Every time Yoko Taro speaks, you get the feeling he is messing with you, just a little bit.
It’s not unlike the twisting, surreal stories behind the Drakengard and NieR franchises he’s masterminded. And yet underneath all of Taro’s theatrics — including the large, moon-like mask called Emil that he is rarely seen without — there is always a kernel of sincerity behind every answer he gives.
So, when I ask how he’d like to see the industry change, Taro’s outlandish response wasn’t as surprising as you might think — especially given his many remarks on the failings of the video game industry at large.
“I would like to see aliens or something attack Earth in a way that destroyed all of the silicon-based technology we currently have, so the whole world had to return to the 8-bit era and game creators were forced to make a living developing games in that low-tech environment.”
But behind his jokes is a serious artist who remains his own harshest critic. Taro’s pessimism toward the industry sits uncomfortably alongside his unflinching optimism about the medium’s potential for storytelling. It’s the myth of Sisyphus, but instead of a boulder, Taro has his mask. So it’s no surprise, then, that he’s deeply ambivalent about the future of the medium.
Taro rose to global fame thanks to the critical success of 2017’s NieR: Automata, but he’s been pushing the limits of gaming for two decades now. Titles like 2003’s Drakengard, 2010’s NieR, and 2013’s Drakengard 3 all have cult followings thanks to their narrative and mechanical subversion of expectations, whether in the form of detestable protagonists like Drakengard’s Caim or in their multiple endings that range from enlightening to a practical joke.
Before the success of Automata, Taro gave a talk at the 2014 Game Developers Conference titled “Making Weird Games for Weird People,” in which he detailed his vision of concentric circles depicting the potential of games. Taro described an invisible wall dividing what games currently do and the unknown. He wanted to see what’s beyond that wall.
“It is important to have that self-awareness... to keep doubting and questioning myself.”
“I don’t think that any of my projects have broken through that wall, no,” he says almost a decade later. “I might have had some kind of effect on individuals, but overall, I do not feel I have broken outside of the long-established frameworks of entertainment.”
This isn’t the first time Taro has spoken candidly about his own perceived failings as a developer. In a 2014 interview with Kill Screen, he lamented the continued prevalence of overly violent video games, saying, “There has been no revolution or great change… I perceive that as a failure. At least for me, it’s a personal failure.”
It speaks to a larger conflict in the industry. The struggle between video games as an artistic medium with the potential to effect real change in its audience versus games as a product made for public consumption that turns a profit for large corporations. In the nearly three decades Taro has been making games, he says the industry has “taken one step forward and one step back.”
“In recent times there has been a huge increase in the freedom creators have in terms of depicting variety and diversity. On the other hand, there is also a new wall being built in some areas where those creators now ‘have’ to depict diversity.”
But Taro’s issue isn’t with a perceived requirement for including things like diversity. Rather, it stems from a distrust of the companies that want to commodify these improvements for even more profit.
“Making games is a business where you create a product and then that translates into money,” Taro says, matter-of-factly.
This is why he retains a healthy dose of skepticism and self-doubt, famously calling himself “a slave to capitalism” in a 2022 interview with Destructoid.
“From my personal point of view, I think it is important to have that self-awareness, that regardless of whether it is — nudity, violence, diversity, justice, or whatever — I am ultimately making money from that, and it is important to keep doubting and questioning myself,” Taro tells Inverse.
Nearly all of the topics Taro lists off have been hot-button issues in some of 2023’s biggest games. Baldur’s Gate 3 and Final Fantasy XVI have worked hard to give 2023 the moniker of gaming’s horniest year in recent memory. Final Fantasy XVI also received plenty of criticism for the game’s lack of diversity and a poorly implemented narrative involving slavery.
They’re also front and center in most of Taro’s own games, such as the original NieR, which was inspired by the war on terror and the complicated perceptions of justice that arose from the conflict. This may be partly why his games have reputations for being too abrasive to the player, in addition to their difficult, almost masochistic, gameplay.
A particularly memorable example of this comes in Drakengard 3’s Branch D boss fight “The Final Song,” which throws players into a seven-minute-long rhythm game that pulls dirty tricks like hiding the player character from view, the screen fading to black, and putting the final note inside a cutscene — all the while expecting the player to continue perfectly hitting each note or start over.
For Taro, the current structure of the games industry is inhospitable to creativity. That’s especially true at a time when video games are becoming more expensive and time-consuming to make, with development cycles stretching past five years or longer for big-budget games like Tears of the Kingdom or Starfield.
“The big challenge with large-scale game development is that it needs time and money,” Taro says. “But at the same time, you can also say that those barriers are protecting the market. I think you can see that by looking at the other end of the industry and how the indie market, where those barriers do not exist, is such a competitive blood-filled sea.”
“Creators will become little more than expendable components to be used and consumed.”
AI could also be a boon to independent creators in the years ahead — if the technology is kept out of the wrong hands. But that’s a really big if. He says if AI was truly free for the masses to use, it would “lead to a more liberal and democratic world of game creation” and end the domination of the industry by ever-expanding corporations.
However, rather than this “democratization of creativity” that Taro dreams of, he expects to see big corporations “exploiting that unchained creativity” resulting from AI, replacing the large-scale development we see now with an equally nasty threat.
“They will take what had succeeded or the elements that will likely be successful from the teeming masses of creative works, combine those together, market them, and sell them,” Taro says. “The result of this would be that the essence of what we call the games industry becomes mainly investment and marketing.”
“Creators will become little more than expendable components to be used and consumed,” he adds.
But even if big corporations continue to commodify every new tool at their disposal, Taro remains adamant that the real issues — the invisible wall and what lies beyond — can’t be solved by improvements in technology alone. If anything, he sees technology as more hindrance than help.
When Yoko Taro describes his sarcastic yet honest vision of an alien invasion, where creators are “forced to make a living developing games in that low-tech environment,” he concludes: “I would give anything to see what an 8-bit Call of Duty born from that situation would look like.”
I can’t help but be oddly charmed by the vision of creators being challenged to do something new. Then I hope to myself, just a little bit, that an alien invasion does come sooner rather than later.