When someone drops an email asking “Hey, would you like to interview Yoko Taro?” the answer is always and forever: yes, absolutely. This even includes conducting an in interview about a game you’ve never heard of. In this case, that’s SINoALICE, a mobile RPG from 2017 that, three years later, is finally being released outside Japan.
Though Taro is best known for his work on the Nier and Drakengard series, he’s also contributed to a number of mobile and browser games over the years. After 2010’s Nier, Taro was the scenario supervisor (aka overseeing the story) for 2011’s strategy game Monster x Dragon, and in 2012 was the co-director for the music rhythm game Demons’ Score.
Maybe the blockbuster response to Nier: Automata—a game also released in 2017, interestingly—will mean Taro chooses to move on from mobile games. But that makes SINoALICE, an RPG about classic literary characters trying to revive their authors, more interesting. It’s a chance to revisit Taro’s past before, sometime soon, the future arrives.
Here’s the official description for the game, which is unsurprisingly dark:
Characters in SINoALICE have one wish: to revive their author. But in order to fulfil that wish, they must take each other's lives. The project’s character designer, Jino, adds a unique twist to each character; a sight to be seen in large real-time battles.
Some weeks back, I briefly arose from my paternity leave to send some questions about the Western release of SINoALICE to Taro, who acted as creative director on the project, and two of his collaborators: Square Enix producer Yoshinari Fujimoto and Pokelabo producer Shogo Maeda. ( SINoALICE was published by Square Enix and developed by Pokelabo.)
I’m convinced the three of them might have been drinking while answering my questions. I could attempt to explain why I think that’s the case, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.
I say this a lot with interviews I’ve conducted, but in this case, I really mean it: enjoy.
VICE Games: Do you remember the first line you wrote sketching out the idea behind SINoALICE?What was it, and why did you start there?
Yoko Taro: I don't remember the first line, but I thought of the catchcopy "最悪の物語" (*the Japanese catchcopy for SINoALICE, "The worst tale ever") fairly early on. I thought that if we advertise the game as such, people would be forgiving even if the story was no good.
Did you have a favorite fairy tale growing up? Why did that one, in particular, resonate with you?
Yoshinari Fujimoto: My hometown is Kanazawa, a small and beautiful historic city, and there are many fables in that area. I especially liked a story of a ghost lady who raises a baby by giving it candies. For me, local folklore was easier for me to imagine and drew my attention, rather than fairy tales from overseas.
Shogo Maeda: I liked Aladdin. I wanted the magic lamp and magic carpet.
Taro: When I was younger all I watched was anime, and I had no interest in fairy tales. Anime is the best. The pictures move and talk. It's all you ever need.
The strange part about fairy tales is that so many of them have been produced for kids, but the actual origins of a lot of popular fairy tales, specifically the Grimm ones SINoALICE is pulling from, were actually very scary. Did this contradiction play into making SINoALICE ?
Taro: This may stray from the question a little, but I think that rather than fairy tales being scary, they only seem scary because the values people had back then were different from the values we have now. Stories are always bound to their period in history, so SINoALICE cannot escape the same fate. The times we live in now might someday be considered as barbaric, scary times one day in the future.
Can you describe what your writing process is like, and if it was meaningfully different on SINoALICE? Do you have a day where you declare “Today is a writing day!” Are there specific habits that you follow when you’re sitting down to write, i.e. “I need a cup of coffee”?
Taro: As long as I have beer, everything is fine.
"When I was younger all I watched was anime, and I had no interest in fairy tales. Anime is the best. The pictures move and talk. It's all you ever need."
This game is coming out worldwide in the midst of a global pandemic. Can you talk about A) what you were doing when you realized coronavirus was something to be taken seriously and B) how it’s changed your day-to-day, personally and professionally, in the months since?
Fujimoto: I understood that this threat wouldn't go away in a short period of time, so I asked the Pokelabo team and related teams to move development to fully remote very early on. In both my private life and work life, I tried to be conscious to not panic, and focus humbly on what we can do in a careful and steady manner.
Maeda: In Japan too, life totally changed because of the coronavirus, and the Pokelabo team moved to working remotely. It's an environment I'm not used to, but we're moving ahead so that development for the future releases won't get delayed. Also, since I work remotely, I order McDonald's on Uber Eats every day.
Taro: The people I work with began to work less and I have been spending more time at home, so I've improved my cooking skills. As for my work, there's been no difference since before the virus and I've continued to break deadlines and wreak havoc.
How were the authors chosen? Did you pick them out of a hat? Are these authors you secretly want to relive?
Taro: Do you really believe that the authors would be revived? Oh… you must be a very honest and good person….
Following up on that, if you could relive the life of an author—without killing anyone, I guess!—who would it be? Why?
Fujimoto: The Grimm brothers. I'm sure they're wonderfully crazy people. I want to meet them. Wait, is it only one person?
Taro: I think the Grimm Brothers, who had the largest number of stories under their name. If only one, I'd choose the younger brother. I wouldn't kill him of course. I'd need to sell him off to Hollywood still intact.
SINoALICE proposes one version of death. What do you all think happens when we die?
Fujimoto: If you leave my dead body as is, I'll definitely rot.
Taro: I don't know if the afterlife exists. If it does, I'm sure Amazon will find a way to deliver there.
Last question, because this is a game about authors. Can you recommend a book? Can be new, can be old. Something you like, maybe something you think people might have missed.
Fujimoto: My 8-year-old son loves The Robber Hotzenplotz. A book that a kid loves has got to be a wonderful book. I recommend it. (I also remember reading it as a kid, but I completely forgot what it's about.)
Maeda: In Japan, manga is a popular form of book. I'm sure people in the West have never heard of it… there's a Japanese manga called Dragon Ball that is very good. Please try reading it.
Taro: I have a lot of books I'd like to recommend, but there aren't many that are in English or have been translated to English… oh there's one. I like science fiction short stories by Ted Chiang, like Understand.