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  • Japanese Exceptionalism and Play HegemonyThe Construction of Ludic Traditions in Video Games Criticism
  • Tomás Grau (bio)

In November 2004, Namco decided to distribute the game Katamari Damacy for the PlayStation 2 to the American market.1 The title had not been particularly popular in Japan, but its critical reception was generally positive, and it managed to gather a small cult following thanks to the promotion of both Western and Japanese outlets. Most critics at the time focused on the "quirkiness" and "weirdness" of the game and emphasized the way that its mechanical and visual trappings were not comparable to anything from the market at that moment. In some instances, that uniqueness was partly explained by the assertion that Japanese game designers were no match to anyone in regards of "doing weird."

The premise and objectives of the game are simple enough: as the Prince of All Cosmos, the player's duty is to correct the King's mistakes in rebuilding the stars and constellations of the world by combining as much objects as possible into a singular ball that might eventually become a star. To achieve this, the player needs to roll up a ball with these items and keep adding up as many things as possible before times run out, which establishes the main dynamic of the game. At first, players begin with small items (like rubber ducks, cutlery, and calculators), then shift to medium-sized ones (like furniture), large ones (including people and cars), and finish by adding up entire mountains and buildings. Everything counts so long as you are able to keep rolling.

The creator of the game, Keita Takahashi, explained years later in an interview that when coming up with the design of the game he based it around concepts that "a Japanese person would recognize instantly and that would be fun to play with."2 This assertion signals a cultural focus during the creative process that may have had a role in the reaction that most English-language critics had of the title. However, it is important to indicate that these cultural specificities were never explicitly indicated by game reviewers at the time; [End Page 77]

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Figure 1.

Screen capture of a typical game session in Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004), in which the player has already amassed a significant ball.

instead, they opted to focus on the alienating effect that the game had on them. To these critics, the most attractive aspect of Katamari Damacy (Figure 1) and its sequels had less to do with its cultural point of origin than with its presentation as something unique and different from any other game.

What led reviewers to react so strongly toward Katamari Damacy was a combination of technical, historical, and cultural factors. The game was received during a time of diversification in the gaming hardware industry that significantly altered the structure of the sector. Nintendo DS was also released in 2004, and marked the beginning of a significant shift in Nintendo's business strategy toward reaching a more diversified market. Last, this year also marked the public release of the digital platform Steam, which has had an enormous impact on the distribution of the industry.3

These technical and economic factors had a significant influence on the material conditions in which games operate, both as commodities and as works of art. They also determined which types of genres and experiences would be favored by investors and players alike, which in turn left a mark on [End Page 78] the artistic development of the medium. For these reasons, the idea that Katamari Damacy was "weird" or "quirky" was an implicit recognition that its play experience was outside of the cultural landscape that these factors promoted. Instead, the game had to be described on its own terms, without fitting it into existing categories and genres. Katamari Damacy was not an exceptional case; difficulties describing games considered "bizarre" and "weird" for the mainstream audience are a relatively common situation with titles that deviate too much from the norm. This habit of coupling "difference" with "weirdness" in video game criticism has given many Japanese games a reputation as both singular...


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