Here’s the latest in a series of articles chronicling my unhealthy obsession with videogames and ontology. Just in case you thought I was back to blogging about normal stuff.
Most videogames have dynamic objects that you can interact with and static objects that you cannot interactive with. After a few minutes of experimentation, experienced players intuitively understand what is static in a game and what is not. If we imagine a typical first-person shooter, “the environment” is static: trees and ground and sky, but also buildings, rubble, street signs, and so on. This environment provides ambiance and strategic cover, and perhaps motivation for progress, but little of concrete utility to the player. Interactive, ‘real’ objects are usually things with obvious utility or drawbacks: guns, ammunition, vehicles, and people usually top the list. But abstract games have a similar ontological divide: in Tetris, the tetrominoes are real, interactive objects. But the score board and playing field lie inert and mostly uninteresting.
It’s easy to see that the ontology of most games relies on a division between types of objects: static and dynamic, borrowing the lingo that many game engines use. Things the player can directly affect, and things she cannot. No matter how many rockets you fire at that stop sign, it’s not going anywhere, sorry. (Furthermore there are objects that are not modeled in the game world itself. For example, a spawning system or a menu system could be represented as an object. I’m bracketing that discussion for this essay and will get back to it at some point.)
What would a game with a flat ontology look like? Jason Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky comes close, as I posited the other day in a roundabout way. The game with the flattest ontology I can think of is none other than 2004’s sleeper hit for PlayStation 2, Katamari Damacy.
The Prince of Objects
If you’re unfamiliar with Katamari Damacy, and since I’m too lazy to write one myself, I’ll quote Wikipedia’s current description of the game:
The game’s plot concerns a diminutive prince on a mission to rebuild the stars, constellations, and Moon, which were accidentally destroyed by his father, the King of All Cosmos. This is achieved by rolling a magical, highly adhesive ball called a katamari around various locations, collecting increasingly larger objects, ranging from thumbtacks to people to mountains, until the ball has grown great enough to become a star. Katamari Damacy’s story, characters, and settings are bizarre and heavily stylized, rarely attempting any resemblance of realism, though the brands and items used are based on those current in Japan during the game’s production.
Katamari Damacy eschews the static/dynamic divide seen in most videogames–at least, to a point. Everything is an object to be picked up. Domino, snail, seat cushion, pencil sharpener, lipstick; police car, picnic table, graffito, telephone pole, shoe store sign; hot air balloon, butcher shop, iceberg, storm cloud, and Jumboman alike. All are objects to wadded up into your magic ball.
For myself, Katamari’s primary delight came from the slow realization that things which appeared to be static when the Prince’s ball is small turn out to be dynamic when the scale changes. You might spend the first five minutes of a level rolling around a house. The house is immovable and noninteractive, comprising of a maze for you to traverse and collect the smaller items that it make their home within its walls. But five minutes later you’re 50 meters in diameter and can pick up the entire house as easily as if it were a ballpoint pen!
And yet the way this scaling works is extremely interesting. I’ll look at another example: a park. At the small scale, you find yourself inside the park, working your way up from popsicles to picnic baskets to punk rockers. But at a certain scale, those objects become abstracted into the notion of a “park” as an object on its own. You can no longer pick up a single popsicle–you’re too big. This is related to a concept in game engines called “level of detail” or “LOD” (basic explanation here) In a game like Skyrim, when you’re far away from a mountain range the game does not render every single goat and tree on that mountain. It shows you the mountain in the abstract in order to save on resources. What’s interesting is that LOD normally applies to things that are far away from the player or from the camera. In the case of Katamari, LOD applies to a case where an object is no longer on a scale you care about anymore. What we’re seeing here is a case of a Latourian black box appearing in a game. Yes, we can and do appreciate the individual elements of a park, but at some level we close that box and begin to refer to the park as an object in and of itself. What was inside the park no longer exists, and is subsumed by the “park” object.
Contrast this to a game like Minecraft, where huge objects are constructed from raw materials, either by human hands or the hands of the world generation algorithm. While Minecraft features objects at many scales, it never abstracts those objects. Every object in Minecraft is either a building block or an aggregate composed of building blocks. It’s a strictly atomist ontology: there’s the stuff the world is made of (wood, stone, coal, iron, etc), and everything else can be reduced to those atoms, literally with the blow of a hammer. (Perhaps it’s more Empedoclean, since there’s not a single substance at the root of things but rather a set of primal elements.)
While large objects in Katamari are indeed composed of smaller objects, they are not mere aggregates. They are qualitatively different from the sum of their parts. Here’s Graham Harman on Latourian black boxes:
“Finally, we have seen that Latour’s relationism allows him to replace the usual twofold rift of philosophy with a plurality of levels. [...]There is no final stratum of brute material from which flimsier, more ostentatious entities would then be molded. [...] There is no substance, only black boxes, and like Pandora’s box they can be opened at will to examine the delicate internal negotiations that made them possible. Traditional realism’s hobgoblin of the ‘mere aggregate’ or ‘mere thing of reason’ is no longer a worry, since in the end everything is an aggregate, assembled carefully or carelessly from numerous components. Gaps multiply to infinity and are constantly crossed by the work of translation, not by the impossible perilous leap so deservedly ridiculed by James. In short, there is no final layer of reality from which all relations will have been cleansed. The stunning metaphysical implication here, which Latour never discusses openly, is an infinite regress of actors. If there are only black boxes and never a final substance, then we will never come to a final stage in any analysis.” (Harman, Prince of Networks, 106) [emphasis mine]
This “plurality of levels” is immediately clear in Katamari Damacy. While at one level the house is a container for smaller objects you can pick up, at another level it becomes an object you can pick up in its own right. When I read that gaps “multiply to infinity and are constantly crossed by the work of translation,” I think of the moment in Katamari when you hear a chorus of harps and get a sort of magic transition to a new size category. Moving from small to large is not a smooth, continuous process. This is for technical reasons related to LOD and memory management: the PlayStation 2 simply can’t model every object in the world as dynamic, so when we jump the gap between scales, the engine places small objects in various black boxes and closes them up for good. This is the work of translation between the multiple levels of reality, represented in Katamari Damacy by your magical katamari ball, or perhaps the King, who appears with a pithy comment whenever translation between scales occurs.
On another level, at the end of a stage the King of All Cosmos shoots your balls of stuff into the sky and they are transformed into stars. It’s an occasionalist world, but instead of Allah, the King is waiting there to provide the magic needed for objects to truly touch one another and become aggregates, for the black boxes to close. The prince brings objects together, but the king allows them to translate.
The ontology of Katamari Damacy implies the “infinite regress of actors” that Harman identifies in his take on Latour’s metaphysics (which Harman finds unacceptable and dedicates a significant portion of Prince of Networks to offering an alternative). Unlike Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky, where the player opens up black boxes and can travel ever downwards or upwards into a literal infinite regress of objects, Katamari stops at a certain point. In the credits you roll up the nations of the Earth itself. In its sequel, We <3 Katamari, you can roll up the solar system, including the Sun:
It’s worth asking what you can’t roll up. What objects exist outside the realm of things-that-can-be-rolled-up? Well: the Prince himself, and his father the King of All Cosmos, and the katamari ball all seem to have some kind of special status. In some of the sequels, you can roll up the King. But it’s clearly not the true King — rather it’s some kind of projection of the King. The real King is the one who lives in the source code, doing the hard work of translation from objects to closed black box of park or of star.
Of course, there are also the limitations of the game engine itself. The game runs on hardware. The Prince can’t break out into our own world and roll us up. Perhaps a Katamari game with a true flat ontology would allow the player at some point to roll up addresses of memory in the game console’s hardware that would corrupt the game, bringing the world to a screeching, freezing halt in a cacophony of confusing colors, repeating sounds, or perhaps just blackness.
The World is Full of Things
“My, Earth really is full of things!” –The King of All Cosmos
One last point I want to make is that the encyclopedia of items in Katamari is an example of ontography as defined in Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Every object the player picks up gets added to an encyclopedia that you can then review. There’s a possibly-complete list of every item in the original game available at Fanboy.net.
Oddly, I remember the quote as “My, the world really is full of things!” I’m not alone in this, apparently. I think this has to do with the universal scale of Katamari Damacy. The Earth just seems too small to contain it. As Anna Anthropy says in a great short essay about the game:
“we are replacing the stars with stuff; with human stuff, all the little minutia that litters human environments in abundance. the game suggests that the whole of the vast, dark cosmos contains as many interesting things as the surface of the one small planet earth.”