Keita Takahashi sits alone, six thousand miles from home, in a damp, vacant house set within the grounds of an autumn forest somewhere in the middle of England. He wears a puffer jacket, huddled next to an electric fire for warmth.
With slow, meticulous movements he wraps a length of string around the short, rounded sword he's fashioned from a bent coat hanger. Aside from an intermittent cough, the house is otherwise empty of all noise.
Pastel sketches are spread out on the table around him, pastoral scenes, all browns, yellows and familiar yet unidentifiable rustic blurs. Clutches of green sticky notes punctuate a white board above. On each square of paper a single word is written in all-caps English. Some are verbs: "VIEW", "RUN", "LIE", ROLL". Others are nouns: "HOLE", "TUBE", "GRASS", "SLOPE", like a checklist for creation written into existence by a monosyllabic god.
There is no rhyme or reason to the layout. The words towards the top of the board are no more important to those at its base. They are not annotations on a ground plan map, even though Takahashi will, at some point, have to reconcile his ideas to the realities of geography and physics.
For now, the eccentric video game designer seems happy to be playing in the abstract. Giant trails of string loop around the room, tacked to the ceiling. On some, tiny plasticine models of children hang from paperclips, swinging as trapeze artists on micro-ropes that, if ever scaled up for humans to enjoy, would defy both the laws of gravity and health and safety.
I have no idea how one goes abut designing a playground but, from this random assortment of ideas and trinkets, I'm almost certain that Keita Takahashi, the enigmatic mind behind Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, is no wiser.
Making A Playground
"Obviously it's my first attempt at park design, so I'm not sure what makes a good playground at the moment," he tells me. "I'm just trying to work it out. What do you think makes a good playground?"
It's been four years since Takahashi announced his desire to build a playground here in Nottingham, the location of the UK's largest alternative video games conference, GameCity. Speaking at the event, in front of the gaming media, the admission caused a mild stir. Takahashi, a deeply atypical Japanese, has always been one to speak his mind, and his irritation at Namco Bandai's turning Katamari in to a steamrolling brand was always played out in the public sphere.
Yet, while Takahashi studied sculpture at college, there was no way he could be termed an architect. Was this a cry for help aimed towards the suits at Namco Bandai? After all, he later admits to me he was only permitted to make Katamari Damacy because he refused to work on any other of the "boring" projects that were in development at the studio. Or was it a genuine yearning to return to the roots of play, to rediscover purity and innocence among the swings and roundabouts of youth?
In the clutter of the desk in front of him here, it's clear that whatever the reason for the outburst, Takahashi was unprepared for his dream to become a reality. Last week, on the first day of Game City 2010, the organizers stood with Nottingham City Council to announce the commissioning of the playground on a small plot of land within the Woodthorpe Grange Park.
Alone With Pen And Paper
After the press conference, one of GameCity's organizers drove Takahashi to the local art store where he filled his basket with crayons, stickers, pens, sheaths of paper and, of course, a coat hanger. Then they took a taxi to this room, and closed the door behind him.
It's hard to shake the feeling its precisely this sort of largely directionless creativity, free from the constraints of financial targets, demographics and brand-building that has brought Takahashi to this unlikely nook on the other side of his world.
In answer to his deflected question about what I think makes a good playground, I suggest that I've always enjoyed a sense of progression, where one object leads to the next, giving the participant a sense of journey, like a playful assault course.
Takahashi doesn't respond at first, mulling it over, perhaps masking a sneer. "If there's a pattern embedded in the design of a park, the danger is always that all of the kids just end up doing the same stuff..." he murmurs.
It's this sort of aimless approach to game design that frustrated some players and critics with regards to his most recent title, Nobi Nobi Boy, a game that's difficult to articulate within the usual parameters of success and failure. And yet, this dislike of the order and rigid structure of mainstream games seems to imbue every aspect of Takahashi's approach.
Alienated By The Industry
Indeed, it's difficult to consider this strange scene as anything but a manifestation of his disillusionment with the strict framework of the wider gaming industry. I put the question to him direct.
"I think that's true," he agrees. "In fact, I've been feeling for a few years now that I'm just not suited to the games industry. Yeah, that's certainly been an impetus for working on the playground. You're right."
I suggest that perhaps Takahashi's artistic bent makes him incompatible with the Japanese studio system, that his unwillingness to compromise vision to the business side of Namco Bandai makes him a poor candidate for a commercial video game designer. "Yes," he answers at once. Then, earnestly: "Do you have any suggestions?"
While we talk, Takahashi is constantly busy with his hands. Having wrapped the sword with string halfway up its hilt, he then discards the idea and unwinds his efforts. He speaks in low, thoughtful tones, and his relentless reflection of my questions makes this feel more like a therapy session than an interview, though I'm not sure whose benefit it's for.
I'm astonished by his frankness. After all, our translator, a Namco Bandai employee, is also here in the role of a chaperone. Perhaps, in asking me to propose a solution to his frustrations, he is answering the question secondhand.
To Be Independent
I collect my thoughts before suggesting that, as Japan's games industry seems still very much based around big business, perhaps he should look abroad where he might be able to slot in more comfortably with an indie developer.
"Yes. My ideal would be to be a freelancer, working with different creatives in a far more loose structure," he admits, smirking like I've passed the test. While his frankness is refreshing for a Japanese game maker, it's hard to shake the feeling that it's also a little petulant. Whatever his frustrations with his employer, Namco Bandai has allowed him to take 8 weeks out of the office, working on a project that they will earn nothing from, save for some mild PR. Takahashi is given a long leash. With that in mind, I ask him: why the disillusionment?
"There are two main reasons for it, I think. Firstly, I'm just frustrated with the industry as a whole. I can't seem to predict where it's going, which makes me feel uncomfortable," he says. "Or maybe I just don't like where I think it's going. I'm not sure."
"That's probably related to my second frustration. I just can't perceive where the fun is in recent hit video games. I see nothing in them that resonates with me and, their success leaves me feeling confused. The things I find interesting and enjoyable just aren't reflected in the popular games of today and, I feel like there's not much room for my voice because of that."
Has Takahashi ever really enjoyed video games? "Certainly. I used to enjoy the Famicom era very much. In fact, at that time I was overweight because I played so many games. But I find it hard to remember the things that moved me in my childhood games. Pretty much all I think about is based on games of the moment. To be honest, right now I find the idea of working in the physical world far more exciting than working in a virtual one. I feel like having something physical makes it easier for me to communicate what I think is fun to people. There are fewer hurdles to overcome."
It's impossible to not detect the melancholy in Takahashi's demeanor. I wonder if he already has regrets about the path his life has taken him. "No. No regrets at this point. Of course, I can't predict how I'll feel in the future..." Maybe see how the playground turns out first, I offer. He laughs a warm, rare laugh. I ask him what makes him happy at the moment. He motions to the sword in his hand and, with a smirk, says: "Finishing this."
So happiness for Takahashi is in helping others to find happiness, I propose? "Yes. During university I grew quite bored with sculpture, and with seeing the limits of that medium. That's what got me looking at video games, their broader horizons and possibilities. I've always wanted to make things that would enable people to enjoy their lives. That's one reason I first looked to video games, to be able to make things that people could enjoy around the world. Perhaps part of this experience is in rediscovering how I can do that in video games, by revisiting the limitations of sculpture..."
Helping Others Find Happiness
It's dusk. We pack up and leave the house in the failing light. Standing in a nearby car park, waiting for a taxi, I ask Takahashi what games, if any, he's playing at the moment. "Er, Noby Noby Boy on iPhone. That's it," he says. That smirk surfaces again and I realize he takes a certain pride in his derision towards mainstream game culture. Again, he turns the question back on me.
I pull out my phone and rack my brain for indie titles I've played recently, hoping to somehow earn his respect in that way a detached air of superiority often demands. Rolando 2. Mr AahH!! World of Goo, I list. He repeats each game title after me with a quick nod, an acknowledgment that he's played each one thoroughly. For a man who supposedly only plays Nobi Nobi Boy, he's bang up to date.
A little annoyed by this crass one-upmanship I say: Street Fighter IV.
"Ah! Street Fighter IV?!" He looks surprised at my changing the rules of the game and ceasing to kowtow to his anti-blockbuster sensibility. We catch each others' eye and hold the stare for a second. In that moment I see, somewhere under the facade, the chubby 12-year-old Famicom nerd.
He knows that I know. And his face crinkles into the broadest smile of the day.