Even in a year full of incredible games, Nier: Automata stands tall. A thought-provoking story about a bunch of sad robots has given me much to think about in 2017. It also represents the first time a lot of people are coming into contact with designer Yoko Taro, who's been making weird video games for a long time now.
If you haven't played Nier: Automata, you still might know who Taro is: He's the dude always wearing an unsettling mask in public, as he's nervous in those settings. Taro has worn the same mask in everything from commercials for his game to press conference appearances. Yoko Taro commits to an idea.
When the sob-inducing credits rolled on Nier: Automata, I had lots of questions about the game and what drives Taro as a creator. A few months back, Square Enix passed along some questions to Taro over email, who's been understandably busy ever since Nier: Automata was released and kinda blew everyone away. (Please let him do whatever he wants next, Square Enix. Let Taro be Taro.)
He was kind enough to indulge questions about god, what it means to have purpose, and why the game's most memorable character, Pascal, was given such a tragic story.
Warning: There are spoilers for Nier: Automata below.
Waypoint: This might seem like a strange question, but your stories are full of dark themes and unsettling stories—cannibalism, murder, death, suicide. In the real world, what makes you happy?
Taro: Maybe it was the time I was told, "I've always liked you YOKO san" by a girl. However, because things like that don't happen too often in the real world, I mainly find happiness in food. When I'm able to eat cheap and delicious food, like ramen and beef bowls, I can't stop but to think, "Ah, what a great era I was born in." But to be honest, I want a girl to tell me, "I've always liked you YOKO san."
You could tell your stories in any medium—book, movies, music, poetry. So why video games?
I found a game called Gradius ( Nemesis) as a junior high student, and was very surprised at its beauty and shocking narrative. At the same time, I became certain that the "computer's cinematic abilities would evolve and eventually catch up with films. Then the whole world will be taken over by video games." (Unfortunately, this prediction has not come true yet.)
Also, a video game's format as a medium is flexible. As long as "it's a game that utilizes a computer," you are not bound to anything else. You can even express movies and poetry using video games. For those reasons, I've decided to create stories through video games.
…But I do also create stories for manga and theatrical stages, and that is fun in itself too.
Automata has received more attention than any of your other games. How are you dealing with the increased spotlight? Are there downsides to having people so interested in you?
I receive more interviews now, but I do not really like them so that is a negative. I feel at ease with these email-based interviews, but video interviews are the worst…
In Automata, the machines' purpose are shaped by humans, whether it's the directives given to them, or by studying the remnants of the culture around them. In just about every case, it is a corrupting influence. How much of that reflects your own belief, or lack thereof, in humanity?
Actually, is there anyone out there who believes in humanity?
I don't think that humankind is worthy of trust when we can't let go of war, draw borders between neighboring countries, seek to become richer than others, find joy in defeating others at sports, and choose someone of the opposite gender based on their appearance.
Of all the characters in Automata, Pascal is the one I can't stop thinking about. I wanted to touch on two parts of that character. One, was there a specific reason Pascal identifies as a male, but was voiced by a woman? Two, the end of Pascal's arc involves discovering the village's children have killed themselves, a response to Pascal's teaching of fear. When Pascal requests you to delete his memories, and you do it for him, you later find him selling the cores of the children he loved. Why give Pascal such a cruel, if ironic, ending?
I selected a female voice actor because one of the settings for Pascal is that he "chose a voice that would soothe children." However, in actuality, it was because Taura-san [Takahisa Taura], the game designer at PlatinumGames who created Automata with me, declared, "I will not work if you do not use the voice actress, Aoi Yuuki."
Also, I don't want to explain why things happened the way it did for Pascal and the meaning behind it all because I would like the people that played the game to think about it.
"I feel that a world in which you only see what you want to see is incomplete."
One of the twists in Automata is that humanity has been dead for thousands of years, but because the androids were designed to fight on humanity's behalf, a fake moon colony was designed to emotionally motivate the androids. There's a line where the commander tells 9S that they needed "a god worth dying for." Have you given the concept of god much thought?
It's not about "god" but rather, I often think about how you can't find the reason to live if there's nothing that "you can believe in." We currently find ourselves in the same situation, in which our "self" is dependent on science, numbers, religion, politics, money, work, country, family and those that we love. Just as androids blindly believed in the human kind, I believe that we are also blind to what we believe in.
The machines in Automata are constantly talking about purpose, and how a lack of purpose drives them insane. One quest, where you talk to a series of "Wise Machines," ends with the trio concluding the only way out is suicide. What drives you, and what gives you purpose?
This is the same as the reply I've made above. I'm also intrigued by the mysteriousness and poorly-balanced nature of humans.
Most games only define the motivations of the main characters—the good guys. You spend a lot of time defining the motivations of the villains, often to the point that you become sympathetic to their point of view, even if you disagree with their conclusions. How come?
This is because I believe that humans in the real world cannot make a move without any motivation. I feel that a world in which you only see what you want to see is incomplete. And as a game creator, I am only here to prepare a game that will expand the breadth of your thinking, and leave the decision between good and evil up to the players.