Many people claim to be video game critics. Hardly any are. They are video game reviewers.
There is a clear distinction between a review of a work – a movie, a book, a piece of art, or even a video game – and a critique of one. Movies, literary works, and pieces of art all have critiques written about them all of the time, so why not video games?
It may have to do with the fact that a lot of people still view video games as for children, that games don’t really have anything to say, any depth to them.
But whatever the reason (I’m not exploring that issue here), video games are made by a team of people, and each of those individuals wants to leave their mark in some way or another. With so many people coming together to create one thing, how can there not be layers, hidden meanings, subtext behind the work?
These meanings may be planned or not, but it is the critics’ job to point them out or, quite possibly, to ‘create’ the artistic work by coming up with meanings simply from critiquing what is there in front of them.
For example, it has been argued that the art critic Clement Greenberg made Jackson Pollock famous by championing abstract expressionism to the American people, seeing something in those paintings that not everyone did. He did so by critiquing them.
One thing that a lot of critics do – or fall under the trappings of, depending on who one asks – is go to the artist, straight to the source, and find out about him, his life, what lead to the making of the work, and even listen to him about what he wanted to get across in his work.
Keita Takahashi is the creator of Katamari Damacy. He delivered an hour-long speech entitled “Rolling the Dice – the Risks and Rewards of Developing Katamari Damacy” at the Game Developer’s Conference 2005, which is where the majority of the following was gathered.
He is a sculptor that came on board with Namco to create video games because he thought the video game industry sold pleasure and amusement.
It turned out not to be very fun.
He is sick of the narrow field that video games have become – the sequels, the franchises. But didn’t he make a sequel?
From an article in which Takahashi sat down with GameIndustry.biz, “Takahashi never wanted to make a sequel for Katamari Damacy. Like many critics, he views the proliferation of lengthy franchises and endless sequels as a major sticking point for creativity within the industry – although he acknowledges that there is certainly a market for those games, it’s not one which will ever attract new players or lapsed gamers,” (Fahey, 2005).
It seems that he found enough of a reason to make a sequel – “‘I didn’t want players to be disappointed, so I decided to take part,’” (Hermida, 2005), but wouldn’t elaborate much, claiming that it would sound like he was making excuses. Whatever the case, he did stay on for the sequel, We Love Katamari, but not for the new PSP release, Me and My Katamari.
Whatever the deal is with the sequels, the fact remains that Takahashi managed to create fun games in spite of the overall atmosphere he had to thrive in.
When he set out to create the original game, he wanted: “Something new, something easily understood, something enjoyable and fun, and something that could only be expressed in a video game.” What is the place of video games in this world, he wonders.
Games are ultimately unnecessary.
“‘Because games are essentially meaningless, don't they need to be stimulating and embrace this meaninglessness in a punk rock style to remain entertaining?’” (Fahey, 2005), he asks.
'Everyday life is full of many fun and stimulating things. The feeling of just riding a bicycle or the sensation of sand on bare feet when you walk along a beach […] the happy feeling you get when you just decide to skip, or the increase in heartbeat when you decide to stop in the middle of a road crossing. You couldn’t really say that they're punk rock things, but all of them are stimulating, and all of them help to make you realize that everyday life can be quite fun as well. Things like these have ended up making me think that you don't necessarily need games to have fun, and you possibly don't even need games at all,’ (Fahey, 2005).
What’s funny is Takahashi really does feel that people are better off playing outside experiencing ‘real life’ rather than playing video games, but he’s offering up a different experience, a different stimulation for those people that want it in the form of a video game.
“I’m not trying to help people escape reality or vent frustration – rather, to make daily life more fun by giving people a fun game to play once in a while.”
He feels that if a person could be happy, could laugh, only for a moment, that people might stop fighting with each other, and maybe the world would be a better place. With all of the above in mind, he set out to create Katamari Damacy.
During the GDC presentation, Takahashi introduced the audience to Katamari Damacy in his own words.
As a video played showing off some of the intro movie and the gameplay, Takahashi starting doodling a picture of the King. “This is the King of Cosmos. The King destroys the stars in space.” He then doodled a picture of the Prince. “The Prince, of 5 cm height, has to fix the mess by rolling the ball – making a star eventually. This is Katamari Damacy.”
He went on to explain that the peaceful, mellow atmosphere of the game is purposeful. He feels that if there are negative impacts from violent games, maybe there can be positive impacts from playing fun games – the couple next door stops fighting, the man who hates animals wants to go to the zoo, etc.
So this is all that Katamari Damacy is, according to the creator: something new, easily understood, enjoyable, fun, stimulating, simplistic, peaceful, and is only able to be expressed in a video game. Maybe this is all Takahashi thinks is going on, or perhaps this is all he wants the critic to believe is going on, but the truth is, there is so much more – to not only this game, but every work of art out there, waiting for the viewer to unlock.
Listening to just the creator of a work of art is a dangerous thing, because the critic digs no deeper, takes the creator at his word. The critic then misses all the subtleties, the deeper meanings, completely ignoring the work of art itself in the most extreme cases.
A school of literary criticism called New Criticism formed partly in reaction to schools of criticism that put too much emphasis on the creator and the information surrounding a piece of art, expecting those things to give them the meaning of a piece of art, and not the piece of art itself.
Thus, New Criticism focuses just on the formal elements that make up a work and nothing else.
New Critics take a work apart only to put it back together again and try to gain a greater meaning out of it that way. Studying the concrete aspects of a work versus things like the author, reader, or history was all done on a quest for objectivity (Rivkin, 1998).
To study a video game in a New Critical fashion, it would require the critic to examine every aspect of the game, from the controls to the dialogue, the graphics to the story, and the reasons behind all of them.
For example, in terms of Katamari Damacy, the King of All Cosmos talks in record scratches because the player, the mere mortal, could never understand the words of a god. The text is laid out of what he’s saying for the player only because the Prince, who the player is playing as, his son, a demigod, can understand him.
And that only goes to one aspect of the dialogue.
The weirdness of the words spoken by the King (and the majority of the other characters in the game) could be boiled down to bad translation, but in a game that’s this deep, there’s no way. Some of the dialogue will be discussed below in relation to other schools of thought.
Another small New Critical analysis of the game could go something like this. The start of the game has the player learning the controls in an empty, rather large round room. The King says that he went to the trouble of making the room just so the player could learn how to maneuver around in the game. It’s a tutorial. Simple enough, right?
This could be a comment by the video game designer saying how he created this room for the player to learn, or even the game for him to play, and he’d better be grateful for it (is sensed in the tone of the King’s dialogue). Also, if the player looks straight up while he’s rolling around, he will see the King peeking into the room from above – the ever-present King perhaps standing for the ever-present game designer, watching, waiting to see if their game is a hit.
The player knows that the King/the designer is watching the whole time he’s playing because the King will make comments like “It was boring to watch this whole time,” perhaps making another comment on how much a designer hates their game by the time they’re done with it.
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, found at Outsourced Games, 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.