//Q & A with Keita Takahashi

by Paul Arzt, and edited by Margaret Robertson
"Other creators affect the art that I draw and the outside of what I make, but the core concept, 'what am I making', is influenced mainly by the different things around me in my daily life."
Keita Takahashi

I've read that you had to make a demo of Katamari Damacy to convince the company that they should make it. Was this something you did in your spare time? Did you have help making it from anyone outside the company? How long did that take?

Keita Takahashi: The demo for Katamari Damacy wasn't something that was done as a side project. It was something that was created in the course of my work. At that time, Namco had a training program for visual designers specializing in games, and part of that program was the development of an actual game. My superiors had taken a liking to Katamari Damacy and worked to get Katamari Damacy accepted as the game to be used in the program. As a result, I was able to work on the Katamari project as a part of my job.

It took three Namco programmers, three visual designers, ten vocational college students, and me half a year to develop it.

What were you working on before Katamari? How did you feel about those projects?

KT: I participated in a couple of test projects as a visual designer before working on Katamari Damacy. During that time, I had no idea what was involved in making a game - the process, etc. It was a learning experience every day for me. Since tests projects are by definition comprised of very few members, it was a very good experience because even the rookies had to carry their weight. This, combined with the ability to talk to the planners and programmers directly, made it a very good and rewarding environment.

Katamari is such an innovative and unique game we were wondering what your influences were? Were there other games or game designers who influenced you or were you influenced by people or things not involved with videogames?

KT: I've been influenced by many different sources so there isn't any thing specific. But if we're talking about recently games, there was this game for the PS2 called Den-Sen [a proposed early SCEI title for PS2, it was never released]. The details about the game are still under wraps, but the screenshot showing a girl hanging and sliding along a power line is wonderful. When I saw I thought that it would be possible to make a game based on the normal day-to-day life, but just a little off. Fantasy and violence aren't needed to make a great game. That made me realize that I was wrong in how I was approaching games altogether. Although in the end, the game that made me start thinking differently ended up not getting released at all. So maybe the path that I chose to walk is still wrong.

I've played games since I was young. I still remember playing mainstream titles like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I can't help but remember because I was so caught up with leveling up my characters. But if you're talking about unforgettable games, I don't believe there are any.

I had originally majored in sculpturing at art college and I've continued to make games with the same type of feeling as I did when creating a sculpture. I think that's why most of my influences come from non-game related sources. By the way, the kind of sculpture that I made back then were things like tables that transform into robots, flower pots in the shape of a mountain goat (the water drained out like milk), etc. Basically things that aren't very serious and just fooling around.

Now if we talk about non-game things that have influenced me, we can go on forever since they're all things from our daily lives. The faces and manners of people around me, news about war and pollution: my games generally comes from mashing little things like that together and spitting it back out. Other creators affect the art that I draw and the outside of what I make, but the core concept, "what am I making", is influenced mainly by the different things around me in my daily life.

Keita Takahashi sketch of "Nobi Nobi Boy" for IndieCade, April 2008

When it was first released Katamari became a game nearly everyone said was proof that games could involve something other than violence. It was the game everyone mentioned when they wanted to show that videogames could be innovative and still successful. It's now three years since the game came out and people still refer to Katamari as the most innovative game in years. How do you feel about that? Do you feel Katamari has had any influence on the videogame industry?

KT: Though indirect, Katamari Damacy is actually still a very violent game. I'm playing devil's advocate a little, but I don't reject games that use violence. This might be taken in a wrong way, but I believe violence is very close to the instinct of mankind. It's painful for us as humans if we reject something that is a part of our instinct and refuse to put it into games. On the other hand, that doesn't mean I want to play games which have endless killing of non-humans monsters with blood spraying every which way. The thing I find most interesting as a game creator is to figure out how to put together simple and easy-to-understand ideas and how to continue creating similar things. That's where I think games these days have a very high quality and very good balance.

On the other hand, if that's the only place where there are differences, as a developer I find that situation pretty boring. Taking time to achieve a high quality is important, but I sometimes feel that this isn't the most important aspect of a game.

However, this is only from the point of view of a developer. If I look from the point of view of the end user, it'd be a very different case. I'd imagine if the game offers a reliable, high quality experience, even if the content is a bit similar, it'd still be enough. Gamers nowadays probably don't feel that the medium called games can offer much in the way of new and fresh experiences that can excite the imagination. There are many other elements that offer different stimuli. In that sense, it's disappointing that the supply in the game industry equals the demand. The people that play games get stimuli and excitement from other sources, so instead look to games as a safe harbor. The people that make games are trapped by things like the concept of games, the lowering of their ability to think, the demands of the company's bottom-line, and other short-sighted things. This results in repeatedly copying and mimicking and creating something that in a way could be called high-quality. The end result is a very safe and complacent situation for both the players and developers.

But if you look out there, I can't help but notice that everyone is still lining up to buy the iPhone, the newest fashions, and other new things. Thinking of that, it isn't hard to imagine that it is because games aren't as attractive and thus leading to the kind of situation that we have now. After a certain period of time, a new hardware comes out and game developers matches the new machine by reusing old games that only looks a little better. There are a lot of reasons for this downward spiral. At the same time, the gamers have gotten used to the same cycle and started to feel that that's the way it is with games. The developers get complacent with that same mentality, etc. etc. I don't know if that's good or bad. Games aren't something that's a necessity in life, but it is a big business now and I can't survive without money.

However, right now I am here as a game developer and I'm still not sure about the status quo. This hasn't changed from before Katamari Damacy was released. It's true that at the time, I had thought that maybe the release of Katamari Damacy would be a kind of disruptive force. But I guess that was just me being a little too self-confident.

So in the end, to answer your question, I don't think Katamari Damacy has had that much of an influence. Nothing in the industry has changed and Katamari is still something quite unusual. Even then, I still have the drive to produce some kind of breakthrough. It'll be hard and probably won't make much of a difference, but I still want to.

I've read you were uncomfortable when you won the Excellence in Game Design Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards. Why was that?

KT: I was quite happy to receive the award. The thunderous applause almost brought me to tears. Not the fact that Katamari Damacy was recognized, but the fact that it crossed the language barrier. That was the part that almost brought me to tears. I wasn't fully satisfied with Katamari Damacy and I was already thinking of the next thing when I received the award. Winning it made me think that the past was good and that I was getting praised for something from the past.

I've read you don't play many games because you don't find many games fun. Are there any games or game designers you do like? Are you playing anything now? Do you have any favorite games, either recent games or games from your childhood? Or what things other than playing videogames do you do for fun?

KT: Game designers: I'm not sure if you can call it "like", but I'm quite interested in seeing what the creator of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, Mr. Ueda will bring next. I'm curious whether he'll continue in the path that he's been on or if he'll take a completely different path.

Games: When I was young, I stayed indoors all the time to play games because I was fat. But there weren't any that really sucked me in to become a favorite. Overall though, I feel a certain jealously in that the atmosphere of freedom that older games had has been lost in modern games. Even if they were crappy games, there were plenty of hidden moves and tricks. It was possible to enjoy and laugh at things like that. That kind of atmosphere of freedom is much more difficult to create now.

Current games: When I get tired of work, I sometimes play MotorStorm. It's very well done and there's constantly something surprising happening.

Non-game interests: I'm currently living on a third floor apartment right now, so I grow plants on my veranda. I'm especially interested in seeing how much the ivy and other vine plants will grow and how it'd be interesting if it grows all the way down to the second floor. Though I don't like it, I'm also interested the Diet elections during summer. It's clear that there's something wrong with politics in Japan now, and because of that it's interesting to think about how those of us living in Japan should now face this problem. I guess it's less that I'm interested in it but more like I sense the impending crisis. Makes me wonder if the government will start passing restrictive laws right under our noses that will affect our work.

I've also read that you feel games should be more "punk." I was wondering if you could explain what you meant by that. What games would you say are punk?

KT: Lately there are lots of good games. But I don't see any new surprises or something interesting in any of them. As game makers, we are not making something that is a daily necessity, so we can decide on which direction to go. For example, if we were making detergent, it would be important for our product to not only clean clothes, but also limit the amount of water pollution it creates. If we didn't do that the users would not accept a product like that. In comparison, we have a lot more freedom in what we developer because games are not related to our daily lives, but it is still necessary for them to be accepted. Unlike game developers, it would be unthinkable for the soap maker to make a detergent that might turn water into jello one time in a thousand (personally, I think it'd be fine if that did happen.) Only in the world of games is this total freedom possible. It is not a necessity, but that kind of playfulness and these ‘useless' things can still fill the empty spaces in a person's heart. Taken to extreme, conflicts and war can serve the same purpose too. I'm not sure how aware we game-makers are of the fact that games are not a necessity, but in order to survive and not be eliminated, we try to fulfill people's need to seek a place of security, of comfort. Even if there's a lot of violence, that still somehow leads to a place of comfort. But it's unthinkable to justify violence and cruelty as a tool to be comforted.

"It is necessary to make waves, by constantly questioning as we move, and not be dependent on the present."
Keita Takahashi

As we are a business, the sense of security and comfort is a must, but that alone cannot do. We must continue to break through. That's what I mean when I say "punk". Punk is an emotional state; not just what's on the outside. It is a feeling. It is necessity for us to always question ourselves on what we are doing. Why am I making games? Do I really like games? Is this only for profit? Would I want my own child to play the game that I'm working on? Is this so fun that it's worth wasting all that electricity to make? Can playing this game change this bleak and dismal world? It is necessary to always continue to question ourselves, or else we would end up turning into a pathetic entertainment business that depends on the same old disposable things. It is necessary to make waves, by constantly questioning as we move, and not be dependent on the present. Without waves, oxygen will not circulate and living creatures in the water will die. As the game industry is marching towards impending death, unless each developer takes his/her time to think, all we have is a very dark future.

Punk games... What I mean by "punk" is the feeling that a developer should have. This feeling would come through in our games. I'm not all that filled with nostalgia for the golden age of old, but I get that feeling from old games. It must be that compared to the past, there are many fewer people who have the passion to push themselves to the edge and beyond when making games. That said, it is precisely because games aren't one of the necessities of life that we have to have the passion and push ourselves. This might not be very concrete but this is how I feel.

Are there any games you are looking forward to playing?

KT: I want to try Portal. I just pray that it hasn't turned itself into a puzzle-game.