In a brief flashback to the hip Queen Street West I remember from the ’80s, I chanced upon a cult-hit videogame there. I was killing time and wandered into Microplay and asked the counter guy if any interesting games had come down the pike lately. “Yeah,” he said, “There’s this Japanese game…” He passed me a PlayStation 2 game with a curiously static image on the cover: a cow standing in a field next to a gigantic ball of… stuff. I made a mental note of the name: Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004).
“You roll that ball around,” he explained. “And if you roll up enough stuff it gets put up into the sky and becomes a star.” I suppose I looked baffled, because he shrugged and said, “I haven’t played it yet, but people really love it.”
When I eventually got the game, I found out why. It’s a refreshingly simple and fun arcade-style game. With its amazing soundtrack and psychedelic rainbow visuals it captivates shroom-head adults and sugar-high kids alike. You begin the game a few millimetres tall, rolling around a ball on a desk and picking up thumbtacks and ants, until your ball is big enough to pick up bigger objects. If you keep on rollin’, eventually you’re picking up cars and cows and even people. The apt title of the sequel, scheduled for release in Japan this spring, is Everyone Loves Katamari.
Keita Takahashi knew what he was doing when he designed the game. Takahashi, at the Game Developers’ Conference held in San Francisco this past March, talked about how he intended for it to be loved, that he wanted to create something “enjoyable and funny.” That’s not to say that he didn’t have deeper thoughts than that: he followed it up by pointing out that the flipside to violent games inspiring violence is that pleasurable games can inspire pleasure. This was well received by an audience of game developers who can hardly ignore that videogames are our culture’s latest bogeyman, simultaneously regarded as a waste of time and all-powerful influence.
Takahashi’s talk was the highlight of the GDC for me. I caught a glimpse of him the night before accepting awards for game design and innovation in art-school slacker clothes, and I had worried that the talk would be a lot of him shrugging and being charming. (That’s not so awful, just not worth getting up for at 9am.) But he was a very generous and candid speaker, bringing up ideas like love and punk alongside practical ways the industry can improve, all while doodling the Prince and the King on his desktop.
Translated via headphones from the Japanese, he showed us some of the work he did while going to school for sculpture. Among them were a coffee table that transformed into a flying robot and a goat-shaped flowerpot, which went a long way to explaining the whimsy and spatial use in Katamari Damacy. That he had an arts background made a lot of sense to me too, because the kitschy-cool-crazy-Japanese feel of the game seemed too self-aware to be solely the product of a game company.
And while Namco did release the game, the objects in it were built by students in a computer graphics design class assigned it as a project. That explained the specificity of the objects—there’s a learner’s permit, for instance. It also pointed at another possibility for game development beyond the game company model. Takahashi himself is an interesting manifestation of the game auteur that is becoming more and more linked to innovation and breakthrough games: unlike many of his auteur predecessors, who are compared to movie directors, he’s drawing from other artistic wells.
Takahashi also showed the original prototype for the game, which was almost identical to the final game. In getting his vision through the game company system intact, Takahashi admitted that he had to “proactively ignore” pressure to make the game (which famously only uses the two analogue sticks of the PS2’s multitude of buttons) more complex. In the Q&A there was a question about whether changing the name from the Japanese (pronounced “katamari dama-she,” by the way, and roughly translating as “clump soul”) was ever considered for the Western market. Takahashi said no.
Not that Takahashi is unconcerned with how the game is marketed. In his talk, he addressed the fact that in Japan, where gaming is often thought by Westerners to be more acceptable, there’s still a stigma. “Gamers are the ones who buy games,” he said. To combat this, he suggested that manuals could be created for games that were as well designed and intriguing as books in bookstores. People who would be too intimidated to pick up a controller for a demo in a game store might flip through a book.
While this could easily be dismissed as a packaging gimmick to bring in more money, it’s actually idealism. Takahashi is applying the same intentions to promotion and marketing that he’s applied to making the game: reaching out to non-gamers and bringing them pleasure. It’s a kind of advocacy that has faith in the transformative power of gaming, rather than insisting that gaming be taken seriously.
Makes me wonder if Takahashi very roughly translates to “he who offers the stick-of-joy.”