Many people claim to be video game critics. Hardly any are. They are video game reviewers.
Over the last few weeks I have been 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, while Part Two focused on Marxist, Structural, and Jungian critiques. Here I’ll be bringing the whole thing home by talking about the Feminist, Psychoanalytical, and Post-Colonial schools of criticism.
In looking at the work itself, it may be easy to forget about the roles the characters themselves play. For that, Feminism is the school of criticism to turn to, as it analyzes gender roles in a work of art, paying particular attention to the treatment of women and oppression in general (Rivkin, 1998).
Katamari Damacy is a rather male-centric game. The story is an offshoot of the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, as discussed last time.
The player is the Prince, working for his father, the King of All Cosmos. Both are overly male, the King having a rather large package, quite the built physique, and spreading his seed/the stars all over the cosmos, while the Prince’s head and body look rather phallic and he’s rolling around a gigantic ball.
Other males in the game also seem to be emphasized over the females. The young boy is the only one that actually sees what’s going on, and the father is doing the manliest of things – exploring space in his phallic rocket.
Now, out of the three main females of the game, two of them are rather submissive, non-threatening, not even substantial at all – the Hoshino mother, who never seems to know what’s going on, preoccupied with the father and his space mission, and the Queen of All Cosmos, who never really makes an appearance except for in cutscenes here and there, always in the background, never uttering a line of dialogue, sitting pretty in her pink blouse and white skirt.
Those subscribing to Psychoanalytic theory believe that the unspeakable things in society are represented in some way or another in a work. The reason video games lend themselves rather perfectly to this school of thought is due to the unbelievably bizarre fictional worlds that have qualities of unconscious productions abound. In other words, these representations, these qualities, are interpreted as the repressions of a society – its unconscious in textual form. Psychoanalytic theory is derived straight from the infamous psychologist Sigmund Freud.
The main repressed thoughts that can be recognized in a work are: the primal scene (first time a child either sees or imagines his parents having sex), conception and birth, sexual drive, the desire for forbidden objects, the Oedipal scenario (a male child’s unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother), and sexual difference (Kuhn, 1990, pp. 91-92).
Now, much of what was covered in the Feminist section applies here, especially the parts having to do with gender roles – sexual difference – how this is a male-centric game through and through, and sexual drive, with both the King and Prince being overly male. However, while there is some crossover, psychoanalysis does offer up the ‘conception and birth’ avenue in which to explore the game.
Post-Colonialism examines the effects of colonization, both on those that have been colonized and those that did the colonizing. It questions the idea of identity. In each case, a third identity is formed, one that is not quite the same as it was before the colonizing (Rivkin, 1998).
The King of All Cosmos broke the cosmos, destroyed all the stars in it, because of his carelessness:
Yes, we were naughty. Completely naughty… So, so very sorry. But just between you and Us, it felt quite good. Not that we can remember very clearly, but We were in all Nature’s embrace. We felt the beauty of all things, and felt love for all. That’s how it was. Did you see? We smiled a genuine smile. Did you see? The stars splintering in perfect beauty. So many there used to be, almost a nuisance. Now there’s nothing but darkness. Hee… ‘Tis but a dream… Hee… But a beautiful one. But… That miraculous fabulous moment has passed, it’s over. We came to and found everyone furious. Even the King of All Cosmos was not spared their wrath. Really, everybody was irate.
This is akin to the way in which colonizers would come in and carelessly disrupt the place, thinking that the universe was theirs to do with as they pleased. In fact, it goes directly into the gameplay of the game as well – a giant ball picking up everything in its path, with nothing spared, no time for the feelings of anyone.
It’s Western expansion.
In the Japanese version, the disruption of the cosmos was actually caused by a night of drunkenness, something that didn’t make it over in the translation.
What is interesting is that the King felt “in all Nature’s embrace,” “felt the beauty of all things, and felt love for all.” This is most likely due to the alcohol, but in tying it in with colonization, it might be the ‘drunk with power’ feeling that one gets when he thinks he’s right, that the world revolves around him. “The stars splintering in perfect beauty” – the cultures shattering, being destroyed – “So many there used to be, almost a nuisance” – so many cultures there used to be, so many varied people.
But is this disruption a bad thing?
Sure everyone is furious, irate when they are colonized, and it is not a good thing overall, but what can be done?
Look to the future.
Katamari Damacy was at the top of most magazine and online site’s top 10 lists for 2004. It earned many critical acclaims – Play magazine said it had the most innovative gameplay of the year, while Game Informer gave the Prince the honor of being the year’s top hero – and even made it into mainstream media into Entertainment Weekly’s ‘The Must List’ for a week there in 2004.
In addition to the critical accolades, it did well in sales (something that doesn’t usually happen – a game that’s both critically and publicly accepted), selling close to 400,000 copies in Japan and North America.
It did so well that it warranted two sequels (so far), spawning yet another franchise in this franchise-laden culture.
There has to be a reason for all of this.
Of course, many gamers will say it’s the fresh take on gameplay and presentation, but there has to be something more than that.
In doing a critique of a game such as Katamari Damacy, deeper meanings can be found that may have led to more people recognizing with the game on a subconscious level.
More critiques such as this should be done of video games, if not for developers to figure out what meanings they could lace into their action game to make it sell that many more copies – a scary side to this way of critiquing, finding the marketability in it all – then to see these video games as perhaps what they’ve been all along, or even to make them: works of art.
Fahey, Rob. “Focus On: Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi.” GameIndustry.biz. https://www.gamesindustry.biz/content_page.php?aid=12233. October 13, 2005.
Hermida, Alfred. “Katamari Creator Dreams of Playgrounds.” BBC News. https://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.” https://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.” https://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.
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.