Nier: Automata is both a wild action game and an introspective look at the things that make us human. We corresponded with director Yoko Taro via email to talk about the game's themes, what goes into writing memorable characters, and what he'd like video game players to stop doing.
Heather Alexandra: Nier took inspiration from September 11th and the War on Terror. Were there any real world events that guided your writing for Nier: Automata?
Yoko Taro: I wasn't directly thinking about it but, looking back, I do feel like I may have been influenced by the changes that were happening in the world. For example, changes from "reason to emotion" and "objective to subjective," which are represented by "President Trump being elected" and "the UK leaving the EU." The fact that I've aged must be related to it somehow as well.
Alexandra: What would you consider to be the main theme of Nier: Automata?
Yoko: Since I believe that themes in video games are something that players should find out themselves, I have not specified one. However, I do think that the framework for the story is themed around "uneasy children without parents" represented as "machine lifeforms that have lost their creator" and "androids that have lost the humankind they were supposed to protect."
Alexandra: In your 2014 GDC talk, you mention the idea of backwards scripting. What was your starting point for Nier: Automata? What image did you work backwards from?
Yoko: As I track backwards from multiple points, I did not decide where my goal would be. However, I did put aside the final E-Ending for this game thinking, "I'll think about this later" and left it to take its own course, which is rare for me. I finally thought about what kind of ending I would make about one year after I had created the plotline. However, it feels somewhat mysterious that the ending ended up becoming a happy one.
Alexandra: You've also said that you are interested in pushing into grey areas and exploring taboos. Were there particular taboos that you were you trying to explore with Nier: Automata?
Yoko: There are quite a few if I were to go into minute details, but the greatest one is probably the fact that online connectivity is practically necessary at the final stage.
Alexandra: You've written for many mediums. Stage plays, manga, video games. Has one of these proved trickier than the others?
Yoko: No. Well, I think that each medium has multiple possibilities and each are tricky in their own way.
Alexandra: I wanted to ask about the characters in your games: do you have any that you identify with or feel strongly about? I know that I, like many, feel very protective of Emil. I want him to be happy.
Yoko: I want to treat all of the characters I create equally. Even if they are an antagonist, I did not want them to exist just to be defeated, and wanted them to have their own reason to live. That is why I especially put in an effort to express the characters as ones users may have a difficult time empathizing with.
However, I am happy that you empathise with Emil. I do want Emil to be happy too ... but due to my job, there is a possibility that I will choose to sacrifice him. This is because what's important to me is not to make Emil happy, but to create a game that will have meaning to everyone who plays.
Alexandra: I feel like Nier: Automata has a happier ending than Nier or Drakengard. Why do you think this is? Have you become a more optimistic person?
Yoko: Huh… I don't really know why. I don't think that the other games, and the previous ones, have that much of a bad ending.
Alexandra: If there is something you wish other game designers would stop doing, what would that be?
Yoko: It would help me if they would stop creating games. Having less competition would make it easier for me to do business.
Alexandra: Is there something that you wish players would stop doing?
Yoko: I'd like for them to stop saying things like "shut up old hag!" to their mums and others.
Alexandra: What would you like to do next now that Nier: Automata is released? I think after so much work, I would want to take a nap.
Yoko: I think so too. By the way, right now it is 3:53AM. I want to go to sleep but, as I'm still working on some things, like answering this interview, I cannot. Life is unfair.