The King declares a fiesta['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at the use of scale in Katamari Damacy.]

The narrative of most video games is one of increasing power. The player begins the game weak and unskilled, and gradually gains experience and abilities over the course of gameplay.

Typically, games start off relatively easy and become more difficult, with the hardest part of the game being the end. In some games, like roleplaying games, this character growth is explicit, represented by increasing statistics. In others, such as many arcade games, there is only the player's growing skill and experience.

Nowhere is the process of increasing character power made more concrete than in Namco's Katamari Damacy. The game begins with the player character smaller than an apple, rolling up tiny object into his ball, or katamari. By the end of the game, the player character is pushing a ball bigger than a city and tearing up continents.

Shot of a mouse-sized katamariPac-Man

Katamari Damacy has essentially the same gameplay as Namco's most famous product, Pac-Man. The player overcomes navigational difficulties to collect a large number of mostly identical objects.

When a certain number of objects has been collected, play progresses to a different arena. Their settings and aesthetics are different, but the feeling of collecting "stuff" and the flow of an efficient path is shared between both games.

The biggest gameplay difference between the two games is how challenge is added. In Pac-Man, the player must avoid and neutralize malicious ghosts. If she is caught by the ghosts too many times, the game is over. In Katamari Damacy, the player is constrained by a timer and the scale of her character. Collecting objects increases the size of the player's ball, and the bigger the objects, the bigger the ball must be before the player can collect them.

It is the sense of scale, however, that truly sets the games apart. When playing Pac-Man, later levels mean faster and less vulnerable ghosts. The game is harder, but it is essentially the same experience. With Katamari Damacy, on the other hand, there is an immediate and dramatic difference between the early game and the late game. Because the objects being collected are recognizable, the player can see the difference between collecting a toothpick and uprooting a skyscraper. The ball itself even handles differently; the larger it gets, the slower and more ponderous its motion becomes.

This dramatic sense of scale greatly enhances the player's feeling of progression and accomplishment. By making the player feel increasingly powerful, the game heightens the emotional impact of advancement. The player's excitement over her progress causes her to become more invested and immersed in the game.

Shot of a person-sized katamariTechniques

Katamari Damacy achieves its sense of scale in several ways. The first is by using clear objects of reference. Second, it provides continuity as the player's ball grows. Finally, the player's sensory experience changes with the game's scale.

Katamari Damacy's setting provides it with clear objects of reference that help the player quickly and easily gauge her size. The game is set in a stylized version of the modern world, populated with many objects, from dice to people to cars to houses. These simply-rendered objects immediately provide a cue as to the size of the player's ball. Imagine if the game were set in a fantasy world. The modern player does not have a firm grasp of how big a castle or dragon should be, so scale in this hypothetical Katamari Fantasy would be much more vague.

Likewise, if Katamari Damacy's portrayal of its setting was more realistic, then there would be a wider variety of each type of object, and fewer objects scattered about. There would be several subtly different sizes of car and more variation of houses, while the ground would no longer be littered with neat rows of tulips or clusters of teddy bears.

Another valuable technique that Katamari Damacy uses is continuity of scale. Over the course of a single level, the player's ball grows from a few centimeters to a few meters or more. Objects that were once so large that they didn't register in the player's attention gradually become small enough to absorb. Because this process happens continuously, the player can say, "I recognize that tree; a few minutes ago, I was rolling among its roots."

The developers could have made each size class a seperate level, with one level where the player is the size of an orange, and another where she controls a katamari the size of a beachball. In this case, the player would still have an intellectual awareness of growth, but she would lose the visceral feeling of gradual growth, and the retrospective ability to see the now-tiny place where the level started.

The third technique for highlighting scale is the change in sensation associated with the change in size. A small katamari is nimble but light, able to turn on a dime but liable to be bounced around by larger objects and unable to roll over obstacles with its momentum. A large katamari is the opposite; it's slow and massive. At its largest, a katamari is hard to turn and slow to accelerate, but once it gets going, it plows through or over everything in its path.

In addition to this tactile sensation, there are effective visual cues to size. Each size milestone is associated with a woosh and a zoom out. This presumably serves to mask certain graphical anomalies related to the disappearance of small items, but it also is a compelling message that the ball is indeed getting larger. At the end of a level, when the katamari is as huge as it will get, the camera pulls out far, and the level is obscured by clouds or fog, highlighting the extreme size of the ball.

Shot of a neighborhood-sized katamariApplying Scale

Obviously, not every video game has a protagonist that grows extremely in size. The techniques for scale that Katamari Damacy uses cannot be directly applied. However, as previously discussed, most games have a gradual increase in power over the course of a level or the entire game. This increase in power can be highlighted in the same way that Katamari highlights its increase in size.

Katamari Damacy contains objects that serve as size reference points. Other games can use similar reference points. A combat game where the protagonist becomes more skilled with a gun can have easily recognized enemy archetypes. At the beginning of the game, enemy footsoldiers can be a challenge; by the end, the player is skilled and equipped enough to handle special forces. Half-Life does this well; headcrabs are initially a dangerous threat, but they eventually become tiny and simple-to-kill in comparison to the huge alien grunts.

Katamari Damacy's continuity of scale can be adapted by enforcing a unity of setting on games. Players can be shown familiar landmarks, which they return to repeatedly through the game with increasing abilities. If the player is able to return to easier areas of the game, she will have a more concrete idea of how far she has progressed.

Finally, the progression of a character can be shown through the feel and look of the game. Controlling a more powerful protagonist should be a different experience. Knytt Stories is an excellent example of this. The game begins with a slow, not-too-nimble protagonist, but as the character Juni gains abilities, she becomes faster, more agile, and simply feels more fluid. This is more than just the acquisition of a hookshot to bypass a barrier; a late-game Juni feels different from an early-game Juni.

By taking lessons from Katamari Damacy, developers can create game experiences that better portray the experience of gaining power that is essential to so many video games. When a player feels herself becoming more experienced or capable, she will have a stronger emotional reaction to the game and will feel more invested in her actions. When a protagonist is powerful, it should feel powerful to control. It's one thing to read that a character is level 20, and another for it to feel 20 times as strong as it used to be.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]