I've just spent around an hour in the company of one of the men partly responsible for getting me into computers in the first place. And I didn't recognise him.
Game City, which is in its fourth year, has been described as the Sundance Festival of gaming. It takes over the centre of Nottingham for five days, from marquees in the square to random Pac Man cabinets in shopping arcades, so it's difficult to miss. However, although I've known about it in the past, I failed to even get photographs of UK games premieres playing on the giant screens because I didn't even have the foresight to charge my 'phone.
But this year, I'd already read that there was going to be several events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Elite, which is one of my all-time top 10 games. Top 3, even. Maybe even top 1. So folding origami Elite ships seemed right up my proverbial street.
Entering the tent, I saw that one whole side was inundated with tiny kiddlings who were probably too young to even pronounce "origami", never mind have a clue about Elite. This not being my sort of crowd I decided to sit on a table across the way, the only other occupant being a balding man with glasses and a beard. Having nearly spilled his coffee sitting down, we made small talk and tried to fix the wobbly table, and then set about furiously folding spaceships: him a Mamba, me a Cobra Mk III.
After a while we were joined by two other men, a Commodore 64 fan from back in the day and an ex-student who had only just been born when Elite was released. We laughed about how impenetrable the instructions were without the accompanying videos available on the website, that the space station they were making had seemed like the easy choice but in reality came in six parts, and chatted about what games we liked and how we'd got into Elite. It was only when the original origami-ist left the table that the C64 fan hissed: "Wasn't that Ian Bell?"
Ian Bell, in case you don't know, was the guy that created Elite in the first place, along with David Braben. It was seeing Elite on the BBC B that convinced me that I really, really needed a computer of my own, although my family could only afford an Electron. It was enough – and crucially, had its own version of Elite. I just commented that I thought Ian Bell had a bigger beard.
He came back, although we all seemed too polite to actually ask him if he was who we thought he was. So we sat there folding and chatting, until someone walked past and said "Hi, Ian!"
(It was later reinforced by one of the organisers handing him a big VIP badge. "If you'd have been wearing that," I pointed out, "we would have known right away!" At which he smiled, took it from around his neck and tucked it away in a pocket.)
"We thought it was you!" said the ex-student, and we started to grill him about what he was doing now, if he was still writing games, if he played many himself, and I rather rudely took a photo of him without asking. He said that he'd tried writing games until recently, but it was difficult for one man to get anywhere on his own. Because he wanted to create a psychedelic world to take you somewhere that you'd never been before, instead of using an existing game engine that made most games look alike, he had tried to do everything from scratch. That hadn't panned out, so now he had a paying job with someone else. He didn't seem that in to talking about himself though, so we all went back to discussing games in general.
Although he didn't play games himself, and didn't know the names of any space-based games of recent times (even Eve didn't seem to ring any bells), he had more to say when we got into some of the mechanics of gaming. I mentioned how I'd started Elite on the Electron many times after losing my saved games (they had to be saved on audio cassette!), and came to like the start more because when you were striving to get all the equipment the anticipation was often more exciting than being all-powerful (rather like the tipping point in RPGs, where the scrabble to defend ends, and all that's left is rather dull (counter-)attack). Rather than being offended that I seemed to be less excited about later parts of his game, he admitted that levelling at the start of Elite were something he thought they'd got particularly right. He also commented on his amusement at some of the myths that came out of the user groups (Mr. C64 noted that these were often school groups set up to do maths but which inevitably ended up as Elite-playing sessions), although all the people trying to track down the Generation Ships were the fault of his use of a little artistic licence. And I probably wasn't the only one that left Elite running while I read in my room, choosing to fly through space like I was really there rather than use the interspace jump to get to planets quicker.
I noticed he'd finished his Mamba some time before, and my Cobra was also complete (if not entirely space-worthy). So we all had a go at trying to fix the six parts of the space station together, which was pretty much impossible. I got some sticky tape from one of the many interns hanging around, and it ended up with him making a large cube that in no way resembled a space station, and me holding out little bits of tape on the end of my fingers. I pointed out that if anyone should know the design, it surely had to be him – but he neatly ducked it by pointing out some subtle differences in the corners. I'm still not convinced.
Eventually the space station was complete, but by then Mr. Bell and the younger member of our team had already drifted away. After an almost frantic amount of folding, followed by some intense fiddling to try and get it all to fit together, all that was left was to shake the hand of the remaining fellow folder and walk away.
They say you should never meet your heroes: they inevitably disappoint. I'm not one for hero worship, to the point where I was completely clueless as to the identity of the man sitting opposite me, but I have to admit that Ian Bell had quite some effect on my formative years. And it turns out that he's just like us – happy to sit there making paper spaceships and chat about games, not wanting to be in the limelight. What was most telling however was the charming way in which he left us.
He put a piece of photocopied paper down on the table with a picture of a cat on it. "Our Burmese has just had some kittens," he said quietly. "If you're interested..."
Our combined efforts
That's probably a slightly soppy way to end, so here's some other odd Game City-related items that cropped up in the local paper.
First up: "Keita Takahashi, director of the cult Katamari games, is spending a month in the city working on designs for the play area at Woodthorpe Grange." A few months ago, the idea that a top Japanese games designer would come to Nottingham – and then design a park – would have seemed too far-fetched. But then Sven-Goran Eriksson, international football manager, turned up at lowly Notts County – a team who almost fell out of the football league entirely last year, and could now be one of the richest clubs in the world (owned by a consortium of billionaires, rather than a single sugar daddy). And after staying in Nottingham for a while, had the chance to jump ship and manage his home country – but decided to stay, and bring one of his old friends in for good measure. So now, yes, sure, whatever!
Apparently this is something Mr Takahashi's been talking about since his first appearance at Game City in 2006. He's never designed a park before, but he's got a background in sculpting and fine arts, so along with a landscaping expert and input from local schoolkids he might be able to do something interesting. Konami are paying for him to stay here, and the local Council are just paying for the construction.
The second thing I noticed was a rather awkward piece of advertising. "At 2pm, Lord Puttnam of Queensgate will reflect on changes in the creative industries in A Tale of Two Industries." It took me a while to realise that this was David Puttnam, producer of such film greats as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and, um, Bugsy Malone, and that the second industry would probably be movies. Not the greatest of adverts then!
Video games creator Keita Takahashi is re-designing a playground at Woodthorpe Grange Park
Ian Bell's Asian Kittens