Designer Takahisa Taura wrote a pitch for fun. Then it became an actual game.
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Takahisa Taura is a pensive, quiet man. And young--Taura is one of the youngest members of the Platinum Games family, both in actual age and his time with the studio. When asked a question, he takes his time answering, and you can also see the cogs in his head turning as he carefully plots out his answer. He is a dreamer, that's certain. In many ways, with his balance between whimsical and seriousness, he reminds me of Taro Yoko--the director and creator of Nier, with whom Taura is making its sequel, Nier: Automata.
How Taura came to Nier is a serendipitous tale. Prior to joining Platinum Games to work on Anarchy Reigns, he was at a smaller company focused on Nintendo DS titles. After that, he assisted with design on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, The Wonderful 101, and The Legend of Korra. In his downtime, he cooked up a proposal for a Nier sequel--mostly for himself, but with the hope that someday, maybe, he could pitch it for real.
"I was thinking of creating something new and I'm a really big fan of the original Nier," Taura explains. "I was creating a video game proposal that was something along the lines of a sequel to Nier.
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"One of the big reasons [I loved Nier], I love action RPGs in general, and the first Nier game had such a wonderful blend of serious story with some really wacky parody elements of other video games. It's that juxtaposition of seriousness and wackiness, it's something that I really liked about that game. Above all else, the music and the script are what caught my attention the most."
Not long after Taura began jotting down ideas for his pitch, Square Enix entered the picture looking to collaborate on an exclusive.
"Square Enix actually came to us to ask if we wanted to do something with them, some kind of project," he says. "They didn't mention Nier specifically, but they said they wanted to do something with us. So we said, 'Okay, we have an idea for a Nier sequel, so let's do that.' And that's how it happened."
Taura is now the lead designer on Nier: Automata, and while Platinum Games is largely handling the game's development, original director Taro is providing the project with guidance.
"Yes, the development is mostly taking place here at Platinum [in Osaka], and in our Tokyo office," Taura says. "But we are of course getting help from Square Enix, and the composer for the original game is back to make new music. Also the character design is being done by Akihiko Yoshida who works on CyDesignation, so we are borrowing people from other companies. But the majority of development is being done here.
"I've always made action games so far, so I'm using my experience as a game designer who makes action games for this game as well," he continues. "I'm going to try and make a combat system that is more fun than the original's and that also blends into the story. This is the first time I've gotten to work on an RPG, so it brings a lot of interesting new elements with it. I've had a lot of fun playing around with that kind of system design."
When asked what he thinks Platinum's "secret sauce" is, Taura goes silent for a long moment before saying he isn't sure. I bring up how Transformers director Saito defined it earlier: frenetic action, tight controls, characters that are comfortable to control. Taura goes quiet again and then shakes his head, saying that while Platinum Games may have come to be known for this kind of gameplay, the "secret sauce" isn't something he was concerned with adding to Nier. He isn't trying to Platinum-ify Nier; he's more occupied with giving the universe--a game world he holds close to his heart--a combat system that isn't so jumbled.
One of Nier's biggest criticisms was its approach to combat and its frequent use of different gameplay styles; Nier featured everything from third-person action, to top-down isometric sequences, to platforming sections and even brief moments borrowing from bullet-hells and text adventures. It was a mess of ideas that was unique, but not always fun. And while Taura understands creating high-quality action games is what Platinum is known for, he is less interested in appropriating Nier into the Platinum-like genre than he is creating an experience that players will connect with.
"I created the pitch with Nier 2 in mind, so once the project had settled, I was obviously very happy, but more than that I felt a lot of pressure," he added, noting that Platinum's legacy adds a certain weight to his task. "There's a pretty hardcore following here in Japan that really liked the original Nier, so there's going to be a lot of people with high expectations of our sequel."
Ultimately, I can't imagine any other studio that fits this gig so perfectly. Nier's story and characters were strange and wonderful in turn, but mechanically the game has an identity crisis. Perhaps Taura, working in tandem with Taro to tell their story, will be the one to remind naysayers and nostalgics alike why Nier retains the cult holding it beloved.