Yoko Taro: Weird feelings for weird people

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

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 only remember being bored and completing these sidequests, the “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, whose blood splatters became a recognisable, repetitive sight, whose deaths at my hand became a 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 feeling that I’d been ignoring this thing all along, so clear in hindsight, 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.’

To me, ‘affect’ means something like ‘emotional reflex’. Seeing a colossus for the first time in Shadow of the Colossus is a moment of tension and awe, that those are some big boys. They are intense encounters that stand out in an otherwise sombre, empty game. In this sense, affect is a physical (bodily) response to the ‘active’, informed by the ‘passive’ moments that I don’t always process.

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’s games specifically, because the emotional capacity in his games is apparent, strong, and forceful. Extreme. By exploring how he achieves certain affective goals, we can broach grounds that are more sensitive, more subdued, 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

Even before the articulation of a thought, our senses play a part in remembering how a game’s narrative feels (except for taste and scent, thank God!). There’s not just what we see or play in the visual or the interactive, but what we hear, as well. Music is the purest way for affect to reach us: it can be beautiful, it can give us 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 a compilation of random samples from orchestral pieces that forms a Steve Reich-esque assembly of musical madness. It fits the atmosphere extremely well and it sucks to listen to. It is intense and dark and it simultaneously reflects and adds to the unsalvageably depraved state of: the world, the protagonist’s actions, and the things we as players witness (such as giant babies emerging from the sky and devouring everything).

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 patriarch in charge of protecting Furiae, mentions how stopping the empire’s plan to ‘reconstruct’ (read: destroy) the world would also save the empire. In response, Caim raises his sword at him, 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.

Yoko 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 me ‘you have to kill more’: the objectives gradually changing 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 I advance. I’m the one ushering this awful boy through the narrative and, personally speaking, that doesn’t feel great. On this, 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 wants to let 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 game, 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 holds me accountable for what happens after I press 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. Doesn’t matter who inflicts it, but it just doesn’t always feel good. With his games, he wants to connect the nature of doing violence (player agency) to the player’s awareness of violence.

Drakengard 3: A new kind of brutality

Drakengard 3 is a break-away from earlier design philosophies in that it doesn’t make you as visceral playing it. It is a prequel, chronologically the earliest in the 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, but she owns them, you know?

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 mentions that he “failed” to break down the walls of games requiring violence, and I agree.

As a result, Yoko Taro doubles down on violence and mechanises it in new and exciting ways. Such as arena mode where Zero can slaughter 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, press the R2 button to enter a boosted form where Zero deals more damage, is invincible, and becomes purple.

Everytime you do, Zero screams. The first time I heard it, I flinched. It’s sharp, loud, and coming from a dark, dark place (props to Tara Platt), like something deep and buried is being let out. A really good quote about screaming is 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 flinch.

An hour or so into the game, Zero gets brutally maimed by a hell-wolf, and the purpose of Zero’s flower becomes apparent. This actually happens really casually! The flower expands and blooms, and Zero starts to scream. A hand rips out, followed by a completely ‘new’ Zero, covered in blood. Zero 2.0’s expression is numbed, reluctant. There’s a visual hint that, maybe, she doesn’t want this to happen — climbing out of herself, or even becoming alive again. 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.

Drakengard’s characters are painted quite literally with themselves. The fluid covering them is the physical manifestation of, well, never a nice thing. Yoko Taro knows that blood means having bled and that vomit means physical illness. Both signify that something is wrong. But he avoids directly explaining why any of these things are happening; he only cares to show what that wrong is. We see what the flower does — prevent Zero from dying — but not why she can’t die. We see that Zero vomits — because she has no dragon to kill her — but not why she has to die.

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 structures 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 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 act in support of what’s happening. They’re not per se what allows a scene to be seen 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. Zero shows no mercy, I root for her, then isn’t shown any mercy, and I can’t fully show remorse. When the world succeeds in killing her, in four different timelines over, 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. She’s deeply flawed, and that’s why she’s so amazing.

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 after the world stands in her way.

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, your daughter Yonah is sick. In contrast, Caim became impossible to empathise with and Zero entered the relatable-zone only near the end/her end. Here, in the span of a single prologue, Nier struggles, fights, and fails to protect Yonah.

Poppa Nier and Yonah, NieR: Gestalt promotional material

Then, I skip 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’.

In NieR, there’s only oral and visual history left. Devola’s song, the scrapyard and its robots, the ‘lost shrine’ which is a ruined government building, all are sources which are there, which have a form, but whose memories have been forgotten. A tongue-in-cheek stab at this is the 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

Yoko Taro supplies us only with the confusing fact that it is the future, and again, I’m left wondering what might have happened before the game. The world I ruined in Drakengard 3, and the world I saw worsening in Drakengard 1, is now finally dying. A random NPC in a bar mentions there are no more sundowns, and permanent sunlight has very bad implications vis-a-vis planetary rotation. I feel a chill.

There’s another sequence, the most memorable of any game: the Forest of Myths. Nier approaches a tree and he drifts asleep. The narration describes his falling eyelids, the screen goes black, and there is only text on screen. It’s extremely Derrida. The tree harbours all memories of the world, but even it can’t remember all of them. 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.

Diving into the text, without anything to look at but text, it was a wonderfully strange experience I still don’t know how to phrase. 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 it bring it into existence, but there is something between experience and words. Because, how do we name the things we feel? Emotion is a process. We have to think about our feelings, and preparation is a big part of it. Yoko Taro doesn’t let us have that. In his games, there’s hardly anything we can think of as foreshadowing, there’s only the reveal of raw feeling.

The main thing we can learn from Yoko Taro’s games are 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. He’s uninterested in writing self-contained stories. Instead, he wants to use them to make his audience go “what the fuck”.

Affect in art is narrative translated into feeling. If Yoko Taro’s wild, chaotic stories end up as beautiful and severe negative emotions, I can’t wait for games that want us to feel good.