Warning: This is a GAME R SRIOUS BIZNISS post :D
(originally posted on my personal blog Super Nintendoll
There's plenty of commotion after this year's E3. Nintendo disappointed (again), Sony busted out some big titles, and Microsoft concentrated on the social software of the Xbox 360. But in the fray, what really caught my attention was Takahashi's comments in the Eurogamer article where he talks about Katamari and consumerism.
Takahashi is really a man ahead of his time. While other developers are making games as simple entertainment, he is making games that intertwine fun and social commentary. Katamari Damacy is a game that I (and I'm sure many others) have not really taken a lot of time to think about deeply. This is probably because as gamers, we are trained not to. Most games are about quick reaction time or strategic thinking, leaving no room contemplation or interpretation. To me, Takahashi's games are reaching in the the realm of classic literature by manipulating these standard components of gameplay. This may sound like a strange comment, but bear with me while I explain.
Good books are those which are well-written, and can send out a powerful message. Books like these you will frequently find on bestseller lists. But truly great books are those which are not only well-written by standards of language, but also through use of symbolism and allowance of open, personal interpretation. These are piece of literature that allow the mind to explore and make a personal connection with the writing--sometimes one that may not have been intended by the author.
Katamari Damacy is a great game because it leaves itself open to interpretation. Yes, it was intended as a statement on consumerism. Yet it also leaves itself open to a multitude of personal interpretations.
Can it not also be seen as supporting the perseverance of individuals in the face of great challenges? I mean, the King asks you to make the moon in a half hour. It seems like an impossible task for such a measly Prince. The physical rewards giving to the Prince by the King are hardly worth the effort. So the Prince's main motivation is from within himself--whether it is driven by a sense of responsibility for his family or for the larger responsibility as Prince of of the Cosmos. He gets no true reward for his actions besides self satisfaction.
It can also be seen as making a statement on the fragility of human life in the grand scale of the universe. A larger-than-life being makes a simple mistake of knocking out the stars and through the course of the game, the whole world is destroyed for it. People are proud that we have been able to fill the world with all sorts of wonderous things, but it is for this very reason that the King targets the Earth. There seems to be no regret on the part of the King or Prince for loss of human life; in fact it is portrayed as amusing. Isn't it strange to think that we've been playing a game that trivializes human life in the grand scheme of the universe, and never once stop to think about how powerful that message could be?
The key to his game is simply, in some ways, the blatant shallowness of the King and the blind obedience of his son. Neither character takes time to think about the consequences of their actions, just as human being frequently act without thinking. Does it not also reflect our own blindness as gamers, playing whatever is shoved in front of us and not asking what war games or fantasy games represent in the larger scheme of things? Has anyone really ever stopped to think about what games like Call of Duty represent? The horror of war and death, which most game designers have no experience with, is not even truly and accurately portrayed (though I'm sure it is done to the best of their ability). It can be seen as a powerful statement against those who look but don't see the world around them.
Some people may read this and think, "Holy Jesus, you're taking this way too seriously. It's just a game!" But those are the type of people who only set the gaming industry back, preventing it from reaching its full potential as both an art form and entertainment. Gaming is in a very in-between place. There are certainly plenty of games out there that are trying to get a message across. Their methods however, are simplistic and unrefined. The messages are often boiled down to one sentence: "Do the right thing," "Defeat the enemy," "Justice Prevails," and so forth. These messages are often diluted through gameplay that is repetitive and provides no direct connection to the message itself. How does shooting someone in Gears of War represent justice? Does the death of an enemy bring Marcus Fenix closer to justice, or just allow him to make it to the final level?
When we think about what is the most impressive in a game, oftentimes what first comes to mind is either graphics, story, or entertainment value. Most games today lack a personal message or connection with the player. There are very few games today that use the medium to convey meaning while allowing the player to simultaneously draw their own conclusions based on their personal experience with the game. Katamari Damacy as well as Noby Noby Boy are intriguing games because they serve as open ended metaphors for larger life issues.
So the question stands: Why aren't there more games that try to make a personal connection with the player? The answer is simple, one that Takahashi also knows: money.
A game that connects with someone on a personal level means that everyone will have a different reaction to it. I know plenty of people who think Katamari Damacy is a stupid game. That is because their personal connection is different from other peoples'. Games like those done by Daniel Benmergui (Ludomancy) are also a good example of open metaphor games--there are no instructions, you simply must interact with the world as best you can. By not outright telling the player what the "winning" situation is, Benmergui lets the player freely explore the environment and make decisions based on their own emotions and personal preference.
Because games like this have no formal instruction or way to win, they are very hard to market to a wide audience. Those who are less patient will get frustrated easily and give up, saying the game is poorly made. To a degree, it requires the player to care about characters or stories that are difficult to understand--and that is a challenge that not all gamers are up to.
This trend of open-ended metaphor games is one that I hope will only grow larger as gaming becomes more mainstream. There will be room for these niche games. The original Bioshock made it about halfway by installing a twist that made you question your identity and motives. However, this brief moment of a self-contradictory existence is only lightly touched upon, as your character automatically makes the correct "moral" decision (which is more based on self-preservation than morals). Still, this baby step towards games that make you think is much appreciated, as can be seen by both sales and raving reviews.
People seem to be pushing innovative gameplay this year, but what they should be pushing are innovative ways of connecting and communicating with the player. I hope to see more developers pushing the envelop when it comes to games that will make you ask questions instead of answering them. This to me is the only way that a gamer can become more actively (mentally) involved in the gaming medium.