emil “pride”—he can appreciate his body even though others hate him for it. Medusa transformed into a vengeful monster after her sexual assault; Emil similarly is a victim of western civilization and its tendency to leave behind the most vulnerable people living within it. But Kainé and Emil can find happiness and fulfillment even in a cruel system that refuses to accept them. They can love and empathize with their chosen family, and divest from the violent environment that binds them.
In Replicant, queer desire deserves to be celebrated despite its associated struggles. In this way, Replicant still represents one of gaming’s most important and overlooked queer stories. It presents LGBT characters as complex people that passionately chase better lives for themselves and each other, and I’m glad its impending remaster will allow a new generation of players to experience it for the first time.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire.