Nipping At The Heels of Giants: Taro Yoko and Murder in Video Games

Drakengard 3 is a bad game.

By any objective measure, the game does not rise to the expectations we have for a video game in 2014.  It controls loosely, combat feels unsatisfying, graphics can generously be described as hopping a time-machine from 2004 ten years in to the future.  But it could be important.

There was a similar feeling with 2010’s Nier, a multiplatform game that was, at one time, notable for being unremarkable.  It was a game whose flaws seemed readily apparent to all casual observers, a mutt baring its fangs to warn you of its aggressive mediocrity.  There are reasons why this at once was accurate and yet still totally irrelevant to the game’s actual quality, but suffice it to say, Nier is a game that changed my perspectives on how I judge media before experiencing it for myself.

With the release of Drakengard 3, Square-Enix published an interview with the creative director of the Drakengard series and Nier, Taro Yoko.  Hidden behind a sock puppet, Yoko began a somewhat somber and weirdly discordant explanation of his thesis behind game design.  Here’s a video link, but I wanted to also provide a transcription of the relevant part.

It was about 10 years ago when we were working on the 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!” or “Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!” in an almost gloating manner. 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 struck me as insane.

That’s why I decided to have the army of the protagonist in Drakengard be one where everyone’s insane, to create this twisted organization where everyone’s wrong and unjust. I wanted to weave a tale about these twisted people. And then we worked on Nier…We created this game called Nier, and after the world experienced the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, we were being bombarded with updates on terrorist organizations and activities even in Japan. That’s when my opinion changed.

The vibe I was getting from society was: you don’t have to be insane to kill someone. You just have to think you’re right. So that’s why I made Nier a game revolving around this concept of “being able to kill others if you think you’re right,” or “everyone believes that they’re in the right.”
— Taro Yoko
2010's Nier, developed by Cavia and published by Square-Enix, rose to a cult status as one of the most haunting and evocative games this generation despite its low budget and clumsy mechanics.

2010's Nier, developed by Cavia and published by Square-Enix, rose to a cult status as one of the most haunting and evocative games this generation despite its low budget and clumsy mechanics.

I do not wish to spoil the much underrated Nier for you, but if you’re curious what he means when he speaks of his intentions and motivations for that game, you should look further in to it and consider playing it. 

Yoko explains that his goal was not to make the player feel bad about what they have done, to put down the controller in shock and reconsider their value systems.  Video games often feed in to the empowerment you wish to have when standing above someone else, victorious in your efforts to best them and Yoko still wished to allow players that feeling.  Contrast this to 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line from German developer Yager.  In Spec Ops, the disturbance you feel when encountering the game’s plot twist for the first time is mildly palpable, but ultimately feels diluted when you realize you were simply never given the choice to avoid doing it.  Which is fine, the game had a point and having the option to circumvent it would have compromised what it wanted you to feel, but it is decidedly different from how Taro Yoko designed Nier and the Drakengard games.

Drakengard 3 places you in the role of Zero, a woman with near-superhuman capabilities who is on a quest to murder her sisters.  She has no intention of doing this for noble reasons, she is not trying to stop them from using their powers for evil, she merely wants their powers for herself.  The sisters themselves often do not fight back or actively beg Zero to reconsider, providing little resistance before her sword pierces their flesh.  On her journey to fight and kill her family, she gleefully tears apart their armies, made up primarily of human zealots that worship the godlike women that rule over them.  Zero is, to put it charitably, psychotic.

Drakengard 3, by the way, is a comedy.

Drakengard 3, developed and published by Square-Enix, stars Intoner Zero, a fiendishly strong woman that takes immense joy in two things: sex and murder.

Drakengard 3, developed and published by Square-Enix, stars Intoner Zero, a fiendishly strong woman that takes immense joy in two things: sex and murder.

As the player, there’s no choice but to participate in Zero’s murder spree.  Even as enemies fall to the ground and back away in fear, you’re encouraged to slice them up for blood to power your enhanced state, monetary rewards, or simply the satisfying experience pop-up that accompanies every new person you kill.  Enemy soldiers almost never stop talking and go back and forth about how important it is to fight, even if it means they will die, if they can only slow Zero down a little.  The player is never made to feel bad about their actions guiding Zero through her blood-soaked massacre and the only thing approaching condemnation from most characters comes in questioning Zero’s elation at killing.  A single character, Mikahil, a dragon around a year old, provides the only resistance to Zero’s antipathetic rampage, meekly asking her if any of this is truly necessary.  He is immediately shut down by his mother-figure Zero in increasingly cruel and abusive ways and, eventually, is taunted and shamed by other characters for wearing his young naiveté on his sleeve.

The world of Drakengard 3 is one of blithe indifference to things we would find inappropriate or taboo.  Casual conversations about sex litter the dialogue, though anything portraying the actual act never comes close to appearing on-screen, making a game with a well-endowed geriatric nymphomaniac come off somewhat more mature than modern Bioware games.  It is the allowance of murder that feels so contented within Drakengard 3’s walls that got me thinking, however.  Yoko mentions in the interview that he feels we are close to breaking through the hidden barriers in game development, that we could one day make a high-budget game that challenges our beliefs about video games.  Is it possible to make a game today that is not about killing and not have to pass a “pretentious sniff-test” from suspicious consumers?

Zero has no noble goals for her journey and, by all appearances, would be the villain in any game that the player does not directly control her.  Despite this, there's very few characters that are willing to call her actions wrong.

Zero has no noble goals for her journey and, by all appearances, would be the villain in any game that the player does not directly control her.  Despite this, there's very few characters that are willing to call her actions wrong.

We sit on a strange cliff with our industry right now.  We all recognize the market reality that birthed Bioshock Infinite, a game that, while undeniably quality, clearly could have been something that pierced the veil of our limitations in the industry.  The world is aware of this, but unable or unwilling to act in a way that would counter it.  I sort of wonder whether there is a real difference between Zero and Booker DeWitt, when one sticks a sword through a soldier and laughs and the other sticks a saw in to a soldier’s face and stays silent.  There is, however, a difference of tone between the two.  Drakengard 3 satirizes its own failings of perspective, providing a world of fodder with no noble justification as you literally bathe in its blood.  Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, merely asks you to play the role you accepted when you pick up the controller.  One game asks you why you’re killing by explicitly not asking you, the other asks you not to think about it.

This final quote Taro Yoko gives in the interview perhaps sums it up better than I am capable of doing myself.

What I would really like to see is for game developers to not take these limitations as a given, to bring about some real change to the world.
— Taro Yoko
Bioshock Infinite, developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games, only really gives you a choice of how you will murder all opposition.  Was this a natural evolution of how the game should play or did it undermine everything else the game got right?

Bioshock Infinite, developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games, only really gives you a choice of how you will murder all opposition.  Was this a natural evolution of how the game should play or did it undermine everything else the game got right?

When we sit down to create, we first consider the established rules of what we are creating.  What gives this thing flowing from our minds definition?  Video games have limitless potential for exploring the good and the bad about ourselves and letting people feel a little bit of someone else’s human experience.  We should not run from that, we should embrace it.  Maybe Drakengard 3 isn’t going to be the game that pierces that veil, but we would be crazy to ignore what it says completely.