'Nier: Automata' Director Taro Yoko Doesn't Envision a Happy Ending for Humanity

'Nier: Automata' Director Taro Yoko Doesn't Envision a Happy Ending for Humanity

Long admired for a string of cult favorites, 'Nier' creator Taro Yoko is now earnestly in the spotlight thanks to 'Automata' Square Enix

Creator of the cult hit speaks to the weighty themes in his games, his fascination with death, and growing up as an otaku

Creator of the cult hit speaks to the weighty themes in his games, his fascination with death, and growing up as an otaku

If you enjoy video games created by Japanese developers, the past few months have delivered an embarrassment of riches. The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild wildly exceeded expectations, Yakuza 0 stood out as the highlight of its series, Team Ninja enjoyed a triumphant return to form with Nioh, and Fumito Ueda's touching The Last Guardian finally emerged after a decade of anticipation. Even among 2017's already stellar lineup, Nier: Automata (which launches on Steam today) still managed to stun critics with its enriching blend of philosophical storytelling, experimental gameplay, and blistering action sequences.

Taro Yoko, Nier: Automata's director, has developed a cult following over the past 10 years with his inspired catalogue of boundary-pushing games. He first garnered attention in 2004 for his grim hack-and-slash adventure Drakengaard on the PlayStation 2, which featured a darkly inventive plot touching on controversial subjects as diverse as cannibalism, brainwashing, incest and the death of humanity. The complex narrative was later resurrected in the criminally overlooked Nier in 2010, which managed to surpass Drakengaard with a surprisingly graceful story of a father who will stop at nothing to protect his ailing daughter and a coterie of village outcasts. A stunning English translation by the localization team at 8-4 helped shine a light on Nier's profound themes of empathy and loss. You'll be hard-pressed to find a game in any language that pulls off its emotional range.

Unfortunately, the earlier entries in the Nier and Drakengaard series were often judged more harshly by reviewers than they were by fans who fell in love with the unique stories and perspectives they offered (and who were also willing to overlook glaring design flaws that would damn less creatively satisfying games). Nier: Automata has finally thrust the reclusive Yoko into the spotlight, with its impeccably polished action offering a more accessible entry point to his fascinating universe filled with heartbreak and introspection. Recently, Yoko has become equally recognized for the grinning, skeletal mask he dons in public, as well as his cryptic and playful answers to interview questions. So it's a particular treat to have a candid conversation with him about his career and legacy so far.

What's the appeal for you in creating transgressive stories with taboo subjects?
The world is filled with lies and desires in the first place, but I feel like it has a tendency to hide and forbid taboos. We write about the love between a man and woman and family, but we can't write about sex. There are stories about beauty and growth, but not about aging and perishing. I think that those are lies and I'm not good at writing lies. I just want to be honest to myself.

Why do you think the subject of death fascinates you?
If you look at the shelves of a video game store, you'll find that they're now flooded with games where players kill others and rejoice over their own domination. Films, novels, and even wars and the Olympics in real life are the same. I believe that if we do away with all of the pretentious façade in this world, we would find a dark area hidden inside humans that likes death and discrimination.

Your games often feature outcast characters. Are you drawn to character types that don't appear in other games?
I am an "otaku," I was never popular with girls, and had always run away into the imaginary world of anime and games to release my stress. If I were to separate the world into "light and darkness," I am clearly a part of the "darkness" category, and have been cursing people who have properly succeeded in life. My own twisted personality may have rubbed off on my characters.

Regret seems to be a recurring theme in your stories. Many of your characters regret actions they've taken. In Nier, you even offer players the choice to delete their actual save file, losing all their progress in the game, in order to rescue a character. And I experienced regret when I made that decision. What's something in your life you personally regret?
There may be a difference between the Japanese language and the English language here, but I don't think that I've made my characters "regret" anything (with some exceptions). They curse their own circumstances, but also believe in their own choices and continue to fight against their punishment even if they fail. That reflects their commitment to their own beliefs, but at that same time, they are fools that can't change the way they think. I love that kind of foolishness in human nature, and I also think that I'm one of those fools that "cannot regret."

In real life, when I've survived terrible situations, they carry a large range of emotions all at once, from fear to sadness to even laughter. But I don't usually see this mix in games, except in the work you do. Why does your style frequently blend darkness with humor?
That is true... I didn't even notice until you mentioned it. I really do have that kind of tendency. I wonder why? It simply might be that if I write solely about darkness I'll feel embarrassed, or something like that.

If there's one element that ties the Nier and Drakengaard games together it's the constant sense of surprise they offer. Is subverting your audience's expectations important to you?
I'm the type that gets bored easily, so I lose any motivation to work if I know what the end product will be like. Actually, I can't even fill in any official government documents because I lose all motivation to do so the second I understand what I'm about to write. As such, I can only create a product that constantly betrays my own imagination.

Your games always have multiple endings that are often in contradiction with each other. They splinter into parallel competing narratives. Is there are a part of you that resists firm closure?
Let's say, for example, that a hero was killed by a dragon while on his way to fulfill a greater purpose and it was "game over" for the player at that moment. The player then selects "continue," and the hero slays the dragon and saves the princess. Happily ever after...

I cannot get myself to think that humans, who could not stop killing one another for more than 2000 years, will have a happy ending.

When I look back and think about what life meant to that hero who died, I end up with a strange feeling inside.

There are games in the world that were played through to the end, those that were given up mid-way, or weren't even opened to begin with. Multiple "endings" exists for video games, and it depends on what the players do with them. I believe that this is one of the greatest and most potentially fruitful things about games.

Your games are typically considered very dark, yet you don't share that view. Why do you think your definition of a "happy ending" differs from most people?
A happy ending to me is where each of the characters fulfill their desires. That is even if the story or the characters are dark and gloomy. Even if their wish is a twisted one, I believe that the person would be happy if they were able to carry out his or her own will. That is even if the ending did not end up as a happy ending for you, the player.

Do you think the story of humanity in the real world outside of video games will have a happy ending?
No. I cannot get myself to think that humans, who could not stop killing one another for more than 2000 years, will have a happy ending.

Has your view on game development matured over the years as you've gotten older?
When I was young, I had one wish from the bottom of my heart: "I wish all the useless and controlling elders of the gaming industry would die so I can create a game that I like!" Now that I have fulfilled my dream to "create a game that I like," there's not much left for me to do. However, because I don't have much else to do now, I am clinging onto my job as a game director. In a way, I'm just living out of habit now. And now, I have become that troublesome elder that I hated when I was young. Like a demon king in an RPG, I feel like I'm clinging to my castle of authority all alone and waiting for a new hero to come slay me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.