This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #161. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Analyzing the digital and analog feedback loop.
The space between February and March (which is when I’ve initially written this column) is almost always a tangled and sticky affair. That sounds suggestive (and maybe even TMI), especially following Valentine’s (or as I like to call it – chocolate day), but it’s less about the earthiness of the season and more to do with how a lot of loose ends get tied up around this time of the year. February is the start of Canadian tax season and also the season where my brain tends to feel like it’s existing in the past and the present simultaneously. My mind at this point of the cycle feels like it has accrued too many half-ideas and fragments of meaning and nothing coalesces without a real push. A period of inertia tends to accompany this period, no matter whether I am feeling galvanized to get the ball rolling or burnt out.
But the space between winter and spring is also a time to focus on building up momentum slowly. There’s a lot of possibilities in the cluttered piles to pick up and play with. While there is certainly a lot of junk, there are also glimmers of hidden insight as well. In other words, this is the season when I reflect on games I’ve played both in the recent past and the before times (also known as the mid-noughties, for me).
The game that came to mind during this cycle is We Love Katamari, the sequel to the beloved surreal-yet-wholesome classic Katamari Damacy. I never had a chance to play the first game, as copies had become rare in my area at the time of its North American release. I have a copy now, but I found it just after my old PS2 gave its last cough. My family had heard a lot of its exciting and joyful gameplay though, so we snatched up We Love Katamari the first chance we got. The sequel isn’t too much different in premise from the first game, from what I can gather. You’re still performing the same actions of rolling up everything under the sun and proving it’s all made of starstuff. The King of All Cosmos is still an ass to the Prince, although now he has a redeeming backstory about his toxic filial relationship, so history eats its own tail. The soundtrack is still fire. One of the only differences I can remember is that this time around the Prince has some of his fellow hammer-headed cousins help with his task as well. I remember the one who looked like a strawberry the most.
This sequel was themed around fan-service but not the typical bikini-clad fare people tend to associate with the term. Since Katamari Damacy was a sleeper hit and one with an atypical development story, the creator Takahashi Keita wanted to thank his passionate fans by making the second game a more refined version of what they loved from the first game. As well there’s a meta-narrative in the game of people being fans with requests for Katamari projects from the King of All Cosmos. This despite the fact that the royal family was responsible for a lot of chaos and mayhem, rolling up anything and everything (including humans and animals) to turn into star matter to replace what the King destroyed during a bender with his friends.
I continue to be fascinated by game creators who incorporate multimedia inspirations and practices into their design. When I was studying different schools of thought as a literature and culture student, there were often what I found to be strange divides between different media forms and their attendant discourses. Previously, I spent my second column for this fine publication dishing on what I loved about Uchikoshi Kotaro’s game design and his various inspirations because said creator doesn’t really give a damn if theoretically those inspirations came from formally similar media. Writing that column, which was comprised almost completely of spoilers (sorry, but mostly for my lack of a warning), made me realize how frustrating it is that AAA games have become less experimental in aesthetics and more dedicated to tried-and-true homogenous design trends. To get back to We Love Katamari, Takahashi is one such creator who has drawn from his unique history as a fine artist to create a game that achieves a rare level of balance between play and artistic expression.
Takahashi has a pragmatic philosophy when it comes to art. Previous to being a renowned game designer he was a sculptor who focused his efforts on making whimsical yet useful everyday objects. L.E. Hall relates in their Boss Fight Books entry on the history and making of Katamari Damacy that as an artist Takahashi often expressed that nature was capable of creating more breathtaking structures than humans can and that his art should be useful and accessible to many people. Part of what led him to choose the path of a game designer was this philosophy, since games are a commercial art form that (at least at the time of making his sleeper-hit title) weren’t too expensive for people to afford.
There has certainly been a lot of discussion about the melancholy of creators like Takahashi, who use their projects to help process their conflicted feelings as an artist in these late capitalist times. But I have seen less discussion about how Katamari’s main mechanics and story beats deftly handle themes of transmuting mundane objects and everyday drudgery into something more elevated. The closest to this discussion I’ve seen is Hamish Black of Writing On Games’ video essay entitled “The Dark Heart of Katamari Damacy.” But Black focuses on how one could read the game as a way to symbolize the absurdity of game development as a creator who wants to change such a commercial art form for the better.
Recently, I finally read The Little Prince and was rather disappointed by it. For an author who found Africa so fascinating as a pilot postman who flew to cities like Dakar, I was taken aback at how de Saint-Exupery demonized Baobab trees (which are sacred to several African cultures and traditions) in his narrative. I did find something strange though as I whizzed through a system of mini planets constructed to alleviate the author’s guilt about how he treated his wife horribly and confronted a “tyranny of petty things”. I began to see certain parallels between formal elements of the Naïve art style of de Saint-Exupery’s work and Takahashi’s.
Both creators feature childish green-clad Princes in their respective works who are dealing with an absurd, yet philosophical, world based off of their personal zeitgeists. These diminutive yet determined Princes are foils to disillusioned or highly critical adult characters, which often have a self-referential quality to them (the Pilot and the King of All Cosmos). Though these are not one-to-one, I’d say it’s still safe to say that such figures represent these creators’ inner critics, who have internalized the jaded nature of their peers and bosses throughout the years. Both creators also deal with existential themes about how humans (especially those dastardly grown-ups) place too much value on objects or in concepts that, in the end, don’t truly matter. Like money, consumer goods or a so-called right to authority, whether divine or otherwise.
I should mention briefly that I certainly don’t mean to equate the two creators by mentioning these parallels between them. Takahashi’s work is primarily rooted in Japanese culture and his experiences within that culture as artist and designer, even if his work pushes against societal norms. If anything, comparing de Saint-Exupery and Takahashi is a comment on my own thought process, which bounces between whatever media I’m currently consuming (but especially books) and my fascination with the possible cross-pollination of ideas between different culture’s multimedia. Japan and France also have a long history of inspiring each other’s art and literary scenes as well, especially regarding surrealism, which often worked with the free association of subconscious ideas.
We Love Katamari and the series it’s a part of is about the alchemy of persistence at its core. You take what’s available to you and turn it into a star. No matter if it’s so much prosaic dross or inspiration from unlikely places, like the Japanese children’s cooperative ball game tamakorogashi that L.E. Hall learns of during their research and interviews with Takahashi. Sometimes you persist for your own personal creative goals, other times you do this for others who have respectively requested your skills.
Writers who have previously picked up on the subtle darkness that paradoxically boosts the euphoric highs of the signature Katamari gameplay experience, are keenly aware of how Takahashi nails the often-Sisyphean nature of artistic development. The act of rolling up many objects in Katamari and the characters in the second game who want you to clean up or collect specific items are a comment on consumerism. If I was one of those characters, I’d ask if it’s possible to make a Katamari ball of my cluttered pre-spring brain and all its intertextual ideas. That would be nice. But I know the other lesson of this series is that allowing ourselves to play in a whimsical manner is transformative. So I will be at peace with the constellation in my mind and observe what I can of it.
Phoenix Simms is a writer and indie narrative designer from Atlantic Canada. You can lure her out of hibernation during the winter with rare McKillip novels, Japanese stationery goods, and ornate cupcakes.