What a difference a year makes. At the 2009 Nottingham GameCity festival, Keita Takahashi, creator of the joyful Katamari Damacy
and Noby Noby Boy
, seemed lost.
In a damp house on the outskirts of Nottingham, he worked with balls of plasticine, lengths of string and piles of bended paperclips in search of the design for a playground -- a commission by the city brokered through the GameCity event organizers.
But more than that, he seemed to be in search of his place in the world. Disillusioned with the mainstream games industry and still sore at having being pressured into creating sequels for his games which he always intended to stand alone, Takahashi's relationship with video games appeared to have soured.
"I'm frustrated with the industry," he said at the time
. "The things I find interesting and enjoyable just aren't reflected in the popular games of today and, I feel like there's not much room for my voice because of that."
Twelve months on, and Takahashi is no longer an employee at Namco
. In past few months he's set up a new company, Uvula, with his wife, launching a website that plainly offers his services in art, music and video games.
Freed from the shackles of corporate life, Takahashi is now free to express his voice separate from worrying about financial targets, key demographics and the pressure of having to turn every idea into a franchise.
But these benefits come with setbacks. Namco's suits may have made demands on Takahashi that he was uncomfortable with, but they also provided the funding, staff, platform and marketing that amplified his voice and made his games accessible around the world. This new liberty has come at the cost of power. With that in mind, is he happier than a year ago?
"For me now," he tells Gamasutra, "I find [that] happiness and worry seem to be two sides of the same coin right now. I have mixed feelings. I'm concerned for my future. But then, even if I'd stayed at Namco, I just would have had a different set of worries, right?"
It is the early days for Takahashi's new venture, Uvula
. "To be honest, it's not really a 'company' yet," he says. "But when I went freelance, I needed a platform of expression, so I bought the domain."
I ask him where the unusual name came from. "I was going through the dictionary app on my phone and came across the word randomly. It jumped out at me. I didn't know the word before but it seemed so beautiful to me."
"In Japanese, if you translate our word for that part of the body back into English it comes out as something like 'throat penis', something really ugly. So I like the contrast of this beautiful word in English with the weird, ugly word in Japanese."
Takahashi reveals that he's working on two projects at Uvula at the moment, neither of which is video game related. The first is the CD artwork for his musician wife's next album. Then there's a development of a new social networking website, although he won't say who he's partnering with on this, or what it is about for fear of upsetting them.
But that's not to say Takahashi's turned his back on video games. He mentions that he's had some very early conversations with LittleBigPlanet
developers Media Molecule, although nothing firm has come about from that yet.
Asked if there are any games he's eager to make. "I have a really loose idea for a music game," he says. "But I don't think it would sell very many copies. Also, I had an idea for a first-person at IndieCade. It's something that I'd actually really like to make with [Guerrilla's] Killzone
The idea is rather incongruous to Takahashi's previous work. "I'd like to make an FPS in which, every time you shoot an enemy, your character grows larger, and every time you're shot, you grow smaller."
"It would be interesting if the player got carried away by the fact that they grow and shrink so that, in the end, they forget the original purpose of shooting enemies. It would be beneficial to work with a company that specializes in that kind of game, and the Killzone
team seemed like a good fit. That kind of strange mix appeals."
It's this kind of innovative, simple brilliance that as always marked Takahashi's work. But that's not to say there aren't recurring themes. A lot of Takahashi's games are about the player character growing and shrinking, that the idea of a player's sense of progress is measured by the size of their avatar.
"It's not intentional," he says, before adding, with characteristic self-depreciation: "Maybe my sources of inspiration is very limited, which is why the results are so similar."
Switching from introspection for a moment, I ask Takahashi if there are any game design trends in the industry that frustrate him, that he thinks we'd be better off without. "I especially dislike celebrity games," he says.
He's talking about games about the celebrities, like Tiger Woods
golf, for example, as well as games in which celebrities do the voices for the characters. "It puts all of the focus on surface elements in order to attract customers, rather than prizing their real strength and appeal. This just misses the point of what games are about for me."
What is that point then, I ask? "To let players experience something that they can only experience through playing games," he says, immediately.
Which games have done that for him in the past year, I wonder.
He pauses. "I play with the dictionary app on my phone a lot," he says with a grin.