Nier: Automata's secret church mystery: chaos, community, and an amazing modThe hunt for a secret that didn't exist
Scrolling through Twitter, Daniel Griffiths' interest was piqued when he saw a post describing a mysterious phenomenon being shared in the Nier: Automata community: A2 opening a hidden door in The Copied City and strolling into a secret, never-before-seen area. Curious, he decided to pursue more knowledge, and landed in the Nier modding Discord server.
Like him, many other Nier: Automata players who caught wind of the phenomenon sat upright - metaphorically and perhaps literally - and flocked to both Reddit and Discord to check out what exactly was up with the secret area. It was dubbed the "church mystery" or "sadfutago's posts", among other monikers.
In a time when information is at the very tips of our fingers, where even a badly worded, vague Google Search can lead to the results we want, a mystery has an irresistible allure. It's hard to accurately capture the phenomenon around a mystery after-the-fact, after the dust has settled and an answer plopped in our laps. The basic charm of a mystery is its ever-shifting, amorphous form - the next piece of information or the next comment can rapidly change the situation. It's difficult to capture the back-and-forth rapid pings of inside jokes, rapport, the bunking and debunking of theories; the sheer speed of organic theorycrafting.
This is all to say, no matter what is documented here, nothing can come quite close to the experience of refreshing the Reddit page for the latest sadfutago update or snorting at clever, tongue-in-cheek, fresh-off-the-stove memes. And there are other limitations: some discussions on Discord, for example, where most of the technical side of the church mystery hunt occured, took place in unrecorded voice chats. Discord's terrible search function also, unfortunately, makes it challenging to review past info. So consider this an oral history, in a very loose manner, more than a full recreation of what went down.
June 18: Beginnings
On June 18, a mysterious user named "sadfutago" posted a video to the Nier Reddit, showing the path to the hidden door notably with a shaky hand, as well as repeated (mis) use of the dash button. You can see the comments left by other Reddit users, ranging from advice ("You'll go faster if you press dash once and then run") to suspicion about this almost entirely clean account posting never-before-seen footage, to asking for more images.
"That's what we wanted," Devolas said, in regards to users asking for more proof. I connected with the people known as Devolas, RaiderB, Woeful over Discord in August, almost a month after the hunt for the church took off like a firework and, subsequently, exploded brilliantly. They are the talented trio behind the church mystery, the mod - yes, a mod! - that sparked endless speculation. It started, they tell me, as a way to troll the modding server, but blew up into a phenomenon far beyond what the trio expected.
Woeful is a long-time modder, starting with map/scenario editors in Age Of Empires, and eventually using Creation Engine for models in Fallout games and Skyrim. But Nier: Automata is the first time Woeful really dove in deep and made his own modding tools. Woeful's entry into Nier: Automata's scene was actually due to a single object. "I noticed the Lunar Tear cosmetic accessory looks awfully 2D, which annoyed me," Woeful told me. "So I started googling to see if I could edit the model."
Devolas met Woeful through the Nier modding server back in January 2022. He hadn't modded before, but, after finishing Nier: Automata, spontaneously decided to look up tools for modding. In January, Woeful was working on map modding tools - something that wasn't available in the Nier modding community yet - and posessed a near-finished project. It was then that Devolas proposed that they add a little mini-church before releasing Woeful's tools.
RaiderB joined in June 2022. Before Woeful and Devolas came up with the church plan, Woeful had already given RaiderB map modding tools. RaiderB knew there was some sort of secret Woeful and Devolas were concocting, but was not aware of the details. He actually planned to release his own mod that would remove all invisible walls from the game, but Woeful and Devolas asked him to hold back. "Eventually I felt bad and told him what the secret was, and he ended up joining and helping us," Devolas said.
July 25: Momentum
In a follow-up to the June 18 post, sadfutago posted more of the church on July 25, and this time it wasn't shaky handheld footage. It showed A2 traveling through never-before-seen hallways with structure sticking out of the sides. But the church mystery videos Devolas posted under the moniker sadfutago didn't immediately blow up. "The Reddit posts barely had over 10 upvotes initially, and the first video we posted just got 100 upvotes and died for a month," Devolas said.
That all changed when Lance McDonald, a well-known PS4 modding personality on Twitter and YouTube, tweeted out the July 25 video. McDonald claimed that "It’s not yet possible to mod Nier Automata in this way", lending credence to the theory that it was indeed an actual secret area in the game.
This was the "oh, shit" moment for Woeful. "When Lance McDonald found the whole thing and made his post on Twitter," Woeful said. "The amount of views/likes/retweets it started getting made me so giddy and absolutely inspired all of us, I think, to continue working and trying to make it bigger and better."
"After Lance's tweet, the videos on Reddit and all the posts started to blow up and it began to trend," Devolas added. Following the viral circulation of the church mystery, Nier: Automata producer Yosuke Saito and creator Yoko Taro posted some seemingly-cryptic tweets. Saito commented "Eternal Mystery", while Taro wryly gave no insight when asked about the church mystery, and instead followed up with, "I love sausage and beer."
These enigmatic tweets set the Nier: Automata community ablaze even further, stoking the speculation in the communities on Reddit and Discord. "Once Yoko and Yosuke commented on it, people thought it was definitely an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) or some kind of official content," Devolas said. From there, players were off to the races. They were armed with the determination to yank open the church door.
Everybody had a theory, but there were three main camps: 1) sadfutago was telling the truth and this secret church door was actually in some super specific version of the game; 2) sadfutgao was lying and was secretly Square Enix PR, concocting an elaborate marketing campaign for some future Nier release; 3) sadfutago was lying, and the church mystery was actually a mod created with tools the widespread modding community hadn't seen yet.
Sadfutago's account was odd enough to make the whole thing a PR stunt. A random account with no post history, popping up to reveal a super secret area in-game? Suspicious. There has also been precedent for similarly elaborate advertisements for a new game, most famously Kojima's P.T.. "I thought it was a hint from Nier devs that something new was going to come out or be revealed by them," said Captainspended, who added that their second theory was that sadfutago was "just a Canadian teenager." But the PR theory didn't entirely hold up. As an anonymous player, who spoke with me in Reddit DMs pointed out, if the goal was t promote a new game, Twitter would've been the better platform to post on.
Then again, the placement of the church made a lot of sense. "It's in a place you never need to visit as A2 and the only thing there is a room full of infinite enemies," Griffiths said. "If the game was going to have one last secret, that would be the place to hide it. And the fact that Yoko Taro and Yosuke Saito played along on Twitter only made things even more confusing."
But the things released by sadfutago also seemed to come from somebody who understood Nier and the entire series very well. Everything taken together contributed to people like Foxy thinking it was an official, legitimate teaser. All the theories had, to an extent, solid reasons why they could be the right one. Or the wrong one.
"My favorite was that, among the 3 main theories, all were equally unlikely," RaiderB told me. "It couldn't be real because there were no files in the game for the church. It was very unlikely to be a mod, because map modding and especially quest scripting was at that point not possible. And a PR stunt wouldn't make sense because of the first posts from sadfutago and the low probability of it going viral. So whatever theory you went with there was no safe bet."
July 25 - July 29: Chaos And…
Here's where the timeline of events becomes really hard to track, because of the speed at which everything evolved. I consulted Foxy's very handy compendium The Story of Sad[F]utago - A NieR Community Hunt for a Church, combined with personal notes, and lots of Reddit scrolling.
After the July 25 video, sadfutago seemed to intentionally drip-feed more of the secret church area, leading to debates on whether he really was just a kid who was bad with technology or was intentionally slowly releasing bits of info. First there was the bird fountain, then a few fights with a dark mass sadfutago nicknamed "bloby", more questions at a bird fountain that seemed to reference Nier Replicant, and finally a series of individual Reddit posts titled cryptically to eventually spell "ZE34 Zinnia."
When the ZE32 Zinnia posts went up, any belief that sadfutago was a hapless Canadian teenager went out the window. These posts were intentional. The question now was: For what purpose? At this point, people were starting to speculate if there might be an entirely new Nier title (or, perhaps, Drakengard?) about to be announced officially, instead of, as some people previously believed, Switch promotions.
July 29: Endings
Near the end, the prevailing attitude on Reddit was that the church mystery was likely "official content" of some sort, but regardless of the outcome, most people had enjoyed the ride. It was around then that Devolas decided to end things with a since-deleted Twitch livestream, revealing that the church mystery had been a mod all along.
"We would be getting tools that could completely change the field and how modders could make content."
Undoubtedly, some people were disappointed, but others were quick to say they looked forward to what Devolas, RaiderB, and Woeful would do in the future. "If it was a mod, we would be getting tools that could completely change the field and how modders could make content," Foxy said. "If someone as dedicated to the franchise was a modder, then they could make something spectacular. While not being canon, could immerse the players even more, or just give a new light onto the five-year-old game." At this point, Foxy served as an unofficial historian of sorts, creating a detailed date-by-date record of how the church mystery unfolded.
The mod was surprisingly challenging to make. "On a technical side, literally everything is hard and iffy with the game engine," Woeful explained. "The things we found the Platinum devs did were bizarre and sometimes finding something as small as a sound effect could take an entire day. Anyone on the server or who has touched the engine can testify to it never playing along and always being wack. Luckily most of the big parts of the map tools I had finished months (and some years) prior, so we focused more on the scripting and getting things looking nice."
The fact that thousands of eyeballs followed every one of sadfutago's new posts was also a challenge, Woeful said. The team put together "new" sadfutago content on the fly, knowing one mistake could abruptly end the mystery.
Woeful also shouted out the dark mass enemy "bloby," who essentially became an icon during the church mystery. "I really laughed when people started taking things into their own hands and going crazy with it; specifically how people stuck to the name 'bloby' and made them into a whole big character type of thing," Woeful said. "I'm sure they are part of Drakenier lore now, haha!"
A lot of the way the church saga mystery unfolded wasn't intentional, but that's what made it all the better. Whether it was fate or luck, the church mystery played out eerily to the "true ending" of Nier: Automata, where players can choose to work together. You, as the player, can choose to see all your save files sacrificed, but in exchange find out that even after the credits, the story doesn't end. The church mystery similarily felt like a joint effort in exploration. From a poorly sung rendition of "Weight of The World", created by the Nier: Automata modding Discord to cheer sadfutago on in their fight against bloby, to the coming together to trade theories, all of it felt incredibly, harmoniously in line with Nier: Automata's own spirit.