The argument of the role of the “auteur” in video games usually centers around figures like Hideo Kojima or Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creatives behind the Metal Gear and Dark Souls franchises respectively.
And I think with good reason: while they both have a highly specific vision for their work, their games have reached a mainstream audience and regardless of your taste it’s hard to argue that their projects float between “very good” and “masterpiece” per installment.
The same can’t be said about Yoko Taro, the director of NieR: Automata. You may have not heard of him. That’s because his games, of which there are five (four, if you’re really counting) have never been hits. That’s partly because while the absolutely outlandish universe he’s spinning is fascinating, the games themselves have floated between “pretty bad” and “mediocre” in terms of their critical reception.
The result? His fan base, while naturally much smaller, has had to look past the quality of the games themselves to fall in love with the lore, characters, and the absolute audacity that Yoko Taro has to make stuff this fucking strange. Because he hasn’t been subject to major publishers or a massive, rabid, fanbase, Taro has just continued to do exactly what he wants, how he wants. To understand how important creators like Taro are in our industry, just look at the inverse – the controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3 was so widespread that Bioware via Electronic Arts changed the ending of their sprawling trilogy to meet fan’s demands. I don’t think that’s healthy for the industry.
NieR: Automata isn’t Yoko Taro’s first outing with a major publisher. NieR: Replicant was published by Square Enix, but developed by the short lived Japanese developer Cavia. Automata, however, is Taro’s first partnership with a competent developer – Platinum Games. It seems Taro was assigned Platinum’s A-team, because NieR shares the same fluidity and masterful understanding of acrobatic combat as Bayonetta. Though the combat lacks the combo memorization of Bayonetta (which in my case, is a good thing) it’s utter ferocity, speed, and demanding nature has kept me riveted.
The most notable departure from Bayonetta’s structure and character-action-games as a whole, is the introduction of classic bullet hell DNA.
I’ve never played Automata’s precursor, NieR: Replicant, but it apparently often jumps between genres: RPG > text adventure > fishing game, but rarely, if ever, sticks the landing. Automata’s addition of SHMUP sensibilities, however, is about as happy as a marriage can be. The game will often switch perspective to side-scrolling, or twin-stick shooting, as you dodge projectiles and rain an infinite stream of machine gun fire back at waves of enemies. It doesn’t stop there, though. Even the standard moment-to-moment combat is full of large, slow moving patterns of projectiles that need to be dodged in order to get in close with your sword.
What this does to the combat feels so fresh. Instead of just memorizing enemy attack patterns like any other 3rd person combat game, you’re also memorizing enemy bullet patterns and dodging them. It makes your awareness of your avatar’s movement through space paramount. Frankly, if NieR: Automata’s hand-to-hand combat was as complex as Bayonetta’s it would be way, way too much to handle.
Thankfully, Taro’s partnership with Platinum hasn’t muted his bizarro sense of storytelling and world building. I’ve only completed about one third of the reportedly twelve hour game, but I have had more “what the fuck” moments in those four hours than any game I can recall. And I mean that in a good way. The sheer creativity of Taro’s scenarios, encounters, and characters cannot be understated. Some of the things I’ve seen so far are really out there. This game is brave. Just like all good art, it couldn’t care less about your expectations.
This isn’t a case of “zigs when you think it’s gonna zag”, it’s more like “goes fucking supernova when you’re expecting fireworks.”
Yoko Taro’s work is a shining example of why games can be Art with a capital-A. There is no single definition of what Art is (which is part of what makes studying and making Art so difficult) but one interpretation I’ve held over the years is that Art functions as an uncompromised, uncorrupted, mirror of the creator. Be it abstract painting, photography, film, or video games. You begin to see through the eyes of that person, feel the shape of their brain, touch the way they touch. In turn, it implicitly asks you, the viewer, to ask yourself questions about your own being. “If this is the way Yoko Taro thinks about the human body, how do I think about the human body?” NieR: Automata generates that state in the player by constantly flipping the script and delivering constant tonal non-sequiturs.
So what is Yoko Taro’s work about? Frankly the best recommendation I can give is to play through his body of work. Not going to dust off your PS3 to play through Drakengard 1-3 and NieR Replicant, find footage of his stage plays (yes, stage plays), read the manga, etc? Yeah, me neither. Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek compiled a great synopsis of Taro’s work here. It includes a ton of resources to get you caught up on the tens of thousands of years worth of fiction across which Taro’s work is set.