Undetailed polygons are not a commodity. But any frame of Katamari Damacy could hang in a cubist’s gala. Games that have since aped the paradigm have missed the style – games like The Unfinished Swan, overburdened with academia, and Flow/Flower/Journey, under-burdened with gameplay. The title is a sandwich of Japanese concepts that loosely adds up to “life clump.” It rolls up implications like it rolls up everything. All life goes into it, starts there, and rolls forever.
Why is this game so endurable? Or maybe you didn’t know that it is. Thirteen years later, it’s one of the games I keep on my shortlist for a rainy day, those with that crunchy, pure gameplay bliss that comes along ever so often, as it has in the form of Mega Man and Gradius. Katamari may be a visual experiment in icing, but the donut beneath it is a caky bedrock of humble arcade action – like Marble Madness via LSD: Dream Simulator.
But there’s more to it than gameplay, as you well know if you’re already a part of its life clump.
You get the first inkling of its greatness beyond the kaleidoscopic intro, once you’re fully immersed in the scale of its world. Your habitation of a tiny space as you collect crumbs and knick-knacks becomes an existential act when you grow with success, expanding into the outer space and rescaling with the world around you. Impossible gaps become divots in your world-sized road. Giants in the distance become filaments on your outer surface. The long-term feeling of seeing a mountain and eventually scaling it, as in a game with breadth the likes of Skyrim or Dark Souls, becomes a series of constant miniature highs in Katamari, tracking the progress of every five-minute level with the ecstatic sense of discovery, even where nothing exists to discover except your own power.
Katamari takes traditional goal-setting and expounds a laissez-faire design where the goals are hidden in the freedom. Objects are laid out in patterns for you to navigate as you eye your relative size to plan your next path. I’m more interested in the narrative design of those objects than their obvious incremental significance to gameplay.
Katamari is all about sensation. The gameplay is technically the same in the first and last levels – only the through-line between your idea of reality and the game’s recognition of it clues you into your progress. It’s mechanically the same to pick up a thumbtack and a skyscraper, but what you mentally take with you into the game concerning size and power makes one act seem trivial and the other empowering. Victory is a matter of perspective, of conquering goals set by an internal rhythm.
The game offers you encouragement, but I’ve played few games that are so explicitly discouraging in the sight of failure, which the game would call “disappointment.” When the King of All Cosmos stares you down because you’ve failed to make a Katamari sufficient to replace one of the stars he destroyed in a drunken stupor (this is, essentially, the game’s plot) the game thrashes you. Things like the unduly harsh failure screen start to incubate a curious feeling in Katamari, one unmistakably dystopic. Elements start to coerce in your mind after you’ve played it for a while, and you start to see the origami candy for its culture critique.
The game is called “life clump,” but you never roll up anything important. The scraps laying around are mundanities, symbols of corporate structures, crumbs of industrial authority. You roll up the traffic blockage on I4 West and the tip you left the waiter, the discount produce signs and the rows of identical suburban housing projects, the trail of paperclips and the factories that made them. The sum of these is what Katamari calls “life.” Everything in the world and all the people that inhabit its industrial ennui are rolled up and absorbed into a singular new feeling: that of the cosmic, emotional, holistic, Katamari.
Katamari propounds its life-view like a new religion, which preaches the relinquishment of tiny manmade things into the absolution of the integral, beautiful Katamari. Despite clearly availing itself of the West in its swinging tunes, the game has a firm guiding star in the Zodiac, which it uses to demystify ruling bodies much, much more efficiently than any game made expressly for that purpose. The Katamari itself represents a cosmic leveling, a dream that goes beyond socialist redistribution into a kind of ascendant equalization, a removal of all impermanence. In essence it is, in no uncertain terms, an apocalypse.
Dali made similar ones when he stretched out the femurs of elephants and sent them rampant in the desert of the real on convoys of time-embodiments. It’s within the nonsense of Katamari that it lays out the cul-de-sac of meaning in little paths and replaces it with a heightened abstract. It’s with life that it redefines life.
And of course it’s at the center of a fun little arcade game. There’s a reason why the greatest anthem to existential nihilism in our time is Rick Sanchez and not Nietzsche. Abstraction is complicated to conceive but the result is simple, the culmination of an advanced thought beyond advancement. It resists definition; its complexity defies complexity. Instead of reading Thus Spake Zarathustra you could get it straight in your mind what exactly is meant by “Wubba-lubba-dub-dub” to different mental but equivalent philosophical effects.
Perilously, like a McDonald’s commercial that acknowledges obesity, the anti-corporate abstraction called Katamari Damacy is sold in stores and bought by the people it hopes to roll up. But its simple addiction could collapse regimes if it was a social policy instead of a video game. As we near Wattam, Keita Takahashi’s next game, I’m grateful he tackled game design and not politics. Otherwise we might all be a single star in the sky already. I don’t know about you, but I know a few people I’d rather not be that close to.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org