Game Room: Stuck on Katamari Damacy

From time to time, gamers sometimes report, if you play a game enough, fragments of the game begin to seep into your conscious mind. I can remember, for example, looking up at an office building late one night many years ago after a particularly long bout of Tetris, trying to mentally calculate how the lit windows would fall into place, and which ones needed to be edged over a bit.

Recently, I experienced a similar form of gamer synesthesia after a particularly long session playing a Sony PlayStation 2 game called Katamari Damacy. The $20 Namco game (whose name translates from the Japanese to mean "clump of souls") sounds deceptively simple: Roll a sticky ball over objects in a 3D game area, picking them up, until the diameter of the sticky ball (the katamari) exceeds the minimum size dictated at the beginning of the level.

But this description barely begins to describe the exhilarating experience of rolling a katamari over increasingly large objects as the game progresses. The story of the game isn't all that important. But there's one phrase that does sum up the joy of the katamari, and it's repeatedly uttered by a character in the game who serves as your guide, mentor, and (at times) tormentor.

That phrase is: "My, Earth really is full of things." Ain't it the truth.

If It Exists, Roll It Up

The backstory was built up around the game, and it's a doozy: Your father, the King of All Cosmos, is a bit of a klutz. He accidentally destroyed all the stars in the universe. As the prince, your role is to collect as much matter as possible. The king can then crush this into a ball and toss it into the sky (you know, to replace the stars). He sends you to Earth, reasoning--quite justifiably--that if you need to collect things, Earth's the place to go.

And so, level after level, you roll this sticky ball around the planet. At first, your katamari is only a little bigger than a thumbtack. Since you're limited to rolling up objects that are smaller than the katamari, you roll up tacks, paper clips, erasers, and the kind of hard candy that nobody eats and then gets stale and sticky inside the candy dish. As you go along, the diameter of your katamari slowly increases. As it gets bigger, you're able to pick up larger and larger objects: dominoes, playing cards, and batteries, for example.

Eventually, your katamari reaches a size where you can pick up small animals. Frogs ribbit as you roll over them. Cats howl. Dogs at first knock you over, then yelp as you get large enough to pick them up, too. It doesn't matter much, says the king. Don't worry about it. You need to concentrate on the Things You Need to Get. Candy, Mah Jongg tiles, or C-size batteries---it doesn't matter. Stuff is stuff. If you don't get enough of it within the time allotted by the king, he'll get really angry. You won't like it when he's angry.

Bigger and Bigger

Once you've reached the level where you're rolling up people-sized objects, there's no going back. By now, you're part of the growing family of Damacy fans. And even as the police in the game impotently fire their guns at your oncoming katamari, you won't see it from their perspective--as a horrible, rolling monstrosity, devouring everything in its path. "Hey Earth, you've got things, and I need 'em," I found myself thinking. It's nothing personal.

As the ranks of the Katamari Damacy-obsessed swell, I'm finding myself joining them, as stuck to the game as I would be to a 5-meter katamari. The bizarrely addictive soundtrack doesn't help. My favorite objects to pick up: whole office buildings, which make a supremely satisfying din of crunching metal and ringing telephones. The most obnoxious: pencils, which severely inhibit the katamari's ability to roll smoothly.

Now I've finally reached that odd point where I find myself imagining what I would do if I had a real katamari that I could whip out at convenient times. Trying to make your way through a crowded subway? Feel like the line in the supermarket isn't moving fast enough? Not only would housecleaning be a snap, but as I look out my office window at a growing traffic jam along the highway, I can only think to myself, "Cars, all lined up and ready to be rolled over." The simple joys of a katamari put to good use.

My, Earth really is full of things.

PC World Senior Associate Editor Andrew Brandt took a break from playing games to coauthor How to Do Everything In Windows XP Home Networking (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 2004, 877/833-5524).
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