There’s funny-funny, there’s funny-weird and then there’s Katamari Damacy, a psychedelic swirl of the two. Lots of games can make me chuckle for a moment; but with Katamari I laugh and laugh until I have to put down the controller to wipe my eyes. There’s something about it that stays with you. I can’t look at a cup of ramen noodles the same way again. And to this day, I can’t hum a few bars of the main theme without smiling.
It’s not that I think Katamari is the funniest game ever – that way lies madness. Humor is a gut thing, and largely indefinable. But Katamari Damacy could be the most complete attempt at humor in the history of gaming. After all, there are a lot of ways a game can be funny: Some draw their laughs from a terrific script or pitch-perfect comic delivery, while others rely on a few well-placed sight gags to get the job done. But in Katamari Damacy, the crux of the comedy lies someplace deeper – the joke is the game itself.
It begins with an unusual premise: The King of All Cosmos tasks his son, the Prince, with providing new materials to replenish a damaged cosmos – one damaged by the King himself during a royal bender. To collect those materials, the Prince must roll up anything – preferably, everything – into a giant “katamari” (or “clump”) which is then vaulted heavenward. This epic task, astronomical in scale and subject, sets the tenor for the entire enterprise. As the Prince, you sally forth, armed with the purpose of Prometheus and the momentum of the Big Bang, and promptly begin rolling up … thumbtacks.
Yes, the universe may be big, but the Prince is little. Though he thinks cosmically, he acts locally. It’s through this comedy of scale that the joke plays out. Rather than treat the premise as so much fluff, Katamari is actually quite committed to taking this concept to its logical end. But since the very nature of the game is ridiculous, the act of playing becomes the execution of an elaborate and bizarre gag.
Those thumbtacks become spools of thread. Later you might snag a cat. Soon you are careening down the streets, hoarding up boxes, bicycles and schoolgirls. After scarfing down the local flora and fauna, you turn to the city itself; soon buildings and trees are ripped from the ground, airplanes snagged from the sky and ships from the sea. Eventually the whole world becomes fodder for your katamari, completing the transformation from wad of dirt to force of nature.
All this could be played up to be cataclysmic – think The Day After Tomorrow meets The Blob. But the game remains exuberant, warbling away merrily while you wreak your havoc. In Katamari Damacy, the end of the world isn’t a big deal, so long as everyone’s having a good time. In fact, you’re told that the very sensation of being rolled up in a katamari is one of pure oneness with the universe – despite, of course, all that screaming and flailing. Maybe it takes some getting used to.
The strangeness of the gameplay is a fitting metaphor of the game itself. In serving up this bizarre fare with a straight face, Katamari Damacy works as perfect absurdist humor. Just as your katamaris swell with the detritus of a scavenged world, every aspect of the game overflows with itself, brimming with meaning until it comes to mean nothing at all: the strange, mash-up sensibility of its music, which sounds like a Graceland recording session gone horribly right; the otherworldliness of the setting – two parts Saint-Exupéry, one part Godzilla, shake and serve; the frenzied pace of play as you scramble to big-up yourself in the last few precious moments. Any of these elements could be appreciated in isolation. But crammed together, they take on all the elegance and grace of a pie-eating contest.
And then there are the rhetorical flourishes of the mustachioed King of All Cosmos, which lend a certain seediness to the whole affair. His Royal Majesty oozes with Rat Pack panache, looking like he just finished headlining a lounge act on Neptune. It makes perfect sense that the King is fluent in Esperanto – if French is the language of lovers, then Esperanto is the language of clueless blowhards.
These ramshackle elements, cobbled together from pop culture’s dustbin, are put forward with remarkable sincerity. In the eyes of Katamari Damacy, these odds and sods aren’t just trash, but the very crust of our material world. There is no greater order and no bigger picture: Just stuff, and more stuff. The only useful classification is between things to roll up now and things to roll up later. It’s easy to get cocky when the universe hangs in your hands. The meaning of life? You’re it, baby!
Of course, the whole “rebuilding the cosmos” song and dance isn’t just for show. You are expected to make good on your promise. And so the katamari you construct slowly come to comprise a makeshift solar system, one that’s in perfect working order but for a little roughness around the edges. The game presents an alternate, if literal cosmology – one in which Ursa Major is just a big old bear and Pisces might actually be made of fish. It’s all plausible enough, certainly no weirder than the moon being made of green cheese.
This reinvented universe functions as an extended work of prop comedy, with each object’s cosmic worth measured in terms of pure humor. Why is a pencil more satisfying to roll up than an eraser? When you knock down an old lady, why does she still cling to her walker? And what is with those cops who stand their ground and fire useless bullets at you like something from a monster movie? One assumes the King of All Cosmos knows for certain, but he ain’t telling.
Like any good joke, Katamari Damacy offers a new way of seeing the world: one chock-full of jacks, paperclips, tangerine peels and the occasional giant squid. As part of a katamari, the mundane junk that surrounds us is transformed, made strange through motion and accumulation. In the way that for Marcel Duchamp a urinal could become a fountain and a piece of trash could be art, the things you collect transcend themselves. Yes, right now you’re a lowly piece of cheese … but soon, you’ll be a star!
This vision is so pervasive that it can prove infectious. I find that if I play for too long, I quickly begin seeing the things around me in terms of how well they might contribute to a katamari. I’ll walk down the street, and plan out my route in my mind: first those pylons there, and then that mailbox. And then over there to those trash cans. And then- Ooh! A bicycle rack!
But despite the lightness of Katamari Damacy‘s world of plenty, the joke may be on us. By following through on an exaggeration of game logic, it parodies the inanity of gaming itself. Yes, rolling up random objects to make stars is ridiculous – but is it any less ridiculous to go searching for a blue key to unlock the blue door? How wacky is it that Mario, after being told for the umpteenth time that his princess is in another castle, doesn’t just pack up and go home?
Because for all their seriousness, games are arbitrary. They follow no logic but their own. Through an absurd quest to please the monomaniacal whims of the King, who alternately reigns over the proceedings with the fervor of a dictator and the distance of a deadbeat dad, we can see how absurd we are when at play: how committed to arbitrary goals, how devoted to inane projects and how beholden we are to the rules that bind us. To take from The Big Lebowski: Sometimes you play the game, and sometimes the game plays you.
With its cosmic scope, Katamari Damacy reaches onward and upward. It isn’t content with some dime store bait-and-switch. Its punch line is an entire digital world taken to its inevitable conclusion. It dreams up a utopia in which every rock, tree and house is tied together through unity of purpose: They are all part of the game, waiting patiently to be gobbled up. The result is a planet embraced by play, where everything is connected – or, at least, collectable. It’s somehow fitting: After decades of chasing after coins, stars, rupees and rings, we have finally found a game willing to chase us back.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the only things to roll up are snowballs, shirtsleeves and the occasional flattened fruit snack. When not saving the world with thumbtacks, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.