Katamari Damacy: Playing Through an Object-Oriented Ontology of Universal Emptiness

“We felt the beauty of all things, 
and felt love for all.
That’s how it was.”
                                                      
                                            – The King of All Cosmos

To follow my study of Bioshock Infinite, which I began with in order to demonstrate how LudoCrit’s interpretive approach can function in spite of and even together with conflicts between a game’s narrative and ludic elements, I wanted to turn to a thematically simpler, more inventive, and neatly executed game. Few games I could think of match this description better than the charmingly bizarre PS2 cult classic, Katamari Damacy: a game that asks its player to do nothing else than roll their ball (or katamari, to be specific) around its stages to amass small objects scattered throughout, and thereby grow said ball in size to be able to amass larger objects. Katamari Damacy is a tightly crafted proof of concept that continues to serve as an exemplar of how an unconventional but easily grasped gameplay hook, paired with a simple but thoughtful thematic premise, come together to form (at the risk of sounding cliché) an undeniably fresh gaming experience. There is nothing derivative about the game’s design. Where Bioshock Infinite channelled its massive AAA budget into crafting a dense and visually spectacular setting mostly to host rather generic FPS firefights, Katamari Damacy is content to use its limited resources and features to ride both its gameplay and themes to a concise and natural conclusion. By the end of the game, our progression through the katamari-rolling gameplay loop will have had us roll up every miscellaneous object, plant, animal, person, building, etc. we can reach in a holistic vision of indiscriminate cosmic unity.

In order to coherently contextualize the ball-rolling gameplay loop, I’ll begin by running through Katamari Damacy’s narrative premise. The game’s opening sequences shows us The King of All Cosmos, a giant regal-looking god-like overseer of the universe, destroying cosmic entities such as the stars and Earth’s moon while on a drunken bender. Acknowledging his mistake, he recruits his son, The Prince, to roll up ‘things’ on Earth using the titular katamari in order to use them as resources for recreating the moon and stars. The King of All Cosmos speaks almost all of the game’s dialogue and his equally poetic and condescending view towards all the things of the universe inform the game’s equally playful and philosophical narrative tone. The Prince, on the other hand, is the player’s silent protagonist, and The King of All Cosmos takes the doubled function of overly punitive father in the narrative and authoritative objective-giver in the game for our character. The Prince’s apparent indebtedness to The King justifies the player’s inability to be anything more than an obedient servant to the limited scope of the game’s design.

As a brief side note, I couldn’t help but think of Bioshock Infinite when I saw the player’s obligation to the game’s design being framed diegetically as a “debt” that the player character owes. Upon further consideration I realized that two of 2019’s most prominent titles, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Death Stranding (games with forthcoming studies), also use indebtedness to tie their narrative to their game design principles. This begs the question: To what degree are single-player games designed as ‘debts’ that the player signs up for? What is the connection between work, play, and debt? Perhaps this trend might be worth exploring further elsewhere.

                                               i.e. “Roll up the ball and wipe away the debt.”

To get back on track, the player’s embodiment of The Prince is always conjoined with The Prince’s hold of the katamari. The Prince and the katamari are inseparable as far as the player is concerned, and The King even makes this quintessential union explicit early on: “The katamari. The Prince. Where the first rolls, the second follows.” As such, it seems worth addressing that the player’s avatar isn’t so much The Prince himself as it is The Prince Rolling the Katamari. In order to accommodate this unusual presentation of the player character, the game’s control scheme is appropriately idiosyncratic. Treating a controller’s dual analog sticks as The Prince’s left and right hands, the player can either push the katamari in a direction (manipulating both sticks in the same direction) or turn it (manipulating both sticks in opposite directions). There are a few extra tricks to perform but mastering these movements is all the player really needs in order to get through the game. Effective control of the katamari necessitates that the player maintains a kinetic momentum through the stage while reading the environment for objects smaller than their katamari, that they can absorb, and larger objects that they must (at least for now) avoid. This is all to say that there is always an essential correlation and coevolution between the size of the player’s katamari and how the player can productively navigate through the level and approach its many abstractly assorted things.

                                                  Basically what my kitchen table looks like.

This leads us to the levels themselves. Katamari Damacy’s mandatory levels, categorically named “Make a Star,” situate The Prince in exponentially macrocosmic areas of its abstract and kitschy depiction of Earth. The first level places us in a room of a Japanese home, where we must begin by rolling up dice, thumbtacks, pieces of candy and other miniscule objects with our 5cm tall katamari (which remains the size of The Prince for the entire game). Even though the level represents a domestic setting, the arrangement of its things is hardly aiming for a naturalistic feel. The excessive and rather nonsensically arranged clutter plaguing any one of Katamari’s levels makes the game’s absurd representation of Earth have an uncanny defamiliarizing effect. Even as we recognize all the things we roll into our katamari (a close-up image of which always pops up in the bottom left corner of the screen, together with the item’s name) their abstracted presentation empties them of any meaningful or potentially sentimental recognition. This effect becomes even more important in later levels as we begin to roll up animals and humans that flee in humorous displays of terror from our increasingly large katamari. The humor of these reactions makes the animate things of the world feel alive without making our actions feel problematic or destructive in any negative sense. We’re restoring the cosmos’ stars after all! In case the player needs further reassurance of their righteousness, at the end of each level we are treated to a short cutscene that progresses the side-story of the Hoshino family, where Michiru, the family’s young daughter, senses The Prince’s restoration of the cosmos and expresses a developing intuition of oneness with the universe. The Hoshino family cutscenes are crucial for positioning the events of the game from a human perspective that allows us (mere humans) to understand The Prince’s work as inherently Good.

As previously mentioned, the single-minded goal of any of the game’s primary levels is to roll as many things into our katamari as possible in the time that The King of All Cosmos grants us, thereby making the katamari as substantial as possible for the star that the The King will subsequently transform it into. Each level we progress into starts us off with a larger default katamari and an increasingly macro perspective of Earth. We move from the aforementioned domestic room, to its surrounding yard, to a nearby park, all the way to the world at large. In turn, the things we roll up become greater and greater in size. By reducing every object on Earth to serve a single in-game function, Katamari Damacy presents an object-oriented philosophy of a world that equates Everything, from thumbtacks, to bushes, to cats, to humans, to houses, to whirlpools on an equal ontological grounding. All worldly things are abstracted through their identical gameplay function, and through this abstraction all objects are emptied of any individual significance or purpose and instead conceptualized simply by their contribution to a singular oneness with the world and, in turn, each other. Each level then culminates with a sequence where The King judges the size of our katamari, informs us of the categorical distribution of its contents, and launches it into the cosmos where it is magically transformed into a star. In this process, Earthly things are wrested from their terrestrial place to become part of a greater cosmic composition. “Katamari Damashi,”the Japanese spelling of the game’s title, translates literally to “clump of souls.” With a clear rejection of humanist views of the world in favor of the Buddhist understanding of the absolute nothingness that underlies all being, the game’s logic presents all things, in their fundamental emptiness, to have equivalent souls by virtue of their interdependent contribution to the very constitution and function of the world as such.

                                                I could’ve swore I had more Nature in there.

As if in seamless coherence with its narrative premise, every element of Katamari Damacy’s game design is tightly interwoven. There are no extraneous gameplay components that detract from the core gameplay’s philosophical purpose, and every interaction informs one another. Even searching for the optional ‘presents’ that The King of All Cosmos drops into some levels functions to further flesh out his characterization as a neglectful parent and The Prince’s characterization as being forced to earn rewards and recognition for himself – just like the player. Progressing through the game’s levels and immersing yourself in its visual and aural whimsy encourages a joyfully intimate bonding with objects of all sorts and sizes. By constantly shifting the size of our katamari to be proportionate with different kinds of objects, and through the level design’s abstractly logical arrangement of said objects, the game situates us in a vision of our world that is decidedly object-centric instead of human-centric. Rather than being presented as ontologically apart in their self-centeredness, Katamari’s humans are allowed to exist naturally as just another ‘thing’ in the world. In turn, the player, as the cosmically detached Prince, is able to simultaneously witness this indiscriminate unity objectively and engage in the play that the game sets around it. Through all this unmistakable coherence, Katamari Damacy is a pure and focused experience that effortlessly expresses its narrative themes through its gameplay, and it will no doubt continue to serve as a testament to the potential of simple yet inventive game design.

 

P.S. If any reader is interested in exploring the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness (sūnyatā) that informed parts of this reading (and informs much of my own philosophical interests in general), I wholeheartedly recommend Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani’s collection of essays, Religion and Nothingness. I see no more appropriate way to end this off than with a quote from the book:

“The force of the world makes itself manifest in the force of each and every thing in the world . . . Even the very tiniest thing, to the extent that it “is,” displays in its act of being the whole web of circuminsessional interpenetration that links all things together. In its being, we might say, the world ‘worlds.’”

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