Nier: Automata is an amazing game. Taro Yoko has been a darling developer of cult games for a while now, but with the critically-acclaimed Automata his profile has risen considerably.
It's easy to see why that is. Automata is an incredible game that mixes stellar combat from a young and hungry team of developers at action powerhouse Platinum Games with what Yoko does best: weird, wonderful, genre and medium-deconstructing ideas.
Many of these ideas were present in some of Yoko's other games. The original Nier was full of the same kind of mad ideas as Automata, and while I'm tempted to write about some of them here I'm going to show some restraint because like the surprises in Automata, the original Nier's crazier moments deserve to be experienced, not read. Drakengard 3 is similarly wonderful, but both of those games simply don't play as well as Automata, which why their smarter ideas flew more silently under the collective radar.
Yoko has also endeared himself to fans with his attitude towards Nier: Automata's promotional cycle. He tools around wearing a mask because, he says, he doesn't want his appearance to color people's impressions of the game. He's jocular and downright funny: when I sat down with him, Automata Producer Yosuke Saito and Platinum Games designer Tasahisa Taura, I ended up hooting my way through the interview as the trio basically formed a comedy troupe.
Before the interview, I'd been warned. Another member of the press who had an interview session before me whispered to me as they returned from their interview slot. "You're going to love it," I was told. "They don't give a shit!"
Not giving a shit wasn't about not caring about the game, but more about the trio not being shackled to PR messaging in the same way as the interviews I'd enjoyed months earlier for Final Fantasy XV and other games of that kin. Nier was a wild, weird, wonderful, niche game, and that meant PR allowed Taro Yoko to let rip. To be himself. The result, as is plain in the game, is magnificent.
That brings me on to the discourse I'm seeing more and more frequently online about Yoko and the Final Fantasy series. This discussion happened a lot when Automata launched but has now been reignited by comments from Saito about wishing to see Taro tackle Final Fantasy. I've seen many people suggest that pairing the two is a fabulous idea and a route to salvation for the FF series, but I can't envision it as anything but a poor fit for both Yoko and Final Fantasy.
If we look past the fact that Taro Yoko isn't a Square Enix employee when no external director has ever handled a major Final Fantasy game (FF12 was even transplanted from Yasumi Matsuno and given to Hiroyuki Ito and Hiroshi Minagawa mid-development when the former left the company), the whole point of Yoko's schtick is that he's the antithesis of the modern big-budget Square Enix creator.
For better or for worse Final Fantasy has set its sights on a wide, commerically extensive audience. FF's rivals aren't Persona or Tales, not really - it's the only JRPG that instead is aiming to take the fight to The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, Dragon Age and so on. With FF15 now proving to be a solid success and with the Japanese console market still suffering painful software sales contractions that attitude isn't going to change: the next FF will need to have Western appeal as broad as FF15's if not more so.
In many ways the very things that make Automata and Yoko special are the same things that make these games enormously difficult to sell to a truly wide audience. If Taro were to take on a franchise like FF, he'd face the same thing any director of that series has: focus groups, marketing tinkering and a deep consideration for the tales of the Western market. Automata was concerned with none of this.
This story even runs in line with the circumstances of Yasumi Matsuno leaving Square Enix mid-way through FF12, the game meant to be his magnum opus. By all accounts the pressure was too much, and as changes as large as a shift of protagonist to a younger, cuter, more marketable lead were hoisted on him by the powers that be, he eventually packed up and left.
Taro Yoko deserves better than to have his unique brand of madness watered down by the realities of major franchise development - unless it's his major franchise. Nier: Automata is strong proof that his clever twisting of the videogame form can appeal to a larger audience than it has in the past, and hopefully that grants him some larger budgets without his vision being compromised.
A fair anology here is one that's developed quite a bit in the world of movies over the past few years. Ever since then TV director Joss Whedon oversaw the first phases of the Marvel Cinematic Unvierse leading up to The Avengers there's been a strong tradition of taking smaller, more niche directors and thrusting them into these superhero blockbusters in order to give them a unique tone.
Whedon's work was a revelation, but this doesn't always go well. Josh Trank was directed in to Fantastic Four after his excellent work on the indie superhero story Chronicle, but his body-horror take on the Marvel group spooked the studio and was extensively rewritten and reshot. It didn't end up being a good movie. Edgar Wright was drafted into Ant-Man for his strong history of action-comedy films, but he left that project when it became clear he couldn't work in the more heavily-controlled Marvel Studios ecosystem. Sometimes these more innovative, crazy creators are better left on smaller projects - or at the very least, not shackled to a franchise with very specific expectations and demands of it. If Square want to throw more money at Nier or another original Taro property, I'm all for it.
Final Fantasy has stringent requirements, and it requires a pragmatic director who is willing to work within the confines of strict feedback, market research demands and sky-high expectations from both the company and fans. This is the sort of direction I don't want for Taro Yoko or any other video game director so weird, brilliant and visionary. I eagerly await his next project, but I hope it's something that'll allow him to go wild and be as mad as ever. That very likely can't be Final Fantasy.