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The MEL Questionnaire: Video Game Pioneer Mel Croucher

“A true friend is somebody whose ass I’d be prepared to wipe” and other words of wisdom from one Mel to another

What’s in a name? More specifically, what’s in the name Mel? We’re not so sure ourselves, but the MEL Questionnaire is our quest to find answers — by asking a set of overly personal (and sometimes goofy) questions of Mels of all shapes, sizes and ages. The latest Mel: 68-year-old Mel Croucher, who is credited with first bringing video games to the U.K. in the late 1970s (earning him the title of “The Father of the British Video Games Industry”) and the creator of one of the most popular games of the 1980s, Deus Ex Machina (a sort of proto Grand Theft Auto with its companion soundtrack and celebrity voices).

How did you get the name Mel?
I really don’t know. My parents died very young — my mom was 47, and my dad was 57 — so I never got the chance to ask them how the name came about. In fact, it isn’t Mel at all; it’s Melvin, which is a name I’ve always hated. I’ve been Mel from about the age that I realized I had a bloody horrible name. I think Melvin is a corruption of Mervyn, which is a Welsh sort of wizard-type name. But there are no Welsh wizards in my family, so I haven’t got a clue.

Did you have any other nicknames growing up?
They also used to call me Granny — because I never stopped talking. Plus, I used to knit while sitting in a corner chatting away. Knitting was a thing before we had the Far East and had to make our own clothes. We had to go find a sheep, take the wool off the sheep, spin the wool and use two twigs to make it into a cloth called — you guessed it — wool.

What was your first memory growing up?
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they can remember being in the womb and crap like that. But I can honestly remember breastfeeding. I can remember my mom rocking me and singing. I can smell it and see it.

When was the last time you wrote a physical letter?
It was some time ago, and it was to a computer company here in the U.K. They were trying to abuse my copyright with a number of video games I’d written years ago. My letter to them said something like, “Fuck off!”

Generally, I find letters much more effective — especially if you put them in a real nice envelope with good paper, and then very carefully write out seven characters that spell F-U-C-K O-F-F.

What’s your favorite painkiller?
A beer called Hole Hearted. It’s light, hoppy and quite flat and warm. You’d hate it over there, but we love this sort of piss in England. We call it beer; you call it ale I think. Right now, in fact, I’m looking out my window, and across the road is a place called The Hole in the Wall. It’s a small private public house. It takes me six seconds to get from my door to their door for a Hole Hearted. So I can get pain killed very fast.

How do you differentiate between a friend and an acquaintance?
I have very few friends. I’ve always found people disappointing. Like Facebook — I’ve got thousands of friends on fucking Facebook, and I’ve never met any of them in the flesh, not really at least. A true friend then is somebody whose ass I would be prepared to wipe. If you’re capable of doing that, and if they were a friend, I’d let them do that for me. But I certainly wouldn’t do that for an acquaintance — and vice versa.

If you had to pack up everything and relocate, where would you go?
I’d go back about 50 years to when I was a hippie, and we were traveling at about 30 mph for a couple of years throughout Europe in a caravan. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We used to sleep on beaches or say, “Hey, let’s go to Amsterdam!” Or: “Let’s start a band!” Or: “Let’s go live under fascism under General Franco!” We did all of these weird things, but it was total freedom. It was before the responsibilities of possessions and families.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I can give you that exactly: It was 1976, and I was working as an architect in a shithole called Dubai. They’d just discovered oil a few years before, and I was an economic migrant since there was no work for a young architect in England. I worked for an old guy with a beard, sunglasses and a big nose. His name was His Royal Highness Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Maktoum. He was the boss of the place — a sort of benign despot I suppose. Anyway, he was paying cash, so I was in.

There was nothing there. It was flat deserts, mud buildings and some tin huts. His Royal Highness wanted some high-rise buildings built that he could show to his fellow sheikhs down the road. That was a bit outside of my capabilities. In fact, I hadn’t a clue of what I was doing. The only thing I’d ever built in the U.K. was a bungalow — a one-story building for like dead people. I kept giving him buildings that were nine stories high; after a couple of months he said, “Build me some skyscrapers!” I got out of there just before the shit really hit the fan: “Thanks for the cash, Your Highness!”

How do you spend your free time?
I don’t understand the concept of free time. If I’ve got nothing worthwhile to do, I sleep.

What do you compulsively hold on to and never throw away?
The past. I find getting rid of physical stuff very cathartic. I’ve gotten rid of tens of thousands of photographs and billions of hours of audio by digitizing them. They live on as a half-terabyte memory stick. It goes with me everywhere. So I never throw anything away, but I throw everything away.

What are you worried about this very moment?
I really don’t worry. I do have concerns, though. Here’s the difference: To worry is something you can’t do anything about; to have concerns is something you can do things about. For example, I’ve got an old school buddy of mine — he was my best man and I’ve been his best man twice. He’s come to have Alzheimer’s and dementia, and I’m concerned about him. I’m concerned about where he’s going to be living, how he’s going to be living, how he’s going to be looked after and if the beer I feed him when I take him to The Hole in the Wall will be incompatible with the medication he’s on. So that concerns me right now, and I’m doing something about it. If I just worried about it, that wouldn’t help him at all.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I thought I might be an architect from a very young age. My mom was born in Berlin, and she came to England via a program that got Jewish kids out of Germany and sent them to safety when Hitler came along. When I went back to Berlin after the war, it was total ruination. The British and Americans had bombed it, and then the Russians came along with artillery and flattened it. I thought to myself, Maybe when I grow up, I could rebuild the city, and make it all better and good again. But instead, I built a bungalow and a few nine-story buildings in the desert — all of them terrible.

Outside of your family members, who’s the first person you said “I love you” to?
The Baby Jesus. I didn’t say it either, I sung it. It was compulsory. When we were little, we had to go be sheep to angels in the church’s nativity program and were forced to tell Baby Jesus that we loved him. I didn’t tell him my dad was an atheist and my mom was a Jew, because I really wanted to be in this play. Instead I sang, Away in a manger, no crib for a bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head…. I must’ve been 3 or 4 years old at the time. I had a funny accent and little trousers. No wonder the kids used to beat me up over here.

What’s the one thing that people don’t understand or get about you?
Oh, people think I’m a twinkly nice old guy. A legendary role model. A creative pioneer. What they don’t understand is that I’m a lying, cheating, scheming cunt.