Skip to main content

Katamari was comment on consumerism

"I don't use drugs at all" - Takahashi.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

At his talk at last week's Game Developers Conference, Namco Bandai's Keita Takahashi revealed that he intended his first game, cult hit Katamari Damacy, to be a comment on consumer culture.

In Katamari, players can roll up almost every object they see into a giant, all-consuming snowball of stuff. Takahashi told the audience that he saw it as "a game about the consumption society". But that presented him with a problem - playing it made him sad.

"I wanted to make more objects. If there are few objects, I feel lonely. If there are more objects, they will make things more colourful. But when they're rolled up, they're gone. I felt empty," he said.

"I feel the same way about the disposable society. I think I successfully expressed my cynical stance towards the consumption society by making Katamari - but still I felt empty when the objects were gone."

He also felt depressed by the game's reliance on formulaic objectives - bigger and longer stages requiring the player to make bigger and bigger balls of debris. "I wasn't happy," he said. "This seemed like it was just a formula, and I felt somehow betrayed.

"Of course there are games that absorb these things and result in something wonderful. But I wanted to throw these off and start from scratch with what games should be."

This, he said, was the inspiration for his strange and wonderful PSN game Noby Noby Boy (which Takahashi revealed was getting an iPhone version and multiplayer update at the talk). Noby Noby Boy would have "fewer stages and objects", no objectives, and a happier theme, he decided.

Its extreme strangeness has led many to question Takahashi's sanity and sobriety, but on this matter he was keen to reassure the GDC audience. "Sometimes [people] might think that I'm so crazy, but I'm very normal. I don't use drugs at all, I don't drink at all. Please don't worry about me, I'm OK!" he said.

Returning to his theme, Takahashi said he was also dismayed by the sight of children lost in their PSP and DS games on the train, not talking to their parents.

"[Studio Ghibli film director] Hayao Miyazaki said once that children these days aren't playing, they're just consuming. I think that's true," Takahashi said. "In Japan, people who play games are called 'users'. I always thought there was something wrong with that."

So he set out to create a game that was purely about play - and also, he joked, he set out to sabotage his own success. "Maybe it's not so good if a game really sells," Takahashi said. "So I thought maybe it would be good if Noby Noby Boy was only on PS3 and only for download, maybe it wouldn't sell so much. And I was right!"

It hasn't made him popular at Namco, Takahashi said. "People who are high up were very very angry with me, and sometimes if I look at them they will really glare at me," he said.

Aside from this, Takahashi revealed another problem with the game's poor sales - it currently has around 55,000 registered players online - is its communal unlocking system, whereby players work together to link all the planets in the solar system. At the current rate, this will take 820 years. "This is a problem. I'm going to be dead by then. What should I do?"

But when asked by a member of the audience if he would consider shortening the distances in the solar system, he said no. "If we can't do it, that's OK."

Takahashi revealed that his dream had been to reward top-ranked players with actual, physical gifts - a knitted Noby Noby Boy scarf (with mitten ends) designed by his mother, a giant pillow made by his sister, and wooden dolls painted by himself.

"Once Noby Noby Boy was made, I would retire and make this wooden doll every day," he said. "I was so excited. But I couldn't do this. I was so disappointed." It boiled down to privacy issues and distribution, he revealed. "But personally I thought it could be fun if this went to a wrong address. It would go on an auction site, then I would buy it back and redeliver it. That would be fun. Any mistakes or accidents would be amusing."

He said he'd also wanted to implement an internet search engine within the game, where characters would find search results and bring them to BOY, who would then eat them to view the pages. "Popular sites would run very fast and be hard to catch," he said.

Summarising his motivation for making the game, Takahashi said: "I felt constrained, I felt cramped. The world has become a cramped place, the real world that we live in. It doesn't have anything to do with the recession... It feels like there is something invisible that is tying me up - maybe this thing that is tying me up might be Bandai actually, but there seems to be something much bigger," he said.

"Noby Noby means not to be constrained, to be mentally and spiritually liberated."

He finished on an upbeat note. "I've been complaining a lot up to now. People call me not Keita Takahashi, but Hater Takahashi. But I think that there is a great potential to games.

"If we love videogames, we have to feel more, and observe more, and enjoy more while we create games. There is no completion in games, they are always developing, but despite that we say that there is a certain way that games have to be.

"Perhaps we are hiding behind these rules, and relying on past experiences. Perhaps we have to ignore the players and our companies. Maybe we should just try creating a game that we like," he said.

And how, a member of the audience asked Takahashi, did he go about pitching such unorthodox and personal games to publishers? Did he have any advice?

"Maybe you can just cry. Appeal to them... and just cry."

Read this next