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Katamari creator Keita Takahashi on why his games are both silly and serious

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‘There are so many contradictions in my mind’

Wattam
Wattam.

It’s been a decade since Keita Takahashi released a commercial video game — the last title from the creator of the Katamari Damacy series was Noby Noby Boy in 2009 — but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t busy. He’s continued working on games, dabbled in augmented reality apps, and even tried his hand at designing playground equipment before being stymied by the heavy costs and regulations involved. “I decided I should be a billionaire to make playground equipment with my own money,” Takahashi tells me, laughing. “So that’s the reason why I keep making video games.”

For the last six years, he’s been working with game studio Funomena on Wattam, which launches today. It’s an adorable puzzle / adventure game filled with 100 different characters, each based on an easily recognizable inanimate object. There are talking trees and houses running through colorful islands alongside inflatable beach toys and school supplies. But despite its bright and cheerful exterior, Wattam is a surprisingly emotional game; you progress by bringing new objects to the world, while they have to work together after an attack from an unnamed evil. The game even ends by forcing you to make a morally challenging decision. Then again, Wattam is also filled with sentient pieces of poop. (For more on Wattam, be sure to check out our review.)

Keita Takahashi.
Photo courtesy of Annapurna Interactive

Takahashi says that this contrast between silly and serious is a byproduct of his own personality. “Usually, people have different layers in their minds,” he explains. “Even me, I have lots of layers; each layer of Keita Takahashi has a different perspective and different thoughts. Like, I don’t play video games, but I like to make video games.” He adds that “there are so many contradictions in my mind. That’s why, in Wattam, there are different things in the game, but I worry about the player being confused about that. But for some reason, I need it.”

The game was inspired in large part by a major life change. After leaving Katamari developer Namco, Takahashi moved to Vancouver to work on the browser-based online game Glitch. (Helmed by Stewart Butterfield, Glitch would shut down soon after, but it went on to form the basis of workplace chat app Slack.) For the first time, Takahashi found himself alongside people from all over the world, each working together for a common goal.

Later, when development on Glitch ended, he moved to San Francisco to work on a new project with Funomena, and he was shocked by the pervasive homelessness in the city. “I feel so bad when I see them, but I have a job and money through making a video game, which is an unnecessary thing,” he says. “That makes me uncomfortable every time.” These experiences made him want to create a game that was more than just a silly diversion, but something that had meaning and was specifically about different kinds of people coming together. (The name Wattam represents this philosophy: it’s a mashup of the Tamil word vaṭṭam and the Japanese word wa, both of which mean circle.)

Noby Noby Boy
Noby Noby Boy.

Development wasn’t exactly smooth. Originally, Wattam was to be published by Sony, but it was eventually canceled as Sony culled a number of smaller indie projects. It was during this downtime between publishers that Takahashi spent six months developing an AR experience called Woorld for Google. “I had time, and I also needed the money,” he admits. Luckily, Wattam was picked up by publisher Annapurna Interactive soon after.

As for Wattam’s bright but simple style, it was the result of a few factors. For one, the game’s physics engine required relatively simple shapes, which is why some of the game’s main characters are actual cubes. But the minimalist approach to the visuals also harkens back to when Takahashi first started making games, which is a period he misses. “I wish we were still playing with the PlayStation 2,” he says. “That makes many restrictions for the game designer. It’s great seeing game designers get help from graphics improvements and many other things, but sometimes that spoils us.”

As for why a game about bringing people together stars no actual people? Well, it’s a pretty simple answer. “I just like the objects,” Takahashi explains. “We throw away everything without any consideration for the environment. I wanted to make a video game to show people that ordinary stuff is important to us.”

It’s been a long time coming, but Wattam finally launches today; the quirky adventure is available on both the PS4 and PC. It’s a quintessentially Keita Takahashi game, but it’s also one that feels deeper and more poignant than any of his previous work. He says he’s nervous about what players will think of the game, but he’s not going to spend launch day worrying about it too much.

“I have kids, and they have a concert,” he says. “I have to take them, so I’m kind of busy.”