Apr 11, 2008

A critique of Katamari Damacy

Katamari is certainly a unique game, and many people have had different feelings about the game.

The first thing that I want to point out is that this game is a direct descendant of Pac Man – a game also built by Namco many years before. The primary focus is on collecting things and avoiding baddies – unless the game is in a state where you can consume enemies.

Much like its ancestor, this game is extremely focused on simple core mechanics. There are no power ups to manage in Katamari, and user control is absolutely consistent within levels. This allows the learning process to be fairly straight forward, slowly refining the skills that are introduced early on.

The visual and auditory feedback is continuous, letting you know how much you are picking up with satisfying pops (and the occasional scream from a sumo wrestler).

One of the things that make the mechanic of collect distinctive is that the relationships between your character and the environment are not absolute. An item that serves as a barrier early in a level will usually become something consumable later in the level.

Also an animal that causes you harm (or at least inconvenience), can be rolled into your ball later on. This potentially taps an undercurrent of the human compulsion for revenge.

I would guess that this relative relationship between things would make level design extremely challenging. How do you place a level wall that is also an item to be collected? I can almost imagine the items needing to be placed in a fractal sort of arrangement.

The game has an extremely simple but unique Art style. This item simplicity has a couple of secondary implications for the game:

1. They can be created faster, allowing for more things to be built in the same amount of time, and
2. They have a lower polygon count so that more items can be shown on screen at on time.

Both of which contribute to a larger variety of items that can be seen and interacted with throughout the game. If there were only a handful of items that could be picked up, the game would feel significantly different.

The multitude of items and their (seemingly) unusual placement give the game a powerful sense of absurdity. The game has a sense of humor, but does so without telling any jokes.

Ironically, the story elements of the game are fairly serious. The relationship between the main character and the father character is strained. But in a subtle way. There is not any major event that plays out for the sake of drama. His quiet disapproval of an incomplete mission adds some emotional weight to the game. Somehow this is accessible in a personal way that more epic stories are not.

Emotional content aside, the concept truly uses the media of games in a powerful way. It allows the player to experience something that they cannot in regular life in an interactive way. You would NOT have a similar experience if this was described in book or movie form.

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