March 15th, 2005


Computers thinking tenderly about paper

Namco's Katamari Damacy, a game in which a 5 centimeter-tall prince rolls a big adhesive ball around collecting objects and throwing them up into the sky to replace lost stars, is being hailed in some quarters as the arrival of artist Takashi Murakami's idea of superflatness in computer games. Whether you agree with this or not depends on how metaphysically you interpret Murakami's original concept. Personally, I think the whole point of the idea of superflatness is that it's very, very literal. A superflat social system must be horizontal. Superflat art must recognize no distinctions between high and low. A superflat character must look, well, flat.

There have been flat characters in video games since the very beginning of video games, because it's only relatively recently that computers and consoles got the chip-power to render the illusion of 3D in real time. But I'd like to make a short personal history here of self-consciously superflat characters; characters who look like they're made of paper, even when they move through a 3D landscape. Superflatness-by-necessity doesn't interest me here. It's when we get superflatness-by-design that things get intriguing; that moment when we abandon power-mania (the desire to imitate everything, to be all-knowing and all-rendering) and pluck up the courage to embrace limitations. The moment we realise that limitations and flavour are pretty much the same thing is a wise moment.

The first game character to be superflat by design rather than necessity was Parappa the Rapper. Parappa appeared in 1997, and the English-language press release explained that "parappa" meant "paper-thin" in Japanese. In fact, that's not strictly true -- pera pera is the Japanese word for paper thin. Rodney Alan Greenblatt, who made animations for the game, explains that game creator Masaya Matsuura was making a play on words when he combined the phrase pera pera with the word rapper. Parappa is a paper-thin rapper, a canine relative of the daisy age peace-and-flowers rap of De La Soul (his girlfriend, Sunny Funny, is in fact a flower; she could have fallen straight off the cover of Three Feet High and Rising).

Why restrict yourself, in a world of smoothly-flowing 3D computer animation, to something that looks like paper? There are several reasons. First of all, because what's limited has its own flavour. It has identity. Secondly, because what's limited is cute. As cute as a child. Thirdly, because nostalgia feels warm. Fourthly, because visiting a past stage of media evolution is an interesting form of media time travel. Fifthly, because self-consciousness can be interesting. And finally, because all these reasons add up to the thing we call postmodernism.

Parappa the Rapper was a big influence on my 1998 album The Little Red Songbook, which embraced monophonic analogue synthesizers in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, that Parappa embraced flat characters. Moogs had flavour which their digital descendents, attempting to be all things to all musicians, had lost. Moogs had a stronger synth identity. Moogs, once considered cold, were by the late 90s cute and retro and warm, evoking nostalgia rather than future shock. A Moog could help you travel, associatively, through time. To use a Moog in 1998 was interestingly referential, self-conscious, and post-modern. I'm getting nostalgic for the nostalgia just talking about it!

Parappa was followed by other characters proclaiming their allegiance to paper, notably Nintendo's Paper Mario (2000), a self-consciously retro version of Super Mario. And although the characters in Katamari Damacy aren't paper-thin, the game plays with the conventions of spatial rendering, mixing (in a fine example of the Japanese aesthetic I've called Cute Formalism) different characters with different types of rendering in the same frame. Postmodernism has, of course, been mixing and matching its rendering conventions since the 60s paintings of Sigmar Polke and David Hockney. But it's only relatively recently that computer games have been sophisticated enough to do the same thing. The Katamari Damacy website has a page where you can actually bring the paper metaphor full-circle by downloading pdfs of the characters -- a chunky cat, for instance -- which, printed out, can be made into 3D paper models, reminding us that paper also has a relationship with 3D: not only does it start off as a tree, but paper can, in the right hands, wind up as origami.

Tamasoft's Pepakura Designer is a way to reverse-engineer origami from computer data: its cute slogan is "Let's make paper craft model from 3-dimentional data!" I'd think of this post-digital origami as a nice example of what I called, back in 2000, The Post-Bit Atom. In other words, of the tendency of digital culture to make us value non-digital forms more, rather than less, tenderly.

So when, exactly, did computers start thinking tenderly about paper? I suddenly remembered the moment I first noticed it. I was at a party in Paris in 1996. It was in the studio of graphic designers Kuntzel and Degas. The pop group Sparks were there, and Ariel Wizman was DJing, playing his old Perrey and Kingsley records. On a Mac some kids were playing a Japanese CD-ROM called Pop-Up Computer, a series of games, scenarios and puzzles immaculately and playfully rendered by creator Gento Matsumoto as an A-Z pop-up book. Perhaps we can see Gento as the Abraham of Superflatness and his Pop-Up Computer as the Genesis of all computer paper-tenderness.

Addendum: in the comments thread I found out about Mojib Ribon, the 2003 release from the creators of Parappa the Rapper, a game which develops the paper metaphor by focusing on calligraphy and features shamisen music with robot rap over the top. Great stuff! Thanks, brandonnn!