The masterminds behind the Nier: Automata church mystery explain how it 'got out of hand'

Nier: Automata's A2 opening church door
(Image credit: Devolas / Square Enix)

There were a few times when the modders behind the week-long search for a secret room in Nier: Automata almost ruined the whole thing. You can't just drop some screenshots of a door that nobody had ever seen before and not expect people to start scrutinizing every pixel. Thousands of fans on Twitter, Reddit, and the Nier: Modding Discord spent days combing through every possibility. Some called it a hoax, and others assumed it was some kind of mod using techniques that nobody had discovered before. It turns out it was a little bit of both.

"Sometimes it felt convincing but other times I felt like people were seeing through me," Devolas, one of the three modders involved in the mystery and the mastermind behind the "Sadfutago" Reddit persona told me. "Even writing the titles of the videos took like 10-15 minutes just sitting there thinking about it. Also trying to act ignorant when people were giving him direct solutions to the issues he was having was a bit hard lol."

Sadfutago's video missives from the secret church were supposed to look like a kid taking footage from his PlayStation 4, but the team later revealed it was a PC version with PS4 button prompts.

"There was a moment where Devolas (sadfutago) was about to press the post button on Reddit when I quickly stopped him to let him know he left his mouse cursor on the video screen lmao!" Wolf, another member of the trio, told me.

Before Sadfutago, before Nier: Automata producer Yosuke Saito and director Yoko Taro's reluctant comments about it, and before so many people were obsessing over a secret church, the team just wanted to prank its peers in the modding community before telling them about a major breakthrough. Nier: Automata runs on a Platinum Games' proprietary engine and has almost no documentation online. Before this, modders could only change how characters looked with texture and model swaps. Working mod tools with the ability to create entire buildings and other structures were basically a myth.

Wolf had been working on the tools to do that for years and had planned to drop them into the modding Discord only when they were ready for the public. He showed them to Devolas, who suggested they have some fun with the reveal. Thus, Sadfutago was born.

hello_here_is_the_video_of_the_path_to_the_church from r/nier

Not a kid anymore

It was the first major videogame mystery we'd seen in a long time.

"I've been tinkering with games for years now while learning programming and reverse-engineering, jumping from one game to another, but the Nier series is the one I have stuck to the longest now," Wolf said. "I believe it's because the community is so dedicated no matter how small (compared to others), and nobody was working on making modding tools before! So I thought that had to change!"

The church project began in February, but didn't start coming together until June, after the team brought on its third member: Raider. The plan was for Devolas to tease the project's developments under the guise of Reddit user Sadfutago, a blend of Wolf's username (Woeful_Wolf) and the Japanese word for twins (Devolas' name is based on Nier's twins Devola and Popola).

The first Sadfutago post, titled "Hello how do you open the church ?", was posted on the small Nier fanart subreddit and didn't get a ton of attention outside of the modding Discord. The co-owner reached out to Sadfutago, unaware that it was actually Devolas running the account. Devolas pretended to be a pain to communicate with and successfully convinced the modding Discord that they were a kid with a copy of Nier: Automata something had gone very wrong with.

Not long after, Discord user NSACloud, working independently, posted in the modding Discord that adding custom levels and geometry was possible using Blender, which spurred Raider to one-up them and play with scripting tools to let you do almost anything within the game, including cutscenes, bosses, dialogue, and more—it would be end up being yet another massive breakthrough for the Nier: Automata modding community.

When Lance McDonald, popular Nier and Souls game dataminer, posted Sadfutago's video where he entered the mysterious door on Twitter and quickly pulled in thousands of reactions, the prank became a lot more than a prank. It was the first major videogame mystery we'd seen in a long time. It spurred hundreds of people to start searching for the room in their own games, streaming it live on Twitch and in the modding Discord. Memes were created, conspiracy theories were started, and discussions were had across the internet as people searched for clues about the door and the identity of Sadfutago. 

"It got out of hand as you may have noticed," Devolas said.

hello_i_get_lots_of_messages_and_i_cant_read_them from r/nier

Hard to believe

Devolas almost got caught for being friends with Sadfutago on Discord, but was able to play it off like they too were trying to solve the mystery.

Scrambling to keep up with the hype and the growing skepticism, the team rushed to finish the tools—with Devolas and Raider away from home no less—so people wouldn't have to wait too long for the final reveal. This required Devolas to keep posting more video incursions into the church as Sadfutago to appear cooperative. It was a surprisingly tricky task to "get the most 'Sadfutago' gameplay as possible," he said in a recent Reddit AMA. He carefully placed nods to the Nier games' most iconic scenes and characters so people would have something to pick apart as Raider and Wolf continued programming.

Some people noticed the Japanese text for Devolas' recreation of a riddle in Nier: Replicant was wrong, which he later revealed wasn't intentional. "I made a mistake lol. I was manually typing out the Replicant text, rushing it in hopes of sending Raider the text document fast, and halfway through typing I found all the dialogue online and pasted what I didn't have in the text file," he wrote. Luckily, nobody seemed to suspect it was a last-minute addition by a team trying to keep up with the chaos.

One theory some held onto was that the Sadfutago videos were a teaser for the Nintendo Switch version of the game or a long-awaited sequel to Drakengard 3, though by the end most of the modders were certain it was some kind of mod. One of the big tells was that the button prompt for the door to the church didn't have the arrow pointing down toward it like every other one in the game, something that could only be removed with debug tools.

It was a "trade off," Raider wrote. "If the arrow on the first door was always visible and the church was [really in the game], then people would have discovered it [on their own] a lot earlier. But with no arrow, the chance of it being real is a lot higher."

"The community analyzed every pixel and found many inconsistencies we weren't aware of. Props to you all," he wrote.

Those doubts didn't stop people from cheering Sadfutago on as he fought a bulbous monster, known and memed as "bloby", and tried to finish out the little story Devolas had created.

e from r/nier

The final stage

I noticed that a lot of people saw this as a once in a lifetime thing.

As the entire saga was wrapping up, Devolas couldn't outpace the crowd of detectives. While teasing the "ze34_zinnia" Twitch stream that would serve as the finale, he started posting it letter by letter on Reddit as Sadfutago. People caught on too quickly, so Devolas threw everyone off one last time.

"It was supposed to spell zero [the Drakengard 3 protagonist] except I was watching the Reddit chat and Discord chat and they knew instantly what it was. Before posting 'r' I decided to change it up and added 3 and 4 (they don't have any meaning other than me thinking of Nier 3 and Drakengard 4). I remembered Zinnia and how they're a really uncommon character as well," he wrote.

The Twitch channel itself was a last minute creation, too.

"I noticed that a lot of people saw this as a once in a lifetime thing where, even if it’s a mod, they wanted to be part of the experience and say they were a part of history," Devolas said. "For that reason I planned the finale to be a livestream that everyone could watch all at once."

The stream, which featured Sadfutago successfully defeating bloby and a video montage of all the memes and reactions, finally revealed Devolas, Wolf, and Raider as the minds behind the whole thing. They announced that they would release their level tools, scripting tools, and the church itself over the coming weeks for free. The Blender add-on is now available and Raider said the church should be out in "one or two weeks."

Modder Kofuku has already added the Super Mario 64 castle and many more are posting their experiments in the modding Discord.

The modders all feel a little guilty for leading people on, but say that the response has been largely positive. "I learned that people are happy to be a part of something greater and something where everyone can be a part of something together," Devolas said.

Wolf said he expects it to be a while for people to learn how to use the tools and  that they may never truly be finished discovering what you can create with them. He's eager to see what people do.

"Seeing anything someone has made, and knowing that something I made helped them with that, makes me incredibly happy! [It's] the whole reason I do this and wish to continue [doing] so!" Wolf said. "The community is so amazing, it really makes my heart ache! Maybe it's love haha!"

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.