NieR: Automata: Breaking down the franchise for the future and reflecting on the worlds of Yoko Taro
The Word of God is deceitful
Nier Automata, my way too early pick for Game of the Year 2017, is almost upon us! The demo has been well received, thanks to its unique visual style, the slickest UI ever created, and simplified controls. Platinum Games has been working hard to distil the feel of a full-on character action game into a simplified Action-RPG, with great success. When combining that with Platinum's flair for over the top set pieces and Square Enix's superior visual designs, the result is something I can only describe as “Eyegasmic.”
There's also a healthy buzz making the rounds in most gaming communities, and there's even tons of fanart going around. Most of which is due to an NSFW photoshop, made by a troll. It turned into a small-scale scandal and resulted in one of the best responses from a developer ever. In fact, let this response be your first exposure to Yoko Taro if you're not familiar with his previous works.
Yoko Taro is different from your typical game developer, and that's why games bearing his name have some legendarily twisted stories, which stem from his own personal beliefs. To look at this, we're going into spoiler territory for Drakengard and the original NieR, before speculating on a possible twist in NieR: Automata. The odds are good most of you reading this have never played these games and never will, so you might as well disregard the spoiler warning for games that are over a decade old.
My theory on NieR: Automata, which may become a spoiler for the upcoming game and will spoil the end of the demo, will be tucked away safely on the last page.
Murderers do not get to have happy endings.
Not your kind of heroes.
The driving theme behind Yoko Taro's stories is his belief that people shouldn't be rewarded for killing, and yet most video games focus on just that, so he puts killing into his games. With that in mind, he tries to write stories backward: He creates endings that range from depressing but positive, to holy sh*t what the hell is happening. These are all endings that killers deserve, with the more positive endings tied to the offending players and characters, invariably murderers in someone's eyes, having to suffer.
Starting with the ending makes it easier to come up with events that would justify their dark nature. Yoko Taro's characters are then created with flawed traits and unique situations that would put them into said events. This is something Drakengard plays straight, and NieR subverts, as you'll see going forward.
In Drakengard, players control a character named Caim. He was a prince that was loved by his family and people, lived a charmed life, and was taught by his just and righteous father. Tragedy would strike when the Empire instigated an attack on his kingdom, which resulted in its fall and Caim witnessing the brutal death of his parents, who are mauled by a black dragon. This is a fairly typical, if somewhat more graphic than usual, set up for a fantasy hero's tragic backstory.
Except Caim is a protagonist, not a hero: He gives in to the love of killing. Caim becomes a sociopath that uses his claims of revenge and status as a soldier to indulge in the pleasure he feels from murder. While some of the killing is done out of necessity, not all of it is. There are clearly times where Caim is killing because he wants to feel the rush he gets from the act itself. For example, he slaughters an entire force of child soldiers. Caim's party member Leonard begs him not to kill the children, as he murders every single one of them in front of Leonard. (It's edited to make it less awful in the English release) Even the human-hating Red Dragon begins to feel Caim is taking it a bit too far.
Caim sounds like a great guy, right? Wait until you see the rest of his party: The previously mentioned Leonard is a pedophile, and his little brothers were murdered while he was busy getting his rocks off in the woods. Arioch is a woman that went mad after the murder of her children, her bouts of screaming are often interrupted by fits of laughter, and her only desire is to protect children...by cannibalizing them and keeping them safe in her womb. The final member is Seere, a six-year-old child that has lost his ability to age due to a pact with the Golem. He's quickly taken under Leonard's wing…
Twisted twist endings.
The endings to Drakengard were so messed up because they were a reflection of these corrupted protagonists' actions. The best possible ending sees the primary antagonist, Manah, forced to live as long as possible, forced to face the fact she will be the most hated entity of all eternity. On top of that, the Red Dragon, the only living thing left in the world that Caim has a somewhat functional relationship with, sacrifices itself to become the goddess seal, an undying being that protects the order of the world at the cost of eternal suffering.
That may seem more bittersweet than twisted until you realize Manah was a six-year-old girl that was treated like the “Child Called It” by her mother, before being mind raped by otherworldly entities and forced to set the world on course for the apocalypse. In this ending, her mind is freed after her final battle, she's pleading to be killed so she can die believing someone loved her, and the protagonist refuses and swears to make her live through her worst fear: The realization that every single person hates her guts.
Again, that is the good ending, and they only get worse from there. How much worse? Drakengard is said to have the most horrific ending to ever be put into a video game. Ending D. I've embedded the video above, because if you haven't seen it, you're going to think I'm pulling the details of this game and this ending straight from my ass for shock value. It's almost as shocking as the quality of the early oughts voice acting.
NieR: A serious spinoff from a joke ending.
Drakengard's Ending E was seen as a troll ending. Caim and the Red Dragon fly through a dimensional portal to modern day Tokyo, where the duo defeats the Queen Grotesquery in a singing rhythm game. After their foe is destroyed and the world is saved, a pair of fighter jets killed them with missiles, trivializing the incredible power of dragons and making a mockery of the entire game in some fans' eyes.
Drakengard was panned by critics as a game, with its story receiving most of the praise, but loved by fans. It was a dark, different, and well-crafted story that descended into madness, which leads to a cult following. Drakengard 2 did not have Yoko Taro as a director, was panned by critics, and mostly panned by fans. This lead to him being put back into the director's seat for the next entry into the franchise.
Where did he pick up the story? 40 years after Ending E of the original Drakengard. That's right: Yoko Taro made NieR, the next entry in the Drakengard franchise, the entry he personally considered to be the true Drakengard 3, a follow-up to what many fans thought was a shitty attempt at a funny ending. This man, this genius, fucks with his fans in such a glorious manner that I just want to shake his hand.