Keita Takahashi: The world is alive with the fun of Wattam

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

To understand why Keita Takahashi makes the kinds of games he does, you have to go back to the time he made a goat.

While studying fine art and sculpture at Musashino Art University, Takahashi wanted to create things that served a purpose beyond just being looked at. One day, when at a loss for ideas, he decided to sculpt a goat-shaped vase. Flowers and soil went in the goat’s back and excess water drained from its udders.

“Then I did a presentation of my goat to the other students and the professor, and they laughed, because it was so stupid,” Takahashi said at an interview during BitSummit, the annual independent games festival held this year in Kyoto, from June 1-2. “That’s the moment I knew what I should do: Make something that makes people smile.”

The game designer has an easygoing air about him and laughs often. He’s usually filled with nervous energy before his games release because, he said, “I don’t have any confidence.”

Thinking objects: In Wattam, Keita Takahashi's new game, everything is alive, including poop. | FUNOMENA
Thinking objects: In Wattam, Keita Takahashi’s new game, everything is alive, including poop. | FUNOMENA

It’s really no surprise that he would design a game like Wattam, which was playable in the Sony area of the Miyako Messe convention center during BitSummit. The game, due for release later this year, looks as bright, cheerful and downright weird as Takahashi’s past titles, which include Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy.

Wattam is all about friendship. Nearly everything in the world is alive. You can play with rocks, dance with flowers and, as things get progressively weirder, even hobnob with a human nose (it has arms and legs).

Interactions between the characters is how the game’s various puzzles are solved.

These characters can also change based on what happens in the game. When eaten by a tree, they may be expelled as fruit. There’s even a way to turn them into brightly colored swirls of sentient poop.

“It (poop) comes from us,” Takahashi said before breaking into a laugh. “Why not? It’s just the circle of life.”

The BitSummit demo began with the Mayor, who is the main character — a green cube wearing a black bowler — sitting alone. Eventually, he notices a small rock spring to life. Their interactions result in a second rock coming to life. When the player activates the bomb under The Mayor’s hat, the trio shoot gleefully skyward in an explosion of colorful smoke. Their laughter wakes up the sun, which leads to flowers sprouting up to join the fun.

Even more characters show up after that and there will be more than 100 in the final game. Making them interact — using the Mayor’s bomb or by climbing, dancing and other activities — is how players progress.

Nothing gets his goat: For game designer Keita Takahashi, seeing people laugh at his art piece at college inspired him to make games based on an unusual sense of humor. | JASON COSKREY
Nothing gets his goat: For game designer Keita Takahashi, seeing people laugh at his art piece at college inspired him to make games based on an unusual sense of humor. | JASON COSKREY

“It’s not necessarily a puzzle, but the way that you don’t know what is going on,” said Rolinda Marcelino, a student who played Wattam at BitSummit while visiting Japan with Fitchburg State University. “You kind of find more things and the game opens up more, I really enjoyed that.”

If Wattam sounds weird, then it’s pretty normal for Takahashi. The 44-year-old — a native of Kitakyushu, who currently lives in San Francisco — is most famous for the unusual 2004 PlayStation 2 title, Katamari Damacy.

That game follows a character titled the Prince, who is tasked with replacing all the stars in the sky by his father, the King of All Cosmos, who destroyed them after a night of drinking. To do this, the player pushes around a ball that grows larger as it rolls up everything around it.

Katamari Damacy gained a cult following and spawned numerous sequels. From July 12 to Nov. 5, 2012, it was included in an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Takahashi’s other notable title, Noby Noby Boy, has players controlling a tube-like character that can stretch its body to great lengths and also eat, and digest, things in the environment.

If there’s a message to Takahashi’s delightfully odd games, it’s that there’s always another side to life.

“I got inspiration (for Katamari Damacy) from real life,” he said. “The ball is rolling, but a real ball doesn’t stick to other things. In the game it sticks and gets bigger. That’s just a different perspective from our actual life. I thought that idea was fun. If a player who played Katamari thinks they had a problem in life, but then they look at it from a different perspective and think they may be able to solve the issue, that’s good.”

The idea for Wattam, which has been in development for some time, came while Takahashi was playing with his children. Filling the world with so many different characters (like spoons, trees and even toilets) was derived from his life in Vancouver, where he lived before moving to California.

The Mayor, Wattum's main character, shoots into the air after a bomb under his hat is activated. | FUNOMENA
The Mayor, Wattum’s main character, shoots into the air after a bomb under his hat is activated. | FUNOMENA

“I just realized how different people are when I moved to Vancouver,” he said. “Of course, even Japanese — they are different. Maybe I knew that, but I just didn’t realize how they’re different. It was easier to understand how the world was different when I moved to Vancouver.”

Takahashi has long left art school, but he is still making “goats”: from balls that can roll up buildings and worms that can eat houses to a mayor with a bomb under his hat who dances with poop. He just wants everyone to have fun.

“Everything comes from that time in art college,” he said again. “I’m still doing the same thing. That’s it. Other games get dark and violent. I understand that violence is an element of human nature. But if all games are the same, that’s just boring.”