‘NieR’ composer Keiichi Okabe: “I always conveyed the tragic fates that the protagonist and characters are burdened with”

The revered ‘NieR’ songsmith on ‘Replicant’, musical melancholy and new sonic directions for the series

From ‘Weight Of The World’ to ‘City Ruins’, it’s safe to say that the emotionally charged soundtrack of NieR Automata played a large role in making the series the global phenomenon that it is today. Sporting millions of streams and several orchestral concerts all over the globe, the sonic resonance of the music has only grown since 2017.

Its enduring mystique is one of the main reasons why so many NieR Automata fans are excited to dig into the upcoming remake of its 2010 prequel, NieR. This was the game that started it all, and a “version upgrade” known as NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… is coming later this month, with new and rearranged music to boot. Veteran fans get to revisit a cult classic, while the more fresh-faced NieR lovers are being given the chance to see and hear the origin of some of the series’ most interesting ideas on modern consoles.

Ahead of the remake’s launch on April 23, we were lucky enough to speak to NieR series composer Keiichi Okabe to reflect upon his beloved body of work.

Keiichi Okabe
Keiichi Okabe

NieR is a game series that is brimming with a powerful atmosphere, something that is deeply felt in the end product. But where do you start with this as a composer? How do you take early visual ideas and concepts and breathe life into them through music? “For the original NieR Replicant, I was a member of the team from the prototype stages of the game and was creating the tracks gradually, so the ones in the earlier stages were made based solely on the information and requests from [NieR director Yoko Taro],” Okabe tells me.

“I was repeating a cycle of composing a little bit and a long interval, but once I had completed several tracks, their directions may deviate from each other and the visual images were taking shape, so I would make some changes and make tracks to fill the gap between tracks that had deviated from each other to make them cohesive,” Okabe adds.
The end product was a soundtrack with serious emotional variety. 2010’s NieR gave us blistering battle themes as well as heart-tugging ballads like Song of the Ancients, which is led by a haunting vocal line, sung in a fictional language created by English vocalist Emi Evans.

Evans mashed up Japanese, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Scottish Gaelic to create the lyrics, so the diegetic end product is inimitable – it sounds like a cautionary tale from the bard of a long-lost civilization.

Returning for NieR Replicant Ver. 1.22, Okabe was then put in a unique position as a composer, tasked with revisiting his own work. “I was informed at the very beginning that the quality of the game would be improved but the visuals will not be changed, so rather than adding new ideas or creating new imagery, I improved the quality, made the tracks longer and added new zones,” he adds.

This means that returning fans will be listening to augmented versions of the original soundtrack, with special tasteful revisions unique to the remake: “I have balanced it out so that you may not notice many differences when you first hear it in-game, but when you hear the changed zones it makes you think, “wait, it’s different!” Okabe explains.

Given that Okabe has already produced arrangement albums that approached the music of NieR from a new perspective, he said that a different tact was necessary for the remake. “I went back to where it all started in order to express the world of the game using sound,” he explains.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139...
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… Credit: Square Enix

On working with Yoko Taro and NieR producer Yosuke Saito again, Okabe said that “it mostly involved brushing up processes, so we were all clear about Yoko-san and Saito-san’s desires, working smoothly without any particular disputes.”

“The arrangement direction of brushing up the first half and adding new zones in the second half was born out of Yoko-san often saying that the tracks in the original Replicant were short and requested them to be made longer,” Okabe explains.

Players find melancholy as well as hope in the music of NieR, and these emotions feel like good reflections of its genre and premise. The game is an open-world RPG but the Shade-filled plains and fields are juxtaposed against a lone protagonist fighting to reclaim a lost world, often against impossible odds.

“I had been informed that the setting of Replicant is constantly sad, so even when I was tasked with creating music for a location or a situation, I always made sure to convey the tragic fates that the protagonist and characters are burdened with, so perhaps that came across as sounding melancholy,” Okabe tells me.

“While making battle music portray the intensity of the battle and the size of the enemies, I intentionally made the melodies and harmonies give off a somewhat sombre impression.”
Another theme that is said to define the NieR series is this concept of ‘agaku’, a Japanese word that means “to struggle.” While Okabe says the idea was “suggested by somebody else,” he went on to unpack the concept in relation to his work as a composer on the franchise:

“The reason for soldiering on despite being burdened with undesirable tough circumstances and fate is because you are holding on to the thin glimmer of hope in a desperate situation,” Okabe notes. “Human emotions are often not monochronic such as joy or sadness, but rather a marble pattern of different emotions, and because I feel that the world of NieR also has many faces, I aimed to create music that gives off multifaceted emotions.”

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139...
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… Credit: Square Enix

Recurring leitmotifs feature in Okabe’s work, such as the melody that defines the devastating but gorgeous ‘City Ruins (Rays of Light)’ and its counterpart ‘City Ruins (Shade)’ from NieR Automata. I asked Okabe about his influence from classical composers, particularly Erik Satie, whose Gymnopedies evoke a similarly palpable melancholy through repetition.

“The Gymnopedies are unique, beautiful and leave a very strong impression, so I am fond of them and do think that they have influenced me in some way, but I have never intentionally taken inspiration from them,” Okabe says.

“Yoko-san’s orders are often accompanied by reference tracks, in which case I would unravel the track to figure out which elements are desired a lot of the time. In other cases, I think that the effects of the accumulation of the many masterpieces that I have listened to have surfaced subconsciously,” he adds. “I feel that the music of NieR has influences from not only classical music but also various other genres such as jazz, pop, ethnic and religious music.”

Before NieR became a phenomenon, one of the games Okabe lent his talent to was the fighting game Tekken Tag Tournament, which launched in the year 2000 and managed to bottle some of that electronic Y2K atmosphere. Two decades later, I thought it’d be interesting to ask how his early compositions have gone on to influence his work on NieR: “Tekken TT’s soundtrack mostly comprises intense, electric tracks, so I think that in some way it is at the other end of the spectrum from NieR’s characteristic melodies and harmonies,” Okabe explains.

“Japanese game music at the time mostly had fusion or orchestral tracks with the melody at the core, but in order to differentiate from them and offer a new suggestion, I intentionally tried to create music that concentrated on the tracks and beats,” he adds. “At the time that Replicant’s development started, on the other hand, most game music leaned more towards backing tracks featuring orchestral sounds with the scale inspired by Hollywood movie music, so I intentionally tried to make tracks with impressionable melodies.”

“As you can see there are few similarities in terms of music, but there is a common intent to make the game more memorable by differentiating from other titles and leaving an impression, so I feel that my experiences from the time are definitely being put to use,” Okabe continued.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139...
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… Credit: Square Enix

Players from all over the world continue to find great meaning in the soundtracks of NieR and NieR Automata, and as a result, they’ve both been toured around the globe as part of an orchestral concert series. I asked Okabe what it’s like to look back on his work after 11 years of support from fans. “To put it simply, I am happy. At the time, I hadn’t even dreamed that we would be able to hold concerts after more than 10 years down the line,” Okabe explains.
“Many fans of the NieR series are very passionate supporters, and I feel that it is thanks to them that various things have come to fruition. This has given me opportunities to experience amazing things, so if it has inspired other people or they feel that they have had good experiences, then I am truly happy.”

Okabe tells me he’s also keen to bring the original NieR to a new audience of fans who fell in love with the franchise thanks to 2017’s NieR Automata. “There seem to be people who found out about NieR from Automata and also developed interest in Replicant, so I see it as a good thing,” he explains.

“Some people would probably struggle with the controls if they played the original Replicant after playing Automata, but I felt that Ver 1.22 is closer to the controls in Automata.”

As for the future of the NieR franchise, and particularly its musical presence, Okabe says that he would “love to hold events such as concerts,” but is wary of the impact of the pandemic. “We cannot make any plans until the COVID-19 situation settles down, so I am praying from the bottom of my heart for COVID to be stamped out worldwide,” Okabe said.
With regards to the music yet to be made in the ongoing NieR universe, Okabe has ideas for what new sonic directions and emotions he’d like to bring to the series “When I was young, my own creative desires to make something was the strong driving force, but from a certain point, elements such as the story, lore and direction intent of the game or movie at the base became the prerequisite, and I would often get ideas inspired by them,” Okabe explains.

“Rather than just creating a manifestation of what the project members and players imagine, I would also suggest that perhaps a track that is slightly offset from those ideas could make it more interesting, incorporating somewhat of a communication aspect into the creative process, leading me to ideas and tracks that I would not have come up with by myself, which sparks my curiosity.”

‘NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… ’ launches on April 23 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

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