Katamari Damacy A Critique: Part Two

By Ryan Stancl [09.28.06]

 Recap

Many people claim to be video game critics. Hardly any are. They are video game reviewers.

Over the next few weeks I will be introducing you to eight schools of criticism – Biographical, New Critical, Marxist, Structural, Jungian, Psychoanalytical, Feminist, and Post-Colonial – giving a little history behind each, and showing how they can be used to critique the video game Katamari Damacy for the PlayStation 2.

Part One focused on Biographical and New Critical critiques. Here I’ll be talking about the Marxist, Structural, and Jungian schools of criticism.



 Marxist

When looking at a piece of art from a Marxist perspective, everything has to do with society and class. A piece of art’s only function is to enforce or challenge a certain society, their values. Art can be looked at as a way to see the culture it came from and how it relates to the culture that is viewing it.

Marx believes that the ideas of society, such as books, movies, or anything in pop culture, are the values of the ruling class pushed on the lower classes (Rivkin, 1998).

Marxist critics believe a certain type of work arises from a certain cultural time in history. For example, the novel arose when the up-and-coming middle class needed a way to express itself and more people were reading due to higher literacy and the printing press. Over in Ireland, turbulent times tended to produce great literal works until the Irish gained independence from Britain when the predominant form became the short story. Why did the video game start when it did? Ah, but that is a topic for another article.

In the end, the Marxist critic is all about society, class, and social relations.

In Katamari Damacy, there are two societal observations that run throughout the game that deserve a quick comment (and then a third, larger observation to follow).

First, when the player presses the Start button to pause the game, a fact pops up on the screen that’s different every time. In the top left-hand corner of the screen is the size of the katamari, and next to it there is a comparison of how big it is to the size of a random object in the game – “Your katamari is as big as *a number* of *an object.*” This is making a comment on how everyone in today’s society is constantly comparing things: the prices of items, their bodies to others, their happiness to their friends, etc.

Second, the children stars of the game deserve some looking at in terms of Marxist interpretation.

What’s interesting is that they and they alone seem to be the ones that get what’s going on with the cosmos. The young boy of the Hoshino family – the family featured in the cutscenes in between levels – is the only one that sees the reports on TV about how the stars in the sky are out, even seeing the King and the Prince out in the world doing their thing.

The young girl of the family gets it even more than her brother perhaps, as she ‘feels’ the cosmos restoring itself when the Prince rolls up a constellation, exclaiming “Oh! I feel it! I feel the cosmos!”

The mother doesn’t seem to listen to her children, to understand, as she’s too preoccupied with getting to the father who is taking off to the moon in a few days.

The older people get, the more effort they put into getting somewhere they think they want to be, when really they’ve been there all along. The mother and father want to build a rocket to get to the moon, yet the children are already there in a sense. The children understand fathoms more than most adults are willing to admit, and they’re usually ignored. It could also simply be a comment on the prevalence of bad parenting in our society.


However, perhaps the best critique coming from the Marxist perspective can be made on the unusually large emphasis Katamari Damacy has put on collecting items.

Every time the player picks up an object it says what it is in the bottom left-hand corner and is then catalogued for the player to view later from the main menu. At the end of each level, there is a screen that tells the player how big he got his katamari, what time he finished the objective in, how many objects he collected, and what the object was that he collected the most of.

On the objects collected menu, the user can choose to view what he’s collected by object types, the location in which he picked up the objects, or by the size of the objects. There is also another sub-section that has a list of all the proper named items in the game that are more difficult to find and roll up.

In the object types screen, there are four pages worth of object types alone – Food, Trash, Fashion, Animals, and Children, to name a few.

Selecting a type (or a size, a location) brings up another screen of all the objects of that type. The ones that haven’t been collected yet will appear as a question mark, but the ones that have been collected will have a picture of it, what it is, the place in which it was found, the size the katamari was in order to roll it up, and a short description of the object.

These descriptions alone could be documented and analyzed and lead to a paper themselves, descriptions like “Check Book – A book filled with numbers. People smile or cry reading this book. It must be a very good novel,” “Display Stand – You can put anything you like here, except naughty things,” and “Minivan – Small yet large. Very ambiguous.” A lot of them offer up harmless observations about naming conventions, the English language, society, and life in general.

But why is there all this emphasis on collecting in Katamari Damacy?

Ignoring the surface fact that it extends gameplay, collecting stuff is something that is integral to people, especially children, especially this day and age. From an essay entitled “Unpacking: Walter Benjamin and His Library,” author Joseph Lewandowski says this about children and collecting:

They collect forgotten and ignored phenomena, they name “dead” objects. According to Benjamin, such an alternative world-view accomplishes a kind of renewal and rescue – children retrieve objects and stimulate life in a frozen cultural modernity; they re-enchant, albeit momentarily, a disenchanted world […] It is precisely in collecting as a child-like ‘mode of acquisition’ that a genuine collector emerges: ‘To renew the old world – that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things.’ Thus collecting demands an orientation to the world of things that is always threatened: ensnared in the body and life of the bourgeois, trapped in the ‘old,’ mature world of adulthood, the ‘child-like element’ that leads the collector to rescue dead objects is akin to a rather bad category mistake. In a disenchanted world, books are to be sold, counted, divided, known; not phenomenally experienced, seen, related to via mimicry, intimately undergone. Genuine collecting for Benjamin, we might say, is a kind of acquisition that is motivated by ‘immaturity.’

Collecting is something that is innate in people, something that lasts an entire lifetime. It’s about the above, but also about having to gather together everything in one’s life, catalogue it, and organize it neatly, for in a world that is so chaotic, some order is welcome.

Also, lately it’s about just hitting the right buttons in marketing to the consumer, hitting on that need to have everything, to ‘collect it all.’

Whatever it is, this collecting facet in Katamari Damacy says a lot about our culture, which is what Marxists look for when interpreting a work of art.


 Structural

Structuralism, in trying to find the deep, universal rules that structure a work of art (usually literature, but we’ll give it a shot here with a video game), studies language synchronically, in the now, in terms of binary pairs.

When it comes down to it, words can only take on meaning in relation to their opposites.

Now, one could take forever in picking out the binary pairs of a work, just like with New Criticism, but there are a few particular words, or signs, that spring up quite easily when analyzing Katamari Damacy.

“Prince” and “King” are the main characters versus the female equivalents, which brings up gender – something that will be discussed next time with Feminism.

The King likes to use the words “We” and “Us” instead of you and/or I when referring to himself, and in doing so is being all-inclusive, perhaps even harkening back to the royal We used by real kings and queens.

And finally, the stage for the game is set in the “cosmos” amongst the “stars” instead of something smaller, less brilliant, and it once again bringing to mind the all-inclusiveness.


The title “Katamari Damacy” sounds a bit – in English at least – like ‘dominance over or of the katamari’ instead of its opposite, ‘katamari weakness.’

All these signs point to an all-encompassing, brilliant, male-centric experience in which the player gains dominance over something called a katamari. And these signs were easily stumbled upon when looking at the game in terms of binary pairs in the school of Structuralism.

 


 Jungian

The psychologist Carl Jung came up with a psychological framework that involved innate prototypes for ideas that can be used to interpret observations.

He called these archetypes.

This analysis eventually led Joseph Campbell to come up with The Hero’s Journey, which is a male-centric story that involves the son finding himself and taking his place in the world, usually by having to deal with his mother and father in some fashion.

This Hero’s Journey is something that many myths and stories of old have in common, which is why many people today use it as a roadmap to guide their tale – because it has proven the test of time and many people connect with it on a subconscious level.

Katamari Damacy has the son, the Prince, on a quest to prove himself to his father. He has some issues to deal with, as the King remarks: “What is that? That body, that physique. Could you really be Our son? Build yourself up while you roll the katamari. Work out and get bigger. Don’t presume to take the escalator to the throne just because you’re the Prince.”

He’s always belittling the Prince/the player, saying he’s doing OK but he could be doing better, making fun of his small stature (the Prince’s, presumably not the player’s).

The Prince must do as his father says, because, as the King says, “Our problem, your problem, yes? You owe Us your existence, We collect on the debt. Yes? Hand in hand, always there. Yes? The very definition of the father-son bond. Yes?”


However, when the player/the Prince does exceed his expectations, the King says such things as he’s moved to tears at how well the player did.

This use of the archetype of the father-son relationship is perfect for the audience to be attracted to on a subconscious level. The fact that it is male-centric, however, brings us to the next schools of thought – Feminist, Psychoanalytical, and Post-Colonial.

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for next time. Be back here in two weeks when we wrap this whole thing up with Part Three.

 



Bibliography

Fahey, Rob. “Focus On:
Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi.” GameIndustry.biz.
http://www.gamesindustry.biz/content_page.php?aid=12233. October 13,
2005.

Hermida, Alfred. “Katamari Creator Dreams of Playgrounds.” BBC News.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4392964.stm. November 10, 2005.

Kuhn, Annette, ed. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. New York: Verso, 1990.

Lewandowski, Joseph. “Unpacking: Walter Benjamin and His Library.”
http://www.gslis.utexas.edu/~landc/fulltext/LandC_34_2_Lewandowski.pdf.
2000.

Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Ed. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Takahashi, Keita. Designer. Katamari Damacy. Namco Ltd, 2003.

Takahashi, Keita. “Rolling the Dice – the Risks and Rewards of
Developing Katamari Damacy.” http://www.pqhp.com/cmp/gdctv/. 2005.

…and various reviews and interviews from websites such as IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer, etc., that never got quoted from.

Biography

Ryan Stancl has a B.A. in English – focusing on Literary Criticism – from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is currently wrapping up a year-long intensive Game Design program at Vancouver Film School. The latter, in addition to the former, is why he feels you should listen to him when it comes to this article (i.e. he’s smart – at least when it comes to English and video games). He is finishing up a game demo with his team – Outsourced Games – entitled Seas of Europa, which will be unveiled to the public September 27, 2006.

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