Taro Yoko has what some might consider a unique perspective on gaming. Where other directors drone on about lighting, particle effects, and "visceral" action, Yoko will don a sock puppet and quietly rail against the direction of the medium.
"It was about 10 years when we were working on original Drakengard that I thought about the meaning of 'killing.' I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like 'You've defeated 100 enemies!' in an almost gloating manner," the Yoko puppet said in a promotional video on the PlayStation Blog.
"But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you're a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just stuck me as insane."
Yoko is often cagey and vague about his true intentions, particularly during interviews, which he professes to hate (hence the sock puppet and other odd disguises). But that quote sheds a great deal of light on Drakengard—a series known for paradoxically being extremely violent and brutally nihilistic.
Take the original Drakengard, which even professed fans of the series consider to be one big "eff you" to players who manage to slog through the entire game to get the "true ending." The protagonist, Caim, is effectively a murderer. His castmates include a pedophile and a baby eater. HIs journey ends with him being killed by an airstrike and his dragon impaled on Tokyo Tower. In Yoko's games, there are no happy endings for the characters he seems to hate.
Even in the pseudo-sequel Nier, a sidestory that picks up from the apocalypse brought on by the events of Drakengard, the ostensibly sympathetic main character is not all that he seems. Though he has good intentions, he is effectively railroaded into destroying the world as well as his own soul. It's a game that seems to look across the landscape of the medium as a whole and ask, "Can any good every come out of all this killing?"
It's largely for that reason that Yoko's games have attracted a substantial cult following over the years; the sort who like to hold up Nier as one of the best games of the generation. At the risk of generalization, Yoko's fans are often much as the same as Yoko himself—seemingly disaffected with AAA action games and the experiences they provide. They're the ones who are typically more willing to latch onto alternative experiences and really unravel the themes that Yoko has seemingly put in place.
Admittedly, with Yoko's games, they have to dig deep. For all of its odd appeal, most people will readily admit that the first Drakengard was an exceptionally dull game that was hampered by repetitive combat, grindingly boring objectives, and middling graphics. One of the better LPs you'll find on the web is a systematic takedown of Drakengard and its numerous flaws. Yoko himself admits that his original intention was to piggyback off the success of Dynasty Warriors.
"[We came up with Drakengard] during a drinking session with Cavia's producer, Takuya Iwasaki, and Square Enix’s Takamasa Shiba," Yoko told Dengeki Online (via Siliconera) last year. "At the time we had a developer who worked on Ace Combat and we asked Square Enix: 'How about something involving flying on dragons?' Dynasty Warriors was popular at the time and it was Shiba that insisted on implementing Dynasty Warriors features."
In other words, Drakengard was more or less a Dynasty Warriors clone mixed with elements of Ace Combat. And not even a good Dynasty Warriors clone at that. Even Shiba admits that the combat in Drakengard wasn't great.
"Cavia wasn’t very experienced… they never really created action-based games before. Whereas specific studios specialize in creating action games… it’s a difficult skill to have," Shiba said in another interview. "You really have to be experienced in it."
Some of the artistic choices in Drakengard seem to have come about through relative happenstance, such as Yoko's decision to go with a cast comprised largely of women. The series almost seems to have been cobbled together from whatever disparate elements that Yoko happens to have at hand, an approach roughly in keeping with Cavia's roots as a licensed game developer. One of gaming's most infamous final bosses can be found in Drakengard, which dispenses with the mechanics that govern the entire game and instead predicates it on an extremely finicky rhythm game. For Yoko, this experimental approach is as much pragmatic as it is artistic. He admits: "If I make something half-hearted or normal, I don’t think it’ll beat the likes of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. I believe that it is what led to the wild pitch result of what we have."
It's a messy way to go about development; but in a way, the messiness adds to the charm of games like Drakengard. If anything, some fans seems to be saying, games are too polished these days. They have been optimized to the point of nausea. Drakengard's haphazard design is something of a throwback to the early days of the PS1 and the PS2, when developers were seemingly more willing to play around with various design tropes and truly innovate. Often, the results were less than ideal. But occasionally, something truly brilliant would result, as in the case of a Shadow of the Colossus or a Katamari Damacy. That spirit of experimentation is missed in the age of AAA games.
In that, it's not hard to see why Yoko's games have garnered a following. If there's an argument to be made against Yoko's games, it's that they aren't quite as deep or as interesting as their fans would like to believe. Characters like Caim and Zero have little in the way of depth or personality, making them little more than two-dimensional cutouts in an ocean of blood. As much as fans praise even comparatively successful efforts like Nier for deconstructing gaming, they don't really bear up under a close reading. Pretty much everything Yoko wants to say is right there in the open, usually bracketed by juvenile comedy and villains who wouldn't be out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon.
And of course, there's the matter of them not being particularly enjoyable to play, no matter how daring and experimental they might be. In film terms, Drakengard doesn't rise much higher than a B-movie splatterfest, no matter what its intentions are. In the context of what even one-person development teams have accomplished on platforms like Steam, it's somewhat difficult to take Drakengard seriously—the flipside of rebelling against the culture of codified design.
For all their flaws though, they have a message worth listening to. In his interview with the PlayStation Blog, Yoko laments the apparent lack of advancement that has come with each new console generation. In his own way, he is tweaking the establishment, using his platform to broadly satirize the medium's violence and question why games in general haven't gotten much better over the past decade. Weirdly enough, Yoko is an optimist. He says that he believes in the potential of gaming, and would love to push it in the right direction.
"What I would like to see is for game developers to not take these limitations as a given," he says, "but to bring about some real change to the world."
In that, at least, the reasons for Drakengard's appeal are loud and clear.