Last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, hundreds of game developers lined up to listen to a man wearing a creepy moon mask. As 28,000 creators descended upon the city to discuss their trade, one of the longest lines was for a talk about Nier: Automata, the sequel to a largely unheralded role-playing game. Last year, Automata became a surprise critical and commercial success, selling more than two million copies and earning a fervent cult following. Along the way, director Yoko Taro became something of a cult celebrity. It’s a big change of pace for the infamously media-shy Taro, who wears a mask in public at most times to avoid showing his face. “It makes me angry to be so overpraised,” he tells me of the attention.
Automata was released last March in the same month as blockbusters Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Yet it managed to carve out its own space thanks to a combination of dark, introspective writing, stellar action gameplay, gorgeously moody music, and an unconventional structure that forced players to repeat the same story multiple times from different perspectives. That the game exists at all is something of a miracle. The original Nier didn’t sell particularly well, and received a mixed reaction from critics. But Yosuke Saito, a producer at Square Enix, was a firm believer in both the game and Taro, and commissioned a sequel. But the new game came with a caveat.
Taro actually isn’t employed by Square Enix, but works as a freelancer. And Saito found that the development of the original Nier had struggled when Taro was on his own working from home. So he asked the director to relocate to Osaka and work out of the offices of Platinum Games, the studio charged with creating Automata. Platinum is highly regarded for action games like Bayonetta and Vanquish, and Saito believed they could improve the technical aspects of the game, one of the major complaints with the original Nier. The question was whether the quirky Taro would get along with the relatively young team at Platinum.
”[Saito] knows me pretty well, so he knows that when I don’t like a person, I really don’t like a person,” Taro says. “I don’t want to work with them anymore. That’s just how I am. We both didn’t really know what Platinum Games would be like, and we actually thought that they would have very powerful personalities, and be very assertive. We just weren’t sure if we would be able to work together. Saito-san worried that it wouldn’t work, so he said ‘Just try it out for half a year, and if it doesn’t work out then I’ll just end the project and throw a couple million dollars into the trash.’ That’s where we started.”
Image: Nier: Automata
The feeling of apprehension was mutual, especially for lead game designer Takahisa Taura, who was a fan of Taro’s past work. “I loved the previous Nier title, and I loved Drakengard, and so the image that I had of Yoko-san was really different than what he actually is,” Taura explains. “I imagined this big personality, so I was really taken aback.” In person, Taro is both intense and hilarious, speaking so fast that his translator could barely keep up, and peppering our conversation with self-deprecating jokes.
The success of the sequel has had a profound impact on Taro. Previously a beloved creator of relatively niche games, the popularity of Automata has thrust him into a new level of fame — something he’s not entirely comfortable with (hence the mask). “Personally I don’t want to be regarded as that one person who’s responsible for the title,” Taro explains. “Of course, I do understand where it’s coming from, because I am the director of the game, and I did work on the last title as well. But the people who are actually making this game are the younger developers at Platinum, so I want to shine the spotlight on them.”
At this point in our conversation, designer Taura interjects to say that “at the same time, while many people worked on the game, the director is the person who brings it all together to create one coherent game. So I do think that it is correct that the director does come out in public and be the face of the title.” (According to Taro, this is just a diversionary tactic, because Taura himself doesn’t like doing interviews.)
But while Taro has been the public face of Automata, Taura and his team at Platinum have been similarly impacted by the game’s success. Platinum’s infamously prickly co-founder Hideki Kamiya wrote on Twitter that working with Taro on Automata “saved” the studio, which had been struggling through the cancellation of Xbox One-exclusive Scalebound. Sales of Automata not only had financial benefits for Platinum, but helped show the gaming world that the studio had more to offer than just tightly crafted action gameplay; they can also make one of the most acclaimed RPGs in years. “I do think it changed the perception people had of our development company,” says Taura, noting that the studio received a surge in job applications following the release of Automata.
Of course, with increased attention comes increased expectations. It’s not clear whether or not Taro and Platinum will work together again — though both sides seem very open to the idea — nor whether there will be another Nier game. But for Taro, chasing an even bigger audience isn’t in his plans. “I don’t think that’s what the goal should be,” he says. “I kind of want to continue to fail, because it’s easier for me to think of what I want to do next. Whereas if I succeed I might have to follow that path.”