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Art from Keita Takahashi’s hit video game Katamari Damacy

As auteurs of the video game world go, Keita Takahashi is pretty far up there. The biggest game-changer of video games as of late isn’t the advent of 3D or the latest advance in the bloody realism of the latest first-person shooter, rather, a good argument could be made that it’s Takahashi’s Katamari Damacy, a quirky game that became a cult classic.

For the duration of the Katamari craze, Takahashi was in the employ of entertainment company Namco-Bandai. Now, the designer has found himself too constricted by the traditional video game business, and with it, the company that helped bring him to fame. Along with wife, composer Asuka Sakai, Takashi has opened his own creative studio, called Uvula, and launched a blog to go along with it.

Takahashi brought the element of pure playfulness and “silly fun” back into mainstream video games, a world too often populated by up-to-the-minute realism or rehashes of the same old platform jumpers. Katamari Damacy’s game mechanics were, basically, rolling around a ball of stuff that gradually collected more stuff, from odds and ends to furniture, fence posts, cows, and buildings. The bigger your ball got, the bigger the stuff you could pick up. The story went that the main character’s gigantic father, King of All Cosmos, destroyed the universe, and it was up to you, the miniscule Prince, to roll it all back together from its components. Sound crazy? It is. Combine a surreal soundtrack with saturated colors and a bizarre play hook, and you’ve got a glimpse into Takahashi’s mind.

The designer’s sense of play is also evident on the Uvula website — check out the photo on the blog page: figures splayed, tumbling down a hill, a joke on Katamari Damacy, but also full of the freedom and free fall of Takahashi’s games.

Despite the success of his creations, Takahashi has said he wants to be free of the traditional video game studio system, a system he has never felt entirely comfortable with. Given the non-traditional nature of Takahashi’s games, it’s not hard to understand why he’d want to be a free agent. But it’s not just because of the conservative nature of video game studios that he wants more freedom — it’s the ability to work outside of his original medium that he wants, to carry out works in everything from sculpture to architecture and video.

From dissatisfaction with the current state of the video game industry, the designer has turned to other activities, the most significant of which is building a playground in the UK. The Nottingham City Council commissioned Takahashi to design a playground within Woodthorpe Grange Park in conjunction with the city’s GameCity, an annual event that promotes awareness of independent video games and video game culture within the UK. Given the designer’s off the wall games, he seems uniquely well suited to design such an environment for children. For one, I’d really love to play in something that mimicked the experience of the designer’s video games: endless possibilities, endless flexibility, and a never-ending sense of humor.

It’s worth keeping an eye out as Takahashi goes solo not just for the artist’s own projects, but for the possibilities the move has for other video game impresarios. I don’t think Shigeru Miyamoto’s going anywhere at Nintendo until he’s encased in an NES urn, but for other designers it makes the leap from digital interactivity to real world interactivity even easier. Making a video game is no different from making a sculpture, a painting, or a building; they’re all mediated experiences led by a competent aesthetic guide.

Here’s to hoping Takahashi sets a precedent with his new projects.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...