When people talk about ingenious Japanese game developers, we often hear names like Kojima, Miyamoto, Miyazaki, Inafune, Ueda or sometimes even Suda51 or Swery 65, but rarely ever anything about Yoko Taro. And that is a shame. Thanks to Super Bunnyhop, at least some more people might appreciate Yoko’s input into the game industry.
In his latest video, Youtuber Super Bunnyhop summarizes quite well what Nier and the whole fuzz about Yoko is all about. So even if I don’t want to lose you reading here, I highly recommend you watching that video, if you don’t plan on playing the first Nier game, yourself:
The interesting part starts halfway through the video, after he wraps up the whole plot of Nier Replicant/Gestalt. He needs to do that, while spoiling most of Nier’s plot points in the process, to describe how Nier is actually a critique to the whole game industry and even a reflection to the events of 9-11.
And that is one of the great qualities of Yoko. His goal doesn’t lie in making a good game as by the general standards, we are used to by now, but to explore what games can do. He tries to find this industry’s true potential, if we leave behind artificial boundaries, we set to ourselves. During his GDC conference Making Weird Games of Weird People, Yoko describes his concept of the potential of games. Here, he defines that there are things, which you simply cannot do due to legal or moral rules and things you can do as a game developer. But within that realm of possible things, we set ourselves another invisible wall around the potential of games due to norms, habits or even the fear of losing the player’s interest or causing frustration.
He uses the Small World Machine from Coca Cola as one example of the true potential of games. But also an example from one of his own games; Nier. After completing the game three times, the player is offered the choice to erase all memory of the main cahracter, effectively wiping the whole save-data and permanently preventing the player from even naming a new character after the old character again, in order to save one of the supporting characters. This fourth wall break is interesting, because it actually confronts the player with a choice to sacrifice a save-data and an avatar, she or he spent a lot of time (three play-throughs) with and is likely also connected to on an emotional level.
At the risk of getting completely side-tracked, I want to mention Hidetaka Miyazaki here, who also crossed Yoko’s invisible wall with the Soulsborne games and had a huge success with that. With the overwhelming supply of games, these days, most game developers fear the loss of their player’s interest, if a game becomes too frustrating. On top of that, publishers become less and less willing to spend too much money on content, that only X-amount of players ever see. So games typically become easier and make sure to take the player by the hand to show them every single part of what they have to offer. But in the progress, games often feel arbitrary and the reward of discovering new things doesn’t really feel deserved if you didn’t actually discover them yourself or if beating a boss to get there was too simple.
The thing which impressed and influenced me the most in Japanese games, anime or media in general is how different they depict their quasi good and evil characters. I could name countless examples here, but for me personally, it was the RPG Genso Suikoden II, which introduced me to such a gray set of characters for the first time. It began with a very clear portrayal of an evil antagonist named Luca Blight, who is, like most other video game antagonists, simply a madman. But without giving away too much, the game changes drastically during the middle, blurring the line between good and bad and offered me the best antagonist, I’ve ever seen in any medium, in form of another character who becomes king of the enemy country. Nier is doing a similar thing with the antagonist, who is simply known as the “Shadowlord” during most of the game, but eventually turns out to be the character, you were caring about in the beginning with a comprehensible motive for his actions. Yoko said, that his intention to create such a story with no clear good or bad side, but characters who each think, they’re doing the right thing, is a reference and critique to the events around 9-11. Even the player is fooled to think, he’s doing the right thing, even though most of her or his actions will leave the world in a worse state than before.
When I read the article of Heather Alexandra about Nier: Automata’s ingame store, which sells trophies. I got worried about its reputation. Kinda Funny Games’ Colin Moriarty even calls it a serious matter, that Sony needs to prevent from happening. But I was delighted, when I read the comments to both Alexandra’s article and Moriarty’s and Miller’s podcast, in which people actually dealt with it intelligently and recognized, that this might be another fourth-wall break or something similar. Kotaku commentator Blees wrote to that matter, that “Deconstructing the medium is a big part of viewing video games as an art form” to that matter.
I guess, the biggest problem, why Yoko is rarely recognized as one of those ingenious Japanese developers, is that in order to get his whole point, you need to play through a game like Nier completely, first. And while I would argue otherwise, the game only received lukewarm reviews and could be considered as “not so great” by most people. Yoko himself said, that after 20 years of trying to overcome that invisible wall, he failed. And this is the point, where I get really excited about Nier: Automata. While, the game itself is done by Platinum games, Yoko is still the director and scenario writer of it. Platinum Games is more than capable at creating a great action games. In other words, while Yoko might have been lacking the right tools to deliver his good ideas in previous games, thanks to the ongoing demand by hardcore fans and even other game developers, Square Enix gave him the opportunity to create a sequel with Platinum Games.
Before I wrap up this essay, I want to shortly talk about what kept me hooked to Nier, even though it wasn’t such a critical success on first sight: Other than its original mix of different gaming-genres, the story and gaming references, it’s most of all the music. I am a really weird gamer, because while I love good gameplay, I consider other factors such as story and music to be just as important. And the soundtrack of Nier is second to none. I recommend anyone to check out the soundtrack, even if you’re not interested in playing the game itself.
Tay-writer godspeedycoucrimsonking even wrote a whole detailed article just about Nier’s soundtrack, that I need to check out, myself, ASAP!
So join me in this hype for Nier: Automata when it launches next week in the west for PS4 (Tuesday in the US and Friday in Europe and Australia) and on March 17th on Steam. And leave a comment if you’re gonna get it or what you think about Yoko Taro. There is far more around this game than just Platinum Games and short skirts. The game definitely doesn’t deserve to go down against all those other games releasing this march.