Can’t say I’ve ever had a game make me cry before.
When I was a little girl, my sister and I had a friend that we loved dearly; even after we moved from California to Utah we kept in touch with her and her family because we had become so close with them. Years later, when she was about 11 or 12, she was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t have much time left, so my mother flew us back out to see her for the last time. As a young kid, I really didn’t understand what was going on – only that she was very sick. Even if I did comprehend the gravity of the situation, I don’t think I could fully appreciate how much she and her family were suffering. How could we? Surely I could be sympathetic at best, but the mental faculties of a small girl couldn’t possibly process the anguish and depression our friend and her family must have gone through.
This lack of understanding isn’t limited to kids, though - unless you’ve dealt with the slow, inevitable loss of a child personally, how could anyone be expected to feel what she and her parents were feeling?
Although other reviewers have slated this title as “cryptic” and purposefully vague, I disagree – the message was loud and clear: NERO gives us a depressingly debilitating look at what it’s like to be a parent of a child with an incurable, fatal disease and explores the dialogue between family members as they travel down a path that none ever wish to journey.
The beginning of NERO is innocent and unassuming – you play as a hooded character, later implied to be a young boy named David, who travels through vivid yet dimly lit environments with on-screen text to guide you. The text reveals “two sides” to the story – one side of the story is in a pale, whitish/purple color while the other side is a light blue. The whitish/purple text depicts the environment, while the light blue text shows dialogue between the three main characters – David and his parents. At first, both sides are light-hearted and carefree and show happier times when David was a baby. His parents were beyond thrilled with their addition to their family and learned the true meaning of love through their small bundle of joy. As you progress, you find that not everything is as perfect as it seems, as David is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a short time to live. The level suddenly goes from enchanting to dark, as we’re transported from a magical cave to a decrepit, abandoned hospital. We are privy to their anguish and despair as David’s parents slowly spiral downwards, unable to accept their precious child’s fate.
The game’s progression is honestly quite slow at first – the whitish/purple environment text was very vague in the beginning so it was hard to stay with it during the first level. I found myself drawn more to the dialogue text, since it gave away more clues than the former. Happy conversations like “will you hold him” and the like were slowly drowned out by “we have to go to the hospital, just to be sure” and “the prognosis…it’s not good”, which drew me in and made me extremely distressed. The one that really got to me was “don’t wait up for me, honey – I took a second shift”. I know it’s just a game, but DAMN. How many families with children with terminal illnesses have these conversations? How many times have parents had to rush to the hospital for any small sign of something wrong? How many asked for second opinions, hoping the first doctor was incorrect? How many had to work longer hours or take second jobs just to be able to afford the costly treatments? It got too real – too fast – and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Although this reads more like an interactive novel of sorts, it’s actually a puzzle game – even though the puzzles are pretty easy they’re very rewarding, as each finished puzzle results in bonus story progression from the narrator. There are also collectible picture pieces to gather throughout the levels, which allows you to piece together key moments from the family’s life in their time of grief. I’ll be honest; this was the very first time I didn’t want to collect these pieces. I’m a collector-type gamer, but as I grasped what was going on, I realized that each picture piece brought me one photo closer to David’s death. As someone who was controlling the character (and therefore David’s life), I felt that I could extend his life just a little bit longer by not moving forward at all. Perhaps a bit irrational of me, I know, but this game really messed with my emotions.
Unfortunately, not everything blew me away - there were some frame rate issues and, quite frankly, I didn’t find the puzzles to be all that enjoyable – perhaps I’m missing the point, but I would have been just fine with collecting picture pieces (until I thought I was slowly marching a child to his death). The puzzles seemed to distract me from the story and really didn’t add much value to the game other than the rewarding narrations. Luckily for those that agree, the puzzles are optional, but skipping them means losing out on more storyline, which was not an option for me.
When I got to the ending of NERO, I was a blubbering mess.
I realize I’m probably the only person that was hit this hard by the game, but I finally understood what my friend and her family must have been going through all those years ago. How could someone so young have the strength to face a slow and painful death? How could her parents continue their daily routine without sobbing uncontrollably at all times? How did they survive, intact, even though one of their family members passed away? I wondered if they had the same conversations David and his parents did. I felt so badly for them. I so desperately wanted the best for David…for my friend…for their families. If what I felt was even a fraction of a fraction of the agonizing pain they experienced, I can’t even begin to imagine the immeasurably enormous suffering they endured.
NERO’s trailer definitely misled me – at first, I thought this would be a carefree story about a powerful love between parent and child; I was very happy when I first watched it, eager to choose what I thought would be an uplifting title. While it surely was not carefree, it conveyed perhaps a stronger, more powerful love than I originally expected; a love born out of loss and need rather than frivolity and naivety. The complex emotions portrayed in such a raw and simple manner cut straight through to the heart, demanding its complete attention as the family’s miserable journey lay bare and exposed on-screen.
I believe it’s video games like NERO that prove this medium is evolving into something far more compelling than the Atari or NES generations could have ever imagined. Who knew that a game could teach players about love and loss, of sorrow and grief, of the slow, painful process of watching a beloved child die before your eyes? It’s one thing to hear about it or to read about it, but to almost “simulate” the experience was deeply evocative of intense emotions that I couldn’t handle. NERO was a beautiful game from start to finish, and gave me closure I had no idea I needed.