Creative collaborations are mercurial beasts. Unlike marriages or friendships, which can endure hard times and come out stronger on the other side, people trying to make great entertainment and art together don’t always have the luxury of enduring failure. If the audience doesn’t like what you’ve made together, it’s all over. Some collaborations beat the odds and survive, though. The creators of Nier: Automata have been making surreal, soulful action RPGs together for nearly two decades but it was only last year they made a hit.
Nier director Yoko Taro and producer Yosuke Saito have been working together since Drakengard, (technically the first game in the series) went into production in 1999. Keiichi Okabe, the composer behind Automata’s haunting, idiosyncratic score, has been working with them since the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game Nier Gestalt/Replicant, and he’s been friends with Taro since their college years.
With all that history, you’d think that Taro, Saito, and Okabe had been churning out blockbusters, but while their games have earned them a devoted following of weirdos that love existential, genre-defying fantasy, it wasn’t until Automata that they actually gave publisher Square Enix a multimillion seller. Theirs is a creative partnership that has, against odds and logic, survived and grown.
Success breeds its own challenges. At PAX East 2018, I interviewed Taro, Saito, and Okabe with the help of a translator, and we explored difficult territory. With Nier: Automata’s achievements already exhaustively explored, we dove into what the three still haven’t been able to achieve in video games. While all three are galvanized by the love people have for their most recent work, their goals for future games are ambitious: Taro wants to make a game that can compel players to end violence.
GamesBeat: Since you’ve been collaborating together as a trio for so long — Saito and Taro since the original Drakengard, and Okabe since Nier — how have the three of your changed your collaboration over the past 10 and 20 years? How has the shape of it changed?
Taro: Okabe is getting more and more arrogant as time goes by.
Okabe: No, no, no, that’s not how it is.
GamesBeat: Saito shortly after Nier: Automata was announced in 2015, you said the plan was to give the project about six months to see if it was going to jell. And if it wasn’t, you were going to kill the project. What was the moment where it was clear that Automata was going to work?
Saito: The six-month period was actually to figure out if Yoko Taro, who’s kind of a devil, would fit well with Platinum Games, a master developer. We wanted to see if they would fit well together. It was a gamble, to see if that worked or not, and if it didn’t work, maybe I was just going to lock Taro up somewhere. But Taro and [Takahisa] Taura, who’s the lead planner for Nier: Automata, they actually hit it off really well. That’s when I realized we could do this.
GamesBeat: I’m always interested in how the Nier story ends up taking different forms. Drakengard 3 had its novella, and there’s the Yorha stage play. If all of a sudden, six months in, this collaboration wasn’t working, would you have taken Automata and explored it in some other medium?
Taro: Everything, the theatrical performances and the novellas, they’re all there because the game exists. If Nier: Automata the game didn’t come to fruition, then we wouldn’t have anything else that would follow that.
GamesBeat: How did Studio Monaca come together? The sound is unique. There’s nothing else like it. What was the inspiration to get this studio together and start making music that sounds this way?
Okabe: I didn’t really think about creating a company for myself when I did that. I used to work at Namco, which is now Bandai Namco, but after I quit I was working as a freelancer for about three years. In Japan, when you’re working as a freelancer on the creative side of things, your status in society is really low.
GamesBeat: That’s true here too.
Okabe: [Laughs] Even to get a recording studio to make my music, I’d have to pay up front. Even before I scheduled anything, they’d tell me I needed to pay right then and there. And so it was really difficult to do that. Even moving from one home to another was difficult. I thought that maybe having a company, being in a company, having some kind of entity, would make everything easier. And of course, when you’re creating video games, the bigger the project, the more trust I would need as a creator. I felt that having a company name would make things a lot easier. So it wasn’t really a visionary thing that I had, to create a company. It was more out of necessity.
GamesBeat: Did you trust him?
Taro: I did know Okabe from college, so in that sense, no, I don’t have any trust in him. [Laughs]
Okabe: When I created the company, it was just a name. There wasn’t any office, because it was just myself in the company, a one-man company. My home address was the address to the company. Yoko, knowing all that background information, I think that’s why he felt that nothing had really changed in me, so there weren’t any trust issues.
Taro: You did have one dog as your assistant.
Okabe: True, that was like my secretary.
GamesBeat: In 2014, Taro said that you felt for a long time there wasn’t a lot of expression or presentation that was acceptable. There was an invisible wall in what you could create in terms of what a video game could be. I see all three of you approaching this from different perspectives — story, character, music, and Saito, as a producer, having to think about the big picture. This is a massive expenditure for a company, so I must ask: How do you make these artistic expressions into something that succeeds in business? Nier: Automata is a success, though. Is that invisible wall still there? Is there still something blocking you from achieving a more perfect expression?
Taro: I feel that the interpretation is a little different from what I actually said. I feel that there’s a lot of possibility with video games. Video games in general just haven’t reached their limit yet. That limit might take different forms, and one of them would be the societal limit. It’s not about if the game would be a success or it would be accepted by people.
For example, I feel that, at least technology-wise, it would be possible to create a game in which, when you win against an opponent, you’re actually literally killing that person. That person dies on the other side of the screen. We’re able to create that these days. It’s just not societally accepted. We just can’t. I feel like that’s an invisible wall we have.
GamesBeat: I’m fascinated by the way your games approach the idea of killing, the idea of not just death, but taking life. It’s upsetting in your games. Most games treat killing like something celebratory or exciting. Nier and Drakengard have a very thoughtful attitude about death. You talk about an invisible wall, how societal expectations won’t allow you to just kill through a game. What other things can’t you do? What can’t you do in a game, that’s just not accepted yet? Are there other ways to connect with people that you can’t do, because of the nature of technology or those societal expectations?
Taro: I’m not actually sure if this is true — I feel like it’s more of a myth — but in Russia there was a game called Blue Whale. It was like a movement on social network sites. You’d receive a message saying, hey, let’s try this out, let’s play this together, and what it ended up being was you were led to commit suicide through that game. I’m not sure this is real or not, but I’ve read that people actually were caught by the police through this incident.
Whether it’s true or not, it expresses how mind control works, a type of mind control that video games can create. The idea that you’re able to control someone else through a video game, or through any medium at all, is really crazy. If a social network service is able to do that, then I feel like there’s most likely a way to make people get rid of their weapons. To make them want to get rid of their weapons. Of course I don’t know how to do that, but I feel like video games have that kind of potential to do that. I feel like we just haven’t reached that potential.
GamesBeat: At the end of Nier: Automata you invite people to give everything away. That final moment at the end of Ending E where it says, do you give up everything you’ve earned, all your numbers, all your weapons, all your outfits, all your things. I feel like the cumulative effect of the characters and the story and the music—even those melodies are tied into the emotion of asking people to give something away. Did you expect people to make that choice at the end of Nier: Automata? Did you expect people to choose to give up their character to help people?
Taro: In the previous Nier title, you had to delete your save data to see one of the endings. But in Nier: Automata you can see the ending, even if you decide not to delete your save. You weren’t forced to delete your save to see the ending. I didn’t want people to delete their data just in order to see the ending. I wanted to give them a choice, for them to choose on their own to delete their save data. I feel like creators shouldn’t impose their ideas on players. Players should have the ability to decide for themselves, to really decide what they want to do. We should make them think. My goal was to have people think and make that decision and really contemplate if they wanted to delete that data or not. I’m not even sure what percentage of people chose to do that or not.
GamesBeat: I didn’t realize you didn’t collect data on that, considering all the data that’s collected on the way users play. But you don’t know. Was that a conscious choice?
Taro: We just forgot to implement that feature. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: I think it’s richer if we don’t know.
Taro: I really did forget to have that, though.
Saito: You get a trophy for doing that, I think? If that’s the case then we can look how many people have the trophy and still try to figure that out. But we’ve never really looked at it.
GamesBeat: Can you work if you’ve had a drink? If you’ve been drinking, can you create things? If I try to write, and I’ve had whiskey while I’m writing it I think it’s great, and afterward I go back and none of it is usable. Okabe, can you write music? Taro, can you write a story? Saito, can you produce and command a team if you’ve had something to drink?
Okabe: I actually can’t drink. I’m allergic.
GamesBeat: That explains so much! That explains the spiritual longing I hear in your music.
Saito: I’d definitely separate the time when I drink and when I work. But this man right here, it’s all together.
Taro: When I write, I actually get too deep in my thoughts. I overthink things. If I drink I get a little bit dumber. I end up writing a simpler story that way. I feel that having that kind of balance between the complexity and the simplicity in a story is good for a game. That’s why I drink. But I can only do that for about an hour. After that I just can’t write at all.
Okabe: I’m not really sure about this, but I did hear that the storyline you wrote while you were drinking is more popular than the other parts of the story that you wrote without drinking.
Taro: Yeah, that’s really true. It’s a weird circumstance, but my stories are more popular when I’m drinking.
GamesBeat: How much were you drinking when you made Drakengard?
Taro: When I was working on the first Drakengard, I didn’t actually have a very in-depth scenario. It was more like a primitive plot line that I had. Gradually, as we’ve cumulatively worked toward Nier: Automata, the amount that I’ve had to write increased. With Nier: Automata I wrote most of the scenario. But when I was working on Drakengard, I didn’t really drink that much. It seems like the more I have to write, the more I drink.
GamesBeat: Drakengard is pretty depressing, I’ve got to tell you.
Saito: When you think that he wrote that without drinking, that’s even more surprising. When he’s drinking, he would actually start crying while he was writing the scenarios. It’s kind of crazy to think that he’d cry while writing his own story.
Taro: I start crying a lot when I drink.
Saito: I want to place a web camera in your office and just watch you do that. Just see a crazy middle-aged man at work.
GamesBeat: That’s perfect because when I finished Nier: Automata, I was sitting in my office, sipping rye whiskey, and crying as I got to the end. During the credits, listening to that song, I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
We talked a bit about the things you can’t make, but that are things that might be able to be done in the future. I loved that Nier: Automata is a game that’s not in any way nostalgic or desperate for the past. The music sounds utterly futuristic. The games are about forging this better future out of a broken past. But is there anything you wish you were able to do earlier in your careers? Saito, I’m a fan of the original Valkyrie Profile, and Okabe, I love your soundtrack for Tekken 3. Is there anything from your past, professionally, that you feel like you can’t return to and would really like to?
Saito: For me, I want to back to when I wasn’t fat. [Laughs] But I think that’s it for me?
Taro: If I wanted to go back to the past or not—just talking about video games in general, when I’m creating a game, I’m constantly changing things. I always want to fix things. I’m doing that until the last minute before mastering up the last build. If we didn’t have a schedule or a deadline, I’d probably be developing the same game forever. So in that sense I feel like there’s a beauty in a certain time where it comes to an end and you have to finish and move forward.
Okabe: I don’t really want to go back in time and change anything, actually. I’m at the happiest point of my life right now. I’ve been in the game industry making music for video games for about 25 years, but this is the first time I was invited to come overseas to talk about what I do. Nier: Automata is the first time that’s happened for me. Having to put on concerts and stuff, as well, it’s my first time for that. Of course, this isn’t a hobby for me. It’s work. But the biggest difference is, in a hobby you can do whatever you want to do and you’re satisfied with that. At work, you strive to create something that that the requester would like, that anyone would listen to. You want to have as many people listen to it as possible, and make sure that they feel something from it. Seeing on social media and everywhere on the internet, people who say they were struck by my music or that they felt something through my music, it makes me really happy. This is literally as happy as I can be. I feel like my life is about to come to and end, because I’m so happy right now. [laughs]
GamesBeat: Is it strange, seeing people walking around dressed like 2B?
Taro: [Laughs] It actually does make me happy to see so many people cosplaying as the characters. In the previous Nier title, when we released Replicant and Gestalt, there weren’t that many people cosplaying as those characters. It was more like my hobby, to collect those few pictures of people dressed as them, because there weren’t very many. But with Nier: Automata, there are so many cosplayers that I just can’t collect them all. I hope someone can collect them for me and send them to me.
GamesBeat: But how could anybody cosplay as Emil? You’re the best Emil cosplayer that there is.
Taro: [Laughs] I even oversaw the creation of my mask. I made sure it was perfect.
GamesBeat: The quality of that is astonishing. Who made it for you?
Taro: It’s actually one of the younger staff at Platinum Games. They’ve been creating these types of things throughout their student life. They’re really good at it, so we asked them to make it.