Katamari Damacy

I wanted to play this for years, and it’s finally available on PC. If you’ve been living under a rock since 2004, this is the one where you roll up objects into a big ball.


And run into big poles, coming to a screeching halt

Your first question is undoubtedly, what’s a katamari?  Or a damacy, for that matter? The game’s title is 塊魂, better transliterated Katamari Tamashī. A katamari is a cluster, lump, or agglomeration; a tamashī is a spirit or soul. So, the spirit of agglomeration. Curiously, both words are native Japanese. If you read the words as Chinese they’d be kuài hún, which mean the same thing but are unrelated. Note the 鬼 guǐ ‘ghost’ grapheme in both characters which gives the title a nice visual pun. As the Chinese suggests, it’s a phonetic in the first word, a radical in the second.

(I should add: tamashī is what you’ll find in the dictionary, but the D in Damacy is not a mistake; it’s what’s actually pronounced, as this is a compound. It’s a sandhi thing.)

Curiously, 塊 seems to be a less common rendering of katamari; my two dictionaries list 固まリ instead. I assume 塊 was chosen for the visual pun. (Edit: Alert reader Yiuel Raumbesirc tells me that both renderings are used, and 塊 is used when the meaning is ‘an accumulation of stuff’.)

So, how’s the game? Most reviewers have said it’s delightful. And it is, though I’d say only about 80% so. The 20% is due to the strict time limits for each level, which probably mean that you’ll frustratingly fail a few levels before getting them. It’d be nice if you could have a Wimp Mode where you get 50% more time.

Oh, and in the “dumb things” department: the (relatively short) tutorial comes before you can change graphics settings. So you have to play it in windowed mode. Once you get to your home planet, go to the settings and you can play in full screen at high resolution.

Something that takes getting used to is the controls. You push the katamari around with two keys– WASD and IJKL.  This is slightly awkward, but that’s the point, really– it’s supposed to be awkward to roll this growing pile around a house, neighborhood, and eventually world. The ball also has momentum, so it’s sometimes a struggle to control it. Plus the camera only shows you the forward path; you can slowly and clumsily shift the camera by holding down just W (or just I).  There are supposedly burst and dash modes, but I never got them to work. (Literally: I press the keys and nothing happens.)

More importantly, when you run into things bigger than the ball, you stop and lose one or more items. This can make you curse, but it’s probably what makes this a game and not a walking simulator: you have to learn what you can and can’t pick up.  For most efficient rolling:

  • Learn to avoid what you can’t pick up yet.
  • Also avoid moving objects that are bigger than your ball.
  • Items you can pick up often come in arrays; take advantage of these pre-created paths and clusters.
  • Though the levels are free-form, they’re also graded in terms of object size. It pays to get all the stuff you can in one area before moving on.
  • On the other hand, don’t waste time with objects much smaller than your ball.
  • There are areas you can’t get to until your katamari is a certain size. For best results, be somewhat above that size.
  • You can pick up long thing objects (thermometers, axes, bottles) or flat objects (envelopes, cards) much earlier than more round objects. This seems to build up the ball faster.
  • Steps can stop you short. Sometimes you can get up if you have momentum.

As your ball gets bigger, you can roll over things with ease that used to be obstacles. The animate things cry out or scream as they’re rolled up, which would be disturbing if the art style weren’t so toylike.

The last level gives you a fair amount of time, and the sense of scale is breathtaking. Each map starts you off slightly larger, but you’re still picking up fruit and such things to start. But soon you’re picking up furniture, and then people, and then vehicles, and then buildings, and then entire cities.  It’s exhilarating when everything clicks and you’re constantly rewarded by a change in scale.

Katamari Damacy is a trifle– it took me under 10 hours to play– and maybe slightly overpriced at $30.  But it’s so completely original that I’m happy I got it over everything else on my wishlist. (Plus I’m having fun replaying levels to try to get a bigger katamari.)

The game has a lovely soundtrack, too– mostly bouncy J-Pop, but at least one bossa nova number.  (Bossa would be a good translation of katamari.)


There’s a bonkers story to go along with the bonkers mechanic. The King of All Cosmos, in a drunken bender, has knocked all the stars and the moon out of the sky.  You are his son, far tinier but with the same odd taste in headgear, and you’re tasked with making katamaris which will become stars to replace the ones that were lost.

The main humor here is that King is a terrible father; he’s constantly berating you for your size and the smallness of your katamaris (if you merely make it the size he specified). On the other hand, he does give you presents, which he invariably loses, so you have to gather them up where they fell to earth.

He speaks in record scratches, which is amusing for about ten seconds; fortunately you can rush through his dialog with space bar, and skip it entirely with tab.

Credit where it’s due department: the game was designed by Keita Takahashi. There are several Katamari Damacy games, so perhaps we’ll see more of them released later.

One more note: an interesting design trick. Objects become more saturated in color as they join your ball. This probably subliminally reinforces your rolling, but also means that your ball stands out against the background.  (The world is still mighty colorful despite the subtle desaturation.)

Edit: I might be done, after about 28 hours. I replayed the whole game, then replayed individual levels to get better scores. Anyway, main point: it’s even more fun on a replay, since you know what you’re doing and what to avoid.

One extra control you’ll end up appreciating: press W + K to rotate the ball fast.

Edit edit: I wasn’t quite done… I played the whole damn thing again, without worrying about records, just for maximum fun. By this point the few annoyances (mostly, bumping into things you don’t want to) fade, and it just becomes relaxing fun.


A garota de Ipanema

So Norman Gimbel just died.  I never heard of him either, but he wrote the English lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”, so it’s a nice opportunity to compare lyrics and versions.

Here’s the classic Stan Getz / Astrud Gilberto version, and Gimbel’s lyrics:

Tall and tan and young
And lovely the girl from Ipanema
Goes walking and when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!
When she walks she’s like
A samba that swings so cool
And sways so gently that when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!

Oh, but he watches so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he

This is the quintessential bossa nova song, and it feels like the ’60s, which is a strange thing to feel these days. Things were, if anything, far worse worldwide, but there was a sense of optimism despite that– the sense that right now things were changing for the better. Bossa nova somehow evokes that: super cool, sweet, and tinged with sadness.

Bossa nova means “new bump”, but bossa here apparently means “knack, charm, allure”. As for Ipanema, it’s a beachfront neighborhood in Rio– still fashionable when I was there in the 1990s. In the 20th century, development and coolness spread from downtown southwestward: first Botafogo was the premier beach, then Copacabana, then Ipanema.

Here’s the Portuguese version, performed by the original composer, Tom Jobim, and the lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes:

The interesting thing is that the English lyrics aren’t a translation at all, not even loosely. The only thing the two songs have in common is the notion of a girl walking in Ipanema.

Olha que coisa mais linda
Look what a beautiful thing
Mais cheia de graça
So full of grace
É ela, menina
It’s her, the girl
Que vem e que passa
Who comes and passes by
Num doce balanço
with sweet swaying
A caminho do mar
On the way to the sea

Moça do corpo dourado
Girl with tanned body
Do sol de Ipanema
from the Ipanema sun
O seu balançado é mais que um poema
Her swaying is more than a poem
É a coisa mais linda que eu já vi passar
It’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw
Ah, por que estou tão sozinho?
Ah, why am I so alone?
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste?
Ah, why is everything so sad?
Ah, a beleza que existe
Ah, the beauty that exists
A beleza que não é só minha
The beauty which isn’t just for me
Que também passa sozinha
Which also passes alone
Ah, se ela soubesse
Ah, if she knew
Que quando ela passa
That when she passes by
O mundo inteirinho se enche de graça
The whole world is filled with grace
E fica mais lindo
And becomes more beautiful
Por causa do amor
Because of love

One more thing to note– Portuguese is rich in words for ‘young woman’– in this song alone we have garota, menina, moça.

Here’s another version I like, sung in English and some Portuguese by another Brazilian artist, Joyce:

Also worth noting: there was an actual girl from Ipanema– Helô Pinheiro, who was 17 when she apparently walked by Moraes, in 1962. Here she is on the beach:


Pinheiro parlayed the fame from the song into a modeling and TV hosting career.

By the way, Moraes was 49 at the time, so, just as well he only sat and watched her.

Blender for conworlders

In the Planet Construction Kit, I introduced some 3-D modeling programs, but that section is pretty outdated. What I recommend now (if you can’t afford a pro package) is Blender, which is free and full of features.  But like every other 3-D program, it’s complex and baffling and you can’t really figure it out just by messing with it.  So, I wrote a tutorial that gives the basics of Blender.


It isn’t a full manual… that’d be a book in itself… but you can get pretty far with it.  If people like it, I could add more (I only barely cover UV maps and creating humanoids).

Happy modeling!

The Syntax Construction Kit is here!

Connie-5I received my second proof, and my name is spelled correctly on both the cover and the title page, so I’ve approved it! The printers are standing by, ready to roll press for you, the reader.

Here’s my description page, and here’s the Amazon page. If you have no idea what syntax is, or what a syntax book is, start there.

If you’re an e-reader, you’ll have to wait a few days. The Kindle version takes some extra preparation, as all the nice Illustrator diagrams must be converted to the high-tech formats of the early 1990s, GIFs or JPEGs. I’ll mention it here when it’s done. (Oh wait. Another page says they accept PNGs. That’s late ’90s!)

Don’t be a drag who has a two-page syntax page in your grammar. All the cool kats will be tripping on the real syntax in this book.


Being the One True Protagonist

I like reading Shamus Young on video games, but boy howdy do I disagree with his latest column. The issue is, should you be, and feel like you’re being, The Chosen One in games?

sr-main-personIdeally, the Chosen One actually glows

He’s talking about (just one aspect of) how Mass Effect Andromeda‘s story makes little sense.

In more recent BioWare games, the story has inverted all of this. The writer has adopted a parent / child relationship with the player character. The protagonist gets bossed around and you’re obliged to do what NPCs tell you to do, and the writer doesn’t even make much of an effort to get buy-in from the player. You can’t ask probing questions and the dialog doesn’t waste time justifying things to the player. At the same time the game patronizingly pretends like the player character is in charge. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Pathfinder. You’re the famous Messianic Commander Shepard. You’re so great. People look up to you. People love you. You’re special. You’re important. Now go do these missions and don’t ask any questions.

I haven’t played Andromeda, but I did play as Shepard, to say nothing of Batman, the Lone Wanderer, the Dragonborn, the Boss, Gordon Freeman, Jade, the Witcher, Empress Emily, Bayonetta, etc.  So the first thing I’d suggest is: these games are actually trying to tell you something important about being the Chosen One. It’s genuinely limiting. Being the special person who saves the world means that you don’t get to do whatever the hell you want. Being Batman isn’t dizzying freedom, it’s backbreaking responsibility. And yes, people will tell you what to do, because that’s what saving the world involves. You gotta go save it, and probably there’s only one way to do it. (Or two ways, one involving stealth, the other involving combat.)

(Also, I know he’s being sarcastic, but “people love you”? Are people fond of the one dude who can save the world? I’d say they’re far likely to be anxious, demanding, and irritable. They’re supposed to be saving the world, and here they are in my shop selling troll fat, or stealing calipers from my barrels, or reading people’s memoirs. I don’t want to see that, I want to see some world-saving.)

Shamus goes on to suggest a way to ‘fix’ this scene in Andromeda, and his way might well be better writing. But the reason his fix works is that it leads to the exact same results. That is, you’re still railroaded.  The cutscenes would set you up as Making Great Decisions, yes, but then you’d go and do the exact same things as when people were telling you what to do.

It can be fun when we do get to make overall decisions, but for obvious reasons this is a hard ask. It’s illuminating to fire up Fallout’s Creation Kits and examine how complicated a single quest is. 80% of players probably make the same main decisions, but you have to have options for the most absurd possible options. If decisions can have consequences later, you’re greatly multiplying the amount of work without increasing the amount of game players see.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s quite silly how games insist on setting up the player as the Chosen One. It’s the same sort of narrative escalation where every action movie has to be about the end of the world. Do that enough and the artificialness of the excitement becomes obvious. Corvo failing to protect the Empress once is a bad mistake; doing it twice implies that he’s just awful at his job.

Plus, you don’t have to be the Prophesied One! Maybe you’re just the security guy, as in Deus Ex. Or the guy with the really good wrench, as in Dead Space 1. Or a random survivor, as in Left 4 Dead.

Most intriguingly, you could be no more important than the NPCs. The best example of this is Stalker, where you are just one of many opportunists wandering the Zone. The first Borderlands managed this: the player character was just a treasure hunter, which is basically what the player was too. They ruined this in Borderlands 2 by making Vault Hunters some incredibly rare caste of superheroes.

Finally, the reason games often make stupid requests is, I think, a clue to how game development works.  You don’t have a writer sitting down, saying “The PC will now go fetch a doohingus”, and the quest department writes a Doohingus-Finding Quest. More likely, different teams have already created a bunch of levels, and the writer’s job is to come up with some insane story that requires traversing all of them. Like writing supervillains, it’s just not a job where every instance can make sense on its own terms. Sometimes they come up with a great reason why you have to traverse the sewer level next, sometimes they don’t.

Should you be able to push back at the writer’s lame suggestion? Maybe, but that’s part of why (say) Fallout always has a dialog option to insult the quest giver. It’s kind of juvenile. More effective is when the game itself lampshades the arbitrariness of the plot; the Saints Row games are notable for this. But that option is probably only available for comedy games.