(I posted this on Medium originally, but I figured it was worth posting here since GB seems to have an appreciation for NOBY).
On the 14th of December, 2015, designer Keita Takahasi’s inscrutable fever dream of a video game, NOBY NOBY BOY, ‘ended’. Some faceless support personnel added zeroes to a variable stored on a remote server in Japan, responsible for billions of miles of galaxy. A 2489-day return journey across our Solar System suddenly reached its conclusion. New, pensive lines of text were revealed. They pontificated on the nature of game development and why we put art into the wild. What does the existence of an ever-expanding yet pre-defined world mean, especially when it ends?
Released on the 19th of February 2009 on Sony’s PlayStation Network, NOBY NOBY BOY was envisioned as a collaborative experience, shared by members of the gaming community. Players controlled a vague, worm like being named BOY, consuming anything and everything within a randomly-generated square planetoid level. The only goal of the game was to use this mechanic of consumption to grow your BOY, feeding it to a colossal being called GIRL, sitting on top of our home planet. GIRL would take these submissions from every player, gradually stretching from Earth to the Moon. One it reached the Moon, a new level with new objects to eat would unlock and GIRL would then start stretching towards Mars. It was assumed this would continue until we reached Pluto. Then what? No one but the developers knew.
I never owned a PlayStation 3, so I only got to experience NOBY first hand quite rarely at a friend’s place. Everything about it seemed designed to both confuse and amaze. The Fairy, your companion on this journey seemed as if they were on the verge of hysteria. The controls were obtuse and difficult to come to terms with and it just simply effused weirdness, much like Takahashi’s Katamari series did previously. The squirrel in the corner, saving its nuts as a metaphor for your console saving precious data. Why is that bird there? Why did it just fly away? An abstract dream of vaguely recognisable shapes and entities that contort in unnatural ways as your BOY constricted and consumed them. It was hard to comprehend. Yet it was weirdly engrossing. Weird for weird’s sake, but unlike the internet humour I was weaned on. I always wanted to see more. What else did it have to confound with?
As the distance between celestial objects grew, so did the number of players naturally dwindle. The time between new content unlocks became increasingly infrequent, and I wondered if we would ever see what lay within the unknown. Approximately three months after the game’s launch, NOBY’sdevelopment studio, an internal Bandai Namco Games team, instituted “Lucky Weeks” that acted as a random multiplier on the lengths submitted to GIRL. These would ensure we’d eventually reach new planets, new modifiers, new content. More consumption towards our inevitable goal. Humanity set foot on Mars a long time ago. It was the 23rd of May, 2009. A landmark moment that I would estimate fewer than a million human beings realise happened. Less than 1,358 people directly witnessed it.
I drifted from NOBY NOBY BOY over the following years. I grew physically and I’d like to think I matured mentally. I moved on, but the human race kept inexorably contributing to GIRL. She saw Saturn’s rings of debris on the 19th of January, 2011. It took until the New Years Eve of 2011 for GIRL to reach Uranus. Almost a full year in the 4.132 (or so) billion kilometre void of space. At least she’s not stranded out there. An employee at an opaque Japanese corporation made sure of that. The multiplier was set to 2,010.
Keita Takahashi had also drifted from his creation. He left Bandai Namco and join a small British startup called Tiny Speck in July of 2011, working on the browser-based multiplayer game Glitch. I had never heard of it until Takahashi’s latest project, Wattam was unveiled. Glitch launched and shuttered in just over a year. Takahashi left, Tiny Speck re-branded themselves as Slack Technologies and launched Slack. They’re now valued at $2.8 billion. I’d imagine Takahashi’s not even the slightest bit concerned, working away at his next absurd video game.
In the letter that signifies the end of NOBY NOBY BOY’s journey — presumably penned by Takahashi before the game’s release six years ago under the guise of the Fairy — there is a rhetorical question posed: how long would it take for GIRL to circumnavigate the Solar System? “Would it take 1 year? 3 years? Or even 10 years?” I wonder how far Takahashi was looking ahead. Did he know he’d not be around the company to see the end?
It took another two years and 65 days to reach Uranus with a multiplier of 2,013. I lost over 40 kilograms, fell in and out of love, moved residence numerous times and GIRL just kept trucking. She had one singular goal, a primal desire to stretch. Euphemisms aside, that’s dedication. It seemed fair to wonder if we’d ever see the entirety of NOBY. The game became a constant. It’d worm its way into my brain and I’d think “oh right! I wonder how that thing’s doing.” A permanent resident in my psyche. Not a parasite like BOY but a snug place of comfort. The gameplay video Jeff Gerstmann and Ryan Davis of Giant Bomb had made of the game was a safe place to return to when I felt down. I’d go back to that video often.
There’s a contentedness in that permanence. A safety. In its own weird way, NOBY NOBY BOY was a type of blanket for me.
The multiplier increased to 2,015 and occurred more frequently, almost constantly. GIRL touched Pluto in late November of 2015. My feed of gaming news lit up with stories about GIRL meeting Pluto, seemingly renewing a general interest in the obscure PS3 eat-’em-up. Now we’re going to the Sun. It’s almost over. I had been playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate on my newly built PC. I found the traversal between objectives tedious and stopped playing it. It was the first Assassin’s Creed I had played sincethe second one, released the same year as NOBY. As much as things change, they also stay the same. Now it seems like every other indie game wants to be esoteric like Takahashi’s works.
63 people report their BOY’s length to GIRL on the 29th of November, just days after. Turned out no one was actually that interested. Someone put an extra zero into the multiplier. 2,015 becomes 20,015. I think that’s what year we’d have reached Pluto with no Lucky Weeks.
“I think I'll just go home and spend some time on my own...”
December 14, 2015. Girl shoots past the Sun, Mercury and Venus in a single day. Players online watch GIRL faceplant into our Earth. The Fairy of NOBY NOBY BOY utters an exclamation, sounding both awe-struck and… Kind of sad. Maybe exhausted? Maybe deep down, the Fairy knew that the only way for this to have have happened was for 20,015 to become 2,000,015. Does he feel cheated? Ellipses are abundant as your companion contemplates what to do with their virtual existence. The game fades to black. Unease.
A new level is generated for us to play in. We’re back. Hang Drum, a track on the NOBY NOBY BOY soundtrack, comes up in foobar2000. Comfort.
The Fairy — having just told us he’s going home — is back and emotionally (maybe tearfully?) explaining why GIRL stretched so fast she became embedded in the Earth itself. I’d be excited if I was on the home stretch of a galactic tour too. He hands us a letter he drafted at the start of this adventure. A miniature time capsule, embedded inside this game to be found at an unknown date. The Fairy leaves us with a single, evocative character.
I mentioned earlier that I thought the letter was written by Takahashi. The way the Fairy acts throughout this ending sequence makes me suppose that this character is an avatar for NOBY’screator, breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the player. It feels sincere when all players, even if they never contributed to the communal GIRL project, are thanked.
Takahashi through the Fairy goes on to note the difference between a video game’s world and the real world. The Fairy cannot fathom free will, can’t imagine what it’s like. Imagine a four dimensional world. That’s how these characters feel. The concept is incompatible. “I feel kind of jealous,” the letter lets out. There’s a both a longing and fear of the unknown presented. We could just stop reporting to GIRL and be content with our plot of land, be content with the known. But we know there’s more. We know they have developed more. We want to see more. GIRL, BOY, the Fairy and the Sun are just proxies for us to explore in our own safe galaxy. There’s a certain feeling of melancholy knowing that NOBY NOBY BOY is essentially over. “What’s GIRL going to do now” I think? She doesn’t mind. She achieved her sole goal. Fairy and Takahashi know things are always going to be okay, they’ve made it that way. It’s okay. I’ll be fine too, I witnessed a beautiful thing, even if it was indirectly.
Then we get to the more interesting point, two sets of lines that feel almost like Takahashi reaching deep inside himself and talking about why he’s a game developer. NOBY’s conception story can be taken literally, a girl musing about yoga as a communal gathering to a game developer looking for inspiration after 2005's We ♥ Katamari. “I think she wanted to find something that exists in your world, but not in ours,” the Fairy wonders. The world builder takes this figuratively. He wants to bring people together through stretching. Something to bring us together.
“Maybe people do become sad, and maybe that’s the reason why those things don’t exist in our simple world.” Is game developing a form of coping for Takahashi? His games are so exuberant and full of life that it’s hard to think he might be using his creations as escapism the same way we as players do. I personally always imagined him as constantly full of joy bringing his childish imagination to life. “The world that you live in must be so nice. I can’t even imagine how great a place it must be.”
Takahashi recognises an internal conflict between this beautiful planet, its inhabitants — Sapien or otherwise — and the harm and sadness that we bring onto others and ourselves. If he can help heal even the slightest fracture, that’s enough. The fact that this letter is now out there is a sign of that. People have indirectly co-operated to see this project to its end, even if it got cut short. GIRL is happy, BOY is happy. The 33 who witnessed GIRL complete her journey in-game are happy. Keita is happy.
“I'm sure the day that you'll be reading this letter will be a fantastic day.”
Thanks, Takahashi-san. It was.