Written by: Patrick Kitzie
Do you know this guy?
At E3 in 2015, he walked onto the stage and immediately became one of many show-stopping moments and Twitter hashtags. Since then, his latest project in conjunction with Platinum Games, NieR:Automata, has steadily gained attention and write-ups the internet over. For me, watching this unfold is akin to what fans felt when Modest Mouse blew up in 2004. Previously unknown entities with cult followings rapidly gaining well-deserved recognition that caused an odd sort of jealousy among the devoted. The man in question is Yoko Taro; a Japanese native that has been in the games industry for two decades yet has exceedingly few documented interviews over that time and even fewer pictures proving his existence. While many developer names can be enough to move units (Hideo Kojima, Suda 51, Tetsuya Nomura), Yoko serves as an anomaly. He prefers his work stand on its own and for his involvement to be minimized. To that end, he has given interviews using a hand puppet stand in, while wearing the now famous Emil head (a character from Nier), using that same Emil face as his Twitter image, and even saying while being interviewed that he doesn’t like interviews.
Most know Yoko Taro now for Nier and its sequel due out next month, but few realize that both those games are spinoffs from the weirdest of several weird endings from Yoko’s first proper project, Drakengard. At the time, it was one of few musou games (think Dynasty Warriors) the West received that was balanced out by Panzer Dragoon-style dragon flight mechanics. To see the box art, you wouldn’t expect anything particularly special from it, but the guts of the game are anything but ordinary. Your party consists of individuals soul bound to a menagerie of creatures attempting to combat an incomprehensibly strong military that is creeping its way across the globe. Main character Caim is a homicidal maniac paired with a misanthropic dragon; Leonard is a self-deprecating pedophile paired with a pixie that degrades him ceaselessly; Arioch is a cannibalistic elf that prefers the taste of children paired with undine and salamander (water and fire spirits, respectively); and Seere is a cherubic boy child who can’t age paired with a golem. This is your starting point. These are your good guys. Everyone hates everyone, war crimes are par for the course, and the darkest parts of humanity are on full display with such frequency that the audience becomes just as numb to it as the characters are.
For the first half of the game, the main antagonist is Inuart, a childhood friend of main character Caim and his sister, a priestess named Furiae. Inuart holds an unrequited love for Furiae and is jealous of her incestuous love for her brother. An incestuous love that is never confessed, reciprocated, or overtly made mention of in the English version (title theme “Tsukiru”/”Exhausted” hints at this), but one that drives the priestess to suicide in one of the story’s branches. In the game’s second half, the ultimate bad guy reveals itself as the Cult of the Watchers, whose figurehead is a possessed 8-year old girl, Manah, sister of the aforementioned cherub boy. The Cult’s objective is to break magical seals around the world, sacrifice the priestess, and release the Seeds of Resurrection in order to reinvent the world. Caim and crew don’t care about saving the world; they care about killing things and living to see another day to do the things that make their minds feel happy. If eradicating the Cult of the Watchers lines up with their goals, then bonus points all around. Best case scenario, you’re looking at lots of murder and likely siblicide if the party can manage not to tear itself apart before that “success.”
The game’s soundtrack is a stroke of brilliance and sets the tone in a way I’ve yet to see duplicated. The audio team took several classical performances and butchered them. Tearing them apart, rearranging, repeating endlessly, the audio portion of the game simultaneously makes you anxious while in it, wanting to complete the stage to be rid of the sound, and half recognizing what should be a melody in there somewhere. It properly puts you in a frantic, uncomfortable, somewhat discombobulated state where you just want to get rid of everything between you and the next objective marker, and that’s precisely how Caim views everything at the ground level. He’s an utter bastard that loves combat and all the nasty things it entails never stopping to review the wreckage. He is the human equivalent of a shark; ever moving and devouring without thought or remorse.
Yoko Taro said he wanted to make the first Drakengard game have tons of needless killing for a reason. He wanted to make it monotonous so the player stops and thinks “why am I still playing/doing this? It serves no purpose.” It was intended to be one of several meta commentaries on the gaming industry as a whole and the tropes that creators and purveyors alike had come to accept as typical.* This mentality leaks into every one of his later projects in some way, shape, or form which leads most directly to Nier.
Drakengard‘s fifth and final ending (Path E) sees a ridiculous amount of magical energy released resulting in Caim/dragon and a several story tall, starkly detail-free creation from the Seeds of Resurrection called the Grotesquerie Queen launched into modern day Tokyo. A final battle ensues leaving the decomposing body of the Queen raining down on Tokyo and the Caim/dragon combo obliterated by a fighter jet missile. Roll credits. It’s really weird.
That gigantic creature’s cells float through the air like so many radioactive molecules and begin to infect a people who had zero previous exposure to magical creatures. This results in what is called the White Chlorination Syndrome which rapidly starts killing Tokyo’s populace and spreading. Skip ahead several thousands of years and you have the back drop for Nier.
In a pre-release interview for Drakengard 3, Yoko is quoted as saying that September 11th played a large role in Nier‘s development. As is clear to those who have seen all the endings, the main theme of the game is perspective and how it relates to violence. While still a 3rd person action game, Nier did not have the huge number of enemies that its thematic predecessor Drakengard did. This shift was made to intentionally change focus from a numbers game to one of nuance and making death more significant. Where Drakengard made a point at the macro level, Nier made it at the micro level.
Essentially, you have two entities trying to coexist when communication is literally impossible. The “humans” speak a strange hybrid of every language on Earth as several thousands of years have passed and the planet’s population consistently is in decline, forcing smaller and smaller pockets of people. While the “shades” have a series of squeaks and shrieks that only they can understand. The game’s world is explored by title character Nier (either as brother or father to young girl, Yonah, depending on region purchased); a young boy turned science experiment named Emil; and intentionally sexualized female, Kaine, who is actually a hermaphrodite with a “shade” inhabiting part of her body. It isn’t until a second play through that the half “shade”/half “human” Kaine’s ears are lent to the player and you can finally understand what the shades were saying during your first play through. I mentioned September 11th earlier to tie it back now. The first play through was the equivalent of the United States’ viewpoint and the second was Al Qaeda’s viewpoint, essentially. Yoko wanted to try and illustrate/understand how two groups of people sharing the same physical space can have such similar wants, needs, objectives, etc and be so utterly tone deaf to each other that misunderstandings, violence, and revenge are inevitable.
The whole game has a tone of sadness about it coupled with watching the dying days of those who know it is coming. It isn’t until the first boss fight of the second play through that you start to see an entirely different angle of desperation sink in. Worst of all, both sides of the conflict are a missing half of the other, quite literally. The “humans” are actually android shells for human souls that are trying to keep the planet in good enough shape for when the souls return and the “shades” are said human souls with an inverted Stockholm syndrome who are incapable of returning to their hosts; over time, both die until none are left or a solution is found. In none of the game’s endings is a solution found and that is how Yoko perceived the growing disconnect between the Middle East and the West. Two cultures completely speaking past each other, unable to prevent the upcoming battle without end.
To have even the slightest hint of understanding Nier, one must read a series of short stories and back story that aren’t even in the game. In Japan, a book called Grimoire Nier was released that details the connection between the game that shares its name and Drakengard as well as what happened in the time between. The West never got it, but some incredibly giving fans have translated much of it and put it up for others to see. This is essential reading as far as I am concerned.
Released in the years between Drakengard and Nier was Drakengard 2. A solid title in its own right, however Yoko’s involvement was exceedingly minimal. It was a direct sequel that saw the slow burn insanity of a young man’s identity being called into question, the knee-jerk denial, subsequent gaslighting, and crippling realizations that follow. Its game play was a direct lift from the first Drakengard with several necessary improvements, but Taro’s missing influence is definitely noticeable.
Having played through all 3 of these game in their entirety, the fact that this astounding level of writing and meta narrative went largely ignored by the gaming public utterly confused me. “Why aren’t games taken seriously as art? Where are our truly defining pieces in the medium that transcend what is merely a strong plot with likeable characters?” Ignored in a $5 used bin at Gamestop, that’s where. Worse to me were those who played through the first path of Drakengard or Nier, said “that was weird and messed up but not very good,” and moved on to the next game in their backlog. Taro’s projects have consistently suffered from the inevitable limited budgets that accompany pretty insane ideas not likely to move many units like his do, which means none of the game have really aged well. Even at the time, they were hard sells to those outside Japan. Remakes are so badly needed it hurts.
These problems persisted with Drakengard 3 and will hopefully be addressed by the soon-to-be-released NieR:Automata. Aware of this lineage, Yoko Taro was recently quoted as saying “I wouldn’t expect too much from this game if I were you,” in relation to NieR:Automata. Partly that is due to him not thinking terribly highly of himself and also being keenly aware of how his projects are perceived by the gaming public at large. Shifting away from violence and towards sexuality and antagonistic sisterhood, Taro has a misstep here. Whereas Drakengard and Nier had very clear reasons for existing and executed on their ideas expertly, Yoko has said that he wasn’t really sure what he was trying to do with Drakengard 3 nor did he have a clear concept in mind. What results is a quasi-prequel that kind of is an alternate universe (leading to the novellas Drakengard 1.3), kind of has elements that showed up in other games of his, and kind of but not really cements the rules that govern this universe.
Five intoners rule over separate kingdoms in this world, having dethroned what we’re told were despotic leaders. A stray intoner, Zero, couldn’t be bothered with ruling and just wants to get by. As detailed in novellas available on the game’s official website, she is a victim of repeated sexual abuse, sexual slavery, and had to murder her way out of that world’s clutches. Perpetually on the run, out for herself, and utterly remorseless, Zero is as big a bastard as Caim was in Drakengard. By the time the game picks up, Zero has set course to destroy her sisters for reasons we are unaware; what starts off as seemingly an utterly selfish act slowly unravels into a form of penance. Zero knows her sisters and she are utter monsters that shouldn’t exist and is making that happen. If there were to be a theme for this entry, it would have to be views on self worth, what we choose is important, and how that manifests in your romantic entanglements/appetites. There’s no real meta game at play here and it rings the most hollow of Taro’s games to date.
The boss fight in the final path is largely reminiscent of the Grotesquerie Queen battle from Drakengard that is equal parts a showing of lack of ideas and nod to the idea that the details may change but certain elements are constants. It’s difficult to determine which is more prevalent and the entry stands as a confusing rock in the center of an already bizarre vortex.
NieR:Automata marks the first time since Taro’s inaugural game that he’s had a proper budget and support. Platinum Games has made huge strides compared with the gameplay of Drakengard 3 and Nier to make things faster, more intuitive, and responsive. Production values are high, length is cited at 50 hours for full completion, and certain elements from Nier are prominently displayed. The androids are no secret, older machines are everywhere, the remains of an ancient Earth set the stage, and interviews regarding the game are conducted with Yoko Taro sporting Emil’s head from Nier. How Emil, Nier, and Kaine will affect NeiR:Automata is unknown as well as how many years have transpired between games. It should be noted, however, that a Route E was released in text form only for the first game in which Nier and Kaine make their feelings for each other known. That may or may not manifest in Automata, but it could explain why all of the androids we’ve seen so far are clad in black with bodies similar in litheness to Kaine; multiple characters are seen using Nier’s blade; and the older machines have rounded heads similar to Emil. Even a Taro veteran like myself is quite unsure what to expect, but if main scenario writer Sawako Natori is on board as she has been for the earlier titles, it promises to be as intricate, human, and full of uncertainty as the other games in the universe have been.
A question recently posed to me is why, of all the things to use to hide his face, did Taro select the impractically large, globed head of Emil. I don’t have a direct answer, but a theory. Throughout the entirety of Nier, Emil looks up to its title character. He thinks Nier is the coolest guy he’s ever met. Nier says cool stuff, fights really well, is physically strong, a great family man, and very caring. Emil is consistently told by Kaine that he’s worthless and very much feels himself to be inferior to everyone else as well as an outsider for how he looks. Upon recruitment, Emil won’t go into town hubs with Nier because he doesn’t want to upset the locals or be assaulted. It isn’t until Nier assures the boy’s safety that he feels comfortable interacting with others. For a man who shies away from the spotlight, has strange ideas, and doesn’t think highly of himself, this seems a natural fit for Yoko’s public persona. He is aware of how off the beaten path he is but doesn’t shy away from it. He’s keenly aware of what perception of him is, accepts those consequences, and revels in the oddities his mind produces.
When recently asked by RPGSite what Square Enix property he would like to work on, Taro said “…I’d take Dragon Quest and make it a really brutal, really nasty game. You’d see the monsters start eating people…I’d love to see all the cute little villagers running around screaming and getting torn apart!” This coupling of the wretched and the joyful has shown up more frequently in Yoko’s projects since Nier. As part of a promotional blast for Drakengard 3, Yoko’s wife, Yukiko, drew the intoner sisters in the style of Taiko Drum Master, for which she is best known.
The wonderfully bizarre Yoko Taro is still around making games, getting more attention than ever, and has several projects going simultaneously (a manga Thou Shalt Not Die and upcoming mobile game SinoAlice); that is not something I ever expected to say upon first completing Drakengard 14 years ago. It is endlessly rewarding to see this man finally get the number of eyes upon him that his projects have deserved, but impossible not to sit back in disbelief and say “what took everyone so long?”
Discover this unique world for yourself in NieR:Automata on March 7, 2017 on Playstation 4. The demo is already available.