The Yokoo Anti-Games: Drag-on Dragoon 1, NieR: Replicant, and Drag-on Dragoon 3

A long time ago, nobody knew who Yokoo Tarou was. He did that GDC talk thing once about “weird” games and then made a really terrible video game that tanked hard in Japan. But he had his fanbase. It seemed he was destined to write niche games forever. Games where only a particular amount of people are interested in playing a different kind of game and not for everybody who just wants a good time.

Then, NieR: Automata happened.

Today, Yokoo Tarou is a household name. He has an active Twitter account where he responds to non-Japanese people’s questions in English and has an active imagination about what Animal Crossing is really all about.

But I find it a bit sad that no one talks about his previous games. Those are the games that made me think that Yokoo was going to be someone special. He might not go mainstream, but he has the power to move people. His games make you question why you are playing them and fans still talk and write about his games to this day.

For example, Ruben Ferdinand in ZEAL describes it as “narrative translated into feeling”. These “beautiful and severe negative emotions” are what make Yokoo’s games so unique from all the rest. His “weird games” have the power to “emotionally affect” people in ways they don’t think about.

But I’d go beyond and say that Yokoo’s narratives are reflective of not just our inner feelings — it’s the feelings we try to repress and those are the ones that explain us the most.

What kind of feelings are we trying to repress when we play video games? That’s the question I like to ponder about for this post. I wonder if we will ever know what it is that impels us to play video games or consume any kind of art, but it might have something to do with that.

Drag-on Dragoon 1 has an answer and asks, “Does it have to with our craving for destruction?”

Destruction and violence were things video game creators knew people love. There was something magical about killing someone for points or a goal, whether it is Mario jumping on a Goomba or Tommy Vercetti shooting the fuck out of Lance Vance for betraying him. Violence has meaning to the players; it gives them a sense of progression because that’s how video games work. That’s the logic. Why else would you try to negotiate?

However, contemporary video games like Spec Ops: The Line are now questioning that mentality. There must have been another way out and you did what you did because you followed the video game logic.

Yokoo Tarou played that game years before anti-games were a thing and he wasn’t always the “auteur” we now know him today either.

We have to owe it to producers Shiba Takamasa (Assistant Producer of Valkyrie Profile) and Iwasaki Takuya (Ace Combat 3 team director). They were thinking up a new kind of game that could mix two cool genres together. A Dynasty Warriors game mixed with Ace Combat gameplay. That could revolutionize the already stale musou genre plus the violence could be super cool and meaningful.

However, Iwasaki was busy figuring out the logistics of another project for Cavia Games. Yokoo, a recently graduated CGI animator who didn’t plan on doing video games, got the directorial role and together with Natori Sawako, a novelist, began fleshing out the dark story of Drag-on Dragoon 1.

Caim is a prince bloodthirsty for war. He bores of politics but loves slashing through hordes of enemies. But he finds himself bleeding and almost decimated until he meets the red dragon Angel (or Angelus in Drakengard). Angel signs a pact with Caim where he sacrifices his ability to speak in exchange for power. He is rejuvenated and starts becoming a bloody killing machine with magical powers. His sister, Furiae, is deeply in love with him — and not the brother-sister kind but actual love — and wishes he can see her. Inuart, a friend of Caim, betrays him by joining the enemy called Legion and snatches Furiae away. Caim decides to join forces with — I kid you not — a pedophile priest, a mother who lost her children and started eating babies, and a bratty kid who thinks he’s a hero to save Furiae.

And fails every time.

The more you play Drag-on Dragoon 1, the more you find yourself getting worse and worse ends. In each playthrough, Caim learns more about the world and the allies he has start dying or leaving him. Furiae herself dies in the first ending, but she becomes a monster in the second ending. As the game progresses however, the story of Furiae and Inuart fades away and Caim and the world take the forefront. Caim learns that in order to put the menace away from destroying their world, he has to teleport themselves into the kingdom of the gods. Every ally sacrifices themselves to make that final battle happen, but there are no heroic sacrifices. These characters are flawed human beings who are tasked to save the world and not people who you would admire; the pedophile priest, for example, gets one last erection when the bratty kid hugs him before he sacrifices himself. They are like Alan Moore’s Watchmen except they’re even worse at their jobs. Each of their solutions is just postponing the inevitable. Ending D has the bratty kid sacrifice himself and stop the world from moving before everyone dies.

Nevertheless, Caim (and the player) is able to find another way out. Instead of endangering his world, he decides to be the hero by teleporting the final boss in the kingdom of the gods and fighting them there.

The kingdom of the gods is our world. Caim fights the final boss with a rhythm game in the middle of Shinjuku. Angel reflects the player’s confusion. What are we supposed to do?

Beating the final boss gives you the coveted final, true ending. By video game/visual novel logic, the final ending is the true ending. It is where the game rewards you with a conclusion — probably a cool happy ending. There has to be a happy ending somewhere in the game.

But two Japanese Self-Defense Forces shoot down Caim and Angel and the credits roll. One of the villains, a young girl, thanks you very very much for playing the game. End.

This was a shocking game for many people who played it when they came out. They didn’t understand what had transpired. They had to shoot down floating babies and play Dance Dance Revolution and got to see what was essentially the worst ending. It isn’t unusual for people to not just get what DoD1 was all about. Is it some really dumb dark and edgy version of Dynasty Warriors? The gameplay wasn’t that good either — there’s nothing more than slashing and the Ace Combat mechanics in the form of flying as a dragon began to be monotonous and unfun quickly — so there was nothing to be earned. Playing the game makes it worse. It makes more sense to just stop.

Why do people feel the compulsion to complete this game? Why do people find violence so gratifying enough to play more and more of it? And why do people play video games anyway?

That may be Yokoo’s entire goal — to make the player aware of these questions. Thus, we are looking at a video game not meant to be played because it is fun but because it is meant to ask the player what they are playing. In fact, his first video game he ever directed was an anti-game. A fuck you to the player and the creatives behind the video game industry. He found the whole appeal to Dynasty Warriors — the more enemies you kill, the higher your grade is — revolting and decides to model the protagonists as insane psychopath murderers. When the advisory board started to manipulate the game, he swore not to make another Drag-on Dragoon game. Yokoo got every interesting setting and ending he got and crammed it because he might not get the chance again. And thus, this beautiful chaotic mess is what has transpired.

There is no reward, no incentive, no player agency, nothing to make the player keep on playing. However, something compels the player to keep marching forward. If Yokoo knew about achievements in video games are then, he would have figured out that completionism was what he’s interested in.

Completionism is the idea of achieving every goal in a video game. Usually, it can be a  100% playthrough where you get every little secret. Today, that would be a bit absurd unless they’re trying to “platinum” a game. However, back then, video games weren’t just large open worlds with many menial things to do. There was nothing like XBOX Live Achievements or Steam popping up windows on the bottom right saying you have achieved this little thing. Instead, the player just wants to see how much there is to a video game. They search for the little details and become fixated on the game because they love it so much. Yokoo was hitting on that completionist nerve back in 2003 and possibly asking himself what did it mean for humanity.

It isn’t just video game players who are completionist by nature. Maybe it can be a metaphor for how we live lives or something. Drag-On Dragoon 1 was indeed right about destruction, but the real thread was this concept of completionism. It’s the drive that causes people to do the insane things Yokoo hates in video games.

And so, while Yokoo is booted out of Drag-on Dragoon 2, he begins experimenting with a new idea. He decides to start a game from the setting of Ending E: he wants to see our Earth fucked by our own actions and what he could do.

Enter NieR: Replicant and Gestalt, a story about a brother or father trying to save their sister or daughter at all costs. The brotherly/fatherly love is what pushes the player into achieving the great feats they have to do in the game.

So it makes sense that NieR: Gestalt, the English localization of NieR, was a cult hit in the West because it tugged the heartstrings of many people when they realized the big stone-cold dad was actually a sweetie pie at the end; he would sacrifice himself for his daughter because that’s what a father should do. It is the perfect blend of player motivation and game design. But in Replicant, the original Japanese version, the protagonist is only a brother who cares a bit too much for his sister. A siscon if you will. Is the brotherly love for his sister then enough to justify what the protagonist needs to do in order to save her?

That justification — or rationalizing — becomes tied to the player’s need to complete everything and the oh-so-human response to everything dear to people. Misunderstandings and revenge appear because of that compulsion — that drive — that divides people into factions and kingdoms. When they happen, people only have one goal in mind and they want to achieve that in all costs. In video game design, that human drive becomes the player tunneling for the one objective they think is important. They don’t think about anything else but that goal they need to achieve and it takes skill and concentration to achieve it. A father saving a daughter is one thing, but a brother going ballistics to save a sister? That is quite suspect.

We find many of the actions the protagonist and other characters do suspect because it destroys them. It is easy to understand revenge; the story of Hamlet is drilled into everyone’s brain. But what about love? Kaine, one of the two officially intersex characters in all of the media I have consumed, is written by Natori as a character stunted by the knowledge that she can’t ever be male or female; she is both. She puts her faith into the protagonist however when he becomes friendly with her. It is the first time someone has ever approached her without being hostile toward her. She feels like she was part of a camaraderie on something special. However, she knows the truth of the setting and that murdering the enemies on the map is the type of murder she can’t ever absolve her guilt from. She lives with it and becomes deranged from all that killing. Kaine finds herself destroying who she is and what she believes in because she has fallen in love with the protagonist. And it hurts her but she has to go on. She feels no regret because that’s what love does — you do the stupidest things for the people you love. And love is one of those synonyms for completionism that we can’t ever shake off from.

Maybe our love and hatred for things is why we go mad and that feeds into why we play games. But if it’s meaningless, maybe we have the time to think about it. Ending D is often discussed in reviews because it is a sacrifice, a strange and meaningless one at that, by the protagonist and the player. It shouldn’t have happened if the player/protagonist is thinking straight. However, they do it because a compulsion impels them to. In order to save Kaine, the protagonist decides to wipe out his identity; in gameplay mechanics, the player is then forced to delete their save data in order to see the true ending. All that hard work grinding in the mines to get better weapons have become nothing — a waste of time. You can’t backup your data and all you can do is see the game delete everything and read the few new lines that appear at the ending.

Is all of that worth it? That’s up to the player to decide why they play games. And if they do think it’s worth it, maybe we are self-destructive in the inside. Maybe humanism is not that correct and anti-humanism has some truth. After all, we will destroy ourselves in order to see things to the end. Yokoo’s characters embody that and they are proud of it. There is no ounce of regret in their action because they have not done anything wrong that goes against their beliefs. And that is both a humanizing and anti-humanizing thought: it preaches the individualism in our completionist behavior, but it is also selfish enough to forsake the whole world for one’s beliefs.

Completionism isn’t a bad thing. It’s just part of us. We just want to be better. Whether we speedrun video games or swim better, it is part of the thrill of what living life is all about. But it can potentially be destructive to us too. Perfectionism and idealism can overwhelm ourselves. We tunnel ourselves into one goal and we know this because we don’t regret it. There is a perfectionist and idealist inside all of us. We want to do well in what we can do, but how obsessed we are with that can mean a healthy or unhealthy life. But we can’t take those aspects out of ourselves. Completionism — or whatever we like to call it — informs us what we can and should do by blinding us altogether. It is a desperation that makes us live for life and not regret our own actions.

And that means if you have to, you will destroy not just everything but yourself to attain it. We can’t look away from this desire. Everyone has it. And that is the repressed emotion Yokoo wants to portray in his games and what Zero has in Drag-on Dragoon 3, my favorite and most misunderstood game of his works.

Describing the plot in the game is futile because it is a stab literally into history. A historian dies in the opening of the game and the game becomes impossible to follow except as time paradoxes with a lot of plotholes. The whole plot somewhat centers around Zero trying to kill all her sisters, so she can save the world or something. It’s quite difficult to follow. Much like Drag-on Dragoon 1, the game has little incentive to the player to play. It does have a good base system — you can switch weapons on the go and it’s okay for a musou game — but the level design is utter crap, the frame rate is atrocious, and the bosses aren’t probably designed at all. Zero monologues loudly about hating platforming as you jump Bubsy 3D-style across moving platforms. It should be an awful experience for many players and it is.

The only reason you might want to play is except to read the marvelous writing of Natori and her team of writers. Zero talks about fucking the servants (everyone treats them as sex dolls really) she acquired from killing her sisters and the servants reflect the various fetishes people might have. You’ll have to be interested in reading the raunchiest sex jokes thought up by the funniest and most talented women writers; otherwise, the game wouldn’t work for you. It is a game about sex jokes.

And that’s why the game tanked.

But I found it entertaining regardless. The writing just makes me laugh because I’m five years old and still think sex jokes are funny. But I do admire the insanity of the sex jokes. In the fanbook, Yokoo pitched a sex joke before Natori homerunned and said, “Let’s go for something crazier.” The writing reflects the insanity too because none of the writers save Yokoo knew what was happening. All it did was get crazier and crazier.

At one point, it could be Looney Tunes hijinks with time travel on the sideline. On another, soldiers become a part of cult and start chanting how hot their leader is. There seems to be no end to the insanity.

Until Yokoo said to let it go.

In Ending A, Zero wants to kill One alone without the help of anyone except Mikhail. She frees her servants and they become doves (a motif that appears in NieR: Automata). In the fanbook interview with the writers, Natori was a bit miffed that she couldn’t write a bombastic scene to let out the emotion. But the other writers pitched in and said that it was Yokoo’s thing. It might sound like Natori had to do what Yokoo told her to do and there was no creative freedom, but it was how Yokoo envisioned the scene. It had to end that way. Or it wasn’t a Yokoo project. It was Natori’s story.

And that kind of directorial power influences how scenes are told. Yokoo didn’t want to make the story a powerful, emotional story. He wants the player again to ask themselves why they keep on playing.

Is it because of the story? The cathartic emotions we feel after finishing a game? I recall reading many Westerners’ comments about how JRPG gameplay is just a means to an end to conveying story. A video game series like Kiseki/Trails is a great example because as the franchise goes on, the gameplay becomes extremely silly and pointless when your characters are overpowered. You might as well have a “visual novel” mode and play through the game with no battles. After all, the story is still really cool in each entry. But what about Drag-on Dragoon 3? Is the story really that engaging?

The completionism in all of us also forces us to listen to the story till the very end, even if it’s probably crap. It is difficult to drop a game or an anime or anything if you’re the type who has never dropped something before. Maybe there’s something good at the end after all. What is Zero’s story and why does she need to kill so many people in the end?

Drag-on Dragoon 3 is the culmination of the anti-game anti-incentive ideas Yokoo’s previous games were playing, but it also signals a new beginning for the creator and his team of writers. The nihilistic interpretation of completionism is at its end with Zero. You can’t go any farther than she has once you understand what she is doing. Her justification is right, but it also hurts. She and the video game need to end at some point because there is an endpoint to everything. Completionism needs to end too. So you end up loving and admiring Zero, even if it’s selfish of her leaving you after all this time. It was fun while it lasted. What’s next for you isn’t really what Zero or the video game wants you to think about but the experience of it all — being with Zero and why you would have stuck with her for so long even though you might disagree with her in many ways. It is a meaningless fun that we all love and need and that’s what video games and many other forms of art are all about.

The passion we lead our lives and the subcultures we are engaged in is destructive, meaningless, and sometimes dehumanizing. However, we can’t reject that it’s fun and we don’t regret our actions most of the time when we have it. There is nothing shameful about our actions. It might just look stupid from the outside, but it might also have been destiny for us.

In E. H. Carr’s Twenty Years Crisis, he argues that states will do anything to defend themselves and believe they are not in the wrong. Ideologies and paranoia can inform a state to do what is normally unjustifiable by many standards without any kind of regret. Unlike what the history written by the winners will like us to believe, the nation can declare war just because they feel threatened that they might be taken over. There are no such things as an “aggressor nation” or, in modern terms, an axis of evil because all these reasons can be justified in one way or another. Even the “evil” nations have good reasons to defend; they might lose a lot and destroy the country they want to protect.

This is not to say we have to start being tolerant of the evil around us, but it does teach us why any of us could enter into some dark territories and believe the things that justify (or rationalize) our actions. It is why some of us can join hate groups and think we’re in the right. And it may be also why having a neutral or centrist position isn’t viable in a world like ours because it is a kind of artificial stance no human being has. No one is capable of understanding all the nuances in an issue and we are all predisposed to our own biases.

So we destroy because we don’t understand. We kill because we can’t understand. And we war because we won’t understand. And yet, we are still trying to figure out what we can do to alleviate all of that.

I don’t think we can ever eradicate the passion, the fervor, and the self-destruction of completionism in ourselves. You can’t tell people to knock it off, make them cognizant of their faults, and cause them to start regretting their own actions. Faith isn’t fragile. You would only sound like you’re crashing the party for no utter reason except that you’re a party crasher. That passion will remain burning in our hearts until it goes off by its own.

But what we can do is at least be aware of that fire in all of us. It is beautiful, sure, but it also can wipe out forests too. That’s why we have learned how to contain it. However, we contain it so much we repress all of our emotions too. The androids in NieR: Automata are convinced that emotions are, to use a David Cage-ism, a syntactical error in their programming. Repression is the only way to cope with completionism and once we let go of the tears, everything else comes rushing in and the end seems inevitable.

Anything we do can lead us into trouble. However, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We will inevitably end ourselves and nihilism with a dose of absurdism seems to be the only philosophy that makes sense in this kind of world. That’s almost a given. However, we can still see something beyond the beautiful but dangerous fire. I can’t tell you what it is, but Yokoo’s Automata did that to me and forced me to write a long ass essay about it.

Thinking about it, I feel there was a journey Yokoo took in order to create NieR: Automata. If we look at his games as a series of discursive essays, there begins to be a pattern that begin to emerge and evolve into NieR: Automata. He and his team of writers are trying to find something to hold onto while exploring the completionist mess known as humans.

We have to be a bit anti-human in order to understand what being a human is. The answers may be more anti-humanistic than we wish to be, but it is a sobering thought on the completionism of the human mind. And anti-games are also what sobers up video game designers and players too. The logic can be changed. You don’t have to kill Adam when he first appears in the game; you can just chill with him and do nothing. It’s only when you start slashing at him that he will be provoked into fighting you.

We will never achieve full understanding or peace or anything like that. It’s too utopian of a dream plus destruction and completionism are way too embedded into our thinking. But we need to look the other direction and look at what makes us turn against humanity. Some people can’t handle taking out the repressed emotions by ourselves and that might be why art exists: to make us observe ourselves in the mirror and look into the contradictions that destroy and rejuvenate our life.

And then, whatever we can do — moral or not — is up to us. We decide what good and bad mean, even if it doesn’t make sense to others. We may become monsters who regret nothing because of this and that’s why art can be dangerous.

But it is something we cannot help for we are human and want to live life the way we want to.

This is the first post of the 12 Days of Anime project where anime bloggers try to write 12 posts in a row for Christmas. I have decided to write a post a day from scratch if possible and as such, this may have more grammatical errors than the usual post. But I’d like to be as thorough as the other posts I have written before, so it should be quite interesting to write 11 other posts like this in a row. I may fail, but it is worth a try.

If you like my post and others, consider donating to my Patreon (I will be looking into other services due to my dissatisfaction with the service), retweeting, or commenting on the post. I am always happy to reply to any questions and comments.

2 thoughts on “The Yokoo Anti-Games: Drag-on Dragoon 1, NieR: Replicant, and Drag-on Dragoon 3

  1. daysofsummer December 13, 2017 / 10:10 am

    Ah, a long-awaited post about Yokoo’s games.

    Personally, I could never quite make up my mind about DoD/NieR. I always I knew I loved the games; but why? All I knew was that they made me feel something unique, something I’d never felt playing video games.

    But what I’d come to think (and I suppose you take a similar view on DoD3 in this post) is that this impossibility to understand is rather the point. The stories feel so fragmented and I can barely put these pieces together; so much goes unexplained, and I always felt in the dark after finishing each game. And I wonder: what do the characters know that I don’t? What is there here that I’m not getting?

    But maybe the point is that they don’t know, either. No one has answers — neither the characters nor me — and all we know is that we have to pursue this passion to the end. Caim strikes me as a perfect example since no one can talk with him; therefore, no one can reason with him. And it feels important to Yokoo, this impossibility to reason. Caim only gets worse endings as he goes, and the same goes for us; just like him, we think that if we pursue this thread to the end, we’ll get it right eventually. But what is this thread? What justifies it? In truth, nothing; just a vague passion, something we know we have inside us and we end up obeying no matter how much we try to repress. Caim is just blinded by rage, but it’s not like Zero’s “rational justification” of her actions make her appear any more sensible to us.

    And in the end, they fall fall without saving the world; NieR’s setting is quite the reverse, after all. There’s never anyone in the games who destroys themselves for the better; and yet, they all think so. Zero thinks she’ll save the world from destruction, after all. This I find powerful; no matter how flawed or unreasonable they are, these characters are all trying to do what they believe is their part in the world. Yet they’re stuck in worlds where this “place in the world” is becoming too hard to define. After all, either no one gives it to them, or it’s taken away from them; losing it is central to Automata. So they hang on to these passions of theirs, maybe thinking they’re morally justified, but that’s our mistake, I suppose; to think there’s any valid reason behind these passions. To think they’re rational, and that in fact reason precedes them, when in truth it’s much more the reverse. I guess it’s this dissonance that creates part of the games’ atmosphere: we can clearly see they’re lost and not going to achieve anything (at least I always got this feeling in DoD1), and yet they never seem to realize. It’s so eerie, yet so powerful. But maybe it’s because they believe this that they can go on…?

    The take on violence is very interesting, too, and I think NieR may be one the game that struck the most in that regard. The protagonists don’t see their violence as such; it’s for the better, after all, isn’t it? It’s morally justified, isn’t it? And yet as we understand more about the setting, we see that the “other side” is just as humane, and that yes, they are indeed on the receiving end of violence on the part of our protagonists. I think in this aspect, repeating the playthroughs was powerful, because even as we realize these things, the characters don’t (remember the younger of the two siblings near the Junk Heap? That story always stayed with me; having to play it several times with the side of the shadow and the robot was excruciating, as the guy remains oblivious to it all).

    One of the reasons I’ve never been able to explain DoD/NieR to myself is that their themes feel so similar. I wonder: what’s so unique about each entry compared to the others? They all appeared to me as takes on the same subject. I’m sure I’m missing a lot still and I’ll probably play them again one day… still, they were unique experiences. I still feel like I’m plowing my way through my actual thoughts about the games, as should be clear from the above; but your post helped. It was very good to read, and expressed a lot of things I was merely feeling. So, yeah, thanks for this great read!

    • Kastel December 16, 2017 / 7:54 am

      My favorite part in NieR Replicant is the wolves subplot because both factions are justified for revenge and that’s why it sucks. Revenge leads to nothing in the end; however, it is what these two factions believe in and that’s why they right. You can’t help but agree with both sides. That’s why they war.

      You also see a lot of these ideas encapsulated in Automata’s sidequests. Misunderstanding and tunnelling are just part of the human condition…

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