*** This was actually the final post on my old blog back in February, I think it will fit nicely as the first post here.***
As an apology for not posting here for two years, I'm offering up a personal favorite of mine. I've been waiting since 2012 for something to upend this song for me and it just hasn't happened yet, so this remains my favorite piece of video game music.
I don't really care if you haven't played it. It's been seven years. You had your shot. This is as much of a spoiler consideration as you'll get from me.
Title: "The Ultimate Weapon"
Artist: Keiichi Okabe
Vocals: Emi Evans
Near the halfway point of the original game, you're shown the backstory of Emil, who has since become more or less the mascot for NieR as a series¹. In contrast to Kainé who is abrasive, foul-mouthed, and short-tempered, Emil is a kind-hearted, optimistic and cheerful young boy. You find him blindfolded in a mansion because he is unable to open his eyes without turning people to stone. As the story progresses, you're tasked with venturing below his house, which goes on to culminate in the party learning that he and his sister are engineered bioweapons with unimaginable power. The climax of this dungeon has catastrophic repercussions for him and his character. He merges with the deformed remnant of his sister and is in turn transformed into the strange creature most people recognize him as, and this is the music that ushers that in².
Not only was the music playing throughout this entire sequence aggressively haunting, it was also accompanying one of the most drastic shifts in style that the game pulls up until that point. This was of particular note to me because it was the first time one of the genre-shifts "clicked" on my initial playthrough. Before that point, I was mostly just finding them bizarre. The third person action-RPG shifts into an isometric dungeon crawler as you plunge through the floors of a laboratory. The music leads all of this, from the initial point you visit Emil's mansion to the later point in the game where you venture beneath it.
The direction of this theme also pulls a trick I'm always happy to hear games go in on and that's progressive layering. When you first visit the mansion he lives in (which I should note---is a strange homage to Resident Evil for some reason?), the game is playing a low-key vocal version of the song³. By the time you venture into the laboratory later in the game, it swells into the full piece, which is a whirlwind of melancholy and despair that the series has come to be known for.
Emil as a character is typically an archetype that irritates the hell out of me, but because of how this entire sequence plays out, and how his character progresses as a result of the event, I wound up loving him because of the things I usually hate. This music carried the bulk of the weight in making that happen. It goes on the synergize with moments later in the story such as his unintentional massacre of a village and how that comes to weigh on his character. It even goes beyond the game into its sequel Automata, in which his character is so fragmented and weary of existence, you wind up having to destroy him (or at least a key component of him) for his own good⁴. Both NieR and its sequel were masterclass in contextual harmonizing with their musical direction, and this theme remains the best example I've seen of that in a game⁵.
1. Considering one of the primary themes of both NieR and Drakengard is the player's genuine recognition of violence, Emil is the best avatar NieR has on multiple levels.
2. Even though Emil does have his own iconic theme, this is why I've always considered "The Ultimate Weapon" his.
3. One of my favorite YouTube playlists is simply an unmixed upload of the first game's music in layers: https://youtu.be/OvcSEk9i4WQ?list=PL8169FDA13F26E706
4. You know---where he fought a losing battle against an entire alien race on his own offscreen and lost his mind because of it: https://youtu.be/EfGqL33Q1cg
5. My only major disappointment with Nier: Automata was that there was no rearrangement of this theme in the game. To be fair though, there really was no place to fit it in, as every song revisit from the first game had a specific reason to be playing in the sequel.