Two Playstation 2 games have captured my attention lately: Burnout 3 and Katamari Damacy. Both games are a reminder that no matter how jaded you are as a gamer, there’s always the possibility that the next game you play might shock you with its compelling originality or perfectly calibrated fun.
Burnout 3 is a perfect illustration of the old gaming maxim that a good game takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. It’s a racing game, but with a twist: most of the events reward you for forcing other cars off the road and you also get rewarded for especially spectacular crashes yourself. There’s no fiendishly difficult sequence of combinations to memorize, no hopelessly inbred genre conventions to decipher. I don’t even like racing games but I love Burnout 3. The gameplay offers variety and depth while always remaining powerfully intuitive. After a few runs on any given map, you begin to see much more intricate possibilities of maneuver and attack: the game opens up to more and more interesting play each time you play. I’m even toying with getting a steering wheel-and-pedals peripheral to go with my PS2 since my thumb is sore from pressing the “X” for acceleration so hard.
Katamari Damacy has a different kind of freshness to it. Even the unvarnished, basic description of the game gives you some sense of how odd and unheralded it is: you roll a sticky ball, a katamari, around a surface littered with objects in order to make a bigger and bigger ball. If you bump into something too large, your ball loses some of its accumulated detritus. Often you’re trying to reach a minimum size within a time limit, so you have to build your ball efficiently: if you pick up an oddly-shaped object, particularly something long or pointy, it will be much harder to roll the ball smoothly. Throw in the game’s underlying surreality, a story in which you are the whimsically cartoony son of the King of All Cosmos (who accidentally lost all the stars one night and needs your katamari to replace them) and couple that with some appropriate music, and you have a game that seems unlike anything you’ve ever played.
Thinking about the relationship between human universals, global modernity and ethnographic particulars is a pretty fundamental part of my mainstream field of expertise in African studies. So I tend to see many other issues in the same way. Games have the interesting attribute of being historically common (to the point of universality) to all human societies but also of being clearly epiphenomenal in their universality (e.g., not even the most simple-minded devotee of dumbed-down forms of evolutionary psychology would argue that game-playing is itself adaptive, only that the cognitive skills used in game-playing might be). Video and computer games are also powerful ways to trace the distinctive flows and possibilities of modern global culture. But gaming cultures are sometimes intensely national and local: boardgames in contemporary Germany, MMOGs in South Korea. Burnout 3 and Katamari Damacy strike me as a pretty good test bed for playing around with these questions with regard to games.
Both games tend to appeal to a wide cross-section of the audience for video games. They both sit on a very simple conceptual foundation, without much complexity in the interface of their gameplay or much referent to video games as a medium or other genres of popular culture. Even someone who had little familiarity with console games or video games as a whole could probably learn to play (and enjoy) both games in a relatively short time.
But how much of Burnout 3 requires the prior referent of driving cars for its success? Would it be as much fun without the pent-up aggression that any driver (or passenger) has acquired by being stuck in traffic jams, being cut off and so on? Equally, how much of Katamari Damancy comes off as original because of translation effects? How much of its whimsical surreality stems from a much more structured national relation between Japanese and American popular cultures, the kind that gives rise to memes like “all your base belong to us”? If Katamari Damacy was wrapped in the graphical and narrative infrastructure of an Id game—say the ball was being pushed by a hyper-steroidal, “realistic”, character trapped within H.R. Giger backdrop—would its gameplay still have its structural originality? Is the newness of the game just an affect of a different use of the conventional console controller?
What makes it possible to make Burnout 3 or Katamari Damacy and achieve the sensation of originality in a heavily saturated marketplace: local cultures of gaming production and consumption, the contemporary global circulation of the video game as a technologically novel mass medium, or the deeper cognitive pleasures we take in the structures and forms of play?