Wattam’s rare spark of individuality

A line from Howard Scott Warshaw’s column (from page 48 of issue 50) really stuck in my mind this month: “Young industries are about innovation; mature industries are more about maintenance.” It made me think about how rare it is to stumble on a modern game that’s completely unlike anything else, either in terms of its concepts or how it plays.

This in turn made me think about revisiting Wattam. Released in 2020, Wattam’s the latest product from the incomparable mind of Keita Takahashi, most famous for his PlayStation 2-era roll-‘em-up, Katamari Damacy. At its core, I suppose Wattam is about friendship: how unity, working together, and making one another happy ultimately makes the world a better, brighter place. That’s an easily graspable, human theme, alright, but the mechanics and events that surround it are borderline inexplicable.

As the game begins, you control a sentient, moustachioed cube wearing a bowler hat, but the cast gradually expands as you perform various tasks. Before you know it, you’re surrounded by an assortment of wide-eyed vegetables, grinning milk bottles, and other mundane items. In essence, the game involves unlocking new characters by solving puzzles or doing certain odd things when prompted, but this still doesn’t really convey Wattam’s sheer weirdness.

I think I’m one dollop of poo too high here

The cuboid fellow with the moustache’s signature trick is removing his hat to reveal a bomb; detonating the thing near other characters causes them to bounce around the place, cackling with glee. Other characters have their own abilities – a roving toilet, for example, can pick up other characters and flush them away. You can also climb on top of other characters, hold hands with them by pressing the X or B buttons, which are mapped to the left or right hands respectively, or switch between characters at pretty much any point by moving the right stick.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention just how off-kilter the controls sometimes feel. Years of playing modern games have drummed into my skull that moving the left stick on a controller will move my on-screen character; moving the right stick, meanwhile, will control the camera. For Wattam, Takahashi and his team decided to wind the clock back to the late 1990s, and have the camera controlled by the left and right triggers, which is something I still haven’t come to terms with; even after a good few hours of Wattam, I’m still flipping between characters when I really just want to shift the camera a few millimetres to the right. This might sound like a minor gripe, but it’s quite frustrating to be controlling a staring telephone one second and abruptly switching control to a giant skittle on the other side of the map.

The sun stole this little fellow’s receiver. Awful business

It says a lot about Wattam’s charm that these obtuse controls haven’t remotely put me off. Again, it’s rare to encounter a game that’s so unique, or whose events are so difficult to sum up. One task involves guiding various fruits into an ambulating mouth, which then turns them into dollops of squealing poop. Later, a skittle challenges me to make a stack of characters that match its height, so I soon find myself wrangling three blobs of poop, a spoon, and a disembodied nose into a kind of tottering, whimsical totem pole. Later still, I’m guiding a balloon up to the sun because the sun stole the receiver from my friend, who’s a 1970s telephone.

Wattam’s brightly coloured world also opens up in unexpected ways, with each new area introducing puzzles of its own: about half an hour in, another blocky landmass appears on the horizon, populated solely by a lonely island weeping about the lack of sea surrounding it. I soon discover that making the island happy again involves guiding an onion from one chunk of the world to the next, on the back of a giant table capable of swimming across the sky.

These are all moments that occur within the first stages of the game, and I won’t describe anything that lies beyond this – first, because it’s best discovered first-hand, and second, because descriptions on a page don’t really do Wattam’s curious world justice. Suffice to say that what initially looks silly and frivolous soon becomes something far more heartfelt and – dare I say it – thought-provoking by the end of its three-to-four hour play time. Less immediately graspable as an arcade experience than Katamari Damacy, but far more involving as a game than the toyetic Noby Noby Boy, Wattam is another charming oddity from Takahashi. In an industry more focused on maintenance than innovation, Wattam offers a rare spark of individuality.

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