"Do you think it's cool to make people cry?" is what I came to Yoko Taro with when the interview started over our Zoom call. Of course, it was a cheeky way to let him know that the story of the recent reissue of Nier Replicant had me in my feelings. And with Yoko-san on the other end of the call as a virtual Kermit the Frog avatar that animated as he talked and gestured, how could we take things seriously? But he came back with an earnest answer.
"How should I put this...whenever a game comes out, the comments or the feedback that it receives is based not on the creator's perspective, but how the players interpreted it. I don't know if I'm able to say if that's a good thing or not!"
As I got into my next question about building Nier's sorrowful atmosphere, he prefaced by telling me, "Oh, I didn't realize you were kind of joking with that first question. I should have given you a more fun answer to that!"
You kind of don't know what you're going to get out of an interview with him, which I'm also aware of from previous experience--he's known for his eccentricity, earnestness, and curveballs despite his self-proclaimed aversion to interviews. So, what came out of our conversation wasn't necessarily a deep-dive or critical analysis of Nier Replicant itself, but I think it was more indicative of where Yoko-san's head is at--not just in that now-iconic Emil headpiece he wears at every public appearance. Well, I mean, he did get pretty contemplative about the reason he wears that, too.
This conversation with Yoko-san may or may not have diverged from the expected topics, but that's kind of the fun in these sorts of things. The interview was conducted with Square Enix translator Aimi Tokutake, and the text has been edited for clarity and readability. (Note that there are some mild spoilers for Nier Replicant below.)
The Nier games have a very unique way of feeling sorrowful without being explicit or overbearing. Where does this come from? Is this a deliberate thing in their creation, and how do you approach creating worlds and stories like this?
The sorrowful themes in Nier aren't necessarily the overarching themes per se, but it was very deliberate with Replicant, to make that sort of sorrowful game. That being said, what led to creating such a sad drama is the idea of wanting to make a more normal story. It wasn't meant to be an especially sad story, but the previous series, Drakengard, was extremely graphic and extremely cruel. Compared to that, we wanted to reel it in a little bit, make it a bit more normal, so to speak.
But with Nier Replicant, it turned out to be sad. A lot of people had commented on how sorrowful it was. So with that, the next installment with Automata, we went for something that was a bit different and came from a different perspective. But in the end, people seem to have taken that as a sad, sorrowful story as well.
I've kind of realized my limitations as a creator. I feel like what I created had turned out to be sad again, and I don't have much variation to offer. So, I am kind of reflecting back on that.
In Nier, it seems that no matter how much we try to preserve what we love, we act on instinct, and it can have dire unforeseen consequences. How do you reflect on this in the real world?
This is a really good question. And it's wonderful that it prompted you to think in this way. I feel that it is yielding what I had hoped to achieve through this game.
In terms of how to think or what kind of thoughts went into these kinds of decisions, I think it all boils down to how the player interprets it as they play the game. I feel that the player is the one to make that decision on how they perceive the story.
Emil has quickly become one of my favorite characters of all time. You wear the Emil headpiece everywhere you go, and it has become a sort of famous thing for you. But tell me, what does Emil mean to you?
First and foremost, the reason why I wear the Emil mask is because I actually don't really like being out in public doing these interviews. And I had actually fought [Nier producer] Yosuke Saito over this. I really don't want to be out doing these interviews, but he's like, "No, you must be a spokesperson for these games." We kind of argued about it, and I finally gave in and told him that, well, if I have a mask on, then I should be fine.
Of course, I don't want to differentiate or give priority to certain media and neglect others. So while I don't enjoy doing interviews, we also don't want to neglect certain members of the media only because there may be of a smaller scale or something like that. But once I started appearing in these interviews, I would always have to go out in public, so I had more opportunities to have that mask on. It's not like I preferred to wear the Emil mask in my interviews, I just have to wear it because I don't want my face exposed.
If I may digress a little bit, the reason why I don't prefer to do interviews is because as a game creator, I believe that a game is something that everybody participates in. And the players and fans themselves should be given the opportunity to contemplate on what they play and imagine what their feelings are without the creators dictating it to them. The same goes for members of the media, too. I would love for members of the media to have the freedom to think about and speculate on what they have come in contact with in these games. By having an interview, they tend to see what the creator says as the correct answer. I don't want to, sort of, shoehorn that kind of thinking.
We've diverged quite a bit, but going back to your initial question, what does Emil mean? To me, he's quite convenient in terms of a character. Considering just how many thousands of years have passed since Replicant into Automata, most humans would have just perished and would no longer exist. So, just having Emil available, and Devola and Popola, as characters representing the Nier series was very helpful. I'm glad that Emil exists and what Emil came to be.
While Kainé's story is extremely heartbreaking, she's also one of the strongest characters. Between her distinct attitude, her expressive vulgarity, and being an intersex character, tell me about your perspective on Kainé.
I wanted to bring up recognizing her sex. Of course with Kainé--you can tell by her discussions with Weiss whenever they have their banter, he would make fun of her, but he recognizes she identifies herself as a woman. He never makes fun of her like, "Oh, you're a man in women's underwear," and he will always respect that she identifies as a woman.
There was one thing that I was not able to do throughout the game, which is a romantic tension between Kainé and the protagonist. That was not depicted in the story, because, well, I feel that I don't have the sensibilities to depict a drama that relates to a romantic relationship. At the same time, I don't feel that there's any connection like that even when I see it from a sort of third-party perspective.
Considering that, the whole cast--Kainé, Emil, Grimoire Weiss, and the player or protagonist--is traveling together, forming bonds with each other, and wanting to be together. You're fighting in a party, and you traverse the different areas together fairly frequently. So when thinking about it, I did want to depict their bond with each other, but how do I go about doing that? Why are they connected to each other? Well, I imagined that maybe it's something very similar to that of a family. Maybe not exactly like a blood relative, so to speak, but some kind of friendship, family, or kinship to each other that doesn't involve any sort of benefits, like monetary gain or a sexual desire, things like that. And it felt very good to depict that sort of platonic camaraderie amongst the members.
Tell me about the decision to go with Brother Nier instead of Father Nier. For you, how do you think it affects the storytelling dynamics?
I feel like there are several layers to this question, so let's kind of break it down piece by piece. The reason why we chose to bring that perspective of Brother Nier as opposed to Father Nier--well, back when we were planning for the original Nier 11 years ago, we were actually advised by a marketing team member at Square Enix America that it's better to have a more mature, adult character and it would be better received in the West to have a father protagonist. But once it was released, it didn't do very well. So when we came back to the team, they were like, "Oh yeah, we did tell you that someone macho, like a father figure would be great, but you know, the Western fans of Square Enix games actually preferred a younger protagonist, maybe like a Cloud [from Final Fantasy 7]." I thought next time, I will make sure to have a younger protagonist. So, here we are with Brother Nier.
In terms of having two different perspectives of these protagonists and how it would affect the storytelling, I think that would depend on player interpretation. But what I have observed between Japan and the West, I do feel that the way adults are perceived is slightly different. The West tends to have like this clear borderline of "this is child, and this is adult." You wouldn't see an adult playing with a stuffed animal. They kind of graduate from being a child and into adulthood. Whereas Japan is more of a gradation where childish people are childish, no matter how old they are. And people with a wise old soul can be very young, but still very sage at the same time. So, I think there might be a cultural difference in how these things are interpreted.
Now from a creative standpoint, I figured it was just a matter of changing the perspective to a similar family member. I thought that I wouldn't have to fix too many elements, but you open up the box and you realize there are a lot of things where you need to go in and change, so it was quite a challenge to get through that.
Who's your favorite character in Nier Replicant and why?
That would be Fyra from the Kingdom of Facade. The reason is that I was initially looking at Fyra and the King of Facade as the protagonist figures and writing a story around those two. But it turned out to be very sad and they both ended up dead in that story. I don't think they were appropriate to have as our heroine and hero of the story. So they became sub-characters, but they are definitely something I remember very fondly.
Now that you mention it, what were your inspirations in creating a town like Facade? It has a very distinct place in Nier's world with its culture, language, and rules.
The town of Facade is actually like a satire of Japan. I'm afraid I'm not sure about North American and European cultures, but in Japan, the rules are very strict. People are very careful about manners and making sure that they're watching each other closely and making sure those rules are being upheld. They're very conscious about following the rules. Like being tardy, that's a bad thing. If trains are delayed, it's a big issue, things like that. They're just so rigid and stiff. There's this sort of unspoken understanding that everything must be followed. Having that as my basis, take that hundreds or a thousand years in the future, what does that concept look like where they must follow the rules and if that's all that remained in their culture?
That being said, I don't want to make it seem like they're unhappy that they're so restricted in their rules. The point of it is for them to have meaning. This is the environment that they're in, but what do they make out of this? If you take a closer look at the people of Facade, you do see that they are enjoying their life. For example, Fyra and the King fall in love with each other, then they have a relationship and whatnot.
How have your views or perceptions of Nier Replicant changed over its 11 year history, especially in contrast to Automata's success?
The impression I got, especially because we made Automata such a success and how much Replicant has changed…first of all, my income has increased. And nowadays the people around me, namely people that I work with at Square Enix, now have a much more open attitude to some of the feedback that I provide. Before, we didn't sell our games very well, so nobody really listened to me. But now it's like, if I don't like the design on a certain merchandise item, now they listen to me. So I'm happy about that.
Not to get into spoiler specifics, tell me about how and why you created Ending E for Replicant? What was your goal in doing so?
Initially--this is with the original Nier 11 years ago--we wanted to add an element of surprise. Like, what if the ending wasn't even part of the game? That was the initial thinking behind having that sort of ending written in one of the lore books that we published for Nier. We've already shown that trick, so it would have been weird to do it again with the new updated version in Replicant. I figured that I need to do something different. So I was able to incorporate it into the base game itself. The reason why I was able to get that idea through was because we had enough budget. Thank you to Square Enix. With Automata being such a hit, we now had a sufficient budget to add Ending E.
With Ending E, trying to incorporate it into the realm of Replicant required thinking about incorporating elements of technology. Considering how when you go far into the future, and advanced technology is now being integrated, I wanted to depict how that would affect the different characters in the story. The concept behind it was very similar to how whenever there's like a medieval fantasy story where somebody performs magic, but it's actually a display of technology. That was kind of the vibe I was going for with that ending.
2B versus Kainé, who wins?
Since you're the one asking the question, if we pit 2B and Kainé against each other, Kainé is going to come after you, Michael. And she's going to kill you, so you won't know what happens.
Would Weiss make a good cookbook?
I don't think he'd make a very good cookbook. Perhaps he'd just be like, here's how to pour milk with cereal.
If you could live anywhere in Nier, where would it be and why?
To be quite honest with you, I don't think I'd want to live anywhere in the world of Nier because there are no convenience stores. You go everywhere and they make you do fetch quests. I don't know if I want to live there.
That being said, I think maybe the Seafront. You know, lounge around at one of the bars, that might be nice.
Where do you see the Nier franchise going from here? Is Drakengard still in the picture?
I don't really have any sort of attachment to a particular IP. So, if Square Enix has the desire to expand upon the franchise, I'm willing to support them wherever. On the flip side, I don't have any sort of negative feelings or feeling of rejection towards any of the IPs anyway. The reason I feel this way is because I've always sort of been a subcontractor where the direction comes in and I would create. I think that I work best when there is some kind of theme or subject to work off of. I mean, it might be challenging if I'm told I have the freedom to go wherever--I would probably not know where to go. It's better that I kind of stand by and wait for Square Enix's next command.
That being said, whenever I am asked about whether I want to continue working on Nier or go back to Drakengard... producer Yosuke Saito and I are about 50 years old now! We are getting old and our health might not be all there at this point. So, I wonder, maybe one of us might die one of these days and the franchise might go down with it.
You do have Nier Reincarnation coming up. What can you tell me about its place in the Nier universe and what kinds of story threads we can expect?
In terms of where Reincarnation fits into the universe, it's not revealed yet. So, unfortunately I'm not able to disclose at this point. That being said, we don't want this game to end its service prematurely and then we never find out. That will very much depend on the players. So please, I hope players get this game in their hands.
On the question about what can we expect, it's something that I'm very uncomfortable with because I don't want people to have their hopes on me! I'm not the type of person who responds to expectations. If anything, I think it would be best to expect that I will provide the unexpected. I will do something that's unexpected, yeah, I will work hard towards that.