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extended interview

Nier’s Yoko Taro On Success, Drinking, And Death

by Kimberley Wallace on Nov 24, 2017 at 09:00 AM

Photo credit: Andrew Faulk

Best known for directing the Nier and Drakengard series, Yoko Taro reached a new level of success after teaming up with Platinum Games for Nier: Automata, which sold over two million copies. We chatted with Taro about his newfound success and what's next. Just like his esoteric games, our talk was anything but ordinary.

Editor's Note: A portion of this interview appeared in issue #296. This is an extended version.

What attracted you to becoming a video game creator?

I used to play at arcades every day from a young age. At that time, video games were considered to be something that delinquents played. So I, being an otaku, felt terrified while I played games. I could go on forever if I started to list the games that I liked, but the title that made me want to make games myself was Gradius. I still remember how shocking it was to see a game where the stages "change" at a time when repetitive stages were popular. Even as a child, I knew that computer graphics would continue to evolve, so the reason I decided to get into the gaming industry was because I was certain that games would surpass films and overshadow all other video mediums.

Who are your creative influences?

I have been influenced by the products themselves that I felt were spectacular, rather than “who.” Ico (PS2) and Ikaruga (Dreamcast) are some representative titles, and I’ve also copie… er, received inspiration from the great features in many other great titles when creating my own game.

After Cavia disbanded, it seemed like the Nier series was dead. How does it feel to be able to go back to a series after thinking it wasn't going to live on?

After we released Drakengard 3, I think everyone was well sick of all the games I made by then, and I really didn't really want to work anymore. I was thinking I'd probably just go and hide in the mountains and live out the rest of my life as a hermit or something. It just so happens at that time Mr. Yosuke Saito, [who] was obviously a bit tired after his work on Dragon Quest and was not thinking straight, decided to give me another chance with something like Nier. That's how you saw a new Nier; I'm still not sure how that happened.

Considering the time off between it and the original, were you surprised by the success of Automata?

Certainly from my perspective and from the fan's perspective, I think everyone thought Nier was a very dead IP at that point, so I was very surprised when they started talking about doing another one. I [thought] it would be very interesting when I heard that Platinum would be developing another one. I didn't think it'd be a hit, though; I [thought] probably it'd be a very niche game. But no, there was certainly potential there. Looking back on it, I think the kind of games that Platinum makes are very much for those action-game maniacs, and it's a very closed-off area, but it seemed like an excellent fit with the kind of really geeky worlds that Square-Enix makes. I think overall, they became a great combination together.

The subject of humanity and death is something you often like to explore in your works. What interests you about these themes?

Death is kind of inherent in games. Usually that's by killing your enemies, so in playing and creating games, it's something you have to think about because it is integral to a lot of titles. I make my games not really as far as going into big themes of life or how people think of life or anything like that, but I want to make games [that will make people think about] kind of more deep things like, "Why do I play games?" or "What's my relationship to games?" – things like that.

You're very vocal about your love of drinking. Is that part of your creative process?

I mean certainly, I've always liked drinking a lot, but I remember when I was writing the previous games' scenarios and the stories for them, I noticed a [recurring theme] that all the stuff I had written when I was really out of it was actually the stuff that everyone really liked. And I thought, "Why the hell should that be?" It worked out. If I drink, I become a bit tipsy and a bit of a fool, and I lose my inhibitions. That kind of uninhibited story writing only comes out when I'm drinking, so I definitely try to drink a lot more whenever I'm writing now. It's very interesting; when I'm writing when I'm sober, it's like, "Ah yes, that's an interesting story, I'll write that, I'll put that there." But that's very different then when I've started drinking. I just start getting involved and having an emotional connection to the characters. I'll start crying and [I'm] like, "Wow, this is a really sad story!" So yeah, that's why I think it's better. Then I'll pass out, and wake up with tears down my face like, "Oh, I was writing a story." In the original Nier, there was the story of the wolf and the people with the masks. I remember crying along with the story as I was writing it while I was completely wasted.

Your games always include multiple endings. What do you do to ensure that players are compelled to see them all the way through?

I don't think people really have to see all of them, you know? I don't try that hard to make sure they do. I think there's a lot of people who play games nowadays and they don't go all the way through to completion, and you have to accept that as one way that people like to play games. So you'll maybe see one ending and then stop - or some people may not even see one - [and] stop halfway between that. They're all legitimate ways of playing, and I'm quite happy people can play that way. The way that my endings are generally structured in my games [is that they go] from Ending A to Ending E. [The structure] we generally have is each one reveals a new layer of something, or there's something that if you only saw it to the end of here, you'll maybe get one answer; if you move on, you'll see a deeper answer and something different, and [then] move on. For those people who want to go all the way through to the final ending, I then want them to go even further from that and come up with their own ideas. There will be things that they come out with and things that they see there, and I really want them to have that kind of sense of imagination in their minds as well.

What are your thoughts on Platinum as a studio and Hideki Kamiya's statement recently about how Automata saved the studio?

What I think of Platinum [is that] they are a very talented, very unique kind of studio in their own way. People looking at Platinum from the outside often get the image that it's just Mr. Kamiya and a number of the top-level veterans [running] everything in a very top-down way. If you look inside the company, it really isn't like that at all. There's a lot of really passionate, really skilled young staff directors. And obviously, they go off the line, they give their opinion about what they want to do and how they view games to the top, and then it's those guys at the top who manage that. It's a great company. It's quite a rare thing to see something managed [as a] kind of bottom-up company. The other part of your question there about Mr. Kamiya's announcement that Nier: Automata saved Platinum, I think in part, that's just him being nice to us and talking us up. I think we've got a lot to thank them for as well — certainly all the young development staff I talked about. It really was a great opportunity for them to show what they've got and it brought them up two or three levels higher. And as a whole, I think that's something [the whole Nier team], myself included, really have to thank them for. I think they did a really brilliant job on that. 

Do you plan to continue working with Platinum?

It's not that we've got anything lined up immediately, but certainly. I discussed a lot with the young staff on the Platinum team and it would be really great to work with them again in the future. I spoke with our producer at Square-Enix, Mr. [Yosuke] Saito as well about doing that in the future. Of course, the other thing is that if Square-Enix provides the money, I'll always make anything they ask for.

Music has been an integral part of the series and a standout feature. How closely do you work with composer Keiichi Okabe to ensure that the music matches the vision for bringing areas and scenes to life?

It's almost like the game is a slave to the music in a lot of ways. The emotions that are created in the players themselves are [a result of the music] and the game just sort of follows along behind that. I'm not quite sure how it's done outside of Japan, but certainly in most Japanese games development, the music is probably done in the last 30 percent of the development cycle, right at the end. Nier [both Automata and the original] is very different [in that] the music was done in a very early stage, and then the rest of the game worked around that and was fitted into that. The way I ordered the music there is that I look on YouTube for music clips, and I'll get one and I'll paste it and send it over to [Mr. Okabe], and say, "Right, I want something like this; this kind of tempo, this kind of pace, and [then] there's 15 frames in here like at the 45 second mark that the bass turns up, so we're going to have to make it very high-tempo, very exciting, you've got to bring the pace up there." That's normally the kind of thing I send to him, and I think he really hates that. If you tried that with a regular composer and you made that kind of request, most of them would just turn around and say, "Alright then, you ask the guy that made that to make one for you!" But Mr. Okabe, you see, he quite likes money, so he'll do anything you ask him to. The theme on the overall Nier team, though, is if you'll give us money, we'll basically do whatever you want.

You often like to have fun with player expectations. For instance, in the original Nier, there's a section of the game that's a nod to Resident Evil; in Automata, you can uninstall a chip and instantly kill 2B. How do you come up with such creative ways to utilize gaming as a medium like this, and why do you feel it's important to do so? 

I mean, I think obviously now games have become closed up in some ways; you've got very fixed genres and game mechanics, and they're cliché. They're very much formed into one pattern and they've been closed away. I think there's a lot more of a potential there than what you really see; they can do a lot more things with games than what general designers do within that very limited field. So I try and experiment a lot more and I try to do different things with that. 

In Automata, you gave players the choice to sacrifice something valuable to create a really meaningful ending. Do you have any data on how many people did this? What motivated you to put that choice in the game?

Most intelligent developers would be taking statistics on that and find out the metrics; but as you may know, I'm quite an idiot, so I don't do that kind of thing. I think rather than knowing which decision players finally took in the end, the important thing is simply having the choice and making that decision. Obviously, it's your life, it's up to you to make that kind of decision, and that's where the meaning in that decision comes. What I was thinking about when I made the decision to design it that way is nowadays you see a lot of people who have gameplay videos up on YouTube, and you can basically see any part of the gameplay for free. So I thought I needed to add something of value to the people who paid 6,000-7,000 yen for this game, and give them a kind of experience that you can't get just by watching on YouTube.

Click to the next page where we get philosophical with Taro and discuss the Japanese video game industry....

Photo credit: Andrew Faulk

You've mentioned your method of "backward scripting," where you write the ending to the story before anything else for your games. Why is it important to your writing process to start with a story's conclusion?

What I actually try and do when I'm writing a story and creating a game is to design an experience [that] the player's going to have from that. And I think it's very easy to do that if you finish with the final goal of where you want them to be emotionally and then work back from that. If I tried doing it the other way around, like starting from the beginning and doing it in order, it may not be possible to reach the climax [that I] desire there, and I find it very difficult doing it that way. So I think if you're designing that overall player experience, it's a much easier way of doing it. 

We're going to get philosophical here. What do you feel is the meaning of life?

So first of all, I have to check whether this interview is going to be written in Japanese, and it's not, so I can tell you. Basically, when I was young and I was in school, I was really, really unpopular with the ladies and it was very hard to get a girl. So I felt at that time that the purpose of my life was to find a girlfriend, and I struggled really hard with that. And when I reached 21 years old, I finally got a girlfriend for the first time, and I thought, "Wow, this is great, I've achieved my life's goal now", so the rest of my life is really just leftover time. I've told this story once before when my wife was around and she got very angry at me and said, "You never tell that to anyone ever again." Again, I really love games, too, so one of my other big goals in life was to develop games. When I finally managed to do Drakengard for the first time, that was another one of my big life goals crossed off. So at the moment, I'm really wondering what I need to look at as a goal for the rest of my life. I'm not sure what I would like.

Is life worth living? 

I mean, I'm quite interested in what happens to you after you die, so that's an interesting one. But I guess that's something you'll only find out if you die in the first place, so for now I'm okay with that. I think I'll try and give it my best shot at what I've got for this life in the moment. Certainly, when I'm playing video games, all of the sudden [I] get annoyed at how [I'm] doing and [I] reset the game straight away. I don't think I'm quite ready to do that with real life yet, though. I think I'll try and put in a bit more effort on this ending. The one thing I really want you to put in this article though is that, watch out children, because you're not going to learn anything about life or philosophy from a drunk, 47-year-old weirdo. I think everyone's got their own serious debates and wonders about it in their own head, so there's nothing they can really get from me about this. 

You've had some really unique and wild ideas. Have you ever pitched anything that a team has said is too much?

In Drakengard 1, obviously you may know at the end of the game you come down into Shinjuku and then there's a rhythm-game which is the final part of the game. My original proposal for that was something that the team shot down straight away. The idea was you had a giant Ayumi Hamasaki, a Japanese pop idol, come down from the sky and then you had a singing contest with her to decide the fate of the universe. And they said, "No, we can't do that," and that was shot down. A pop idol in America who's the equivalent of Ayumi Hamasaki... so basically, it'd be something like Britney Spears coming down and you being like, “Oh hey, Britney! Let’s fight!” That's the kind of thing that would have been. 

Your games are very non-traditional, both in their stories and their gameplay. You often like to blur genres together, such as in Automata when you blended bullet-hell shooter elements into an action/RPG. Do you make it a point as a creator to ensure that your works are something that we wouldn't normally see in RPGs?

It is not something grand like pride or self-respect. I think that it’s just that I get bored really easily, and I end up wanting to search for unpredictability when I’m playing and creating a game. However, creating something unexpected is not unexpected anymore, so I might actually create something super orthodox next time.

How do you feel about the current state of the Japanese video game industry?

I think what's happening at the moment in the Western video game industry is that there's very much this polarization into the big triple-A games and also the indies, and there's very little in the middle to fill that space. What's happening is Japan is you've got a lot of games that maybe aim for triple-A but don't quite make it there, and they actually come into that gap. So when these then go to Europe and America, they're actually filling in that gap and they fit in really well in that niche market, and I think that's why we're seeing a lot of success with Japanese games at the moment.

For the first Nier, you said you created a world where killing could be justified. In Automata, it seems like killing is definitely justifiable. What message did you want players to take away from Automata?

I feel like the world of Automata is a world where it is not only a “story of continued killing” as in past works, but also a “story where one is continually killed” due to being a machine. I feel like the unique aspect of this title that differentiates it from others is that the sin to kill and the punishment to be killed is depicted in parallel.

However, this answer and all of the answers that I have been providing in my past interviews are “what I was thinking when I was creating the game” and is not “what I want the players to feel from the game.” As the creator, my role is to show the diversity of the world, and I would be happy if each and every one of you can make your own finding.

Nier has become quite successful, but do you feel like you'd like to explore new ideas outside of that, such as creating a new IP?

I like to create games in general, so a sequel or a new IP are both types of games that I would like to try creating. Whatever I end up creating though, it is important for me to have a high level of freedom in having control over the project when we begin developing. This way, I am able to challenge myself to try different things. And this doesn't really have much to do with the question, but I do want to try creating a pinball or a vertical scrolling shooter game. Well, this is simply because I like those types of games.