By Callum Agnew
Warning: Spoilers for Nier: Automata, if you have not completed ending E, best to avoid.
Nier: Automata has released to critical acclaim and is safely set to be Taro Yoko’s most successful game to date. In the most general terms, Automata uses its nature as a violent action video game to raise questions about the player's enjoyment and more broadly muse on the human condition — but this is nothing new for Yoko. It's just another step in his search for the truth in the murder-packed good time of video games.
Taro Yoko has spoken in the past about how his fascination with death took root at a young age, when he witnessed a friend slip and fall from a roof. Whilst the event was tragic, Yoko was hyper-conscious that he and his friends still found humour in the situation. They couldn’t help but laugh as, while the body remained motionless, his 'goods' were still very much active. The complex feelings that the passing of a life can evoke is something that Yoko has tried to communicate in his work, with varying degrees of success.
Yoko's directorial debut was in 2003 with Drakengard. This was a time of Dynasty Warriors and Resident Evil and Hitman, when racking up a kill count was a title's main if not only appeal, and few videogames gave significance to the player’s actions. Taro Yoko was baffled by the direction video games had taken, and questioned why killing was such a focus.
Due to the success of Dynasty Warriors in particular, Yoko was pressured into creating a similar hack-and-slash killathon. He chose to use the opportunity to make a game about mass murder, and specifically the murderers. What kind of people would be able to commit such indiscriminate killing, what would motivate someone, and is it ever justified? These ideas have been an ever-present theme in his work since and Nier: Automata is no different.
In Drakengard, a game that featured a soundtrack as punitive as the combat, Yoko cast the protagonist and the supporting characters as the scum of the Earth. The literal dregs of humanity. He believed that giving the player this clarity would grant more believability to their subsequent actions, such as when you are killing hundreds of child soldiers.
Hence the hate-fuelled protagonist, Caim, easily one of the biggest arseholes in gaming history. Caim is joined on his quest to save the world and the life of his incestuous sister by a diverse basket of deplorables: a cannibal, a paedophile, an un-aging child and a genocidal racist. Their eventual and somewhat poetic deaths, however, only leaves the player’s feelings in disarray.
Take for example the cannibal. Whilst helping you “save the world” she also spends her time exclusively eating children. On occasion we are shown the cast having to physically restrain her from her “meals”. At the end of the game, when she herself is eaten alive by 20 foot tall giant babies, you cannot help but laugh at the karmic absurdity.
With 2010’s Nier (also released in slightly different forms as Nier: Replicant/Gestalt in Japan) Taro Yoko continued his exploration of murder, but moved on from this kind of two-dimensional scum to look instead at the motivations that would allow someone to feel justified in their actions. Yoko decided that the desire to protect friends and family would be the most relatable feeling.
In Nier Gestalt the protagonist goes to incredible lengths to save his daughter and friends, slaughtering children and literally dooming the human race to extinction. Good man. The most notable thing about this is the jarring lack of remorse for the consequences of his actions, and this is one of the defining aspects of Taro Yoko’s characters: they never regret their decisions. As far as Nier is concerned this is a happy ending, everyone else be damned.
In 2013's Drakengard 3, murder is still the name of the game. But if the original Drakengard was about the character's twisted nature, Drakengard 3 is about the world that creates such people instead. The game circles around what parallels exist between the virtual world of a video game and our actions in real life, while almost resigned to the futility of trying to find rhyme or reason within either.
Drakengard 3's protagonist, Zero, was sold off at a young age by her mother as a sex worker, and was later betrayed by her friend as they tried to escape. Eventually, Zero claims freedom under her own power — by murdering everyone at the brothel.
Zero is a lethargic, tragic character and, while not exactly relatable, this makes her something of an embodiment of players. Whilst murdering a family for supplies, Zero is asked “Why would you do this?” Zero breezily admits she does not know the answer, it’s just what she has always done, and continues to choke a young girl to death.
Much like Zero, the player never questions the necessity of killing the cannon fodder we encounter in video games. Even when the enemy's humanity is brought to the fore.
Instead of any grandiose statement or solution to this, Drakengard 3 contents itself with obnoxiously blocking the player’s progress every other minute with barriers. The player, like Zero, is given no explanation as to why they have to kill everyone to proceed. It’s overtly tedious work, a sentiment that Zero openly voices throughout the game.
She will joke and complain about the monotony of it all as you slaughter everything locked in with you. All the while NPCs cry and beg for mercy, to be allowed to return to their families. Drakengard 3 showcases just how banal evil and violence have become in video games, though this doesn't quite excuse it being a banal experience itself.
This idea is more or less the starting point for Nier: Automata, though Taro Yoko's ambition — no doubt thanks to the knowledge the masters at Platinum would be handling combat — has grown enormously. Automata's approach to killing, unlike his previous static work, changes with the player and the events of the game.
Automata starts with a religious motivation: a holy war. Two intelligent species are killing one another in the name of their creators, their gods. The robots and their alien creators are humanity's enemies, and thus the androids' enemies too. That is all you, the player, are told — and all you need to know to start killing. Androids are even created in the image of their gods: humans. The ultimate act of hubris.
The game later moves onto race, when you discover that not all robot-kind follow their doctrine: they are not all your enemies. One small village led by a robot named Pascal is actively advocating for peace and studies human culture. It’s here you discover the individuality that robots possess, which some choose to express via accessories or clothing: a robot wearing a suit, one an exorbitant amount of makeup or another, a top hat, and so on.
While the player may not interact with every robot or learn their names you do now recognise them as individuals, as sentient beings, which will later haunt you. You see the relationships robots can have with one another, the familial bonds they have created, and the pain they feel when they lose a loved one.
Finally, after you have learned to see robots not as a collective, but individuals, the player experiences loss. Genuine, heartbreaking loss. Thus begins Automata's finale: red-eyed, angry, vicious revenge. The lessons the player has learned are effectively thrown out of the window: you’ve witnessed first hand how robots can turn, how they can change and become your enemy, how they are all possible threats. You feel betrayed.
You feel justified in your distrust towards every robot you see and the paranoia even drives you to attack innocent, passive robots. You know what you are doing is wrong, but that doesn’t matter anymore. You’ve been hurt and robots are to blame.
The overarching plot takes heavy cues from an oft-quoted Nietzsche line: “God is dead.” The philosopher is even name-dropped in an innocuous side mission, foreshadowing the game’s climactic events. Both the robots and androids know why they are there, what the reason for their life is. Both however, struggle to find any meaning in existence beyond that.
The Androids' reason for being is to “protect and serve humanity” but this god is already dead: humanity is extinct. The Androids who learned the truth were unable to carry on, with most unable to go on living having both failed in their original purpose and now having nothing to replace it with. Androids were unable to live without their religion. So an elaborate plan of sacrifice was concocted, to bury the truth and to keep the idea of god alive. All that is really needed for a god to survive is belief.
This is different to the robots, however, who evolved and eventually killed their own creators. Their meaning of life was to “defeat the enemy.” The paradox being that this is why they can never win the war: without the androids, they too would lose their reason to exist.
Taro Yoko believes that creators should keep a certain level of distance from their work so that they as a person, do not take away from the product. That the creations should be able to speak for themselves, and audience members are able to find their own worth and significance from it. So perhaps this through-line for Yoko's games isn't as clear as I see it: maybe, in conflating small elements of his life and video games, I've taken a wrong turn. But one message shines through as bright as ever. Humanity is capable of amazing things but, when the chips are down, we're total scumbags.