Character Design in Nier
Nier brings up some interesting thoughts about character design. I imagine game designers are in a slightly difficult position in this regard. If they keep to the standard formulas they may be accused of being generic and promoting inappropriate gender stereotypes. But as soon as they try something different the "weirdness" of a game's characters may reduce its popularity. I happen to like weirdness, but my opinion doesn't have much relevance to financial success or failure.
Nier actually manages to fall into both of these categories at once, with an odd mixture of original and generic. It is not exactly an achievement I admire, but I do find it fascinating.
The first interesting thing about Nier is its protagonist. In Japan there are two versions of the game. The international version is based on Nier Gestalt, and features an older man trying to save his daughter. In Nier Replicant he is replaced with a younger, more effeminate man, and is trying to save his sister instead.
In the context of Japanese RPGs it's the original, older character who breaks the mould. But in a western context he's closer to the more masculine game protagonists we are accustomed to. I've seen arguments in both directions about which version is more of a "sell out". Overall, these designs are both created for different (but rather standard) markets. Replicant's style is not to my personal taste, but I can't make a very compelling argument for one version over the other.
A little disturbingly, when I started playing Nier I didn't notice just how buff the protagonist was. Mostly because I had recently being playing God of War, and in comparison to Kratos he looks relatively normal. That says some worrying things about a game's ability to make me normalise unrealistic body types. But hopefully only in a virtual context -- I do truly love the natural diversity among human bodies, and wish more of that variation was emulated in virtual spaces.
What I do really like about our Nier Gestalt protagonist is his lack of beauty. While he is very well built, he lacks the completely idealised version of male attractiveness seen in most games. I really appreciated that element of his design, but I am probably in the minority. Venomous forum threads call him the "Caveman" and argue there is no place for ugly protagonists in gaming. I disagree, because I think it's growing diversity that will strengthen gaming. Some people are thinking far too small about the purpose of gaming experiences, and I can only hope these ideas fade in time.
Not to mention the assumption in those ideas that everyone can come to a shared understanding of what ugliness and beauty are. That seems pretty crazy to me.
I do have quite a love for masculinity. By which I really mean the real world spectrum of actual masculinity, rather than the hyper-aggressive video game archetypes we are often fed. Game power dynamics and ultra-violence tend to skew these concepts horribly. I applaud a game including an "ugly" protagonist for at least being slightly different, but it's a little sad I can't celebrate character diversity more broadly.
When it comes to female design, Nier is not exactly improving gaming's image. The scantily-clad JRPG stereotype is blatantly on display. There is a reason for it, and Grimoire Weiss mocks her horribly for fighting monsters in her underwear. In other words, the purpose of this sexualised character is partly as commentary on these kinds of characters in general. But ultimately she's still marketable eye candy. I anticipate some incredibly brave and disturbing cosplay.
Kainé is an interesting character, though, and perhaps worth giving slightly more thought to. She fits her stereotype far less well as soon as she opens her mouth, releasing a viscious torrent of swearing and insults. That hyper-aggression normally reserved for male characters is placed in a female character here.
Note that I mean female in the sense of personal identity. I am aware that physically Kainé is a hermaphrodite. I'm not sure if that even gets much of a mention in-game, but people do like to make a dreadful fuss about it. It saddens me that intersex individuals are thought of as such freak shows. As much as I would like to be happy about the inclusion of these themes, I'm forced to admit it probably has more to do with hinting at futanari porn than any well-meaning attempt at gender diversity beyond the usual binary.