NieR: Automata and the Melancholy of the Human Voice in an Opera of Machines and Ruins

How Keiichi Okabe's music contributes to the identity of the NieR series and the humanism of NieR: Automata

NieR: Automata and the Melancholy of the Human Voice in an Opera of Machines and Ruins
Source: Nintendo Blast.

If I had to define the musical experience provided by NieR: Automata (2017) synthetically, I could say that it looks like an opera sung and performed by machines that fight each other and lament the end (but also the existence) of humanity. I explore within this piece how the music in this game develops that feeling.

The soundtrack for NieR: Automata was musically directed by Keiichi Okabe, with compositions by himself and other composers from the music studio he founded, MONACA. The songs on the original soundtrack (OST) have excellent voices carefully selected for the proposal. Being one of the most outstanding parts of the game, OST collected awards at NAVGTR, SXSW Gaming Awards, and The Game Awards 2017.

In fact, in every NieR game, one of the biggest highlights is the track. This is mainly because of its unique proposal as background music, its quality, and its depth. By quality, I mean how well done it is in harmony and execution to convey the desired feeling (in this case, mostly melancholy). By depth, I mean how well it is used to give meaning to your world.

As a lover of the NieR series, and music, and who has studied classical piano from an early age, I’m here to share my thoughts and experiences with these songs.

I have recently reviewed Automata in Portuguese, along with a recent interview with YOKO Taro, Tosuke Saito, and Keiichi Okabe. These materials will act as references within this article. You can view and listen to the songs from the OST on the official NieR: Automata playlist, made available by Square Enix Music via Spotify.

The Voices and Ruins of Humanity

Unlike NieR Replicant (2021), the OST of NieR: Automata has parts with synthetic sounds, a choice that reflects the technological characteristics of its characters in a story that takes place about eight thousand years after Replicant and after the end of humanity. Another choice of musical direction that goes along with this is the way some songs have chiptune arrangements, becoming more muffled or distorted depending on the damage suffered by the droid controlled by the player.

Similar changes occur with the game’s graphics and interface, whose design was conceived and led by Hisayoshi Kijima. These audiovisual and interface choices provide an immersive experience for the player as if he were an android himself.

On the other hand, these characters are humanized in terms of cognition and sensitivity, which leads us to the songs in the work, with performances in different languages ​​by singers such as Emi Evans (in French), J’Nique Nicole (in English) and Marina Kawano (in Japanese).

Emi Evans at the 2017 NieR Music Concert. Source: Game Watch.

Our main interest in this matter is in the soundtrack's vocal songs, which are the most numerous and prominent in the OST. These are rarely accompanied by synthetic timbres, but by natural sounds, mainly strings, a little percussion, and piano.

Our primary interest in this matter is in the soundtrack’s vocal songs, which are numerous and prominent in the OST. Synthetic timbres rarely accompany these, instead done by mainly strings, natural sounds, a little percussion, and piano.

Using acoustic tones to create harmony with nature is not something new. Many games do this, one of the most notable being the ambient music of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017). However, the music of Automata in this context is not ambient, but background music. This means that these, unlike those in Breath of the Wild, do not mix with the sound effects and are more static. It’s superimposed on the backgrounds, so we can easily take them out of context and listen to them separately.

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NieR: Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

Thus, during exploration in Automata, a track changes when the player steps into another setting, or during scene changes in the script. We can easily understand this concept of background music in Automata through the jukebox that is in the resistance camp. In-game, you can use this machine to change the music you listen to, sit back, and enjoy it with your androids.

This possibility proves that background music can eventually exist internally in a fiction; the characters can “hear” it or even talk about it, as in Replicant, where two characters are musicians (Devola and Popola). On the other hand, ambient music does not have this potential, it is just part of the player’s experience.

Despite their differences, there is something in common between ambient music and background music: it is the intention of both to convey mundane feelings and the sensitive experience of the character in his journey. This brings us mainly to the harmony and rhythm of the compositions, but before that, also to the musical texture — something that is not always observed as much as it should be in-game music analysis.

NieR:Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

The Texture of Songs From NieR: Automata

In music, we call texture the way tempo, melodic lines, and harmony are combined. We can analyze the texture of a song in relation to factors such as density (or thickness), the relative range between the lowest and highest keys, and the number of voices, which would be the number of independent melodies inside the music.

A texture is thick when it contains many layers. One of these layers might be a string section, for example, another might be drum beats, another might be a sung melody, and so on. However, there can also be different melodic layers using only one instrument, if it allows many simultaneous notes and great range; this is the case with the official piano arrangements of this OST.

In the case of NieR: Automata, their songs have a light thickness. They often only have a delicate, high-pitched solo voice singing the theme, soft harmonic support on strings in a minor key, sometimes a simple secondary piano melody, and a rhythmic backing of low percussion, which is introduced throughout the song.

In some moments, the vocal focus reaches the extreme of having only the melodic line of the voice and no other instrument or melody; a texture we call monophonic. This choice is not by chance, it relaxes while highlighting the voice and highlighting the sad aspect of its tones, a great recipe for creating intimacy with the emotions of the characters or for appreciating the environment of the world.

NieR:Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

However, this setup is unusual for background music while exploring, which prompted one of my questions to Keiichi Okabe. At the time, the composer told me that the main reason for this musical design is to give identity to the NieR games and their world, which is why this is also present in Replicant. According to the music director, YOKO TARO (writer and director) from the beginning asked him to put voices in different ways, such as singing, whispering, something like breathing, and other variations that populate the game world.

As I commented with Okabe-san, it is interesting to note how this choice proved to be very opportune in Automata, as the plot has an existentialist and humanist theme; I discussed this with YOKO-san in the same interview. The human voices present in the game seem something like “the spirit left by humanity” since there are no humans left in that world, but they have preserved their culture in their robots.

A good example in this respect is 'Birth of a Wish/Become a God', with the voice of the machines from the game itself in a moment of religious worship. And another example is the song 'Treasured Times' (Lalala Song), with children's voices. This song plays in a peaceful village of machines, many of which are called "children" there by their leader, Pascal.

As well as in this simple “lalala” song, there are some others that do not follow the solo vocal pattern. This is the case, for example, of 'A Beautiful Song' (check out an excerpt below in-game), clearly influenced by Carmina Burana.

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NieR: Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

In pieces like this, the texture is thicker. Besides the choir, alternating with the voice of a soloist, there is an increase in instruments, notes, and support from percussion. Here, the strings are more intense and persistent to accompany the main melody.

Music with these thick texture characteristics accompanies the player during boss fights to give an atmosphere of impact and power. However, it continues with a sad melody, and sometimes with plaintive lyrics as well. This musical experience prepares the player for tragedy, as bosses are not always “villains”. The dramatic confrontation against some of them is even harrowing, particularly after Ending A, in both Automata and Replicant.

NieR: Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

The Formula of Tears

Let’s now take a brief look at the sheet music for these songs. The effect of melancholy or certain despair is not only because of the choice of instruments and texture but also because of the rhythm and harmony.

The first thing we need to notice is the tone. They are almost invariably in a minor key, as Okabe-san explains in the interview:

"As a way of aligning with NieR’s storyline and the characters’ emotions, songs are composed in a minor key to infuse a sense of melancholy, in varying degrees, to all the music."

In addition to tone, we can understand these compositions in two large groups of songs: those of classic minor sound and those of soft minor sound. This division was proposed and explained in greater detail in a musical analysis made by 8-bit Music Theory. Although this is not always the case, the trend is that, in NieR games, such a separation coincides with the textures we present. The first group of songs has thick textures while the second features lighter textures.

To understand this division, we need to understand that musical compositions are traditionally made in order to convey certain feelings through what we call functional harmony. This is nothing more than the ways of sequencing musical notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B) within scales in a given tone to generate an effect on the listener.

Excerpt from the score of 'Weight of the World' (Piano Version). Source: Nintendo Blast.

If a song is in the key of C, for example, that note will be the tonic (degree I) and will cause a feeling of stability when it appears in the melody. By contrast, the G note (degree V) in this composition will have a function we call dominant, and will cause instability. Whenever it appears, it will give the impression that “it can’t end there”, it “asks for something” — it’s as if it were calling for something that would resolve the tension it had caused.

Within this context, we can understand a classic minor sound as a harmonic strategy often used in sad classical music. Basically, compositions in this style use dominant chords of a minor key that brings a major sound that resolves into a minor chord in the sequence. In addition, many other techniques based on this one are employed, such as adapting it to the dominant second in the minor key scale, inversion, and other possibilities, but which we do not have space to detail here.

Arrangement excerpt from 'A Beautiful Song' with 8-bit Music Theory notations. Source: Nintendo Blast.

This classic minor sound is more present in Replicant — as in ‘Cold Steel Coffin’ —, while in Automata it is rarer. However, sometimes, as in the above excerpt from ‘A Beautiful Song’, it appears mixed with the soft minor sound, which we are going to dig deeper into.

We can identify this second type of harmony through a succession of notes on the scale that do not generate as strong a contrast as that of the classical sound. In this way, the experience does not bring something so tragic and gothic, but something softer, melancholic, and homogeneous, providing a more reflective sadness. A good example is the 'Voice of no Return'.

One last thing that deserves at least mention is pacing. Songs with a lighter texture and smoother harmony have a slow or moderate tempo that gives the player more space to wistfully contemplate their few notes, as well as appreciate the singers’ technique.

In contrast, the music used in boss fights is thicker and occasionally more classic. The rhythm is moderate or fast, marked more strongly by the instruments, and adrenaline provoked by what we call anticipation hits the player.

Anticipating basically means putting more notes in a melody to “announce” the notes that are coming in the sequence. We can observe this not only in boss battles but also can surface in retro-style arrangements during hacking gameplay (check it out in the video below).

In this case of chiptune arrangement, the compositions provide what Nicolas Turcev, in his book The Strange Works of Taro Yoko (2018), calls “retro-melancholy”. It is a melancholy experience because of the harmony we describe and the harmony with the tone of the script, but with a more “rough” texture, due to the square and triangular waves of 8-bit sound.

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NieR:Automata The End of YoRHa Edition. Source: Author.

This summarized how the OST of the NieR series and especially Automata works in terms of background music, timbres, texture, harmony, and rhythm.

This is without a doubt one of my favorite franchises in video games and with a lot of interesting material for my kind of artistic and philosophical approach.

Expect more pieces that dive into the music behind the NieR series and more from me in the near future!


This text was originally published in Nintendo Blast (Portuguese). Thanks to Square Enix Latam for the opportunity to review NieR:Automata The End of YoRHa Edition and to talk with YOKO TARO, Yosuke Saito and Keiichi Okabe, who contributed to my thinking about the subject of this text.

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