When talking about freedom in video games, people usually think of open world games, and Yoko Taro was there at GDC 2018 to give his view on this topic. According to him, the NieR series has something of an open world structure, and it was entirely thanks to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [Thanks, 4Gamer!]
In fact, for NieR RepliCant and NieR Gestalt, Yoko Taro states that the entire structure of the ‘open world’, up to the length of time it took for the player character to go from one end to the other, was taken from Ocarina of Time. And because of how Ocarina of Time was an open world game with many linear elements to it, the previous NieR game also ended up having a different impression of ‘open world’ compared to games such as Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim.
However, the question of ‘freedom’ needs to be looked from another angle. With the release of many big open world titles, “open world fatigue” has become a more common occurrence. With games such as Grand Theft Auto IV, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Just Cause 3, the common elements shared are a large map, lots of items, many quests, and crafting and growth elements.
Together, they form game content that can’t be cleared even in a hundred hours of game time. And with many of these games coming out at once, large maps became ordinary, and people began to see them as chores. A high level of freedom does not always equate to freedom, and this is a video game-specific occurrence. Players start to feel like it’s an obligation when they are missing out on potential content.
In order to solve this problem, Yoko Taro received hints from two different video games. One of them was Super Mario Bros.
To reach the famous Warp Pipes, Mario needs to jump above what is perceived to be the limits of the screen and run across the scoreboard. Basically, that very top section of the map was not a display area, but hidden passage in the world.
Yoko Taro was very surprised by this, as it shattered the boundaries of what was perceived as the world, and made him feel like there was a hidden world beyond that.
The other hint came from Grand Theft Auto IV.
In this game, you aren’t able to talk to NPCs at all. This is very different from JRPGs, where this is taken for granted. What Yoko Taro thinks is that this wasn’t a question of budget, but rather one of realism. People don’t randomly talk to other people when walking down the street, and in a world made to look like the real world, this enhanced the ‘reality’ of the game.
In this game world, being able to freely fly anywhere, run at 500km/h or otherwise, will not be seen as ‘freedom’.
Putting these two hints together, what Yoko Taro gets is that in order for people to feel a sense of freedom, there needs to be a frame of reference for that. If the world is represented by a circle that shows what players think is the limit of the world, by expanding that circle, the players will feel ‘free’.
On a practical level, it could be by being able to ride a vehicle they thought they couldn’t, or play with an object they thought couldn’t be interacted with. The feeling that ‘they didn’t think they could do that’ is what is extremely important.
According to Yoko Taro, ‘freedom’ is not a physical measurement, but rather an expansion of a frame in one’s mind.
NieR: Automata is available on PlayStation 4 and PC.