Games

'Wattam' Is a Children's Guide to Eco-Radicalism

'Katamari Damacy' designer Keita Takahashi thinks friendship is our best shot at saving the planet.

by Lewis Gordon
Jan 6 2020, 4:04pm

Screenshots courtesy of Funomena

Keita Takahashi’s games are always full of stuff. Playfully rendered and often crudely animated, the bright technicolor objects which populate the games he’s helped create have tended to function as fodder for the player to consume. 2004’s Katamari Damacy was about a tiny Prince rolling the world’s possessions into a gigantic ball while 2009’s Noby Noby Boy found a rainbow caterpillar ingesting everything from squawking chickens to wailing sumo wrestlers across randomly generated levels. You couldn’t move for all the human mess these worlds were cluttered up with. Despite Katamari’s dream-like, absurdist aesthetic, Takahashi offered a serious-minded meditation on consumerism and its impact on Earth’s planetary health. “I think I successfully expressed my cynical stance towards the consumption society,” he said in a 2009 Game Developers Conference talk. “But still I felt empty when the objects were gone."

Wattam, Takahashi’s latest game and first in collaboration with studio Funomena, is different. Now, rather than consuming these everyday objects, you’re able to control them. A huge toy duck, golden poop, and even the sun (alongside over 100 other characters) populate the picture book world. But when you’re not inhabiting these cheerfully rendered protagonists, they’re off causing their own havoc as they independently navigate Wattam’s floating environments. Takahashi refers to these objects as people (so as not to “other” them) and throughout the course of the game, these beings rendered in his signature cartoon style band together to figure out what happened to the once healthy planet Earth.

Across illustrated panels filled with pipes spewing out pollution and hacked-down trees, a story gradually unfolds detailing Earth’s demise. It’s up to Wattam’s disparate inhabitants to right this generational wrong by working through a series of puzzles together.

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More often than not, Wattam centers on communal solutions. Just after the game’s theatrical opening, the mayor becomes upset but his tears are far from useless. I’m able to use them to water the soil. Out of his sadness sprouts a flower and before long, I’m forming a friendship circle involving two more flowers, the mayor, a giant rock, and a disembodied nose. As we spin faster and faster around a pine cone called Valerie, a gigantic pink tree grows from the center. Everyone is smiling and laughing. A few minutes later, I’m controlling the pastel-colored shrub, sucking up my friends and turning them into food which falls from my leaves onto the game’s soft grass. Some turn into fruit as you might expect while others turn into barbecued meat. Takahashi invokes these processes without ever suggesting a hierarchy of being. Indeed, Wattam offers a utopian experience where everyone and every thing is equal. It almost feels like a rebuttal of our own wider world where the human experience tends to be privileged over everything else.

Wattam, with its strange interactions between non-humans deliberately invested with the emotions and motivations of people, reminds me of the sometimes equally absurdist writings of the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton. A few years ago, Morton suggested the best way to combat environmental crisis (like that found in Wattam) is to not only forge connections with as many different groups of humans as possible but also non-humans. “Don’t hide under a rock, for heaven’s sake,” he said in 2017 to The Guardian. “Go out in the street and start making any and as many kinds of political affiliations with as many kinds of beings, human or otherwise, that you possibly can, with a view to creating a more non-violent and just, for everybody, ecological world.” It might sound schmaltzy and even ridiculous but Takahashi’s latest feels like the video game equivalent of such a sentiment: Wattam is enormously hopeful.

Friendships and cooperation are suffused into almost every aspect of the game but so too are the differences between the characters. The game’s inhabitants often belong to clearly delineated groups — think stationary, body parts, or nature — who also speak different languages, an element inspired by Takahashi’s move from Tokyo to Vancouver (he now lives in San Francisco). “There were so many different races of people in Vancouver. They speak different languages. They work together,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s differences that make our cultures more deep, more nice, and make our perspective more wide.”

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As Wattam presses forward, the game’s playful aesthetic and adorable characters aren’t quite matched by similarly creative excursions in game design. Quickly enough, it settles into a familiar rhythm of completing tasks to make its vibrant beings feel happy, usually by bringing particular characters to them or by completing more elaborate quests (one particularly enjoyable escapade involves tracking down troublesome salmon roe for an inconsolable piece of sushi). These activities all take place on four floating platforms named after each of the seasons. Once you’ve completed Spring’s major activity, Summer floats into view, and thus the cycle continues predictably enough. While Katamari Damacy followed a similarly linear progression, there was a relentless, stampede-like quality to that work as Takahashi pushed the idea to its logical extreme (which ultimately concluded with the tiny Prince rolling up continent-sized land masses). Wattam, by turn, never quite feels like it makes good on the plethora of contextual puzzle-solving and comedy which might have been wrung from its diverse cast.

The game’s simplicity might partly be explained by the fact that it was also influenced by its designer and his young son playing with building blocks. “He was two years old and he just broke down my stack and laughed,” said Takahashi. “He did that over and over again.” In Wattam, such chaos emerges from an explosion the mayor can unleash by revealing a bomb underneath his bowler hat. But it’s far from a moment of terror — instead the confetti-splattered kaboom functions as a tool of connection: characters flock to the gift-wrapped detonations and ask to join in.

Wattam is best approached as a children’s game rich with symbolism. Like Katamari Damacy, the game is full of visual gags even if there isn’t quite the same depth and satisfaction to be wrought from actually playing the game. Still, I won’t quickly forget my own towering stack of characters hanging out with the sun, or the telephone, fork and ice-cream holding hands knee-deep in snow, or the ultimately life-affirming journey about saving the planet. Whether or not you read Wattam as a euphoric eco-fable or whimsical lesson in collective action (really, it’s both) at a fraught historical moment, Takahashi’s outlook feels more precious than ever, circle dances and all.

Tagged:
Katamari Damacy
Keita Takahashi
Funomena
Wattam