A love letter to one game’s inherent humanity
I’ve never been much of a gamer. I always wanted to be, it just didn’t come together. I ended up falling hard into music and theater, pretended I was an athlete for a brief stint, and video games fell to the wayside. My friends and I played casual party games during sleepovers – Sega Superstars Tennis, anyone? – and that was sort of the extent of my exposure. I didn’t even play a Pokémon game until I was 19.
But, for my tenth birthday my parents bought me a PlayStation 2. I think it was my tenth birthday, anyway. The older I get, the fuzzier my timeline of memories becomes, like your favorite radio station as you drive away from home. What matters is that I got the console, along with an eclectic mix of games that, ultimately, remained mostly untouched. There were only a couple of titles that fell into the regular rotation of weekend gaming with my dad. Every Saturday while my mom was at work, dad and I would sit as close to the edge of the couch as we could, asses hanging almost entirely off the cushions as we stretched the cords of the controllers to their absolute limits. I would make him play the game – I couldn’t handle the pressure of losing, so I passed it off – and I would watch, enraptured, cheering him on.
The disc that spent the most time in that PlayStation 2 was Katamari Damacy, a wildly unique title that came out in 2004 to muted success. To my dad and I, it was the greatest game in the world. We rationed it out, playing one or two levels a weekend for months until we reached the end. Twenty minutes later we held the moon in our digital hands, watched it get tossed into the sky. There was a happy dance, celebratory pizza, a whole miniature festival of Katamari between he and I and my little sister, who maybe didn’t understand but was very on board for the party. Before I even knew the proper terminology I was talking about 100-percenting the game, looking up walkthroughs to find all the presents and all the cousins. My dad was just as enthusiastic as I was. We couldn’t get enough of this weird, bright, captivating game.
Eventually my era of gaming came to an end, as I got busy with other endeavors and my dad started working weekends to keep us afloat, but Katamari Damacy was the one game that stuck with me through the years. Now, more than a decade later, this innovative title popped up on the Nintendo Eshop while I was browsing and brought me back in time.
As aforementioned, the Katamari franchise is based around one incredibly unique premise: roll up the world. Using what amounts to a sticky Koosh ball you, as the Prince, roll through houses and city streets, your orb growing incrementally bigger as you scoop up paper clips, cats, buildings, and giant squid. Anything you run across that you’re marginally larger than can be sucked into the gravity of the katamari. On the surface, the concept doesn’t sound very engaging. Just picking things up off the ground sounds like a housekeeping simulator, only with an oddly shaped vacuum. But diving deeper, the game is a fully immersive wonderland, an easy escape that somehow plugs you back into the world at large. The graphics are ethereal and solid, bright pastels that evoke a feeling of calm despite the time-trial style of gameplay. The music adds to that feeling as well, catchy and upbeat. The soundtrack is one that stuck with me for over a decade, and even now the first few notes of the main theme throw me back to weekend days spent on the couch. It’s evocative and joyful.
The plot is silly, effervescent. Your dad, King of All Cosmos, destroyed all the stars in the sky. Now he’s tasking you with putting all the stars back, replacing them with katamaris you create in various sizes and themes. If you take this game at face value, it’s a delight. But if you take the time to dig a little further into the layers, what emerges is a picture of the intricacies of humanity.
The gentle nature and weird, kitschy vagueness of Katamari make it the perfect backdrop for an array of symbolism and metaphor. Perhaps the strongest instance of this shows in the gameplay mechanics. As the Prince, you roll the katamari around the world by pushing both of the PS2 joysticks in the same direction. Typically in games, one stick is devoted to movement and one is devoted to the camera, but in this game both sticks are devoted to movement, and they have to work in tandem. Pushing the sticks in different directions means the katamari stops moving, and pushing only one stick circles the Prince around the circumference of the katamari, changing direction but not creating any forward motion. It is a clunky, sometimes infuriating system that could easily be replaced with single-stick movement. But that would defeat the purpose. The Prince is carrying the weight of the world by himself, literally – every new sphere is a star in the sky, a colossal celestial mass that he alone is tasked with creating. He shoulders the burden of his father’s enormous failure, the mistake that the King refuses to own, and he works to fix it for his dad. It is the heavy oppressiveness of a less-than-perfect family dynamic, it’s the pressure to succeed, it’s actually pushing something that is exponentially larger than him – because it doesn’t matter how large the katamari grows, the Prince stays the same size, so much smaller than the world he is released into – and the weight of all of these elements together is crushing. It is awkward and unwieldy and that’s exactly what the mechanics of the game express. You need both hands to carry the weight of the world.
One of the smaller elements in the game is the presence of “cousins”. Hidden in every level there’s a relative of the Prince, a brightly colored sprite just hanging out on Earth trying to blend in. They can be rolled up with the katamari, and if you manage to keep them in your ball until the end of the level, they show up as playable characters on the multiplayer PVP world. However, these characters aren’t playable in the main stages of gameplay. When rolling up stars, your only option is to play as Prince – it is, after all, the sins of the father, not the sins of the uncle. If these cousins are only playable in head to head matches outside of the main storyline, then they could have been preset on the multiplayer screen. They didn’t have to be collectables. But there they are, one in every single level, waiting for you to find them. Sure, the simple explanation is that it adds another element of complexity to the game. Something extra to accomplish, if beating the level just isn’t satisfying enough and you need an additional challenge. But as with everything, there is meaning here. The Prince is alone in a world that is not his own, cast down to Earth with an incomplete knowledge of his surroundings. He is a traveler in a foreign city, his guidebook is out of date, marooned and wandering with a purpose. We’ve all been the Prince on some journey or vacation, putting ourselves out there and hoping against hope that we make it out in one piece. Everywhere he goes, the Prince can find a little bit of home. Someone he recognizes to help him along the way, to give him emotional support that he is otherwise missing. The world becomes smaller, not so intimidating, when he has someone on his side. In this political climate especially, this message is particularly potent. It’s important to remember that you can always make a friend, form a bond, that no matter where you go we are all just people looking to connect to other people and feel more secure in our own expedition of life. Cousin to cousin, person to person, there is always someone there.
That is to say, if we were allowed to go anywhere or see anyone. With the world on lockdown because of COVID-19, the core concept of this game might come off as ironic. All you do is stick people together? Pretty diametrically opposed to social distancing. But I think Katamari is way more applicable to the current situation than it first appears. I know that everyone is longing for a return to normal, but I foresee that the normal we’re going to find after this crisis ends is a different normal than the one we were used to. Society is going to change in the wake of this crippling virus; I don’t see how it can’t. The flaws in our system have become abundantly clear as we watch people suffer because of the shelter-in-place orders. There’s nowhere to go but up. And I think Katamari represents that explicitly. Every blocky, animated character that gets rolled up into a katamari does so without their permission. The katamari is a tide that rolls in unexpectedly and sweeps them all out, completely beyond their control. But they’re contributing to something beautiful, when every katamari creates a star in the night sky. Isn’t that what we’re doing now? It’s difficult to give up control of your life, I know. This quarantine hasn’t been kind to me in any regard, but I know that it’s going to be worth it. We’ll come out the other side wiser than we were, with more insight into the lives of people around us and we’re going to make society better than it was before. We’re working together to make a constellation, because if we really want to we can all work together to make something beautiful.
Was all this depth intentional, or am I reading too far into a romping fever dream of a game? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are a million tiny details that make up every video game. Which ones we give credence to are entirely up to us. Katamari Damacy can be just a fun, unique game with bright colors, excellent music and ridiculous characters. I choose to see it as more. I see a game that refuses to use violence, in an era where shooters were starting to gain traction. A pacifist protest into a wave of blood and gore. I see the drastic contrast in design between the King and the Prince, a son trying desperately to stand out from the father whose shadow he literally cannot escape. The King fills the entire sky while the Prince stands tall as a mouse, staring down shoes that are impossible to fill. I see a present in every level, because life is a gift and it’s the little treats that can keep us going when the going gets too tough. I see the whole world in this game, the good and the bad and the way it all comes together in an inseparable swirl of chaos and calm, everything sticking to a central core to create something truly extraordinary.
And at the very least, I see a game that retails half the price of the newest iteration of Animal Crossing. I know that’s all the rage right now, but consider taking a chance on something different. Katamari Damacy is a game that means as much or as little as you want to believe it means, and it creates joy through gameplay that I haven’t seen replicated in any other title. It’s well worth the time and the money – I promise you’ll be hooked with that first roll, set to those soaring vocals.