Published in graphic, issue six, from 2004
Only videogames could bring you rampage of theft and destruction which will melt your heart.
As stories go, it could hardly be any more scant. It wouldn’t fill a feature film or a book whose pages weren’t made out of cardboard. Videogames, however, have always thrived on similarly pithy, similarly deranged set-ups. And this one, which forms the backdrop to Namco’s Katamari Damacy, couldn’t be any more densely, dreamily. The logic may be loony, but there’s an irresistible inevitability to it, one that it would be churlish to refuse. The King of Space is drunk and you, of course, agree.
However, it’s one thing to make a pledge to a cosmic king who’s tied one on. It’s another to deliver. Just what have you got yourself into? Another few hours of repetitive sofa time? Shooting things and collecting tokens? Or jumping on things and collecting tokens? Not this time. Find a fat ball of blu-tak and warm it in your fingers. Smooth it to a round and let it loose on your desk. Roll it while it picks up paper clips, pen tops, matches and Smarties – a spare key, perhaps, or a watch battery. And that’s it. End of your mild, absent-minded fun. Nothing to write an article about, that’s for sure.
This, however, is where videogames come in. They are at their strongest not when the offer an extension of the obvious (“I wish I could drive a teensy bit faster and then win Wimbledon!”) but when they allow an elaboration of something we’d barely considered. In Katamari, your blu-tak ball never stops growing, never loses its stick. Each new objects glues itself to the last: keys beget socks beget books beget cushions beget chairs beget doors, paving stones, fences, buses and bungalows, beget lakes and lay-bys, planes and rainbows. From tiny, sticky acorns do giant stars-in-waiting grow.
This is a game of incremental kleptomania. Everything you can see, you can have. But not yet, never quite yet. A small ball can only pick up small things. But these small things make your ball bigger, and a bigger ball can pick up bigger things. Each time you circle the pastel plainness of a Japanese suburb you log the items you will poach on your next lap. As they attach, each item blooms into life. Eggs hatch, dogs bark, people sing shrill, panicky songs. Your ball becomes a gleeful cacophony of butterflies and geese, lollipops and handcuffs, studded with Elvis quiffs and telegraph polls.
The first time you realise that Katamari is something truly special is when you introduce it to a friend and watch it reduce them to childishness. This, usually, is a bad thing. Childish has become synonymous with moronic, clumsy, sentimental and boring, all the traits in which bad games usual excel. It’s singularly unfair. The rapid learning and the eagerness for exploration and experiment that children exhibit are exactly the tendencies which good videogames encourage from the second you switch them on. Watching an adult undergo the child’s learning process that Katamari demands is both touching and unsettling. It’s a game that generates its own litany, identical regardless of the person who is playing. First cautious: “Can you pick up flowers?” “You can pick up everything.” Then curious: “Can you pick up the people?” “You can pick up everything.” Then sceptical: “Can you pick up cars?” “You can pick up everything,” Then calculating: “Can you pick up islands?” “You can pick up everything.” Finally understanding: “Can you pick….oh. You can pick up [i]everything[/i]
This alone would set Katamari apart, guarantee it a place on the reading list for What Games Do That Nothing Else Can. But as you play, a darker, clever core is revealed. In Katamari you start out small. Cotton reels and rubbers thump into you like bumper cars. A squealing mouse looms like a predator. Trundling round the skirting boards and gutters you feel half like a pint-pot hero, half like a virtuous recycler. But as you go, you grow. And as you grow you become the predator. The people whose shoes you once couldn’t see over start to scream as you approach. Police fire useless shots at your thundering bulk. You amass first their children and then their cars, their livelihoods and then their houses. A thriving town becomes as bare as a car lot, a rich green forest as scoured as a desert. Your actions become steadily more violent. Wrenching islands free of their sockets feels as sickening as a slowly pulled tooth. In the end, you’re a monster, a real life Shiva.
A thousand sci-fi novels have painted the death of worlds devoured by a hungry star as it flares outward and engulfs a galaxy. Katamari shows you an insidious alternative: worlds devoured by a star that timidly nibbles from the inside out. It’s a cosmic version of the fate of the unfortunate Jim, who, courtesy of a nibbling lion, finds out ‘how it feels, when first your toes and then your heels, and then by gradual degrees your shins and ankles, calves and knees are slowly eaten bit by bit’. While Jim may have detested it, you will relish every second. Those seconds, however, will have an emotional richness which games that profess ‘deep’ stores and ‘cinematic’ sequences are entirely unable to provoke. Katamari is a game which forces you to respond to what you do, not what you’re told. Katamari is a game which uses its form, rather than fighting it.
Katamari Damacy is not yet confirmed for a release in Europe. Conventional, and somewhat racist, wisdom is that this kind of Japanese ‘wackiness’ is too rich for our thin Northern blood. They’re right, in a way. The thick, useless mulch of most of today’s videogames is a pretty poor diet. Katamari is like taking a child that’s lived on cheese that comes out of a tube and stuffing a perfect tomato into their mouths: a time bomb of bitter nourishment and sweet, scented savour. Frightening, extraordinary and actually wonderful. Isn’t that the least we deserve?