The Advent of Yoko Taro Games and What Makes Them Special?
Note: Spoilers for Drakengard, Nier and Nier: Automata. Read at your own discretion.
2017 was a great year for video games, and Nier: Automata joined the list of games that have been the recent talk of town. Using the knowledge and experience Yoko Taro gained from working on past titles — Nier: Automata is a beautiful game that truly stretched the boundary of video game storytelling.
First off, let’s talk Yoko Taro. Yoko Taro is an eccentric video game director who is best known for the Drakengard and Nier series. Now I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about the guy in real life, but if you play any of his games, you can definitely ascertain that Yoko Taro is nothing if not, a weirdo. His mind just works differently, and as a creator — that’s probably the highest praise you can give to one.
Yoko Taro dislikes the conventions that surround video games. Not willing to succumb to the usual formula, he challenged the preconceptions that was formed by other games before him, with countless experiments on getting the best and unique storytelling out of the video game format. While other people used preexisting “blueprints”, Taro went on a bold and adventurous journey to create his own.
The first game where he directed and was heavily involved with was Drakengard, an inane, dark game taking place in a medieval fantasy setting. There is also a “troll ending” in Drakengard, and for some reason, Taro thought it was a good idea to make another game based off on it — which gave us Nier, an excellent game putting us into the shoes of a father willing to pull out all the stops to save his ill, dying daughter. Last but not least, Nier: Automata, taking place 800 years after the original Nier, focuses on a few androids tasked to save humanity from extinction.
It’s no secret that Yoko Taro is fascinated with the concept of deaths. In his youth, he has witnessed his friend dying from slipping and falling off a roof. The incident evoked different kind of emotions, horrifying, ridiculous, and maybe even amusing; and is a theme Yoko Taro constantly try to tackle in his own games as well.
Drakengard explores insanity and it’s influence on moral compass. Nier contemplated on identity and consciousness, violence and tragedy, empathy and loss. Nier: Automata ponders on the existential purpose of human nature. But indeed, what ties all Yoko Taro games is his fascination with deaths. The impact of death is the manifestation of insanity, madness and depravity in Drakengard. The impact of death has borne apathy and disdain in Nier. Finally, the impact of death established the nihilistic nature of Automata.
Taro is a pessimist, and futility is a recurring theme in his games; all hope is lost no matter what you do, and what you do may even bring further suffering. In Drakengard, Caim and Angelus fought the Queen-beast to the point of traversing through time and space. Although managing to vanquish their foes, their existences in the new foreign world caused an outbreak of a strange disease. Because of this, Nier’s world is a dying one. The Gestalts devised a plan to create alternative bodies, the Replicants where they would transfer their consciousness to avoid the disease… only for the Replicants to gain sentience and fight back. So you, as Replicant Nier basically just caused the extinction of humanity (i.e. the start of Nier: Automata). If hopelessness isn’t already enough, you have to bear the weight and consequences of what you have done to the world — the weight of the world.
The futility theme is even more amplified by the fact that there are technically no bad guys. Yoko Taro games always have multiple endings, and in both Nier and Nier: Automata, their Ending Bs are an excellent example of showing us that. All characters, hell, even the random monster encounters like the shades in Nier and the machine lifeforms in Nier: Automata, have motives to act like the way they did. In fact the new perspectives only makes you more to be the bad guy of the story, but aforementioned, there is no bad guy in these games. Everyone just doesn’t want to die and seeks meaning and purposes in their lives.
Deconstruction and subversion of tropes is Yoko Taro’s specialty, and he takes full advantage of it throughout the games. You can say his habit of “genre-shifting” is another one popular example, constantly betraying our expectations that the game is X or Y genre. But speaking of betraying expectations, I want to talk Drakengard’s Ending E again. In that ending, the world has gone to hell — gigantic, cannibalistic bald babies emerged and devoured everyone they see. Caim and Angelus fought the queen of all the monster, the Queen-beast. The fight was so epic it sent them all the way to modern-day Japan. And so there at last, the massive abomination, you and the dragon, all engaged in one final showdown… in a music game battle! And once you finally bested your ultimate foe, one would think a joyous celebration would follow suit, just like most RPG adventures right? But seconds after that, both you and your dragon were immediately shot down by a Japanese fighter aircraft.
All Yoko Taro games are filled with subversion like these. And while the example I used here was one of his more extreme ones, he’s able to use subversion in later Nier games in surprisingly, more graceful manners, which only serve to refine his storytelling. People who played Ending C in Nier: Automata can probably attest to this too, as from Ending C onward, it feels like a completely different game. Yoko Taro is especially skilled at writing compelling but unpredictable stories; but in a way that is still consistent and not too out of the left field… maybe except for Drakengard, that thing is nuts.
Even the technical elements help setting Yoko Taro games apart from other games, and more importantly, improve the storytelling. The Nier series has one thing that I really like in regard to it’s music — multiple versions and rearrangements of a single track, used appropriately depending on what you are doing in the game. For example, when you are just walking around, the music is soft and quiet but when enemies appear, the same track immediately rearranges and turns into a more upbeat, dynamic version.
For a single track, there may be both non-vocal and vocal versions. All the tracks aren’t just simple loops, and they smoothly transition into one another depending on what you are doing in the game. The ability to use it’s music to calm you down, increase the tension, amplify the emotions, then to cool you down again may not seem like much on paper, but an extremely excellent finishing touch and is one among many reasons why Nier: Automata is especially held in such high regard.
Indeed, the “multi-layering” music helps immensely in building up the appropriate mood and immersing players into the game. For a single track, it has multiple versions like quiet, medium, dynamic, etc… And while I understand this isn’t something unique to Nier alone, it’s undeniable the smooth and seamless way both Nier and especially Nier: Automata implement the transitions. Hell, this is the only reason why I could even continue to play the hacking mini-game (the only one thing I didn’t like a lot in Nier: Automata), the super seamless way the music transitions into 8bit is a work of art.
In any case, video game music possessing the ability to immerse players is an important one to have, and with the Nier series, it definitely has it in spades. With the music as it’s tool, it’s atmosphere and emotions are second to none, ergo, another reason why Nier’s storytelling is so good.
Despite my countless praises though, Yoko Taro games are not without it’s issues. I mean, there’s a reason why most of his games still remained cult classics prior to Nier: Automata. His unending experimenting approach in video games mean he might never achieve perfection, and his earlier games showed this the most. From the messy amalgamation of dejected tropes to the sluggish, clunky gameplay, his games at times even feel like they hadn’t had a proper quality control — there’s just that sense of sloppiness and imperfection in his games.
The janky nature of his games is one reason why people have distanced themselves from his works. And understandably so, his older games can be… outright unplayable from my personal experience. And yeah, I feel like I’m beating on a dead horse at this point, but let’s just say Drakengard was truly a real piece of work.
Nier: Automata however, has a really fun and exhilarating gameplay that is totally unlike Yoko Taro’s past games. The movements and animation are smooth, it’s combat fast-paced — and all these make his older games feel like a nightmare from a distant past. I would say their decision to partner up with PlatinumGames is godsend, and it allows them to solve the problem which has always been the bane of Yoko Taro’s existence — gameplay. But outside of the gameplay mechanics though, at this point in time, I feel like Yoko Taro has already mastered his niche as well. All the weird stuffs and tropes he introduced and experimented throughout his career, have been at their most polished state by the time Nier: Automata rolled around. Nier: Automata is amazing, because it is pretty much a polished, modernized Yoko Taro title with a great gameplay to boot.
Games like Nier: Automata is the sole reason why I can even remain optimistic in the future of video games, which as you might have guessed, hasn’t exactly been in the brightest spot lately. I mean, a few years ago, we had the “Fuck Konami” controversy, and just last year we had “Fuck EA” to boot. These type of news manage to reach my ears even though I don’t even follow them that closely. Who even knows what major video game publisher we will be fucking this year. I feel like the culture of video games is shifting into a new direction, a direction I don’t really like if I were to be frank, but that will be a discussion for another time.
But good AAA titles like Nier: Automata gives me faith that these type of games still have their place to stay. Just like the true ending — a bittersweet hope beyond the farthest horizon; Nier: Automata remains the beacon of hope in a sad, dark future saddled with cynical lies and meaninglessness.
With Nier: Automata’s popularity, I can only hope Yoko Taro’s older games will now have more second glances, which despite some glaring flaws, are still all good games. Last but not least, I hope Nier: Automata’s success has at least made an impact, however small it might seem, on the video game industry.