People like a lot of games. We enjoy picking them up, playing them, getting as far as our interest will take us and then putting them down again. But what constitutes a game that we love? What makes a game so compelling, so rich, that it develops a fanbase whose adulation of the title reaches far beyond the point where the controller is put back on the table and the game box back on the shelf?
For an obvious example, you could point to the Final Fantasy games, which have a volume of rabid fans that hints at the detail, number of characters and expansive plots that it's famous for. Notwithstanding the heavy merchandising of the games and their inhabitants, there's a lot of fan-created art, stories, costumes, role-plays. For an FF follower, there's plenty to extend the fantasy, whether it's with licensed merchandise or amateur, fan-made works.
But it's not just richness and complexity that drives a game's fans to creativity. Grand Theft Auto, which has sold tens of millions of copies and is as sprawling, deep and engaging a videogame experience as you could hope for, has inspired little other than the occasional parody. Meanwhile, Katamari Damacy, a quirky Japanese game with limited commercial success, is rapidly on its way to becoming a cultural icon. We love Katamari.
Here we have a game that rose to fame because you play a funny-looking member of the Cosmic Royal Family and push an improbably sticky ball around the world picking up objects, growing said ball to the extent that you can pick up, well, some more objects. The levels scale, your ball gets bigger. There's little storyline to speak of and before you know it you're rolling a ball the size of the moon around and picking up whole islands. Perhaps the key is that it's all over as quickly as it's begun, leaving you wanting more; not necessarily more of the game, but more of the music, the quirky idiosyncratic characters, the nonsensical dialogue. Aha.
Namco was always taking a chance when it released Katamari Damacy and presumably, to minimise the risks, decided not to go all-out merchandising the Prince and his cohorts. For a gamer who'd just finished the game, loved the whole thing and wanted to tell the whole world about Katamari, there was nothing. No stickers, badges, figures. Nothing. What's a rabid fan to do? Create merchandise? Well, that's what happened. The fanbase didn't leave it at merch, either. In fact, Katamari fandom took the Prince, his improbably sticky ball, the king and the cousins and remixed, mashed-up and spliced everything together in a million different ways. Food, clothing, figures, diorama, toys... If you can imagine it, it's probably been sketched out, built, rolled around a bit and spat out onto the internet, all Katamari-coloured. With We Love Katamari finally available in Europe this Friday, I've been stroking the game's sticky online chin.
For some reason, Katamari fans seem to love playing with their food. Just a foray into the tag-friendly world of Flickr reveals [Katamari cookies], at least [three] [different] [cakes], [halloween] [pumpkins] and [a sushi arrangement in the shape of the Prince], and that's just the stuff that's been made easy to search for; I'm sure this just represents the thin end of the wedge. I can imagine an enterprising chef about to cook up some Katamari gobstoppers in time for the next convention.
One of the voids people seem to have felt most acutely in Katamari World is the lack of clothing, because there's a scary amount of ad-hoc knitting going on out there. Panic.com had officially sanctioned, slightly atypical but muted T-shirt designs late last year, which received a mixed response, but before that Cafepress and ZeStuff had been selling unlicensed T-shirts by the truckload. The quality wasn't always fantastic ("Your Katamari is this big"?) but it didn't stop people buying them. Some of the best innovation came from the crafters out there: even Keita Takahashi himself has a Katamari hat designed and hand-knitted by Xiola via [her website]. There are also homemade [glass beads], [earrings] and a [giant crocheted blanket]. And then there's cosplay.
Boy, there's cosplay.
To understand this aspect, you have to understand that Katamari Damacy occupies a special place in the world. Caught somewhere between Japanese eccentricity and videogames, it's piqued the interest of a particular breed of dresser-up, and they've risen to the challenge of becoming a centimetre-high character with an admirable disregard for physics. Without a shadow of a doubt, the talent of this crowd was exemplified by a brilliant photographic post to Livejournal with the title ["Private Photoshoot of Liddo and Sarah's Katamari Fantasy Night"]. There's plenty of less aesthetically pleasing replications of the Prince and King, though. [Oh] [yes].
When I was at primary school we did a lot of arts and crafts. I made a fairly saggy-looking ashtray out of clay and gave it to my Dad who doesn't smoke. When I left to go to secondary school I stopped with the crafts. Some people evidently didn't stop, and thank goodness! It is these people, once written off as sad, lonely bastards who liked the smell of PVA glue who today have given us such a well-fed stream of katamari-related arts and crafts to play with. You can do this one at home, people. The [origami Prince] is your beginners' level. Print it out, get your Mummy or Daddy to cut it out for you and assemble into a lifelike representation of his holy smallness. Excellent! If you lack a printer, then nip down to the shop and get some tubs of playdoh. Employ digital camera and some creativity and [re-enact scenes from the game]. That's a whole afternoon lost, right there. If you're an Alpha crafter and you have some serious creative voodoo to burn, then hit up a Hobbycraft and make yourself a bigger katamari out of whatever you find. I have no idea what they used to [make this model], but it'd look lovely on my shelf. Presumably it was one of these types that was resposible for the [giant katamari] at E3 last year, which caused such a buzz that [secret phone pics] emerged before it was even unveiled.
Everyone understands that certain games stay with you long after you turn them off. There was an extended period years ago where I kept seeing little blue crates from Command & Conquer everywhere I went. I could be in the middle of a shop and my eye would be caught by a flash of turquoise - I was helpless to do anything but look. Katamari seems to have had the same effect on a broad scale, and now we have people photographing things for the sake of identifying "unintentional katamaris" - quite the internet phenomenon. When I was in Berlin a little over a year ago, a friend returned from a day out excitedly informing me that they'd found a giant katamari close to Checkpoint Charlie. [They were completely correct]. The first person to put a tiny model prince next to it and snap a photo wins my profound respect. Even more respect if they dress up as the Prince. Other sightings of real-life imitating art - ranging from spot-on to "dubious" - have come in the form of [Dilbert cartoons], [somebody's garden] and [something found on the shelves of an electronics shop].
Most of the Katamari fanworks have found their fame on the internet through social software like delicious, blogs, Flickr and LiveJournal. [Katamari graffiti] scrawled on a toilet wall, [mashups of Indiana Jones] and [Da Vinci], [Katamari chequebooks], a noisy but [virtually] [unlimited] [supply] [of] [YTMND] pages dedicated to the game, [a mock-up of an 80s text adventure], [more knitting], a [rather neat set of Animal Crossing patterns] in the shape of the Prince's head.
There's even one video born of Katamari fandom that I haven't managed to find yet, but it sounds superb. I'm reliably informed there exists a video of some kids making a real life katamari ball out of some kind of sticky material. They go on to unveil this marvellous thing to the camera and test it - whereupon they realise that things stuck to the katamari don't magically become sticky like they do in the game, and their disappointment is palpable and sphincter-clenchingly hilarious.
There are so many of these disparate little nods in the direction of Katamari on the internet that it's hard to think of any other game that measures up to its quality of output. And before you try to counter that point in your mind, make sure that whatever you're about to bring up can match the sheer absurdity of the Katamari porn I've witnessed while researching this. And if you think the incestuous, dimensionally dubious pairing of the King and Prince is bad enough, well, you clearly haven't witnessed the slash fiction.
Man, We Love Katamari.
We Love Katamari is released today on PS2 in Europe. See the game-page for reviews. The original game, Katamari Damacy, is available on import from the US or Japan and will not work on PAL PS2 consoles.