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The Madness of Keita Takahashi

Keita Takahashi doesn’t make videogames any more. Perhaps in the future he will, but for now he has other things on his plate. He is designing a playground for Nottingham City Council at the moment. After that, who knows? When viewed from afar, Takahashi’s approach to games was never conventional. Colourful yes, but never conventional. In Katamari Damacy you played as the Prince, an oblong-headed stickman, who was charged with the task of collecting objects by means of an enormous sticky ball. When I first played Katamari Damacy I thought it was novel, fun and ultimately harmless. I smiled weakly and moved on. Katamari Damacy spawned five sequels, but only one (We Love Katamari) was designed by Takahashi. He wanted to do other things.

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Noby Noby Boy was Takahashi’s next game. The pastel shades of the Katamari franchise gave way to neon pinks and vibrant greens. Time constraints and mission structures have been thrown away too. You play as The Boy and your job is simple – stretch your body and lengthen The Girl. If you lengthen The Girl enough, you will unlock a new level. Noby Noby Boy was released as a download-only game. I played it for a bit, smiled weakly and moved on.

“The joy of discovery has been clouded by gun smoke and curse words”Large-scale videogame production relies on certain tropes and ideals. The industry sells itself with snappy one-liners on the back of the game box. Triple-A, genre defining, online deathmatch, next generation graphics engine, the list continues and grows with each iteration. In videogame culture the franchise is king, with new title promising more of the same but better than you remember. This is no bad thing either. As consumers, we are given a choice, and if your decision is to purchase each successive title in your favourite series then good for you. You can put them in order on your mantelpiece and admire them if you want. Again, I stress; this is no bad thing. High scale development encourages growth in the blossoming medium, and this in turn provides money for adventurous, low key productions. The issues I have with production line titles are twofold. Firstly, the mass media will always judge videogames by the tone set in market leading software. At the moment, this happens to be brown/grey-shooting games inhabited by mouthy children who aren’t old enough to purchase the title in the first place. Secondly, it conditions younger gamers into believing they have discovered the peak of videogame design without experimenting. The joy of discovery has been clouded by gun smoke and curse words.

Top titles are the lifeblood of the industry. They make up the bulk of advertising space and the majority of column inches; and as well they might. Their production houses make the most money, and how they choose to spend it is up to them. Smaller independent games with mass-market appeal are usually eclipsed entirely by the next big release. This is not only an issue with games, but with film and music and countless other media outlets. It’s not a problem; it’s just business. I know it, you know it and Keita Takahashi definitely knows it!

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What Takahashi represents is a devolution of ideas within the framework we recognise as videogames. Whilst Katamari Damacy was harnessed down with structured play and time limits, ultimately it was a very free game. A loose narrative and traditional level progression was present, however, all pleasure derided from the game was from the joy of discovery. Pelting full blast round environments scattering characters, picking up objects and oddities, then seeing how the world reacted to your unique hoarding skills was what brought me back to the title. After extended play I realised, Takahashi had not created a videogame per se, but an interactive snapshot of his creative mind. Much like flicking through a notepad of the most creative of artists, the images, interactions and sounds present in Katamari Damacy form part of a sweeping mass of ideas present in a fertile imagination. Is it a good game? Not really, certainly not in the traditional sense. Its reaction in the West was one of muted admiration. Much like trying to embrace a cultural convention which seems bizarre and unfamiliar. We smile politely to its face and laugh about it later with our friends.

“Takahashi had not created a videogame per se, but an interactive snapshot of his creative mind”I’ve never liked the argument of videogames as art. This mainly stems from my dislike of a word so ubiquitous it could describe almost anything, from an unmade bed, to a group of fat naked people stood on a bridge for half an hour. A discussion of such an argument would undoubtedly scrutinise the work of Takahashi. His idiosyncratic nature would demand it so. Ultimately, Katamari Damacy is a meander though a very creative mind. No amount of trophies, rewards or additional features is going to make it anything more than that. It’s a very ponderous title that requires little to no brainpower to play. I enjoy going back to it from time to time now, as if returning to a beloved book or a favourite film. Part guilty pleasure, part comfort viewing. It’s like conversing with an old friend… a crazy, demented chum who you’d never tell your peers about.

If Katamari Damacy is like a meander though Takahashi’s creative mind, Noby Noby Boy is a blazing joy-ride though his dreams and nightmares. The boundaries and limitations present in his early games have gone and limitless exploration and play is now the norm. Noby Noby Boy could be described as the uncoiling of a creative spring, but this does not give it enough credit. They say if you have an infinite amount of time even monkeys could come up with Shakespeare. If you gave those same monkeys an infinite amount of Red Bull, crayons and stickle bricks, eventually they would come up with Noby Noby Boy. The creative lunacy on offer here is astounding. In many ways the game is the ultimate sandbox title. No missions to undertake and become frustrated with, nothing to collect and accomplish, no clock counting down and definitely no end in sight.

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As your character grows and expands, he begins to interact with his environment differently. Challenges are not set by a sadistic game developer, but by your own twisted logic. How far can I stretch my character? Can I lasso every object on the screen? Can I eat my own tail? How long have I been doing this for now? After a while the lack of constructive gaming is very refreshing. Noby Noby Boy reels in every constraint and ideological rule of the medium and breaks gaming down to its most simplistic of forms. Again, any pleasure provided by Noby Noby Boy is due to the unique relationship Takahashi builds with the player. As you discover more and more about the game, the level of depth and content becomes apparent. The world seems to react differently to you depending on what day of the week it is. The game is structured similarly to a plate of spaghetti; it’s messy as hell but loads of fun to eat.

Returning to Noby Noby Boy is a great way to unwind. It’s confusing and alien to me, due to my preconceptions of what a game should be. Whilst I coil myself though a pair of trees in an attempt to catapult a small blue dog though a cloud, I ponder to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’ I suppose the answer is the same as it always has been. The pleasure of messing about is… fun. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t accomplished a pre-prepared challenge, just that my time was well spent. I understand why Noby Noby Boy would confuse gamers. It’s not a game you need to learn, and it’s impossible to master because you’re only ever going to be as good as your imagination will allow.

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So where next for Takahashi. He parted ways with Namco Bandai after Noby Noby Boy and set up his own company, Uvula, with his wife. I think the only logical step for the man who favours explorative play above everything else is to remove limitations altogether. Takahashi’s final devolution is to send the children of Nottingham outside and get some much-needed fresh air. Being indoors all day is bad for you, every Mother knows that! Whether Takahashi felt that by creating a playground he was continuing a theme he had set out in videogames could only really be answered by the man himself. What it does show is that Takahashi won’t be bound by strict rules and set agendas. Perhaps he will move back to videogames again at some point. I wouldn’t urge him to, as I imagine he works best when completely free from intervention. If only we had a games industry that could fully accommodate him. Sadly money doesn’t grow on trees.

So how important is Keita Takahashi to the videogames industry? He has created three games to date, one of which was a sequel he was forced to produce and another was a title he released without being completely happy with. He has hardly shaken the Earth with his back catalogue, despite a legion of fans that dress up as his characters at conventions and demand more and more sequels. His work hasn’t been the inspirational force it was once thought it might have been either. The charm of his design is easily misplaced when put next to the ocean of cartoon characters and cutesy creations present in Japan. It is almost as quickly dismissed by the West as part of the ongoing barrage of awful Japanese pop culture we are begrudgingly smothered with. Is Takahashi a sad case of too much too soon, or is he simply operating way before his time?

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One thing is abundantly clear. Very few directors working in major production houses have the nerve to create a piece of work that is both as unique and creatively pure as Takahashi’s titles. It is refreshing to see Namco Bandai give a director the level of creative freedom required to produce something that appears so fiercely independent and deeply personal. Perhaps this is the heritage Takahashi leaves behind. His body of work acts as a signpost to other developers to remain independent whilst working for multi-billion dollar companies. It may not make you the bosses favourite, but at least the games that are produced will remain pure. Perhaps not, perhaps there is no great meaning to his games. Perhaps Keita Takahashi is just a bit… odd.

“His body of work acts as a signpost to other developers to remain independent whilst working for multi-billion dollar companies”On a personal level Takahashi’s games are an excellent grounding exercise for me. It’s easy to become bogged down in modern day videogames. Like it or not, we do exist in an industry that prefers sequels to original titles. We do play in a time where the marketing machine never sleeps, and gaming can become about achievement, reward and outcome, as opposed to simply being about messing around and having fun. That’s why I got into games in the first place. When I play Noby Noby Boy I’m not bowled over by the design or astounded by the depth of characterisation. When I play Noby Noby Boy I’m in a tinkering, mischievous mood. Curiosity and experimentation take hold of me. I’m twelve years old again and someone just dumped a truckload of Lego in front of me. I’m happy and simple and having fun again.

So what next for Keita Takahashi? Maybe his playground will get built and the good children of Nottingham will have somewhere fun to play. Maybe he’ll give up, sell out and create Noby Noby Boy 2: Modern Katamari Warfare? Who knows? What I do know is I’m glad there are developers out there who have remembered what the point of a game is. I just hope we don’t forget how to play in the meantime.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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