Katamari Damacy and the Democratization of Objects
Video games, by design, are the product of multiple objects acting together under a common set of rules. Game objects in the majority of games tend to fall into two categories: interactive and noninteractive. Interactive objects could be anything from an ammo pickup in a first person shooter to a movable block in a Zelda game. Noninteractive objects are, simply enough, every other object. It could be terrain, a building, a static npc, or a score readout; noninteractive objects are completely non interactive.
Katamari Damacy, a Playstation 2 game released in 2004, breaks down the idea of an interactive/noninteractive dichotomy. This equalization of objects creates a flat ontology throughout the game. Game object ontology can fall into two distinct camps. Hierarchical ontology would be the traditional view of the world and the one most commonly seen in games. Objects fall into distinct categories and each have their own purpose and use. Flat ontology stands in direct opposition to this. In a game that utilizes this ontological mode, everything has the same use and hierarchical position as everything else. In short, use, hierarchy, and position cease to have any meaning in the world of flat ontology. When every object acts exactly the same as another object scale ceases to exist, creating an interesting world with curious implications. While not the only game to push a more object oriented idea of ontology, Katamari Damacy does so in a beautifully designed, interesting, and most importantly fun way.
Katamari Damacy is a tough game to describe. To put it succinctly, the player controls a cosmic prince whose sole duty is to roll up objects on Earth into his giant sticky ball called a katamari. Once filled with objects, the katamari is lifted into space by the prince’s father (King of the Cosmos) who in turn makes the ball into a new star. Everything about the game helps to convey this concept. The art style is colorful and rough, with a sort of childish flair to it. The controls, while initially odd, make it truly feel like one is pushing along a ball three times your size or more. The katamari itself is the most interesting and most important part of the game. The sticky ball can pick up anything, so long as your katamari is big enough to roll over an object. The ball has no preference of one object over another, it simply breaks down the world into “can collect” and “not big enough to collect yet”. The objects that make up the game world come in more or less every conceivable shape and size, representing the totality of the objects we interact with on a daily basis.
The game creates a flat ontology in two ways. It first sets itself up by including everything into its concept of “object”. This include things as small as a paperclip to things as big as entire islands and clouds. In most games, something like the paperclip could be interactive. Much like the bobby pins in Fallout 3, player characters in other games may find use for even the smallest object.
Things like islands and clouds, however, provide little to no interaction in the standard game. At best the land may serve as the floor for a level. At worst, it would serve as nothing more than background imagery. This distinction completely ceases to exist in the world of Katamari Damacy, removing the idea of scale from the equation entirely. Scale, in both life and media, helps to differentiate and contain things. In his writing on the effects of scale, Collinge states that “ once these layers [of scale] are presupposed, it is difficult not to think in terms of social relations and institutional arrangements that somehow fit their contour.” Scale bestows a hierarchy onto the objects contained within said scale, forcing objects into orders of importance. The distinct lack of scale in Katamari Damacy allows it to operate as an interesting realization on the idea of Object Oriented Ontology and an equalization of objects.
This democratization of game objects stands in stark contrast to the game objects of most other games. Take Halo for example. Ammo, enemies, and vehicles are all dynamic, interactive objects. They change, are destructible or collectible, and all have the ability to be interacted with. Terrain and buildings, however, are entirely noninteractive. This presents the traditional object dichotomy seen in most traditional games. Terrain in Katamari works in an extremely interesting manner. Initially, when the the katamari is small, terrain functions more or less like it does in other games with the ground simply serving as a floor for the player character. However, as the game progresses, the terrain transforms into a fluid, interactive object. The katamari is able to pick up trees, rocks, and eventually even the ground itself. With Katamari’s inclusion of terrain and other traditionally noninteractive elements into its idea of interactive objects, it moves against the common trend of separating objects into different classes of use.
Minecraft can work as an additional, albeit slightly different, example. Minecraft exists in an almost purgatorial state between the interactive/noninteractive dichotomy and the object oriented ontology of Katamari Damacy. Every object in Minecraft functions like the objects in Katamari; each object is composed of more objects (blocks). These blocks, however, are composed of different materials, each with its own distinct properties. This creates obvious distinction between the different blocks, leading to a hierarchy of objects. The objects that make up other objects in Katamari have no real purpose and nothing really differentiates them from one another except object size. Since each object serves the same function as every other object in the game, it becomes obvious how this system differs from the system of object hierarchy created in Minecraft.
Katamari, as different as it may be, does not present a completely object oriented world. The game democratizes the physical objects within its confines, but it falls short in representing the non-physical objects inherent in object oriented ontology. The prince, in a truly object oriented universe, could roll up, for example, the concept of love, or the words spoken by a character, or even the numbers representing the katamari size sitting at the top of the screen. The game may not seek to answer any difficult questions about the nature of such a world, but it does provide a nice visual representation of an object oriented universe.
Working forward from this idea of flat ontology, Katamari becomes a game of deconstruction. The game is entirely built on the concept of literal deconstruction through its central gameplay focus on the collection of objects. The player, through the use of the katamari, removes object A from its existence inside and as a part of object B. This could be the rolling up of a mouse object that exists within the confines of the house object or it could be the removal of a school object that exists within the town object. Scale doesn’t matter at all, only that every object is able to be removed from its parent object. This deconstruction builds nicely off of the previous idea of a flat ontology. Each object exists on the same ontological level as every other object; scale, function, and position serve no purpose in a world predicated on flat ontology.
It is through this deconstruction of objects ingame that allows the player to possibly consider the ontology of the objects around them. Just like in Katamari, the objects around us all contain more objects within themselves, none more important than another. This fresh take on ontology allows the player to step back and look at the world around them in a new, novel way. As stated in the game by the King of the Cosmos, “My, Earth really is full of things”.
Collinge, Chris. “Flat Ontology and the Deconstruction of Scale: A Response to Marston, Jones and Woodward.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31.2 (2006): 244-51. Web. 7 Aug. 2014.
Katamari Damacy. Namco. 2004. Video Game
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