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Think Like Takahashi: Noby, Katamari, Creativity, And Carpet

Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, is generally more interested in art, life, and his dog, than the work of his creative peers - so Gamasutra tried bringing paper and pens to our interview, and here are the results.

Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, is more interested in art, life, and his dog, than the work of his creative peers. He's more interested in going to the museum than going to the Game Developers Conference.

And he's not usually that interested in doing interviews -- in fact, Gamasutra never ended up publishing our most recent prior interview with Takahashi, because the editor who conducted it felt his taciturn responses weren't even worth transcribing.

So we were forced to tackle a tough question when it came to this interview: how to draw this private man, who famously would like to design a playground as much as he'd like to design a video game, out of his shell enough to talk about creativity.

We decided that the best idea might be to inspire him ourselves -- and we did that by bringing a packet of markers and a pad of drawing paper, settling down on the floor of the hotel suite Namco Bandai booked for the interview, and start drawing together. "We're just trying to keep the interview from being boring, since they often are," we said, by way of explanation.

In essence, we wanted to try and figure out what inspires Keita Takahashi by collaborating with him. It's a tough call -- and easier, probably, to find out what doesn't -- but hopefully this interview, conducted during March's GDC, and the photos and drawings which accompany it, will do a bit more to draw out the creator so many consider quirky and mysterious.

Christian Nutt: So, first of all, what have you thought of GDC so far? How did you feel about your presentation, and have you had a chance to see anybody else's stuff?

Keita Takahashi: I'm not interested too much in seeing what others are offering or showing, so this time I haven't really seen or attended any sessions. I spent time mostly at parks and museums and stuff, but haven't really looked at GDC.

There's a bit more to do; I went to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, where I'd shown Katamari Damacy for the first time, a few years ago. So I was wondering what they were offering now, but it's no longer that interesting, what they are showing or talking about. I'm kind of wondering, you know, what happened to GDC.

CN: I don't want to make any presumptions, but is it that you're not interested in what other people are doing because you want to maintain your own vision, or because you just feel like it's too conventional?

KT: I rarely see something that really stimulates my imagination. I don't really find a lot of games out there interesting or entertaining. So I kind of see myself drifting away from looking at those titles. So that's how I am right now.

Mathew Kumar: You said you spend a lot of time going to parks and museums; is there something that you find inspiring about doing that, rather than looking at other games?

KT: I've somewhat stepped away from mainstream art since I'm making video games right now, but I find seeing stuff in the city and checking out the parks and museums -- I find that more inspiring than looking at other games out there.

MK: But I was wondering if perhaps the kind of experiences that you have, having fun exploring a new city or going to museums and spending things -- is that the type of emotions you want to bring across by something like Noby Noby Boy?

KT: There are unique things that you find and experience in environments like museums and parks. Noby Noby Boy is just my attempt to kind of recreate that same experience, something that I wanted to do to try out something that can only be realized in that particular environment.


(Click for full size)


CN: There's been a lot of discussion and concern about "games as art", and I think people are kind of missing the point -- because people don't even have a definition of what they mean by "art". Since you referred to moving away from mainstream art, are you concerned with the concept of games being art, or do you think that it's inherent? Is it important, or doesn't it matter?

KT: It's difficult to answer that question because, as you said, there's no definition of what art is.

CN: That's the problem; I think that people sort of talk around it because they don't have an approach. Do you think that it's important to have an approach to that issue, or do you think that it's even just an irrelevant issue?

KT: I believe that there's no sense in trying to define what art is, and it's okay to be something really abstract; it's okay how it is.

MK: I was wondering what you think about the people who enjoy your games because of the characters in them and the world rather than, say, the gameplay.

KT: There's nothing wrong with that; I'm just happy that they like the characters.

MK: Do you always think that for the type of characters and the worlds that you create, that games is the place you want them to exist? Would you be happy to see them in other formats, other spaces -- like have within animations or something along those lines?

KT: Like the BOY muffler? [Ed. note: Takahashi's mother knitted a BOY scarf for him, which he brought to GDC.] It's good; if there's opportunity to allow these characters to come out of the games for that scarf over there, if something outside the game can be created, then that's great. Like Noby Noby chopsticks. (laughs)


Takahashi's Noby Noby chopsticks can be seen at the bottom of the image, in orange. (Click for full size)

CN: I find it funny that people tend to take most games very much at face value -- say for example something like Gears of War, which has a complicated and basically ridiculous scenario, but when it comes to your games, people stop taking them at face value and they start to try to think what's the inspiration for it.

Actually, I think, your games are more prone to be taken at face value; they're there to just be enjoyed and that's about it, which is great. I think the gamers tend to take conventional games at face value when they're the complicated, affected sort of thing.

KT: I designed a game which would provoke a lot of thinking, and I really hoped that people that play the game would think about what's the inspiration; what is he trying to express?

That's exactly what I want to do, rather than some superficial entertainment that would just provide a very short entertainment for a period of time. That's not something that I want to create.

MK: And is attempting to inspire people yourself to be creative part of what you're trying to do?

KT: I love to give a lot of inspiration to others, and if that would help to make the world a better place, that's great; that's something that I would want.

MK: So how do you think that would make the world a better place?

KT: (laughs) No money, no financial stress...


CN: On that question... A game like LittleBigPlanet that allows people to actually contribute back to the game -- is that something that you find interesting?

KT: I find that somewhat interesting.

MK: Do you think that would be something you'd want to do in the future -- give people the opportunity to create things for other people within the spaces you create in games?

KT: User-created content is somewhat becoming almost a norm, so I do believe that's the direction that I would end up going.

CN: Do you think that there's a different approach that could be taken towards it that's maybe not so... People in LittleBigPlanet are creating levels; it's involved. People can't all contribute; it limits the audience to an extent. Do you think there's a better way for fans to collaborate?

KT: I do believe that contributing by creating levels is very challenging for many people, and I do believe, yes, that something that would be easier for people to collaborate and create fun together -- that's something that I definitely want. But a question to that question would be, how is that being accepted by the user community for LittleBigPlanet?

CN: I think it's being accepted quite well, in terms of a lot of people contributing.

MK: One of the things that I noticed about LittleBigPlanet is that most people want to remake other games' levels. Do you think that people within the games industry and also people that play games concentrate too much on games' histories rather than looking at films or art -- or parks, for example?

KT: I can't quite put the thought together, but the thing that I don't like about how those games are is that you provide an environment where the players can create their own content, but at the end what do you get?

You basically have people just copying what they saw on some other media, and that's something that you cannot really call creation. So that's what bothers me a bit.

CN: Something that I was curious about is that Noby Noby Boy seems to be very not a goal-oriented game; it's a playground kind of a game. It's a toy. But one thing I was wondering about is that then it has the trophies supported, which I think is almost sort of funny.

KT: (laughs) It's not something that I wanted to implement, but as you probably know it's a requirement set by Sony for all the titles released this year. It's there, but it wasn't really meant to be part of the design.

CN: But anytime you embark upon a creative endeavor, there are certain limitations or restrictions that you can't break out of. We want to draw on this paper; we can't draw on the carpet. Or we could, but that wouldn't be within the rules -- the same way that the trophies are the rules. Do you think that actually enhances or provides creative opportunity?

KT: Obviously there are, yes, restrictions in most creative processes, but at the same time, it's somewhat challenging maybe, but creating something that's fun within those limitations is also part of the creative process, and I enjoy that. [Takahashi draws the carpet's pattern on the paper.] This way, it'll be part of the carpet now. (laughs)


Takahashi flouts the rules by drawing the carpet's pattern onto the paper -- bringing the outside world into the medium.


MK: Yesterday, during your talk, you mentioned Hayao Miyazaki and his opinion of the way that people in Japan are now, not interacting with each other, and that's why you put the game on the PS3 -- so that it wouldn't sell very well. (laughs) I was wondering in what kind of ways I guess that Hayao Miyazaki, other than saying that, has worked as an inspiration to you in some form?

KT: It's not particularly something that Hayao Miyazaki gave inspiration about, but there was a documentary that was based on basically following him around and showing how he is, still at that age being the top creative mind -- creating such a great creative power.

That is in a way inspiring for me -- because it tells me that my creations, or my career, or my life is not mistaken, and that's something that I would love to continue doing for the rest of his life.

MK: Do you think that maybe the games that you make are something that he would enjoy? Because he seems to dislike video games for the most part.

KT: I have no idea. That's a difficult question -- how he would see a game like Noby Noby Boy. How would you imagine that he would...?

MK: Well, because there's no violence as such; there's no misogyny, or whatever. It's more kind of about spaces in which you can feel safe and fun, to me. So I think it's the type of thing that he could appreciate, but I'm not sure that he'd want to look in the first place.

KT: That's probably true; he might not look at it in the first place.

MK: But one thing that I guess is interesting is that even though a game like Noby Noby Boy is about play, they also bring strong emotions from the players. Is that something that you think about as he creates the play design, or is that just something that's kind of a side effect?

KT: Obviously a lot of the games out there would give satisfaction to the gamer by setting certain objectives and have them complete those objectives and achieve something; that's something that a lot of games use.

But there are a lot of simpler ways to evoke emotion, such as there could be some animal that could walk towards the camera and look at the camera in certain ways, and people would look at it and think it's funny and cute and all that. I think that is equally very powerful, and I think that's something that I want to include more -- not like a game-like process but more a natural emotion.


(Click for full size)

MK: I noticed that yesterday in your keynote as well you had a nice picture of your dog with the scarf. You don't have to achieve something with a dog, and the dog itself doesn't think in terms of achieving, just thinks in terms of play and loyalty and these things. I guess -- I just like dogs, so I was wondering if you find your pet inspiring.

KT: It's definitely something that is inspiring, because animals can't talk. I'm here today -- and since I cannot speak English I can't communicate with you guys directly. But dogs cannot even talk any language.

It's funny when you come to think about it, that they are living with us -- side-by-side with humans, who walk on two feet. They can't talk, but still they're there and communicating with us by other means. I find that really interesting. And of course they're nice and cuddly, and I find that very healing too.

CN: We talk about communicating by other means, and I think that seems like it could work in a game. In fact, I think that Noby Noby Boy lacks that much narrative and text; it communicates directly and transcends language to an extent. Maybe that's a meaningful way of communication, too.

KT: Yes, I believe exactly that's true, and Noby Noby does have very unorthodox ways of communicating to the player without using that text and stuff, something more that you see in mainstream games.

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