Keita Takahashi and the Farce of Virtual Stuff

Or, why Wattam may have a better grasp on our current crisis than Death Stranding.

I’m not surprised that someone compared Hideo Kojima’s wrought epic Death Stranding to Keita Takahashi’s sweet and sillier Wattam. Not a “Deep Impact and Armageddon came out the same summer” resemblance, but thematically they’re identical. Both suggest community building as an answer to catastrophic isolation. Both have a lot of “stuff”: magazines, cutlery, toys, tech and plants. Both are optimistic. I’m more surprised to see the comparison brought up by the official PlayStation Blog, who asked Takahashi about the side-by-side. Takahashi said he wasn’t familiar enough with Kojima’s new game but called the parallel “very interesting if it’s true.”

The fact that games, chambered from each other, are chipping at the same anxieties isn’t a coincidence. I asked the Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy creator why we’re seeing games about isolation, alienation, and a need for community. He gave an inarguable answer. “Those are problems that are happening in the real world now,” Takahashi said via email. “It’s sad.”

With the world and mechanics to explore it, Wattam may have a better grasp on this sadness than Death Stranding.

Two decades of quote-unquote sandbox games, and it’s taken until Wattam for one to feel like recess. Wattam’s world has been ripped apart, a once beautiful world is dark and quiet. You start off as a lonely mayor sitting at the edge of the void wondering where all his friends are. With your exploding hat (functioning as a party trick) you rapidly expand your circle of friends among flowers, bowling pins, apples, telephones, baby dolls, toilets, and turds alike.

With the ability to swap between every oddball in Wattam, less possessed by a persona than a purpose, every task feels like a playground game: standing on each other’s shoulders, playing hide-and-go-seek, and acting out make-believe mysteries. When you’re near an objective you dance in place like an excited toddler. Most of the time, there’s a chorus of laughing children.

The isolation you feel at the start of Wattam doesn’t vanish despite your ginormous social network. The mayor often pauses and feels a pang of loneliness, realizing something is still missing. “Can we not learn to cherish without first losing something?” asks one of Wattam’s storytime segments. Takahashi told me what this something was: “Freedom, creativity, imagination, clean air, sunshine, healthy foods, beautiful nature.” The answer reminded me of how Katamari’s King of All Cosmos would ramble on about all the stuff in the universe mid-conversation.

Last week, Takahashi repeated this sequence from Wattam in full on Twitter as the U.S. skirted war with Iran.

The present century has been about the trade-off of an active community for stuff—a human-civilization-sized exercise that is weighing down on us physically, mentally, and existentially. The process has especially accelerated since the 2000s, when living digitally became easier to the public. Just about any good can be ordered off Amazon, and social media offers a simulation of—though not often enough a full-on replacement for—local support networks. Accessing a Babel’s worth of truths and lies is as easy as humming a tune. Our vast amount of creature comforts feels unequal to our happiness. 

It’s true that we have been warned about this consumer emptiness by, say, every Christmas special ever made. Those same cartoons still conclude that expressing friendship and gratitude with stuff is the way to go. And so stuff is all we’re left with. I happened to be communicating with Takahashi during the holidays and wanted to know how he felt about North America’s all-in approach to Christmastime. (He left Japan in 2011 to work for the company that would later become Slack and now lives in California.) He said he’s not used seeing all the pine trees left abandoned on the side of the road. 

Death Stranding is very literalist about digital loneliness and modern perils. Every person lives like a survivalist, isolated in their own bunker, and you have to reconnect the country with the same supernatural Wi-Fi that might’ve doomed us in the first place. Kojima seems aware that technology has played a huge role in the isolation of the real world while opening up unique opportunities. His game borrows heavily from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Pulse, an apocalyptic horror where civilization slowly vanishes after going online, leaving behind digital imprints, depressive ghosts, and shadows. Kurosawa could forecast the long term effects of the internet as early as 2001, back when the Web was mostly used for emails and torturing Britney Spears or Emeril Lagasse in Flash games. Death Stranding doesn’t really have an answer to the dilemma of the internet and consumerism, but that lack of imagination is not its own.

Death Stranding
Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Technologies, video games included, have proposed themselves as community builders. That is not their business. Facebook will encourage our interactions as long as they provide the resources, data, and user habits that feed its bottom line. Less insidiously (for the most part), video game companies want us to continue playing. In both cases, the feeling of citizenry is insincere or incidental. Nothing illustrates this better than when we see community simulated, usually as interactions expressed through more consumerism. Depending on which video game you got for Christmas, you might’ve spent Boxing Day giving virtual people virtual gifts.

Death Stranding
Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Almost every video game conflates “friends” with “stuff.” Death Stranding imagines a world woven through stuff. Across the fractured American wasteland, people will tell you they are hesitant or outright skeptical to join your cause. Until you bring them some old mint porn mags. One of my most humiliating moments in the game was being flung off a waterfall trying to reassemble a toy gorilla. Building roads and infrastructure obviously goes a much longer way to stabilizing civilization (and makes the game coolly easier), but no one gives you the same pat on the back for reconstructing resources as for delivering a dinner set. 

Animal Crossing, one of our best escapist fantasies, practices the same. The game allows us to experiment with interior design and low-poly fashion, not to mention home ownership. What makes Animal Crossing especially relaxing is the simulation of a friendly, easy-going small town filled with assuring cartoon pals. But even the nicest neighbors in the video game kingdom revolve their lives around fancy hat fetch quests. What video games envision as community all starts to feel like a farce.

That farce feels most alive when the experience is untamed. Second Life, a virtual landscape that knows no rules, no intellectual property, and certainly no modesty, is defined by those who can craft digital goods, unlockable gestures and those with the money to hoard it. Even over the last decade, when Second Life has become known as a ghost town relative to its most debaucherous days, Linden Lab’s CEO told VICE’s Emanuel Maiberg that its big weird petri dish still had a $500 million GDP. The Atlantic’s Leslie Jamison believes Second Life deteriorated as Facebook came into prominence, filling our desire to live a more curated life without having to worry about being interrupted by an extra-randy Slimer.

My most wholesome digital life was in the last night of PlayStation’s tamer Second Life riff, Home. After Sony had cut off access to the marketplace, users of the underdog network seemed more intent on soaking in the time they had left. Dancing, pranking, playing, and, most promisingly, talking about their plans for the summer and hoping they’d see each other again. In a different life. Without the ability to express a sense of community through commercial goods, the simulation had no choice but to recreate it in earnest.

While we phase out friends for stuff, Takahashi’s games have increasingly done the opposite. In Katamari you are surrounded by stuff, an ocean of things, but your relationship to this stuff is superfluous. You roll up thousands of plants, objects, and people alike to launch them into space, repairing the damage your braggadocious father has done to the universe. When there is a particular item or person you are determined to assimilate into your giant ball—a cool car, a pretty sign, a curious rock, a pyramid of bears—it’s only because of your curiosity and personal gusto. The impact on completing the level is negligible.

Noby Noby Boy is a playpen of stuff: toys, doodads, and tchotchkes you can slurp up and spit out like goldfish do the pebbles in their tanks. Off-screen, your playmate, Girl, is stretching across the galaxy, urged on by the amount of people concurrently playing, a community unseen.

Now, in Wattam, Takahashi’s thesis melts into itself like tasty sundae goo. The stuff are your friends. You and the birthday candles and baked potato can join hands and dance, repairing your environment not through stuff but through community. Playing through Wattam, two things kept coming to mind. One was the work of Australian cartoonist Bjenny Montero, whose comics have gone viral time and time again just by depicting pleasant animal friends who lift each other up, even when that means giving each other space. I told Takahashi this and he thanked me.

The second thing was the episode of the podcast Michael and Us about Tim and Eric. Critics Will Sloan and Luke Savage believe the comedy duo have grown increasingly popular because they’re the only satirists specifically going after our big hot world of “stuff.” A parade of banal t-shirts, bizarre novelty restaurants and pointless services. A portrayal of the hollowness of our heaving consumerism as grotesque. By no coincidence, the duo made their feature length Billion Dollar Movie about an abandoned shopping mall where these horrors can run amok. Playing Wattam and ruminating on the nations of stuff you obliterate in Keita Takahashi’s work, my squishy brain replayed the Tim and Eric sketch about competing salesmen. One hocking low discount prices, the other premium, “fine European” prices—but no actual goods.

“We will catch a cold without any clothes in winter,” Takahashi said. “We use utensils to eat food. We use beds to sleep. We use toilets for peeing and pooping. We use cups to drink. We use a lot of stuff to make our life better. Obviously we can’t live without stuff. But we have thrown them away without any consideration.”

Wattam is a poignant game. By changing the stuff into the people, every collection, fetch quest, and favor is made into a game you play with another character. When there are no objects to be passed around, the focus is on fun, imagination, and bond building. The game ends on a confrontation with the person who splintered the universe in the first place. You’re offered a dialogue tree to confront them. Every option forgives them, but it’s up to you, from your time playing with others, to decide how thorough, thoughtful, and learned that forgiveness is.

It’s not a plea for minimalism or trivializing a reliance on objects or comforts, but Wattam does a better job than games like Death Stranding by illustrating how stuff cannot displace community.

Games and technology once promised that they would strengthen our global village. Keita Takahashi told me they might be part of the solution to the fission we’re seeing worldwide, but there’s also a cost-free option.

“Sometimes just saying ‘hi’ can solve everything.”

Header image and all uncredited images: Wattam, Annapurna Interactive, Funomena

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