Yoko Taro: Weird feelings for weird people

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Content warning: Discussions and depictions of violence, blood, vomit, suicide, and death.

In NieR, if you want to witness all of its terribly beautiful endings, you have to do a lot of menial grinding. Do fetch quests, find specific items by revisiting areas, or kill a bunch of creatures called shades, which are these puerile, primitive yellow-black shimmers. I didn’t like it. I felt bored. I remember accepting and completing these sidequests, snippets of NPC dialogue like “thanks for the fish”, “you’ve solved the dark secret about my mother-scientist”, but not what I actually had to do? Then all this built-up tedium found release with one, single journal entry.

Scribbled on some research notes was an implication, one that puts in motion the worst of thoughts. That, maybe, these shades who I’d been farming, killing over and over, whose blood splatters became a recognisable, repetitive normalcy, whose ‘Old Schoolbook’ loot drops became a nuisance to sort through looking at my inventory, were at one point human children. I vividly recall putting down the controller, I felt dizzy, dreadful, and breathless. The kind of sunken, dissatisfied feeling that I’d been ignoring just for the sake of getting the grind over with. I felt like a small, unintentional monster. Most importantly, I remember the feeling, which is not something many games accomplish.

NieR, and its strange mom Drakengard, are series that accomplish this a lot: affect physical feeling in some way. Their mastermind is a masked man named Yoko Taro who loves beer and who wants Square-Enix to hire him. Mainly, he wants to surprise us players with our own feelings by reminding us they’re still in there, somewhere. During his panel ‘Making Weird Games for Weird People’ at the Game Developers Conference in 2014, he said:

‘[The full potential of gaming is] being able to emotionally affect the player in an extreme or an otherwise substantial way.’

‘Affect’ means something like ‘emotional reflex’. For instance, seeing a colossus for the first time in Shadow of the Colossus is a moment of tension and awe: you realise you’re going to have to fight those very big boys. They are intense, evocative encounters that stand out in an otherwise sombre and empty game. In this sense, affect is a physical (bodily) result of the ‘active’, informed by the ‘passive’ moments that a player doesn’t always process but carries with them. Even before the articulation of a thought, our senses play a part in how a game feels. Reading dialogue or engaging in gameplay can be seen as the ‘active’ components in producing an affect. The ‘passive’ components are more elementary than that. Like how you can ‘see’ the objects on your desk, but ‘looking’ at them requires you to focus, a sensory and cognitive decision.

It’s important to look at affect in games, because this way of looking lets us to get into the nitty-gritty of what we mean when we talk about ‘emotional games’. Yoko Taro’s games specifically, because the emotional capacity in his games is apparent, strong, and forceful. By exploring how he achieves certain affective goals, we can broach grounds that are more sensitive, more groundbreaking, and perhaps most importantly, more safe. As art, affect is looking at how video games can directly affect our emotional states!

Before we get into the thick of it, I want to clarify: although I’m discussing Yoko Taro and his style of thematic direction and emotional writing, I want to emphasise nothing would get done without his wonderful team of men and (mostly!) women backing him. So while I don’t name them, I mean to include them in my analysis just as much.

‘Exchanging’ — From the Drag-On Dragoon (Drakengard) Official Materials Artbook

Drakengard: Story with an uninterested hero

In games, there’s not just what we see or play, but what we hear as well. Hearing is a sense that cannot be turned off, so it makes sense for music to be the purest and most direct way for affect to reach us. A song can be beautiful, it can cause agita, it can be sad in a language we don’t understand. So, for those who haven’t, please listen to Drakengard’s soundtrack (but not too long).

Drakengard employs second-long, unsanitised samples from various orchestral pieces to create a soundtrack of madness

The Drakengard soundtrack is a cacophony. Each song is built from random orchestral samples that form a Steve Reich-esque assembly of musical madness. It sucks to listen to and that’s why it fits the game’s atmosphere extremely well. Both the music and the milleu are intense and dark and interactively reflect and add to the unsalvageably depraved state of the world.

The opening sequence of Drakengard the first starts out on a massive battlefield. A soldier, Caim, cries out a name (“Furiae!”). He is mortally injured, stumbles into the castle, and finds an imprisoned dragon. Angelus is her name, and he enters a pact with her. After the painful exchange of ‘Soul Orbs’, Caim is shown with a brand on his tongue, and he loses his ability to speak for the rest of the game (and for all of Drakengard 2). Angelus becomes the inpromptu narrator, but isn’t necessarily a voice of reason. For the overmost part, Caim’s actions speak in lieu of words.

The reason he took on the pact — why he had to stay alive — is to protect his sister, Furiae. Or at least, that’s the justification given. He can’t talk to her, but he can protect her. Of course, protection can be done in many ways, and when the rampaging armies of Empire Evil fill up every map, Caim’s protection is focused, singular: destroy the empire.

In Chapter 3, amidst a fierce sky battle, Angelus asks this rhetorical question. This is a remark the game throws at Caim’s eroding morality: all who stand (or fly) in his way are an obstacle, therefore an enemy. Verdelet, the priest in charge of protecting Furiae, at one point mentions how stopping the empire’s plan to ‘reconstruct’ (read: destroy) the world would also save the empire, since they wouldn’t be destroying themselves anymore. This frustrates Caim. He raises his sword at the holiest man in the world, as if that’s an unacceptable result.

In his anger and resentment towards the empire, he just cannot stop killing them. So much, in fact, that his bloodlust starts to interfere with the actually important stuff like preserving the world and mamoru-ing his sister. There are many, many times when Angelus will tell Caim to cut that out. She’s also the only one who gets to tell him that; when Verdelet suggests the same he, the holiest man in the world, gets kicked in the head. That was the point I stopped enjoying Drakengard. But, like, in a really good way? The repetitive gameplay, the very directed killing, like with the NieR anecdote, caught up with me. But this time, I realised I was playing a psychopath.

Caim’s conversion into a silent protagonist is interesting. He doesn’t get thought bubbles or introspection. Just some awkward poses, badly-rendered character portraits, and ellipses. The trope of the silent protagonist portrays them as a puppet that doesn’t communicate with their environs and as someone who doesn’t display their emotions. They often act in service of others, simply because they have no means of refusal. By giving the player a body to identify with, but no personality to possibly disagree with, this becomes (theoretically) an anchor for immersion.

Yoko Taro inverses this. Instead of being used, Caim does what he wants. He loses the moral restrictions a silent protagonist usually has and experiences complete, total freedom. The game’s plot of saving the world is not his plot. He wants to kill imperials, and not even the game can stop him! Each mission tells the player ‘you have to kill more’: the objectives gradually change from ‘kill these targets’ to ‘kill until the time runs out or there’s no one left to kill.’

These objectives underline how, even though his descent into increasingly more atrocious acts of violence is scripted, it’s something that the player advances. I’m the one ushering this awful boy through the narrative, despite the lack of enjoyment. Personally speaking, that doesn’t feel great. On this very design philosophy, Yoko Taro commented: “any game that centers on slaughtering hundreds in war shouldn’t deserve a happy ending.” As an extension, I think it’s safe to say he also means “any player that plays such a game shouldn’t deserve a happy experience.”

And that’s what Drakengard 1 does: it makes the player feel terrible. Yoko Taro lets Caim do what he wants in order to expose the danger of a silent protagonist: we can’t truly know them. It punishes you for indulging in him. It’s an awful experience because it’s supposed to be one. As a player experience, that Really Sucks. As an artistic experiment, that’s amazing. I think it’s pretty great we have a game that’s emotionally terrible. It relies on spectacle and shock, but it manages to communicate, through my own emotional experience, that I’m the only one who’s responsible for what I feel when I press the buttons.

I hate that, I want to see more of that. I’m so grateful for this dang game.

In a wonderfully strange interview where he operates a sock puppet, Yoko Taro says: “One of [the] restrictions or invisible walls is the demand to create games in which we kill things” (2:36). The message of cruelty in his games is never ‘violence is bad, actually’. It’s way more sinister: violence is entirely justifiable. It doesn’t matter who inflicts it — but it won’t always feel good or rewarding. With his games, he wants to connect the nature of doing violence (mechanical agency) to the player’s awareness of violence (affect).

Drakengard 3: A new kind of brutality

Drakengard 3 is a break-away from earlier design philosophies in that it doesn’t make you feel as visceral playing it. It is a prequel, chronologically the earliest in the Drakengard timeline. Instead of a world falling apart at the seams, there is ‘Dragon Europe’, governed by five powerful J-pop idols called Intoners. Matriarchies have been reinstated and there’s magic now, just saying. (There’s a lot more lore in the extra materials and novellas but I will be skipping over those for practical considerations!)

The world seems stable, but then there’s you. Or rather, there’s Zero. Instead of a silent protagonist that serves as a conduit for madness and agency-guilt, Drakengard 3 features an actual person who is also my wife. Her endearing character traits are: hypersadism, murderous lust, and hypersexuality.

Everything about Drakengard 3 is an inversion of the first. In its opening, Zero literally kills off the narrator mid-speech and proceeds to carefully remove the blood out of every soldier with a sword. Her white clothes stain red — clashing directly with a false image of purity. I love this scene because, whereas Drakengard opened up with ‘one against many’, it’s now ‘many against one’. Zero is the one who has to be stopped.

Zero. Note the flower!

In Drakengard 1, Caim acted with psychopathic disregard for a war-torn world to ‘protect’ his sister. Here, Zero’s goals are simpler: she must kill her sisters, the Intoners. Since they’ve all got massive armies at their disposal, she has to kill those as well. Easy!

The tone switches from ‘pointless survival’ to ‘violent progression’. Whereas Drakengard 1 begged Caim “no, stop!”, Drakengard 3 whispers to Zero “yes, good.” In the sock puppet interview, Yoko Taro mentions that he thinks he has “failed” to break down the walls of games requiring violence, and this capitulation to brutality is a result of that realisation.

As a result, Drakengard 3 doubles down on violence and mechanises it in new and exciting ways. The game includes things like an arena mode where Zero can slaughter people for money, random soundclips of soldiers begging not to be killed but who have to be, and ‘Intoner Mode’. When enough damage has been dealt (to or by Zero), the player can enter a boosted form where Zero can deal even more damage.

Everytime you do activate Intoner mode, Zero screams. The first time I heard it, I flinched. It’s sharp, loud, and coming from a dark, dark place like something deep and buried is being let out (props to her voice-actress, Tara Platt). A really good quote about what a (woman’s) scream represents comes from Luisa Valenzuela: “What goes unsaid, that which is implied and omitted and censured and suggested, acquires the importance of a scream.” I don’t know, can’t know, what has been left unsaid for Zero, so I can only be terribly frightened.

An hour or so into the game, Zero gets brutally maimed by a hell-wolf. This actually happens really casually — abruptly with no reason to believe she’s ever in danger. Through the damage she sustains, the purpose of Zero’s flower becomes apparent. It expands and blooms, and Zero begins to scream more. A hand rips out, followed by a completely ‘new’ Zero, covered in blood. Zero 2.0’s expression is numb and reluctant. There’s a visual hint that, maybe, she doesn’t want this to happen —birthing herself out of herself. Also, while this happens, her companion Dito comments “holy shit” which is a great way of putting my exact reaction into the game.

A second, equally brutal scene is Branch C, dubbed ‘Vomit’. You can watch it here, but do so with discretion! Fallen victim to Zero’s last sororicide, her sister, One, looks over at the dead dragon Mikhail and comments “where will you find a dragon powerful enough to kill you now?” She passes away, and Zero stumbles away, vomitting uncontrollably.

The characters in Drakengard 3 are painted quite literally with themselves. Whatever fluid covers them is the physical manifestation of never a nice thing. The only significance here is that blood means having bled and that vomit means physical illness. Both signify that something is wrong. But the game avoids directly explaining why any of these things are happening. But it never expounds or tutorialises what that wrong is. That’s the player’s realisation to make. We see what the flower does —rebirth Zero over and over — but we don’t know why she can’t die. We see that Zero vomits, but not why she has to die, or why she needs a dragon for that. Her suffering, in the visual language of the game, is the more important verbiage.

Zero & Mikhail — From the Drag-on Dragoon 3 The Complete Guide Book

Zero’s death and subsequent rebirth happen pretty early on in the game. Not only does it briefly pause the storyline, it also defies common storywriting formulae of build-up and expectation. Yoko Taro calls his style of doing story ‘backwards writing’ and talks extensively about it here. (Spoiler warning for what Yoko Taro looks like in real life.) Narratively, his games revolve around arbitrarily chosen events, serving as things that really have to happen for no reason other than that they should.

So instead of writing from start to finish in a linear way, Yoko Taro pushes on story ‘tacks’ and writes away from them. They are what carry the story, holding it in place. This ensures that the scene itself stays important, not anything around it. The chains of logic and causation should act in support of these tacks, meaning that explanations shouldn’t impede that this scene comes about in the first place. Backwards writing, then, is looking less at the why and even the how, and focuses more on the what. The ‘what’ of what feeling can I impact?

In Drakengard 3, there’s a troubled sense of empathy for a character such as Zero. She starts out ruthless and limitless, she seems indomitable; it’s always a little impossible for someone like that to fail. But she does. When Zero shows no mercy, I root for her. When she isn’t shown any mercy, and I can’t fully show remorse for that. When the world succeeds in killing her, in four different timelines over, I know that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Everything she suffers she endures in order to kill her sisters, and when you stop and think about that, it’s entirely justified when she’s stopped.

If Drakengard 1 was about making the player feel terrible for what Caim does to anyone who stands in his way, Drakengard 3 wants to make the player feel terrible for what happens to Zero when the world reacts to her.

NieR: Bringing things up but leaving them unsaid

Going through Drakengard brings me to NieR. Though they exist in the same universe (sort of?), they are radically different in terms of scope and theme. Already at the start of NieR: Gestalt, there is something to latch on to. The city is destroyed, it is freezing, a little girl is sick. Here, in the span of a single prologue, Nier struggles, fights, and fails to protect Yonah. In contrast, Caim became impossible to empathise with and Zero entered the relatable-zone only near the end/her end.

Poppa Nier and Yonah, NieR: Gestalt promotional material

Then, the game skips ahead from the year 2049 to the great future of 3361. The sun is shining, Yonah is sleeping, the house is a bit cramped but otherwise nice, herbs and medicine line the shelves, a small wooden table, the potted plants she takes after while you’re away. Outside, the village goes through its ordinary routines, stone houses and an old library, the watermill and the guardsmen, your mailbox explains to you how to save, a young lady sings a song with ancient words she doesn’t quite know.

The conjunction of anachronistic architectural styles isn’t new to Drakengard — Drakengard 3 (released after NieR) featured a sprawling, concrete-clad metropolis despite taking place in 1099, a year which, historians agree, lacked any brutalist influences. But here, the urbanscape is swapped out for a traditional medieval setting. This change in scenery, contextualised through a timeskip, confirms that civilisation sort of had to ‘reboot’. Again, we are shown something entirely drastic and different, shocking even, but there is no ‘why’ in sight.

In NieR, there’s only oral and visual history left. Devola’s song, the scrapyard and its robots, the ‘lost shrine’ which happens to be a ruined government building. All are ‘historical’ sources which exist, which have a form, but whose memories (explanations) have been forgotten. A tongue-in-cheek stab at this is the induced amnesia of party member Grimoire Weiss, a sarcastic, levitating book which contains all knowledge of the world. Nier gives him a smacking and he just… forgets his own contents.

Devola admits to not knowing what the words mean, but she tells you what the song is about

The same world that was ruined in Drakengard 3, the world that worsened in Drakengard 1, is now finally dying. A random NPC in a bar mentions there are no more sundowns. Permanent sunlight has very bad implications vis-a-vis planetary rotation. This is important somehow; I feel a chill.

The most memorable sequence in the game is the Forest of Myths. Nier approaches a tree and he drifts asleep. The textbox narration describes his falling eyelids and how comforting it is for him to give into sleep. Then the screen fades to black, until there is only text on screen. This words-only approach press that language and memory are intrinsically related. The loss of language means the inaccessibility of memory: what is there, but forgotten. Conversely, exploring memory can mean a restoration of language. The tree harbours all memories of the world, but even it can’t remember all of them.

Diving into the text, without anything to look at but text, it was a wonderfully strange experience I still don’t know how to parse. Maybe I was narrative, with no layers inbetween the game and me. After I ‘got out’, I let out a heavy breath, turned off the game, and kind of wandered around my house, because I just didn’t know what to do with how I felt.

To name something is to bring it into existence, but there is something between experience and words. Because, how do we name the things we feel? How do we know the words are the right ones? How do we fit the immensity of that which we feel with our entire self into something as tiny as a word? To experience an emotion is to partake in a process. Before we can understand what it is that we feel, we first have to think about our feelings. We need time to formulate a proper response, to put our feelings, else we’re left without words. Preparation and processing is what makes an emotion understandable, bearable even. Yoko Taro doesn’t let us have that. In his games, there’s hardly anything we can think of as foreshadowing. There’s just the reveal of raw, unedited feeling.

The main thing we can learn from Yoko Taro’s games are the use of suddenness and the roles of violence and silence. What a game won’t tell you can still speak volumes in what it will make you do or what it shows you. His approach to storytelling isn’t to make it make sense, isn’t to provide logical answers the player can unfold like a puzzlebox. If you really want those answers, you’re going to have to dig through a lot of extra material that don’t even fill in the gaps that well. Ultimately, Yoko Taro uses games as the perfect medium to make an audience go “what the fuck”.

Affect in art, then, is narrative translated into feeling. Yoko Taro’s wild, chaotic stories end up as beautiful and severe emotions. Through this simple idea of ‘let’s make a player feel’, a new aspect to interactivity is introduced. Players press buttons and the game responds; his games respond by making feelings happen.