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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Yoko Taro Foresees the End of Video Games as We Know Them

“Which is more important: the patty or the buns?” The age-old causality dilemma has taken different forms for centuries—from the chicken-or-egg paradox to online debates weighing anime versus manga. For Yoko Taro, the creative director behind the Nier series, it’s a logical fallacy. It’s also one that he uses to show that betraying fans’ expectations and convincing players to engage with narratives are two different story elements that can coexist.

“The patty is more important, huh? I see,” remarks Taro in a recent interview with WIRED. “Yes, in conclusion: The patty is more important.”

The patty-or-buns dilemma is entirely subjective, but it’s one that epitomizes the evolution of video games and what’s classified as a core mechanic. Whereas works such as Super Mario Bros. and Doom (1993) defined platformers and first-person shooters, some of 2021’s critical hits—Death’s Door, It Takes Two, or Housemarque’s Returnal, a Yoko Taro favorite—turn conventional labels on their head by treating narrative tone, environmental effects, and heavily stylized action sequences as thematic equals. 

Take Returnal for example. The PlayStation Studios exclusive is, as advertised, a weird-as-hell sci-fi shooter that’s more Ridley Scott than Prometheus. It’s also a rogue-like on hallucinogens that uses time loops, Metroid biomes, sentient flora, retro-futuristic menus, DualSense oddities, neon-lit projectiles, Bobby Krlic’s “malevolent soundscape,” and a badass alien sword, all to demonstrate why “the world should release more bullet hell games,” according to Taro. It uses the entire box of crayons, to the point where colors rely on each other to be distinct, and while creatives at Square Enix have done this in previous games (see Chrono Trigger, Nier: Automata), they’ve often been limited by technology or the burden of binding narratives to gameplay.

“No matter what kind of story I write, there will be a certain number of players that will say ‘I don’t want a story. Just give me gameplay,’” comments Taro. “As such, I try to create the game in a way that the gameplay makes sense even if you’re not paying attention to the story. Because of that, I try not to think of it as improving my writing techniques, rather, that I aim to increase the time in which players are playing the game. I’m not at all sad if people completely disregard dialog. As long as I go look at pictures of kittens or something, I’ll feel better.”

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Kittens are inherently cute, but being able to write a great story and build gameplay without sacrificing player interest is impressive. Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy VII Remake and Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds hit those marks, albeit in completely different ways. As Santa Monica Studio’s Alanah Pearce noted on an episode of her Play, Watch, Listen podcast, many creatives in gaming don’t take advantage of the full storytelling and narrative potential of games, simply because they don't know how to.

Writers and development teams are stuck trying to tell engaging stories while also keeping up with the rapid progression of technology—and also the limitations of those same tools. As Taro points out, much of this is due to how difficult it is to categorize games based on elements like play style or physical characteristics.

“Video games are unique in that, as long as they are computer-mediated and include some kind of interactivity, their physical form doesn’t really matter. In fact, the moment [media] incorporates some kind of lever controls or a set of choices from which to select, it can then be considered a ‘video game.’”

“On the flip side,” Taro elaborates, “if we go along with the idea of ‘being computer-mediated and including some kind of interactivity,’ then withdrawing money out of the ATM or purchasing a can of soda out of a vending machine can be categorized as the same behavior. However, we do not call these ‘games.’ Then how about actions like competing for more ‘likes’ on your social platforms? What about online stock investment? If you start thinking deeper, I’m sure you’ll understand just how ambiguous and undefined ‘video games’ are.”

That ambiguity can sometimes be an asterisk. And in the case of Taro’s new project, Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars, it can be an invitation to try something new. The collaboration with Yosuke Saito (Nier: Automata), Keiichi Okabe (Nier, Drakengard 3), and Kimihiko Fujisaka (Drakengard, Fire Emblem: Heroes) taps into the same card-based genre that spawned Loop Hero, Slay the Spire, and Inscryption, but the game, out on October 28, is portrayed entirely through the medium of the cards. There’s swords, a bit of sorcery, and a protagonist named Ash who sets off to silence a recently reawakened dragon with the help of a scales-hating black witch and a monster pal with underlying attachment issues. It’s like Nier, and in the Nier-est way possible. Voice of Cards uses dice, battle boards, and a Game Master (voiced in English by Todd Haberkorn) to illustrate familiar themes players have grown to love.

“I think people tend to misinterpret me often, as my interests do not lie in philosophy, but rather in human beings,” Taro explains. “It’s a lot of fun to depict the complexities and wonder of human beings, and so I don’t think I’d ever lose interest in that. For example, sex is a very important act as ‘an expression of love’ or ‘to preserve the species,’ but the very moment it’s turned into some kind of footage, it may be prohibited to watch. I feel the stark pain of how deep the inner workings of mankind run.”

Taro’s infatuation with the human psyche is arguably what makes his published works so endlessly fascinating. Released alongside narrative outliers like Prey and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in 2017, Nier: Automata persists as an eminently replayable 40-hour hack ’n’ slash drama that thoroughly explores existentialism, the futility of war, and the deification of human beings. It convinces players to grasp for a better understanding of the existential crises its characters face, and even uses its replay value to recontextualize antagonists and their motivations.

Nier Replicant (sometimes referred to as just Nier)—a 2010 spin-off from Taro’s Drakengard series—is more convoluted, but its themes persist regardless. The protagonist’s journey to save his sister from a fatal illness known as the Black Scrawl is ingrained with themes of possession and reincarnation. Its complexities have sparked internet debate among fans for years, and its themes are subjects in philosophy classes. With the help of an updated version, 2021’s Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… (on sale via Steam), it’s now an accessible examination of identity and an iteration worth revisiting, even for fans of the original.

The cult classic received support from the Automata team and PlatinumGames’ Takahisa Taura, and according to development director Saki Ito (Toylogic), Nier ver.1.22474487139… features redesigned combat mechanics that stress freedom and variation. All in an effort for players to embrace the game’s complex, thoughtful narrative and superimpose themselves on a leading role who is just discovering how to use a sword and “skillfully manipulate ominous magic,” as Taro calls it.

Yoko Taro’s commitment—along with every other creative who worked on the Nier franchise—to developing new narratives and ways to engage players in complicated, intellectual stories is one reason the series is so immensely popular. Regardless of what they do in the future, it’s bound to stick to what the team knows best: redefining the importance of cohesion and its effect on the artistry of game design. Even at a time when the medium is slowly abandoning its rule set.

“With the evolution of IoT [internet of things], video games or elements thereof will be integrated everywhere, and ultimately, the term “video game” may likely disappear,” says Taro. “Situations in which only a single individual does the writing will likely go away as well, with the rise of artificial intelligence. I for one am very eager for that day to come.”

“That way, I don’t have to pretend I’m smart when answering these interviews.”

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