Spoiler warning: this story contains some plot spoilers for Nier Automata.
Nier: Automata, as director Yoko Taro told me over email, was born of courtesy. "The project kicked off when the Producer [Yosuke] Saito over at Square Enix thought, 'It seems that Yoko doesn’t have a job so I’ll create one for him,'" Taro wrote cheekily. "[And] the reason why [the sequel to Nier] took so many years was probably because the previous title didn’t sell at all."
Taro has been known to speak his mind in interviews: whether in a tongue-in-cheek manner, or with blatant honesty. He'll appear at the occasional press conference or on camera, but he's almost always hiding his face within a giant mask—a mask in the form of the character Emil from the original Nier. He's about as confrontational and upfront about his views in interviews as his games are. Fittingly, his games eat away at you, and it's going all according to Taro's master plan: to make players feel their own wasted humanity, and confront it.
"What I am interested in is human character," wrote Taro. "The mysterious acts of humans, where we perceive murder and oppression as 'bad' and talk about peace and love, but in actuality we love games that have killing and find pleasure in predominance over others, such as with sports. Additionally, even if we cannot escape the warped sense that humans have, I constantly think that at the very least I want to be aware of it."
The original Nier was a cult classic RPG; once praised for its tale's complexity (and the work it took to see it all), but criticized for its clunky gameplay. Nier was the unnatural successor for the Drakengard series. It retained the series' gloom, replacing its dragons and suffering with, well, even more suffering. Nier ended up a commercial and critical failure. And as Taro himself said, left him without a job.
Fast forward to many years later when Platinum Games stepped in, along with Square Enix and Taro too. Together they all created Nier: Automata, the unexpected follow-up to Nier. (We loved it, as you can read in our review.) It was the type of game that absorbed me not only while playing it, but for many weeks after. Even before the review went live, I fired off questions into the email abyss, hoping for a reply back. Months passed, and a million copies of Nier: Automata sold later, Taro replied.
Nier: Automata was full of surprises. Surprises for those unfamiliar to Taro's work before Automata, and surprises in the new ways the game enlightened its players. Most notably, the perspective shifts caught players off guard, as 2B was the only hero marketed as playable from the start. Eventually, 2B expanded to 9S and A2, and in route three, 2B unexpectedly met her demise. You were left with two characters to play as: one familiar, one less so.
"For this release, there is a scene leading up to the final stage where you have to alternate between using 9S and A2," wrote Taro, referencing the final act in the third route of the game where the player switches randomly between 9S and A2 battling the same enormous boss—one via a mecha, the other on foot. "I experimented how it would be if you were to 'change the character you see the story through,' often seen in TV dramas, but in a game."
That flow, as Taro noted, was modeled after television dramas, is what struck me the most about Nier: Automata. A game where upon each playthrough, you were directed to a new point of view, just as you got comfortable with the last one. It redefined what one can expect from the "alternate endings" and "multiple playthroughs" that haunt other games. It was a new way to play with new (and familiar) sights to see, with the renewed perspective making everything feel just as fresh as the first time, even on the second go-around. The writing process, I imagine, would be equally complicated. So I asked Taro what his process for such a disorienting project, and prior projects, was like.
"Since my writing process is complex, I can’t really explain it in one word," Taro wrote. "But speaking of multiple playthroughs, I created the story in the original Nier to change like 'A→B→alt.B', but using this method accentuates the repetitiveness towards the end. On top of that, I did not want to do the same thing again so I tried 'A→alt.A→B' this time." The ending falls together in the way of alt.B, alt-alt.B, and true B. It's an odd turn, where the first two endings one sees upon their final playthrough feel definitive: someone always dies in either one, even if one is more tragic than the other. In ending E, the game's true ending, we see a more optimistic future for the first time. One with life in it, and carefully measured hope.
As Taro hoped, maybe players are all a little more aware of the hypocrisy humanity now.
Header image screencapped from ep.49 of toco toco, a mini documentary profile on Taro.