The game’s mechanics are simple. A tiny character (the Prince) pushes a sticky ball around (the katamari, which translates as something like “a clump”). The Prince’s aim is to collect any and all objects that he can keep attached to the katamari. As the Prince rolls, anything significantly smaller than the ball sticks to it. In this manner the katamari gets bigger and more able to retain larger objects, and so forth. In the various iterations of the game there’s always a fairly perfunctory storyline to justify in some vague way the Prince’s various missions. These make even less objective sense than Japanese narratives normally do, but they usually revolve around some kind of silly but vaguely Oedipal crisis precipitated by the Prince’s father, The King of All Cosmos (i.e. God).
In the first game, The King of All Cosmos gets so drunk that he destroys the solar system. In the most recent game, Katamari Forever (called 塊魂TRIBUTE in its native Japan), the King of All Cosmos comes to grief while attempting to assert his masculine prowess by jumping off the Earth; he is hit on the head by a passing asteroid and loses his memory of everything that he created. His replacement is a Robo-King who proves even more disastrously incompetent, destructive and crippled by Oedipal anxiety than the original.
Apart from the joyously intuitive gameplay, the infantile satisfaction of squashing and rolling up various objects, and the fact that collecting different shapes and sizes of things palpably and realistically changes the way that the katamari rolls, a large part of Katamari Damacy’s appeal is that the games are exuberantly daft in a quintessentially Japanese style, with dialogue that really does make me laugh out loud occasionally. A child can play these games and fall about laughing at the silliness of them, but an adult can too. The King and the Robo-King dispense archly camp and withering put-downs of your efforts to please them. Sometimes they’ll interrupt your game with characteristic bad timing and narcissism to chide you about various things or merely with the intention of subjecting you to a rambling, neurotic monologue about how difficult it is to be them. The King gets grumpy and storms off if you try to cut him short or ignore him.
What I really want to write about, though, is the occasion when I had something like a moment of Buddhist transcendence while I was playing Katamari Forever… or at least a fluorescent j-pop version of a transcendent Buddhist moment.
I can only think of one comparable work to Katamari Damacy, at least in terms of driving home ontological realisations about scale. It’s Powers of Ten, directed by Ray and Charles Eames. As the title suggests, this film depicts a journey outwards from a couple having a picnic. Every ten seconds the distance from this start point multiplies by a factor of ten, until we reach the limits of the observable universe and our own galaxy is a mere speck. Powers of Ten is mind-blowing in its own dry, edifying, technocratic way but Katamari Damacy really nails the concept by having fun with it. The Prince starts by being able to pick up little more than paperclips, biscuits, scraps of paper and suchlike from domestic settings like a classroom or a kitchen. As the katamari grows and the game progresses, however, your ability to roll things up extends to animals, people, cars, houses, and so on.
Incidentally, being rolled up in the Prince’s katamari seems to be a benign but alarming experience. One of the game’s innumerable wonderful details is that every single object stuck to the outside of your katamari remains clearly visible and distinct. In the case of humans and animals, they continue to complain or exclaim in alarm at being so abruptly peeled off the surface of their normal reality and into the katamari dimension in which the King of All Cosmos and the Prince operate. If it happened to me I’d probably be startled, too.
What’s most interesting conceptually is that as you reach certain thresholds and grow with a satisfying expanding sound effect/fanfare, objects that were previously impossible to even recognise or process in their entirety become viable targets for your katamari. They’ve always been there; you just couldn’t interact with them because your own perception and power was so limited. As your consciousness expands, smaller objects conversely decrease in significance, interest and “stickiness” until they pass entirely out of your ken. It becomes impossible to grasp them in any sense of the word, even if you want to. Schools, businesses, commuter trains, all the mundane detritus of human existence becomes part of the katamari and passes from your thoughts as you move up through the realms of geography, weather and the gods or other celestial beings whose immensity and ubiquity paradoxically hides them from human view. It’s even more awesome to me that this digital satori is almost certainly just a side effect of the gameplay mechanics and infrastructure rather than a serious attempt to explore the nature of reality and perception. Katamari Damacy isn’t serious about anything, so let’s compromise and say they’re doing ontology as comedy.
Late in the game the katamari at long last grows big enough to roll up planets, stars and finally the amnesiac King of All Cosmos himself. The King awakes, remembers who he is and shouts “Wow… It’s so beautiful!”