NieR:Automata is available on Playstation 4, XBox One, and Steam. Its soundtrack is available on Amazon and iTunes.
One of those elements that instantly makes a setting feel fleshed-out and well-realized to me is the presence of conlang, or constructed languages. You’ll see it in some of the most widely-loved fantasy and science fiction series, especially the “big three” in geek culture – The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek feature the conversation-functional Elvish and Klingon, respectively, and Star Wars can feature four separate alien languages in the space of about five minutes.
And this requires an impressive amount of legwork to convincingly nail down, from the mountain of necessary vocabulary to the minute details and implications of grammar and sentence structure. If you’ve ever made a concerted effort to learn a second language – or if you ask anyone who has – you’ll know that it’s a serious undertaking just to parse and comprehend a new language, let alone to build one from scratch.
Heck, many people still struggle English as their first language well into the middle years of their life – though, to be fair, English is well known to be booby-trapped with contradictions, exceptions, and corner-case rules.
All that to say, it’s dead impressive that the invented “chaos language” in NieR: Automata is custom-made just to deepen the series’ often-haunting and sometimes-thrilling soundtrack.
It’s got this distinctive air to it – a breathtaking, haunting vocal performance in an untranslatable dialect, underlined by piano, strings, and percussion that fade in and out dynamically according to the action on-screen. Just recognizable enough in form to feel distinctly human, yet a borrowing of so many elements that it still feels distinctly foreign to me, and I imagine just as much to native speakers of other languages.
I suspect this because The Wretched Automatons from NeiR – supposedly based in English – still feels just far enough off its language of origin to slip through my metaphorical fingers whenever I nearly tie the two together. And lyricist Emi Evans rotates through enough different inspirational and stylistic sources – including Gaelic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English and Japanese, according to a 2010 interview with Original Sound Version, but presumably even more come NeiR: Automata – that they can’t form enough of a collective pattern to pin them to a single source of inspiration.
Yet when all are presented through the filter of her own voice, all end up sounding just close enough to each other to conceivably all belong to the same supernatural culture. It’s all so… other, while still very much being its own thing.
Perfectly-fitting, then, for a game that throws itself into themes of identity in the context of human-like androids.
I don’t think that NeiR: Automata would work nearly as well in its quieter, contemplative moments given a different lyrical approach or other musical style. You’ve got all sorts of games that try to do it – the Metal Gear series famously throws a kitchen sink’s worth of speculative philosophy at the player, yet at the end of the day it feels like an information dump between intense sections of Tactical Espionage Action™.
NeiR: Automata, on the other hand, will end each sidequest with a little rumination on the focus character’s identity in a dying world, set to a track that’s recognizably human yet still unplaceable as anything from our own culture. And it’s content to linger there, holding that same track through until either its completion or the on-screen action transitions it into another offering in the same distinct Chaos language that’s rarely far removed in terms of tone. In thie way, you’re encouraged through the sound and atmosphere to continue to dwell on the message and implications of the game’s story, even if you’re jumping right back into the action combat.
I’m almost sure that the lingering lines of thought facilitated by the use of the Chaos language in these situations is why the sidequests in Nier: Automata and the questions they offer up still stick with me every bit as much as the core narrative does.
(Speaking of, the final moments of the game are paired with a vocal piece perfectly suited to twist the proverbial knife, but naturally that’s about as much as I can say without spoiling the whole shebang.)
Astoundingly, Evans’ Chaos language is never spoken in the game proper – everything is either colloquial English or garbled pseudo-code. Still, it’s so thoroughly in-step with the game’s themes and so audibly unlike anything else I’ve ever heard in a score or soundtrack that it’s inescapably, positively a part of Nier: Automata‘s identity.
Not quite anything belonging to this world, but still very much human.
P.S. – For further reading/listening, Yuki Kajiura also makes brilliant use of her own constructed language in otherworldly science-fiction-fantasy series Xenosaga, which makes a pass at similar themes on humanity in the context of androids. She’s also a key fixture in the enthralling-yet-unnerving soundtrack to the absolute gem that is Puella Magi Madoka Magica.