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The best video game soundtrack of 2017 sounds even better with a live orchestra

Nier: Automata and its predecessor get an orchestral arrangement and a stunning live show

A recreation of Emil from Nier made of flowers Chris Plante
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 as editor-at-large and is now editor-in-chief. He also created and occasionally teaches NYU’s Introduction to Games Journalism course.

Nier: Automata had the best video game soundtrack of 2017. A new orchestration of the score — now available on CD, vinyl and iTunes — is even better.

The updated soundtrack, which includes music from both Automata and its predecessor Nier Gestalt and Replicant, is a richer, more complex and concise album. It focuses on the best and most accessible tracks, giving them space to breathe, while also tempering some of the original composition’s more overdramatic builds.

In hindsight, the original Automata soundtrack now feels like a rough draft. It’s an album hobbled by its primary purpose of serving the game, carrying a good deal of its emotional load. In no way is the original soundtrack bad — in fact hardcore Nier fans may still prefer its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. But if you are the sort of person who doesn’t usually seek out game soundtracks, the new album is a more accommodating starting point.

I just saw the orchestration live at the Yokohama National Hall, and the soundtrack holds up spectacularly in a large venue. Unfortunately, you’ll have to live vicariously through me, because the show was part of a limited run (two performances, one day) meant to promote the new album’s release.

It’s a shame publisher Square Enix currently doesn’t have plans to take this show on the road, because the performance and the audience capture what makes Nier one of the most compelling series in modern video games.

The first thing you see as you arrive in Yokohama for the show is a couple hundred young people wearing variations of black and white. They drift across a museum courtyard like a single large rain cloud through clear skies. Their procession, suggesting a funeral march, contrasts with the dozens of families also in the courtyard, busy enjoying the summer holiday in brightly colored pants and tropical-print buttons-ups. The moms and dads and kids show a polite indifference to all the twenty-somethings who’ve gathered in outfits comically ill suited for the sticky humidity wafting in from the nearby bay.

2B and 9S figures stand on display at the Nier concert
2B and 9S figures stand on display at the Nier concert.
Chris Plante

From a distance, the crowd has a certain health-goth-by-way-of-Hot-Topic aesthetic, but up close, it’s hopeless to shoehorn them into a label. Their outfits aren’t standardized, because there are no formalized rules to dressing as a Nier fan.

I concede their styles do share a few commonalities: the aforementioned monochromatic palette; An abundance of buttons and sharp lines; white flowers tucked into women’s hair; “YoRHa” printed onto men’s t-shirts; the occasional hint of bondage couture. And nearly everybody wears a smile, because there’s a certain unspoken, but shared understanding that this concert is precious and rare and sort of a miracle it all came together. (Not unlike the entire Nier series.)

An hour or so before doors open at the concert hall, the crowd begin to depart the courtyard for the concert hall a few block down the street, making their way past the Hard Rock Cafe, the waterside ferris wheel, and the boisterous street performer halfway through his juggling routine. Everybody waits to enter the venue, then to purchase programs, then to take photos of the ultra expensive merchandise locked in see-through cases, and finally to find their seats in the venue itself. It feels like satan’s armpit outside and everybody’s behaving like this is fine.

Before the show, Nier composer Keiichi Okabe introduces the orchestra along with some of the evening’s vocal soloists, some who perform songs, others who perform parts of a script. An orchestra of roughly a hundred musicians and a choir of a few dozen singers enter the stage and the show begins.

Flower bouquets on display at the Nier orchestra concert
Flower bouquets celebrate the debut of the Nier orchestra concert.
Chris Plante

Frankly, there isn’t much to see. The presentation is humble, with quotes and short game snippets appearing on a screen behind and above the orchestra. It was less interesting watching the performance than it was watching other people listen to it. In every direction, I spotted women and men with their jaws hanging wide open, eyes shut as if to focus all their energy on their ears.

Some songs, particularly from the older Nier Gestalt and Replicant, never quite make the most of the grand musical tools. But the orchestration feeds off the ambition of Nier Automata’s score, with its horns, drums, violins and choir chants filling the entirety of the space.

Many Automata songs take on entirely different textures and tones. “Theme Park” is one of my favorite songs from the original score, and it gains an even grander scope and oomph from the roaring choir and heavy strings. Other arrangements feel like refinements. For “Weight of the World,” the composer deescelates the bold theme, making it more intimate and personal. In the concert, a guest singer is invited to the stage. The number plays like a duet between the woman belting the English lyrics and the violin soloists matching her with each note.

Throughout the show, the fans and the performance bust stereotype and expectations. These aren’t the cliche fans in oversized gamer tees, this isn’t the live show that relies of laser lights and metal covers to keep people awake. The fans are individuals with a common interest; the performance is shamelessly straightforward. Both fan and performer display a reverence for the game that has brought them together. It’s almost cultish in its simple agenda: to celebrate the game while bringing as many new people into the fold.

I say this as I, a Nier fan, try to do just that. Listening to the new orchestration right now, with some high quality headphones, it really is impressive how well the recording captures the sound and feel of a live performance — even if it wasn’t recorded for a live audience. For fans of Nier, it’s practically required listening. For everybody else, it could be the entry point to Nier fandom.

And hopefully Square Enix recognizes the magic of the Nier orchestration and expands the the show to a world tour. If the show visits New York City, you’ll see me in the front row. I’ll be the one wearing black and white.

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