Music month: Katamari, forever

There are a few games I am terrified to write about, but none are as persistent as Majora’s Mask and the Katamari series. This is in large part due to my relationship with the games: I am much too involved for the critical distance allegedly required to analyze games and their functions. But it is also because I have a stake in the way they are perceived. As games about helping and interacting with other people, I want to share them with friends, family, loved ones. If I fail to write about them well, how could I hope to convince others of their utility?

In the beautiful article “Breaking out of a self-centered gamer mentality,” Richard Clark makes the point that video games have the ability to focus our attention intensely inwards while simultaneously asking us to empathize with others. For most games, the choice of which path to follow is up to the player. In games like Majora’s Mask, however, the pedagogical experience noted by Clark is placed at the forefront; framed by altruism, the game’s various texts constantly refer to characters beyond the avatar/player.

Similarly, the Katamari series’ most fundamental mechanic acts as a visual and physical representation of inclusiveness. Everything and everyone is available for the prince or his cousins to turn into a heavenly body, a horrific concept made brilliant by the games’ interaction with the player. In Katamari Damacy, fulfilling the role of a star is an almost religious source of joy and togetherness; in We Love Katamari, the players are celebrated by the King of All Cosmos himself. Animals, elders, and children are given voice, and the very intent of the game is to magnify happiness.

The best video game music does more than set the scene–ideally, the score should in some way mirror the themes of the larger text. The music in Katamari accomplishes this with surprising consistency and, despite appearances, clarity of focus.

If the Katamari series is about the open-armed accumulation of people and things (which it is), the various soundtracks released by Namco act as a microcosm of these experiences. Look no further than the various forms of “Katamari on the Rocks,” a clambering mission statement that adds new singers and sounds in each iteration. The a cappella version below forces players to sing along with the sheer immensity of its labyrinthine melodies, and the “Na na na” hook shatters language and age barriers alike. It’s as infectious as the best (and worst) earworms in pop, and was surely made with ambitions of universality in mind.

As with many of the songs in the Katamari catalog, categorizing “Katamari on the Rocks” is difficult; emulating the game’s conceit, Yū Miyake and his co-conspirators in joy seem to revel in writing across genres and styles. Any and every type of sound is fair game, as even a brief scan through the various soundtracks will attest. Katamari Damacy shows its foresight by including ambient works Sigur Rós would be jealous of, interspersed with ventures in fusion jazz, EDM (perhaps even IDM), and power pop. We Love Katamari and the soundtrack to Katamari Forever expand upon these sounds, spreading the standard of acceptability to include just about any genre imaginable. The later soundtracks even take the game’s advice, with remixes of earlier songs showing the beneficial evolution allowed by collaboration and understanding of others. The result is a stunning variety of music that pays tribute to the rollicking nature of the games themselves, held together by the common thread of experimentation and melody.

In addition to the grab bag approach to instrumentation pervading the soundtracks, Katamari‘s message is reinforced by the lyrics in a number of its songs. One of the few series to include appreciable text in its music, Katamari’s songs approach the game’s mechanics and overall conceit at face value. While some take various liberties with the concept of rolling, others identify with the process of building relationships and, in both a general and uncomfortably literal sense, coming together. Consider “The Moon and the Prince,” a piece with no small amount of significance that will be lost to many English speaking players.

A helpful translation of the lyrics, taken from the second verse:

Combine our power, and we can do it,/
everyone comes to accomplish one great thing./
Now we’re equal, we understand and admire each other/
more than any time before, the people around me have grown larger.

Even when the songs aren’t describing the game’s more overt goals, their message remains simple: bringing people together is a Herculean task. Whether it’s the exultant commands to persevere in the main theme or a lover’s lament in “Lonely Rolling Star,” the game asks players to internalize both the challenges and rewards of unity. The inherent difficulty of a game such as Majora’s Mask stages these obstacles in a mechanical manner, and the three day system teaches us that altruistic efforts can be overwhelming and self-defeating. Neither game ignores the challenges of changing the world for the better, but neither do they temper expectations because of potential difficulties. Instead, the games remind us of the urgency of such tasks as well as what to expect, and in the Katamari series, this reminder takes flight in music.

Writing about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Borges describes the poet’s work as a song of “mankind’s new faith.” In order to maximize the impact of his poem, Borges states, Whitman enacted his own trinity: the poem’s hero consists of Walt Whitman, the man “Whitman wanted to be and was not,” and “the reader, the changing and successive reader.” This plurality, this removal of division allows Whitman’s celebratory work to encompass everyone—everyone he came into contact with, everyone he wrote into the text, and every one of us that comes into contact with the poem. The result, like the theological trinity, is a paradox. Whitman follows the negation of self to the point of becoming a new self, an ideal that is informed by the presence of others. Katamari explores the physical proportions of this ideal, and, like Whitman, it possesses the genius to do so in song.

From “Lonely Rolling Star:”

Is absolutely/

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