Wearing a simple black hoodie, olive green capris, and a beanie, Yoko Taro is, to put it bluntly, a bit underwhelming in person. Sitting across from him in a hotel meeting room at PAX East 2018, I find it somewhat hard to believe this is the same eccentric, mask-wearing creative behind games like the Drakengard series, Nier, and Nier: Automata. But I soon discover that this, too, is a sort of disguise - whereas Taro's literal mask suggests a larger-than-life persona hiding behind it thanks to cartoonish proportions and wicked grin, here is a mask of unassuming plainness.
Neither seem fully accurate to the man himself, who is soft-spoken and sometimes short on words, but is also clearly inquisitive and deeply invested in emotions and the expression thereof. He exudes an aura of earnestness, even vulnerability - a rarity in an industry dominated by spectacle, hype marketing, and spokespeople expertly trained to answer any questions, just so long as they don't actually answer any questions.
After being introduced via translator, I start my questions. I have no idea what to expect.
GamesRadar+: What's your relationship with producer Yosuke Saito like? It seems everyone involved on this project has a very close, almost familial bond. Saito almost seems like an older brother to you. I always see him in interviews trying to boost your self-esteem.
Yoko Taro: Saito-san was the executive producer for Drakengard, so that's when I first met him. But Saito-san was not a direct producer, because it was an executive producer position. So the first time we really worked together was for Nier Replicant and Gestalt [Note: These names are in reference to the original Nier, which starred an older man fighting to save his daughter or a young boy fighting to save his sister, depending on the version. While both versions were available in Japan, only Gestalt was localized for the Americas and EU regions, and is often simply referred to as "Nier."] Ever since, he's been really good to me.
As you know, Square Enix is a merger between Square and Enix, and at Enix, it was more like a creative production company that would collaborate with different creators. But everyone at Enix was kind of like a pirate - they would go out and drink every night, get really drunk in Shinjuku, create havoc here and there. But Saito-san, even within that group, he drank, but he wasn't that crazy. So he was more of a normal person.
And apparently the staff at Enix were really picky about how to use money - where to use money and how much - but Saito-san isn't. So because of that, I always felt he was a nice person.
You refer to Saito as the normal one, but without your mask, I would never suspect you of being as eccentric as you are in videos. Do you feel like you're a different person in these [mask-less] interviews?
I personally don't feel like I'm really different with the mask on or not, but I don't really like to take interviews or go talk to other people or in front of other people. But Saito-san kind of pushed me into that role, so our compromise was for me to wear a mask when I talk in front of other people.
If you were not involved as the creative director on Nier, who would you want as your replacement?
Maybe not so much for Automata, but I would like to see what kind of stories [Kazutaka] Kodaka-san from the Danganronpa series would create. Or [Gen] Urobuchi-san (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero). He's an anime director, but I'd like to see what sort of stories he would create as well.
Out of curiosity, what is your favorite anime?
I was deeply affected by [Neon Genesis] Evangelion. That would be my favorite.
What do you think players expect from you? Are you more interested in making players happy by fulfilling those expectations or subverting them?
I constantly want to do something new and surprise the audience. I'm not sure if the outcome will be any good or if players will think 'Oh, that's just what I expected,' because I might do something I think is new but was actually done before. But I always try to do something unexpected. I want to do something that goes against expectations.
I imagine it's difficult because your games tend to be very different from the mainstream as is. Players already expect unexpected things from you.
Yeah. So if that's what players expect, I could do the opposite and start doing the exact same thing. So then that would be a surprise, that I did the same thing. Creating a mainstream title is something that would be unexpected of me as well, so there's many ways to go against expectations. [laughs] Or I just won't make anything. But I can't make anything if Square Enix doesn't give me money.
After selling 2.5 million copies of Nier: Automata, I'd think they would be happy to give you another project.
I feel like they'll tell me to make a mobile game, because that will make more money.
Maybe a match-three puzzle game. Or a fashion-designing game where you make 2B's next dress.
Probably! That's actually a good idea. That's the type of going against expectations I would like to do.
Another common theme of your works is addressing taboo topics. In Nier Replicant and Gestalt, there was Kaine, who is a hermaphrodite, and Emil, who is gay - a rarity in Japanese entertainment. In Automata, there was a strong focus on nihilism and the fate of humanity. Do you feel obligated to continue addressing uncomfortable / taboo subjects?
It's not that I explicitly want to talk about taboo topics or depict taboo topics. I felt that just looking at the world in general, there are so many types of people, and some hide who they truly are. And I feel that every person has some kind of warped identity inside them that they decide if they want to show or not. The interaction between those types of people intrigues me, which is why I naturally ended up having those sorts of characters in my game.
I'm very fascinated by the differences between one person to another. Looking at politics, for instance: in America you have Democrats and Republicans - of course there are others but those are the main two groups - and they just really can't understand each other. For me, when we're all human beings, it's just interesting that we cannot understand the other person or how they think. That's one part of the human aspect that fascinates me. So I think that's what led me to talk about and write about the taboo topics.
Speaking personally, I would say I appreciate that. It has meant a lot to me.
That makes me happy that you say that. While I'm creating these games, I want to create something we would feel something from, grasp something from. Because we are people who are playing the game. So if you've taken it that way, that's something I'm very happy about.
The emotional impact of Nier: Automata
You say everyone has a warped identity. What do you think your warped identity is?
I actually kind of gave the same answer in a previous interview I had, but it didn't make it into the article so I feel like it's something really bad that you can't even write about. But I'm the type of person that, if there's a car accident on the news and a woman dies, I'm sad - but if it's a male, I'm kind of happy. Because that means the probability of a guy meeting a girl increases - you know, as a 47-year-old, middle-age male game director... Looking at that objectively, I feel like I'm very broken in that way, warped in that way.
But I do have to say I love kids, so if it's a young boy, I do end up crying while watching the news. So adult males I'm okay with, but...
At a certain point it becomes too sad?
It depends on if he can grow a mustache or not. [laughs]
You've said previously that you gave 2B and 9S a sort of happy ending because you thought that they had cleansed themselves of sin. What sins do you need to cleanse yourself of to get your happy ending?
I don't think I'll have a happy ending. I've always lived my life thinking I won't, that something bad or catastrophic will happen to me. Of course I don't want anything bad to happen to me, but at the same time, I'm kind of waiting for it as well. I don't think a person like me should have a happy ending.
I'll have to become a game developer so I can make a game that makes you feel the way Nier: Automata made me feel.
If you can, that would be great. At the same time, if you do create a game like that, you'll probably take my place in the industry, so that might be my true bad ending. [laughs]
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