Yoko Taro appears in his trademark Emil mask at the Game Developers Conference in San FranciscoPhoto: Jason Schreier (Kotaku)
Without his mask, Yoko Taro looks like anyone else at the Game Developers Conference. He has a thin grey beard and wears a black hoodie with short, flowing sleeves that wouldn't seem out of place at Hogwarts.
His head is shaved, and his face is round, but otherwise he doesn't resemble the giant Nier mask that has become his trademark over the past few years. He just looks like a Japanese man.
"It's a hassle to have the mask on, so I keep it off," Yoko said, speaking through a translator, when I asked why he wasn't wearing it during our hour-long interview. A day earlier, during his panel on the development of his latest game, Nier: Automata, Yoko had asked the audience not to take photos of him.
He was only wearing the front half of his mask, after all, and he didn't want people to see the sides of his face. When I asked to take his photo, he got up and fastened the mask to his head first.
"The explanation I give often is, when you find out that the person writing pornographic novels is an older gentleman, you kind of lose that excitement," Yoko told me, sipping on a Diet Pepsi between sentences. (Although he styles his name as Yoko Taro in English, "Yoko" is actually the director's surname.)
"I think it's the same in game development, where some people might lose that kind of expectation or excitement toward a game if they find out who's actually behind it. So I try to eliminate that disappointment factor as much as possible. That being said, if I was as handsome as Taura-san" - a reference to Platinum designer Takahisa Taura, who was sitting next to us - "I'd probably be all over the place, with my face on everything. And I probably could've dated a lot of girls, just like Taura-san does."
Takahisa Taura poses with Yoko Taro in the backgroundPhoto: Jason Schreier (Kotaku)
Comments like that come naturally to Yoko, who has become known for his off-beat style and self-deprecating humour. In December of last year, he compared Animal Crossing's Tom Nook to the defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers and said he wanted to get revenge on the greedy raccoon.
"Having less competition would make it easier for me to do business," he said.
When I asked about that last one, Taura turned to Yoko. "What kind of answer is that?" he asked, pointing out how Smash creator Masahiro Sakurai had once voiced the opposite opinion, saying that the more people make better games, the more of them he can play. "But you guys are close to the same age, right?" Taura asked.
"Sakurai is more like a Warrior of Light," Yoko said. "I'm more like a necromancer. So we're certainly different." When I asked him to elaborate, he said he was "probably rotten from the core."
"Do you really feel that way?" I asked.
"I was never really asked this, so I've never thought of it, but I do just have a negative outlook on things," Yoko said. "I do have low self-confidence. I've always thought of myself as being old, chubby, bald, and I drink a lot, and I don't have any girls."
"But this past year, my Twitter account passed 100,000 followers, and the game I directed exceeded 2.5 million sales, so when I look at those numbers, I think I could be considered a person who's succeeded in life. But I still see myself as someone that hasn't succeeded in life. When I thought of that, I thought I might be broken in some way."
He continued, talking about the writing and directing work required on massive projects like Nier: Automata. "Director is a job you really need a lot of energy to do, and a lot of other great directors in the world live a very powerful life. They're very confident in what they do, so they pursue what they want to do. But I don't think any of my scenarios are good."
"I still believe that way. But I think that kind of negativity was good for me, because I keep constantly changing the scenario because I don't think it's good. I think that might have helped me to get through it. So that kind of dark power I think was something that was necessary for me, which other directors don't have."
Yoko, who is 47, has been making video games since the 1990s. He found some success in the 2000s with the Drakengard action-RPG series, but his breakout title was Nier, a 2010 action game set in a haunting world about an old man searching for a cure to his daughter's (or sister's, in another version) illness.
Nier became a cult classic, and some years after that, Yoko started talking to Square Enix about porting the game to Vita, which never happened. Instead, Yoko met with Taura, who had been pitching his own concept for a Nier sequel set in modern Tokyo. Yoko was intrigued by Taura's ideas and at the thought of working with the designers at Platinum Games, although he didn't think Tokyo would work.
"I thought trying to create a modern world was just too high-cost to try to make it believable, so I suggested we do something more futuristic," Yoko said.
In March 2017, Yoko and Platinum Games released Nier: Automata. It came out at perhaps the worst possible time, right next to the spectacular PS4 game Horizon: Zero Dawn and the all-time classic Zelda: Breath of the Wild - "Being sandwiched between Zelda and Horizon was just way too much for me to handle," Yoko said - but it was a success nonetheless, drawing critical acclaim and selling far better than anyone had expected. (It sold 2.5 million copies in its first year, per Yoko and Square Enix.)
Nier: Automata was acclaimed for many things: its wonderful eclectic soundtrack, its tonal contrasts, its smooth, flashy combat. Most of all it was praised for its story, which explored a war between androids and machines on a post-apocalyptic version of Earth.
Playing as the androids 2B and 9S, you would unravel a tale of ignorant machines, guilty androids, and never-ending war. There were 26 possible endings, and experiencing the whole story required you to see five of them, something most players were happy to do.
Yoko, unmasked, is open about his insecurities to an extent I've never seen before, although it's not easy to tell when he's being droll. Earlier this month at the South By Southwest Gaming Awards, after Nier: Automata won a prize for excellence in music, Square Enix submitted a video that featured Yoko lying on the ground, moping. "So... the scenario I wrote for Nier: Automata hasn't received any acclaim at all, and Mr. Okabe's music has been receiving all the praise, so I'm getting super salty," he said.
"And so, please do not give any more awards to Mr. Okabe, ever. Please."
Is he goofing around? Playing a role? Being hyperbolic with his self-deprecation in order to entertain people, even if that means turning himself into a punchline? Platinum's Taura, who worked closely with Yoko on Nier: Automata, told me the director's style was pleasant and congenial.
"He is one of the first people we worked with outside the company," said Taura. "He was very soft and kind and easy to talk to, so for all of us including myself and the younger generation, he created an atmosphere where it was easy for us to approach him.
Because the game we created was based on the story Yoko creates, the world he creates, we had the confidence that whatever Yoko would bring to us is the canon, is the real thing, so we didn't have to worry about if [what] we were doing is correct or not. So it was very easy to develop the game."
Even hearing those compliments, Yoko bristled. "At the same time, the developers at Platinum Games never gave me a word of praise," he said. "Sometimes they would give me bad feedback, but that was it. They'd never tell me it was good or not, so I didn't feel any respect toward myself while doing it."
Yoko then brought up a specific example. "There was this one person who would be, not rude but on the verge of being rude to me," he said. "He'd give me feedback all the time. But after we mastered, he came to me and said, 'I was always a fan.' So I said, 'Really? You should have told me that beforehand.'"
"It's because everyone at Platinum has a high sense of professionalism, so while we're working, we're serious about our work," said Taura. "But once that's over, we actually reveal that we were fans."
Yoko says he's a pessimist, which may not shock anyone who's seen his work. Both Drakengard and Nier tell depressing stories about humanity, and the first Nier's ending is particularly dark, asking Nier to either kill his companion, Kaine, or sacrifice his life for her, which leads to the player's save file getting erased.
Nier: Automata, on the other hand, has a more hopeful ending. (Spoiler warning here, of course.) Two observing bots will comment to one another, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz-style, that they are optimistic about the future, in a message that seemed very unlike Yoko Taro.
"I always ask myself if my characters have really lived out their lives to their fullest in my game," Yoko said. "When looking at 2B and 9S, they of course have killed many enemies, but their sins I feel have been purged because they're killing each other as well."
"That's why I felt ok to leave with such a hopeful note at the end… What we the humans do after seeing that in the game is really up to the individual. While I'm pessimistic, I do hope that humanity will go in the right direction as well, so I do still hope for the best. I personally don't think the world will change, or there's hope for humankind, but I also think the younger generation, those at GDC or maybe Taura-san's age, may come with another breakthrough that may give a brighter future to the world or a more optimistic insight into the world."
Maybe he isn't that pessimistic after all. During his GDC talk, Yoko discussed Nier: Automata's memorable ending sequence, which asks players to shoot their way through the game's credits in a feverish bullet hell.
Most players will die right away, after which they will be asked if they want to accept help from someone else, a stranger. Once you've finished the whole thing, the game will ask if you want to sacrifice your own save file in order to help a different stranger somewhere else. And the cycle goes on and on.
It's a touching, hopeful sequence (inspired by a Coca-Cola campaign, Yoko said) that seems very unlike the snarky, pessimistic image that Yoko wants to portray. "If I were to have a personal wish or a thought of my own," he said during his talk, "just like I was influenced by the Coca-Cola campaign, I hope people who played this game took the time to think about someone they don't know in a faraway country."
It all paints the picture of a complicated creator - one of the most fascinating game directors in the industry. Since he shipped Nier: Automata, Yoko says he's been working on follow-up projects, like a Nier concert and theatrical performance in Japan.
Now, he says, he finally feels like he's done with work on Nier: Automata. When I asked what he wanted to do next, a brand new game or a third Nier, he stonewalled.
"It's a secret. I did think of a lot of different things that I would say or could say, but please let me leave it as a secret," Yoko said.
"Regardless, whichever it is, Nier: Automata's now going to stick with me like a ghost wherever I go, so I'll always have to defeat that."