The lights are on
Taro Yoko is known for his work as a creative director for games including Drakengard and Nier, which are both on the weirder side of the RPG spectrum. Talking spell tomes aren't exactly conventional party members, after all. Today at GDC, Yoko gave a presentation on making weird games for weird people.
This post contains Nier spoilers.
Yoko started by thanking attendees through a translator for showing up for his presentation over others, including the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag one, which he says he himself would have liked to attend. He added that this must make us all weird.
He moved on with a slide marked "Today's conclusion," saying that speed is important and that we want everything right away. If the session is going to be boring, he joked that you might as well go to the Black Flag panel. The conclusion, in his mind, is that story and gameplay are not the most important things. They're important steps toward the goal, which is close to something like view or vision. He added that people who are asking what exactly he's saying should know that he's not really saying much.
Originally, Yoko says he was a 3D CG designer, and by chance he got into scriptwriting. He thought he couldn't do it the first time until he bought some highly reviewed reference books from Amazon. He read them and declared that scriptwriting guides make no sense whatsoever to him. For a while he says he got about 10 pages in before giving up. But he still had to write the script because he didn't have a choice. Then he found his own techniques: backwards scriptwriting and photo thinking. He asked around with novelists and professional scriptwriters, and they said they'd never heard of it before. Yoko says he doesn't believe them, and that they're hiding something..
Backwards scriptwriting is starting with the ending, and working from there. When making a game, this is the first thing Yoko does, the reason being cost. He says it's a good idea to see what other games in your genre are doing to. Say you want to make a game like God of War. Look at the density of events and story moments, and try to replicate it. Trying to copy it isn't smart, though, because you likely won't have the same budget. He said most people should aim for about 70-percent of content and quality.
He put up a slide showing a timeline of a story, from start to ending. He says emotional peaks are important for telling good stories. Using Nier as an example, he puts "a girl dies" in the center. The he hones down the core of what makes that sad. He adds details like "She is still young," "She cannot speak," "She had a kind and beautiful personality," and "It's her wedding day." Once he has those details, he scatters those details throughout the overall timeline, so players have an opportunity to build an emotional bond with the girl before tragedy strikes. This process is what Yoko calls backwards scriptwriting.
Players enter the game from the beginning, but then reflect on what makes something sad once the big event occurs. Only in hindsight does that tragedy have any power. If the game began with the death, it wouldn't resonate with players. According to Yoko's way of thinking, they need to have had time to build emotional relationships with characters and events.
People can be overwhelmed if they have to keep track of too many events and the reasons behind them, Yoko argues. He says that writers should imagine what specific emotional scenes would look like early in the process. This is what he calls photo thinking. He says it's an application of visual memory skills, which he uses to generate emotional scenes in his game, like a young bride dying in someone's arms. He says knowing what those scenes looks like before game development is too far along, he can draw upon those memories and drop hints to the players, like having an overcast sky. He says writers have to be careful not to create too many distractions with meaningless and useless settings.
Yoko says he designs games and writes stories, but his fundamental goal isn't in the physical game that stands between the creator and the player, but in the emotional feelings that he can inspire in those players. He says that we're used to seeing amazing 3D games, and casual games, big-budget games, and bite-sized indies. They're all great, he says, but that maybe games are entering a blind alley. He doesn't want that. He wants games to live up to their potential. He pulled up a slide with a circle marked "potential of games" and the outside marked "things you can't do." Things you can't do include heavily sexual content or games that, in his case, cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Yoko asked if people are doing everything they possibly can within the circle.
As an example, Yoko wanted to be able to get an emotional reaction from players in Nier's save-screen menu. He visualized players having a "What's going on?" reaction, and then he worked backward from there. If you recall the game, to get the game's true ending players have to play through the game twice, and then make a decision that ultimately wipes their save data – permanently.
He added a dotted line in the circle, marked "unknown," that exists between what you can do in games, and what you can't do. What about a full-priced game that only lasts 10 minutes, but it's the most beautiful 10 minutes you could spend on Earth? What if there was a game that could only be beaten if you ate 10 hamburgers? What if you had to pass a social game to graduate from school? Ideas like these make Yoko's heart beat, he says, unlike many of the titles he sees when he browses a game store. He says he's been in games for 20 years, and he feels as though he's failed. He hasn't overcome that invisible wall. He's still hopeful that some audience members will be able to do so if they try hard enough.
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