Staying Playful with Keita Takahashi

Originally written for Exeposé, didn’t make it into the freshers’ issue.

Katamari Damacy creator talks about his past at art school and why fun is so important, Marcus Beard, Games Editor reports.

Sitting on stage in flip flops and shorts, casually flipping through his iPhone, you wouldn’t get the impression that Keita Takahashi is the creator of a series that has reunited millions with the quirkyness and playfulness of youth. As the mind that sprouted the 2004 sleeper hit and cult classic Katamari Damacy, Takahashi doesn’t possess the fashion sense of Hideo Kojima or the bold rhetoric of Peter Molyneux.

“I don’t like [to] talk much” he admits as one of his greatest weaknesses to a theatre full of amateur game designers at the Babycastles Summit in Manhattan. Keita’s keynote (which took the form of a Q&A session) kicked off the three-day festival of workshops and interactive exhibitions at the Museum of Art and Design. The summit’s goal is to explore new ways to play and develop games, with a focus on experimentation and collaboration.

“I need[ed] to find a road” he says, describing what moved him into game development “..where I can make fun things.”

The premise of Katamari Damacy as simple as it is absurd. You, the prince, must rebuild the damage done by your father (the King of all Cosmos) by rolling up objects snowball-style until you can repopulate astral constellations. Takahasi’s second original game, Noby Noby Boy, is even simpler. Stretch… then stretch some more.

If you look up Keita’s personal website, you’ll find pictures of furniture and sculptures he’s created – all with a distinct Katamari twist. Keita’s creativity first led him to study at art school where he worked on sculpture and 3d modelling. “With sculpture.. its so useless” he explains. “I [would ] make a hippo dish cover, or a robot that transforms into a table. But I’m not sure what I should do after I graduate, so I need[ed] to find a job where I can make fun things and still get [enough] funds.”

Keita’s art school days clearly affected his philosophy as a game designer. He cites a list of sculptors and painters as influences on Katamari Damacy, as well as using children’s books to guide the personality of the game. Katamari was set to recapture the simple joy a child feels when rolling a ball, and Takahashi’s child-like tendencies shine through as he sits on stage, laughing to himself at some of the questions asked. “It’s all so serious” he says before tapping his foot, trying to come up with ‘the best thing about Earth’. “Cat” he says after a surprisingly long pause. “Cat is the best thing.”

In 2009, Nottingham city council approached Keita to realise one of his dreams – designing a children’s playground. Set to be constructed in Woodthorpe grange, the designs included rotating platforms, catapults and sculptable flowers. “Its almost… cancelled” he announced to an audience that let out a sigh of disappointment. Keita explains that it was due to budget restraints (entirely believable given the outlandishness of his designs), though it’s likely the council cancelled the project due to health and safety concerns.

While Keita has moved on from Namco, he is still working on games with TinySpeck, a Vancouver based company. Their browser-based MMOG Glitch posses much of Takahashi’s quirky stylings – set in the collective imagination of giants – but the micromanagement and resource-driven gameplay doesn’t seem to fit with Takahashi’s ideas on fun simplicity.

Noby Noby Boy kinda looks like a schlong

“Game industry is not as fun anymore” he expresses how he dislikes his creativity turning into 9 to 5 job. In 2005, he told the BBC that he didn’t see himself making games in 10 years, a reality that is rapidly approaching. He hasn’t given up on games entirely though. “I am planning things,” he tells Exeposé after the show. “I have lots of ideas” he says, but he expressed a desire to realise these ideas independently, without the interference from publishers like Namco.

As the talk wraps up, we ask Takahashi to sign a doodle he gave out during the talk. Amongst the drawings of the prince from Katamari Damacy and Boy from Noby Noby Boy, there’s a small sketch that doesn’t quite fit. It’s a bum. A drawing of a human behind. Perhaps Keita was reminding us of the simplicity of childish humour, or expressing the crudeness of youth. Or maybe he just thought it’d be funny to draw a bum. I laughed.

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