Keita Takahashi: The Goofy and Loveable Black Sheep of Game Designers

In 2004, years before the birth of the indie game scene, years before people began debating whether video games counted as art, Keita Takahashi gave the world Katamari Damacy. The video game industry hasn’t been the same since.

Keita Takahashi at PAX West in 2018 showing a demo of Wattam, his most recent game

If there ever was a person meant to be an indie game developer, it’s Keita Takahashi. This man pursues artistic expression above any other priority. He openly criticizes beloved game studios, including Nintendo and Sony, for stifling creativity in pursuit of profits. Not even his previous employer, Bandai Namco, is immune from his censure, a behavior rarely seen by Japanese developers. Aside from his iconic art style, no two games are alike — his first involves rolling up a ball of everyday objects, his second involves stretching a noodle-like creature, and his most recent game involves making friends with sentient toys. His games simultaneously embrace child-like joy and adult anxiety. A quick scroll of his twitter reflects that mindset with pictures of museum exhibits, concept art, and toilet paper rolls arranged to look like a face.

He’s such a delightful human, and yet he’s such an enigma. Trying to pin down Takahashi’s history or philosophy to any common themes is going to be tricky, but I’m going to try anyway.

This goat planter was one of Keita Takahashi’s many functional sculptures in art school – note how the water is designed to drain through the goat’s “udders”

Getting the Ball Rolling: Early Years and Katamari Damacy

Keita Takahashi went to Musashino Art University in the mid-1990s with the aim of becoming a sculptor. During his time at school, however, he noticed students throwing away their art once they were finished, or leaving it ignored in a corner, and he saw that as a wasteful tragedy. He aimed to create artwork that was both functional and humorous, striving to delight patrons every day so that they wouldn’t ever want to throw out his work. By the time he graduated, however, his focus on usefulness and fun pushed him away from making real sculptures and instead towards making virtual ones in video games. He began working for Namco in 1999 as a graphic designer and artist, already harboring dreams of making his own games someday.

For years he would experiment with game ideas in his spare time, and while none of these ever got off the ground, his colleagues and supervisor encouraged him. These ideas formed a primordial soup that would eventually evolve into Katamari Damacy. Inspired by a Sony-made prototype game called Densen and the traditional Japanese schoolyard game tamakorogashi, Takahashi eventually created an idea where the player would be set in modern-day Japan, rolling up a ball to make it bigger. At first, Takahashi struggled pitching this idea to the Namco executives. His supervisor suggested that he go to Namco’s game design school, where he could enlist the help of the students to create 3D models and flesh out a prototype. Using a misfit team of students and bored arcade engineers, the team made a working demo using a leftover GameCube development kit, though they would eventually move production over to the PlayStation 2. In 2001 Namco finally gave the project the greenlight for commercial release with only one-tenth of the budget normally allocated to a game. While Katamari Damacy was technically developed and published by Namco, its creation from the scraps of the studio gives the appearance of an early-2000s version of an indie game.

As the game developed, the first tentpoles of Takahashi’s game design philosophy were staked into the ground. It was of utmost importance to him that the game be simple, full of novelty, and make the player laugh. He even deliberately ignored input from the rest of Namco to make the game more complex. In Katamari Damacy, the ball would acquire random objects from the environment and grow bigger. The player would have to reach a certain size before the timer ran out. Takahashi had already created characters in previous prototypes, including The Prince, the pint-sized playable avatar, and The King of Cosmos, an aloof and narcissistic father. Takahashi decided they were a perfect fit for Katamari Damacy. The game was released in Japan in the spring of 2004 to moderate success, and when Namco localized the game in the fall of 2004 for the United States, it became a cult classic. It sold out of its first printing and even won the Excellence in Game Design award at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) of 2005. The game resonated strongly with both players and critics alike, and fans began asking for a sequel. Namco was happy with the financial results and quickly began work to on one.

However, just as his career began to take off, Takahashi was already clashing with his employer.

Noby Noby Boy screenshot taken from Sir TapTap’s Let’s Play videos

Stretching Himself Thin

Keita Takahashi hates the game industry’s never-ending list of sequels and franchises. He believes it squashes creativity. Instead of pursuing true artistic expression, studios instead regurgitate the same product with little financial risk. This fundamental clash between himself and Namco would prove to become a wedge that would eventually drive the two apart as the years went on.

Namco told Takahashi that they were going to make a sequel to Katamari Damacy, and they didn’t care whether he worked on it or not. In the end, Takahashi felt he could at least deliver a product that fans would enjoy rather than see it bastardized by a corporation who might not understand the game. One year after the first game’s release, Namco published We Love Katamari, the first and only sequel Takahashi would ever work on. He expanded the gameplay for a wider variety of environments and challenges, and took the opportunity to tell the backstory of The King of Cosmos in cutscenes. Namco would continue to publish Katamari sequels in the coming years, and Takahashi would have nothing to do with them.

Noby Noby Boy screenshot taken from Sir TapTap’s Let’s Play videos

In 2006 Namco merged with Bandai, and to Takahashi’s point of view, the company became even more focused on products and profits. Still, Takahashi had earned enough clout within the company to merit creating a new IP. His new game would involve controlling a stretchy creature that could explore procedurally-generated environments. Players would upload how far they stretched that day, and the game would track the community’s total length using a super elastic character called Girl. Girl’s task was to stretch the length of the solar system. With each new planet that Girl reached, a new world would be unlocked for every player, allowing new types of levels to be generated. It took three years, but in 2009 Takahashi and his team finally released Noby Noby Boy on the PlayStation 3. While it didn’t generate as much universal praise as Katamari Damacy, it still gained a loyal fanbase. It took 6 years for the community to collectively “finish” the game; in 2015 they managed to stretch Girl from Earth all the way out to Pluto, back to the Sun, and then around Mercury and Venus to arrive at Earth again.

Takahashi’s concept designs for massive playground equipment remind me of Claes Oldenburg’s oversized public sculptures

At around the same time, Takahashi was asked by the Nottingham City Council to design a play area for their municipal park. Takahashi jumped at the opportunity, as designing a playground was something he had been dreaming of for a long time. His designs were massive in scale and required multiple children to operate, including a park-sized see-saw that kids on the ground would need to pull and push. In Noby Noby Boy and in the Nottingham Park concepts, a new tentpole of his game design struck ground — Takahashi is committed to creating a community-oriented experience, where people can peacefully cooperate towards a shared goal.

Unfortunately, the playground designs never left Takahashi’s notebook. Whether due to budget limits or safety concerns (likely both), the project was cancelled. However, it appears that this project gave Takahashi the tantalizing taste of independent work, because soon afterwards he quit Bandai Namco.

Screenshot from Alphabet, an experimental multiplayer game released in 2016 featuring 26 playable letters in a footrace

The Fun-omenal Free Agent

Initially, Keita Takahashi’s freelance efforts were filled with instability, but eventually he found a place to settle down. In 2010 Takahashi and his wife began their own independent studio Uvula, which created indie projects here and there, some of them never getting official releases. In 2011 they left Japan and moved to Vancouver, Canada, where Takahashi worked for an indie studio called Tiny Speck on a free-to-play, combat-free MMO called Glitch. Unfortunately Glitch never made it out of Beta and the studio was dissolved.

Keita Takahashi (left), with co-developer and friend Robin Hunicke (right) at a PlayStation Experience panel in 2014

The move to Canada didn’t prove to be entirely fruitless, though. At Tiny Speck, Takahashi reunited with an old friend, Robin Hunicke, an American game developer who was partially responsible for Takahashi’s GDC award for Katamari Damacy. When Tiny Speck dissolved, Hunicke started up her own indie game studio Funomena in San Francisco. In 2012 Takahashi moved to San Francisco to work with Hunicke as well as continue his own freelance projects. During the 2010s, the biggest changes in Takahashi’s design approach came from the birth of his child and the move to North America. The sudden shift in culture impacted how he wanted to bring people together and the ever-present perspective of his child changed what game mechanics he tried. In 2015 Takahashi released WOORLD, an augmented-reality app that allowed players to decorate indoor spaces and guide characters through various obstacles and tasks using the player’s living room as the setting. In 2016 he released Alphabet in collaboration with other independent developers, a racing game where each player controls a letter of the alphabet. His most recent project experienced some difficulties as it was originally co-developed with Sony’s Santa Monica Studio as a PlayStation exclusive, but eventually Sony lost that exclusivity when Annapurna Interactive became the game’s new publisher. In 2019 Takahashi finally released his most recent game, Wattam, on both PlayStation 4 and PC. While it doesn’t have the universal acclaim of Katamari Damacy, it still received several nominations for awards that following year.

Screenshot from Keita Takahashi demonstrating WOORLD in a reveal trailer

It is unclear what Takahashi is currently working on, though he will likely continue his artistic endeavors both in and outside of video games, and may in fact try new ways to blend the two. In 2018 he put together an exhibition in Los Angeles called Never Ever Quest, which was an art collection designed to be experienced like an RPG. Similarly in 2019 the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia displayed a combination exhibit of Takahashi’s sculptures and video games together. Regardless of what he does, you can be sure he will do his own thing, and no one else’s.

My Impressions: Wattam I Playing?

I wish more game developers had Keita Takahashi’s courage. Katamari Damacy is a delightful game that can only come from an artist who is willing to experiment and take dramatic risks in game design. Its sequel We Love Katamari doesn’t exactly shake up the core gameplay much, but the new environments and scenarios were so surprising that it’s easily the best game in the series. I didn’t get a chance to play Noby Noby Boy when it came out on PS3, but I’m fascinated just knowing that this game exists. What kind of video game has players cooperate on that massive of a scale? And after playing Wattam, I feel like there’s nothing Takahashi will make that I won’t enjoy.

I understand why Wattam didn’t receive as much praise as Katamari Damacy. The power fantasy mechanic of the Katamari series is immediate and innately satisfying. Wattam, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly show its gameplay loop right away. You’ll explode a confetti bomb to make some sentient flowers laugh, you’ll hold hands to make a friendship circle, and then you’ll do some errands when more friends arrive. I set down my controller thinking, “What am I even playing? What’s the point to all of this?” Wattam’s moment-to-moment gameplay is simplistic and unfocused. However, after a while the scale of the game began to zoom out, both literally and figuratively, and I could see the themes of friendship growing, and the feedback loop of creating a community began to take shape.

Takahashi’s art style has always been distinctly childish, and Wattam certainly embraces that visual style. It invokes a toddler’s playpen or a preschool classroom. A soundscape, complete with crying and laughing kids, accompanies the cutesy look. You could certainly mistake Wattam for a kids TV show. Underneath that façade, however, Takahashi incorporates his adult fears into his games, creating this dynamic emotional contrast that elevates the experience above being just “a kid’s game.”

In Katamari Damacy, for example, everything seems fun and rosy until you fail a mission. I don’t believe anyone who says they failed a mission and didn’t feel traumatized by the King of Cosmos. Takahashi perfectly captures the weight of high expectations from parents and the anxiety, if not outright terror, it can produce in your work. I also feel like Takahashi hid a message about the Sisyphean nature of adult life in that game – you toil all day, rolling up a massive amount of work, and yet it’s rarely to anyone’s satisfaction. You just have to go out and do it again the next day. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the parallel is there all the same.

Wattam similarly has a darker side that explores the weight of loneliness and separation from loved ones. It also handles situations when people are hurtful with sudden emotive rawness. I didn’t expect the ending to turn out the way it did, and I didn’t expect the dialogue options that it gave me. If his games never embraced this dualistic nature, I don’t think they would be quite as meaningful. Wattam’s message about community would lose its impact without the foil of isolation.

I respectfully disagree with most critics out there — I think Wattam is masterfully crafted. Only a person like Keita Takahashi could’ve made it. While it may not have as compelling a gameplay loop as Katamari Damacy, it compiles all of his philosophies together into one comprehensive game. Now more than ever we need games that embrace humor and community. One day I hope he does another exhibit that I can attend in person, but if not I’ll look forward to whatever weird, joyful game he has up his sleeve.

Further Reading / Sources:

  1. https://twitter.com/KeitaTakahash
  2. https://www.uvula.jp/
  3. https://www.telfair.org/exhibitions/keita-takahashi/
  4. https://www.telfair.org/article/keita-takahashi-sculpture-to-games/
  5. https://youtu.be/KSv63cFW7bw
  6. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/164919?artist_id=42266&page=1&sov_referrer=artist
  7. Hall, L.E. (2018). “Katamari Takes Shape”. Katamari Damacy. Boss Fight Books. ISBN 978-1-940535-17-3.
  8. https://web.archive.org/web/20080624031512/http://www.gamasutra.com/gdc2005/features/20050311/postcard-sheffield.htm
  9. https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020309/Rolling-the-Dice-The-Risks
  10. https://web.archive.org/web/20090716185305/http://cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/blog/content/kdpostmort.htm
  11. http://www.gamespy.com/articles/595/595110p1.html
  12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4392964.stm
  13. https://web.archive.org/web/20071107020022/http://www.japannewsreview.com/entertainment/games/20070719page_id=830
  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbSDdQ08bfs
  15. https://www.siliconera.com/noby-noby-boys-girl-has-reached-the-sun/
  16. https://web.archive.org/web/20091120080532/http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/Video-games-guru-design-city-playground/article-1458337-detail/article.html
  17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8edgc92Rick&list=PLlxZek2EIxknMpJmznLMZTMbK2E3Hb524&index=4
  18. https://beardfolio.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/staying-playful-with-keita-takahashi/
  19. https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2011/11/glitch-the-battle-to-build-a-massive-multiplayer-game-without-combat/
  20. https://twitter.com/tinyspeck/status/505049094658600961
  21. https://www.cnet.com/news/glitch-launches-cnet-offers-an-instant-entry-pass/
  22. https://www.theverge.com/2016/11/1/13486616/woorld-ar-game-keita-takahashi-katamari
  23. https://kotaku.com/why-katamari-damacys-creator-left-japan-1835644700
  24. https://www.usgamer.net/articles/keita-takahashi-wattam-video-games-feature-interview-pax-west
  25. https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/17/21025916/keita-takahashi-interview-wattam-katamari
  26. https://www.siliconera.com/katamari-damacy-developer-turns-art-exhibit-rpg/
  27. https://www.wired.com/story/robin-hunicke-vr-game-luna/
  28. https://youtu.be/YTWimn0VgnM
  29. http://www.funomena.com/
  30. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-claes-oldenburgs-supersized-pop-sculptures-made-public-art-fun

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