Interview - Interview de Yoko Taro, réalisateur de NieR : Automata

Interview with Yoko Taro, director of NieR: Automata

Behind this strange mask, with a smile as friendly as it is terrifying, lies Yoko Taro. Since the critical and commercial success of NieR: Automata, this whimsical Japanese developer has become one of the most prominent figures in the video game industry. He has always been seen as an atypical creator, responsible for titles with strong playful potential, but which are nonetheless imperfect, and he has succeeded in his challenge: to change the perception of millions of gamers by fully exploiting the narrative and structural codes specific to our medium.

Today, we return to the man, his past and the scattered thoughts he may have on the industry, humanity and himself. The man who likes to remain hidden behind the face of one of his most iconic characters reveals a little of himself, revealing his nature as a humble punk of the imagination.

We’ve decided to adopt the Yoko Taro spelling because it’s the stage name chosen by the author. From the credits of his works to Twitter, the Japanese developer is known the world over this way. While writing one’s name in this way is correct in Japan, where the surname is always placed before the first name, Western tradition would have us write Taro Yoko, just as we don’t write Kojima Hideo or Miyamoto Shigeru. For further details, please refer to Nicolas Turcev’s book dedicated to the work of Taro Yoko.

Point’n Think
Yoko Taro Interview
Yoko Taro

You’re originally from Nagoya, in Aichi prefecture. Your parents were restaurateurs and moved around a lot. You spent a large part of your childhood with your grandmother. Did this have an influence on the man you’ve become?

My parents owned several small restaurants. However, they mainly worked in Nagoya. So we lived under the same roof. The restaurant business being what it is, they came home late every night, so I was essentially raised by my grandmother. She was a woman who could be very tough. You know, the kind of person who insisted that children work hard at school even when they were very young. She could be very strict if I didn’t bring good grades. At the same time, she was also very protective and loving. Sometimes in a bad way, because she could give me anything I wanted to eat, even if it wasn’t necessarily good for me. In a way, this extreme personality may have shaped me.

What was your childhood relationship with art like?

My grandparents worked in education and my parents had to look after their many restaurants. So I didn’t really grow up in an environment that was very artistic or had time to be passionate about art forms. To tell you the truth, I studied science in high school, but my grades plummeted in my teens, so I failed.

Fortunately, I was a geek with a passion for video games and anime series, as well as being quite good with my hands. So I turned to art quite instinctively. However, it was by watching my parents that I learned the all-important lesson of “customer service”. To this day, I have to admit that I don’t define myself as an artist, but more as someone who provides entertainment within a service industry.

Which artists and works of art have shaped your imagination?

I’ve mentioned it several times in the past, but it does not bother me to go over it again with you. In the early 2000s, when I was still a young developer, games like ICO and Ikagura made a big impression on me.

As for literature, I’d like to mention Hybrid Child by Mariko Ohara, and E.G. Combat by Mizuto Akiyama. As you know, I’m a big fan of anime. Neon Genesis Evangelion and Farewell Space Battleship Yamato made a big impression on me. As for cinema, I’m thinking back to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Takashi Miike’s DEAD OR ALIVE: Criminal, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Yoko Taro Interview
DEAD OR ALIVE : Criminal de Takashi Miike

Your love of video games began with Gradius. Can you tell us why?

Before I knew about this license, I already loved video games. However, almost everything I knew had the same architecture, with an almost infinite structure. The same loops were repeated over and over again with no real purpose. We played for performance. It was a bit like playing a sport.

Gradius, on the other hand, had a story structure similar to that of a film. Each segment of the adventure developed through vivid colors. We even had a real denouement at the end of the game.

At the time, we could already see that CGI technology was on the rise. We were at the dawn of a new era for the whole sector. No one doubted that we’d soon be seeing works that we’d find hard to differentiate from live-action films. The idea was that if we could create magnificent games with this type of narrative, then we could supplant television and cinema, or even no longer need them. I remember that enthusiasm.

It seems that I got a little carried away, because television and cinema continue to exist.

You describe yourself as an otaku. Can you explain this concept to a French audience?

When I grew up in the ’80s, otakus, or geeks, weren’t the mainstream. We were a minority in a corner of the classroom. I belonged to this group and felt a deep divide between myself and the students who could be considered hip. I think I maintained this separation in spite of myself.

But today, some 40 years later, otaku sensibilities and culture continue to extend into the Japanese mainstream, and the category of “otaku” is disappearing because it no longer has any real meaning. I think there are similar trends with popular culture in your country, but what seems different to me is that the division between “kids and adults” is more pronounced in the West.

In Japan and other Asian countries, mascots are often depicted on the streets, whereas in Europe and the USA, you rarely see this kind of thing. I get the impression that there’s a strong sense of value that places levels of infantilism on cultural elements, as if there were an age for appreciating such and such a thing.

What’s more, successful adult anime, games and manga in the West often feature deep themes and reflections. It seems that simplistic storytelling based on character development isn’t enough.

I love French comics, but they too seem to be under a strong constraint to be “artistic”. Please let me know if I’m wrong.

On the other hand, in Japan, there are no boundaries between children and adults. So you can often find adults consuming works without particularly deep themes, just as we often have works for all audiences aimed at children that exploit complex themes.

I have the impression that this is the difference between Western and Japanese otaku culture, but I’m sorry, I realize that I’m gradually losing my train of thought as I write this.

During your teenage years, you weren’t very popular with women, as you’ve already mentioned on several occasions. Is this why you seem so fascinated by women? Whether in their design or their writing, you pay much more attention to them than to male characters.

I just think it’s because I like women.

I feel that the opposite sex, whether male or female, is somewhat enigmatic and therefore easier to thematize.

Yoko Taro Interview
Kainé, NieR Replicant central character

What do you look for when you create a game?

There are many goals, but the most important for me is to do something I don’t hate and that I enjoy. I’d say the goal isn’t necessarily to do what I want to do.

You write the end of your story before anything else. Why is it important in your writing process to start with the story’s conclusion?

It’s a simpler way of conveying certain emotions when I start writing a story.

Sometimes, however, when I want to complicate a description or theme, I dare to write without an ending in mind. It’s another way of doing things that’s just as interesting, because it makes it easier for me to give an unexpected twist to the events of the story.

The themes of humanity and death are ones that you like to explore in your work. What interests you about these themes?

The interesting thing about humans is that they don’t understand each other… I myself don’t understand what’s in my head or in my heart. So, rather than saying that I’m interested in humanity or death, I think it’s more accurate to say that I have little interest in the structure of society as a whole, preferring individuals.

Yoko Taro Interview
NieR : Automata’s creed

Your relationship with violence has changed over time. While you once thought that violence was the preserve of madmen, you now seem to think that anyone who believes they are acting in the name of good is capable of committing atrocities.What are your thoughts on the subject?

I’m still firmly convinced of this, because we humans have created a world where, even in 2024, children are still being killed in wars.

Do you think the world has gone mad?

I think humans have failed to be rational and are reverting to the age of emotions…

I may be wrong, but I think most people would agree that we should all be equal. On the other hand, many people would object to parents not being able to give the money they’ve earned to their children, and to the state redistributing it equally among all citizens.

These inconsistencies lead me to believe that our species is still too young to be fully rational.

Ultimately, madness is a relative value. So it’s up to each individual to decide whether it’s the age of reason or the age of emotion that should be considered sane or not…

What future do you see for humanity?

In my opinion, the current divisions, discriminations and disparities will probably be resolved, but not through reconciliation or the establishment of a utopian egalitarian system. For all existing oppositions, I see one of the two parties perishing.

When we reach this stage of “resolution”, humanity will slowly perish, because there will be nothing left to do.

Yoko Taro interview
Death of humankind, by Pandarkad

Your work often refers to existentialist philosophies. What is the meaning of life for you? Do you find our existence absurd?

I think that our lives have no meaning whatsoever and that our existence is profoundly absurd.

Having said that, I must confess that I’m not yet ready to accept the world as it is, and I intend to keep trying to change it.

A few years ago, you declared your firm belief in the potential of video games to change the world. What do you mean by this?

What I mean by this is that video games are the best medium for manipulating someone into thinking a certain way.

You seem to love creating worlds in ruins. What role do the various disasters that have struck Japan play in your life as an artist? Has the Fukushima disaster had an impact on your imagination?

I’ll be honest with you. The main reason I set my stories in ruined worlds is that it’s much cheaper than creating a living world similar to our own from scratch. The other reason is that I like this kind of universe.

I’ve never used the Fukushima disaster as inspiration for my work. But the city of Tokyo, where I was living at the time, was badly shaken. However, even if it was really shocking to see all those dead people on the news, I can’t say that this event had any influence on my work.

Yoko Taro Interview
The bewitching beauty of a ruined world

What is your relationship to anonymity in the age of AI and deepfakes?

AI and deepfakes are merely tools for extending human desires. 
Consequently, I’m rather convinced that we’ll see a world where stronger “desires” will triumph and succeed this phenomenon.

As for anonymity on the Internet, I think it will be exposed and rendered meaningless by these Artificial Intelligences, in line with the masses’ demands for online security.

For some years now, you’ve enjoyed a great reputation around the world. In France, we attach importance to the status of author, and many people here rank you alongside geniuses like Fumito Ueda, Shigeru Miyamoto or Hideo Kojima. Do you pay attention to such things?

Ueda-san, Miyamoto-san and Kojima-san may be geniuses, but I’m not. In any case, I don’t feel like one. I feel a bit out of step with the way some people see me. I also think it would be inelegant to respond in the affirmative to this kind of compliment.

What’s your opinion on Japanese video game creation in recent years?

I sense that we’re approaching the end of an era for old-timers like me, and that a whole new generation is emerging. However, it will take another decade or so for the power of these young people to be fully realized in the eyes of the world. The emerging generation is under 30, but I have the impression that more and more of them know how to use middleware and other more advanced tools.

For those who started at the same time as me, it was more complicated. We had to start by creating 3D development environments. Now, with the democratization of tools like Unreal or Maya, we can concentrate solely on the production side. However, because they still don’t really have any political or decision-making weight within the various studios, I think it’s going to be a while before they take total control of the production process.

On the other hand, the various schools have not yet fully adapted to mature development environments. So it’s very difficult to develop for students who don’t take the time to study and perfect their skills on their own.

Another characteristic of young people in recent years is their reluctance to assert themselves… Personally, I think this is partly due to the spread of the internet and social networking. I have the impression that this generation has grown up watching so many people being set on fire online, that they are more and more inclined not to take up challenges, for fear of being hurt…

However, that doesn’t mean we won’t still see people putting themselves forward and falsely thinking they’re the best, as may have happened in the past. The only thing I’m sure of is that change is underway.

When you take a closer look, the majority of Japan’s best-known developers were born in the 70s, as I was. There’s Fumito Ueda for ICO, Keiichiro Toyama for Siren, Tetsuya Nomura for FF7, Hideki Kamiya for Bayonetta and others. There are many reasons for the concentration of popular creators in this age bracket, but I think it’s largely due to the fact that this generation was the first to develop in a 3D game production environment, since the democratization of this technology coincides with our entry into the video game industry.

Similarly, I believe that with the maturing of development environments in recent years, and the rise of new technologies such as AI, that a new generation is being born, raised in a whole new paradigm. As a gamer, I look forward to seeing what they create in the future.

Yoko Taro Interview
From left to right: Hideki Kamiya, Hideo Kojima, Tetsuya Minami and Shinji Mikami

For those who would like to better understand your artistic universe, do you have any works to recommend?

What I do is entertainment, not art, so I think the only thing that matters is how everyone perceives what I do.

I’d be sad to leave you on these words, so I’ll mention one of my favorite films, The Greatest Showman. It’s a film where the main character isn’t worked on enormously and the story doesn’t have a great theme, content to move forward with a certain momentum. But the grandeur of the spectacle depicted is what allows the feature to work brilliantly. When I watch it, I’m reminded of the very essence of entertainment: creating miracles in a grotesque world.

Thank you for your attention.

Yoko Taro

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