The world of Drakengard 3 is doomed from the very start. The game is the chronological first entry in the universe of both the Drakengard and Nier series, and players of those games already knew that the future of the setting was pretty bleak. By the events of Nier, humanity had been brought to its knees by the apocalyptic Black Scrawl plague and the earth had stopped rotating, resulting in a world divided into perpetual day and perpetual night.
Unlike most games which position the player as able to change the fate of the world, all the player can do here is see it through to its predetermined end — a dynamic Drakengard 3 plays on to create a unique experience.
The Illusion of Choice
Drakengard 3 is about a woman named Zero and her quest to kill her five sisters — the semi-divine Intoners that protect the world — and then herself. It’s a savage, bloody goal, but it’s for the sake of preventing the world’s destruction at the hands of the Intoners’ power, which Zero knows will eventually consume them and all life on the planet. Instead of complacently accepting a false and temporary peace, she chooses to throw the world back into chaos with the implicit belief that humanity will endure if left to its own devices, even knowing that the price of this second chance is her life.
The player has no say in this decision — in fact, the player has very little say in anything that happens in Drakengard 3. The narrative sweeps us along, and although Zero is ostensibly controlled by the player, we are powerless to do anything but fight as her, without even the pretense of choice.
The player is dropped into a level with no indication of how they got there, and warped out just as enigmatically when they’ve completed it — generally when everything that can possibly be killed is dead. While there are side missions, they exist solely as challenges for the purpose of making money to purchase weapon upgrades, and are completely divorced from the game proper. There are quiet moments of conversation between Zero and her companions between missions, but the player has no choice in what is said.
While player autonomy in games is always necessarily limited — one can only do what the game engine permits — Drakengard 3 doesn’t even try to provide the illusion of freedom.
No Happy Endings
This detachment makes perfect sense — from the player’s perspective, the future of this world is predetermined, after all. This is reflected within the game’s framing. Zero’s quest is being recorded by an observer named Accord, whose journal comprises the level select screen. When Zero fails, Accord moves to a parallel timeline in which events played out slightly differently, and the game continues on a separate path.
These failures and alternate timelines are the various endings of Drakengard 3 — only unlike most games with multiple endings, they’re completely unrelated to player choice, and the events that lead to the timelines branching are a mystery. All the player can do is walk through the events recorded by Accord, hoping that maybe the next path will be the one that reaches a happy conclusion, or at least one that isn’t completely hopeless.
The player never gets to know if Zero’s gamble pays off. While it’s not explicitly stated in the game, comparing the events of the first ending to the game’s chronological sequel Drakengard makes it clear that it’s the one that ties into the rest of the DrakeNier franchise — Zero fails to eradicate the Intoners, setting off the chain of events that leads to the extinction of humanity.
We have our conclusion and our explanation, and in a sense it renders the other three branches of the game meaningless — nothing but so much empty speculation as to what might have been. And yet the game continues. Zero keeps fighting, and Accord keeps searching for a path in which things go just a little different, just a little better.
The Fight Goes On
It would be easy for this to slide into utter crushing nihilism, but the tone of Drakengard 3 isn’t nearly so dark as all of this might suggest — it has a bizarre sense of humor that delights in the sexual, the scatological, and plain old schadenfreude. The characters might be doomed to pitiful, bloody deaths, but we see them alive and bitching about jumping puzzles, chatting around campfires, fucking in the woods, struggling again and again both to preserve the world and to live.
Zero’s quest might be vicious and doomed — one could even blame her failure for the end of the world—but that doesn’t mean her existence isn’t worthy of being recorded. This is the significance of the game continuing past the point of seeming meaninglessness — in the final ending, Zero destroys the Intoners’ power. It can hardly be called a happy ending when it comes at the cost of the lives of every character we’ve met, but that hard-earned Pyrrhic victory is worth celebrating even if we can never see what it earned.
And besides, even after the so-called end, people persist. The outcasts of Nier find new family with each other. The androids of YorHa fish and listen to music and fall in love. This is perhaps the heart of the DrakeNier franchise — no matter how bad things get, even if the planet stops turning and humanity goes extinct, people will continue to live — an especially poignant and necessary message for an era where everything seems to be collapsing around us. Things can never get so bad that people will not continue to live, and there is no hopelessness so profound that it’s not worth fighting.
In Nier: Automata, hundreds of thousands of years after the events of Drakengard 3, Accord is still out there. As long as she persists, and the lives of Zero, her sisters, and the others with whom she crossed paths are not forgotten, perhaps there was some meaning to Zero’s war after all.