Nier Automata is considered a relatively successful sleeper hit. To many people, it brought attention to its eccentric creator, Yoko Taro. For me, it was vindication for one of my favorite videogame developers, and more importantly, writing/storytelling influences. Yoko Taro is a bizarre but genuinely enthusiastic storyteller and game designer. His works often are made on shoe string budgets, have outdated graphics, and strange characters and messed up plots. All of Taro’s games are mostly standalone but share core world-building elements and links that are subtle but important. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Drakengard (2003): A knock off Dynasty Warriors epic fantasy clone. You play as Caim, a displaced prince yearning for revenge for your family, your ruined kingdom, and to protect your sister, and childhood friend. The game takes place in a standard European medieval fantasy. The game starts off fairly simple: The Union is fighting the evil Empire. You are supposed to be a righteous hero to save the Union and stop the Empire’s schemes. What begins as a cliched plot swiftly veers off into crazytown. Caim turns out to be a bloodthirsty psycho who will kill enemies, allies, and even children, all while using his revenge as an excuse to satiate his lust. Your party members are a cannibalistic female elf who wants to eat children to bring them back into her womb, a remorseful blind pedophile who is a death-seeker for sneaking of for some boy love that led to his brothers dying, and a eight year old boy stuck forever as an eight year old who is the twin brother of the game’s creepy little girl antagonist.
Drakengard is fucking weird. Each playthrough you can unlock increasingly worse and batshit crazy endings. The final ending leads into Nier and is a joke ending for putting in hours to collect all the weapons in the game. Also, the final battle is a tedious rhythm based button masher straight out of DDR. But this is why I loved Drakengard as a kid. It was unlike any fantasy story I’d read/seen before. The characters were terrible, the world was nihilistic, and the fuck you attitude the game had to you was refreshing. But that was only the beginning.
Drakengard 2 (2005): Taro’s only game he didn’t make. A lighter, softer game that follows the first ending of Drakengard. Caim is an antagonist now, your protagonist is a JRPG shonen cliche, but Manah is back to save the day. Despite many fans lambasting it, the game does still follow Taro’s world but provides a more positive ending for it’s final route. Taro then wrote an epilogue for one of the endings only to take his trademark glee and ruin the game’s optimism. Not much to say on this.
Nier (2010): The cult classic that most people remember Taro for. Probably his best game before Automata. The game has the most sympathetic protagonist, a father/brother looking to save their sister/daughter, depending on what version you purchased. The story takes place in a post apoc Japan where magic is rampant, a strange disease called the Black Scrawl kills people, and monstrous beings called Shades, attack isolated villages and hamlets. Nier starts off simple and goes into a full blown tragedy by the final ending. It is more subdued, less nihilistic, but still critical of the protagonist. Nier is heroic, well tempered, but possesses a certain rage/malice that leads him to commit actions that bring further ruin to the world. Considered Taro’s best work, Nier is a standalone fantasy that tells a simple story of love, death, and a rendition of the Dying Earth executed very well.
Drakengard 3 (2013): A standalone prequel to Drakengard. It follows the story of Zero, a living goddess, who aims to kill her other sisters to become the only goddess. You have a naive dragon, a strange girl who knows things about you, and a predominantly female cast of characters. Drakengard 3 is a typical Taro game. It’s bleaker than Nier but not as crazy as Drakengard. Zero comes across as a villain but each subsequent playthrough reveals, while she’s not a saint, she is trying to save the world in her own way. The antagonists, the goddesses (Intoners), are essentially rebels who overthrew the tyrants of the land. They are well loved, respected, and worshiped by humanity. However, like a typical Taro game, the good intentioned rebels turn out to be more repulsive than they initially appear. Five is a gluttonous maneater, Four is a xenophobic psychopath, Three is a sociopathic “puppet maker”, Two is a broken mess, and One, arguably the most heroic of the Intoners, is a prideful but well meaning antagonist. Honestly, One would be the hero of the game in a more traditional narrative, but this is a Yoko Taro game.
The antagonists do have a sympathetic origin. The true antagonist of the game relates back to Drakengard’s otherworldly gods but you don’t get much more than that. The final ending is less bleak and more hopeful than Drakengard or Nier’s endings. It fits the game’s narrative and leaves the world in a better place.
Nier Automata (2017): Taro’s first critical and commercial success. Developed by Platinum Games and headed by Taro, it tells the story of YOHRA, an elite group of combat androids created by humanity, to fight machines created by aliens millennia ago. The game is straight up weird with its premise. Aliens, human like androids who use magic and tech to fight them, awkwardly inhuman machines, androgynous male framed antagonists, fishing, riding moose, the game is wonderfully offbeat. It’s set in the same world as Nier but is self-contained and has marginal connections to Nier.
Automata tells a classic story of androids, what it means to be human, the remains of human civilization, and the senselessness of violence. The game has a wonderful cast of characters, all supposedly cold, but all very human and flawed. 2B is a professional soldier who masks her emotions and attachment to 9S, her support unit. 9S (arguably the real protagonist of the game), is a curious, somewhat naive male android has one of the best character arcs in recent memory, and A2, the mysterious YOHRA traitor 2B and 9S encounter, and fight. The game is told from 3 different perspectives that interconnect, crossover, and switch back and forth in surprisingly clever gameplay elements. All of the supporting characters are sympathetic, even the antagonists have a similar drive/desire to the YOHRA androids. The plot is serviceable, with plot twists arriving when appropriate, and character reveals altering the game’s narrative on repeated viewings. The game’s final ending is somber but still hopeful. Taro himself expressed it was “happy”, which in it’s own way it is.
Yoko Taro is a particular storyteller. What started as a dark mirror of traditional fantasy spiraled into a science-fiction forever war fourteen years later. At times, Taro can be needlessly nihilistic, his characters too edgy/flawed for people looking for heroes, and obtuse in certain storytelling elements. He’s not perfect but he is unlike most writers in the world. Taro takes traditional fantasy and science fiction plots, motifs, and twists them in his own view of the world. He’s also an extremely nice guy, despite his dark worlds and twisted characters.