My dad, Hugh Walker, unexpectedly died on Saturday. He was 66, and it was a complete shock. Obviously I’m still shattered by it all, but it’s important to me to celebrate the extraordinary person he was, and his impact on my life, as soon as I can. And when it comes to our relationship, gaming was always a feature.
“Can I bring a chair in?” Those were the words I’d ask after we’d built a small extension on the house to afford my dad a box-shaped study for his gaming. “Daaaad? Can I bring a chair in?” And almost always he’d sigh, and say, “Yes, come on,” and I’d bang a dining room chair against the door frame and squeeze it between his chair and the printer, in amongst the insane clutter that remains to this day, my job to sort out in the coming weeks. Going home on Saturday, I couldn’t bring myself to go in the room. On Sunday, with the courage built up, and my wife’s hand clutched in mine, I stepped in, and sobbed. It was and for now still is a magical place, this seven foot by seven foot (I’m guessing) space filled with desks and computers and shelves and books and a hundred thousand errant wires, forgotten ’70s headphones, a musical keyboard, two guitars I didn’t even know he owned, and the walls still stained from the days when he smoked a pipe. It has a distinct, safe smell no other room will ever have, and contained so many of my happiest memories. The floor is barely visible, the walls all covered in something, and there in the middle of the madness – the one room my meticulously tidy mum didn’t influence – is his monitor and PC. His Steam account logged in. I couldn’t sign it out.
My dad was into gaming before there were many games to be into. He was an NHS dentist (and remained defiantly so until his retirement last year, as the industry turned private), so there wasn’t a lot of money in the house back then. But we had some sort of strange black box that wasn’t an Atari 2600, into which enormous cartridges were inserted, and Pong, or games like Pong, would appear. When the ZX81 appeared, we had one right away. My dad’s extravagance. Then – and I don’t know the details of how (the inclination to pick up the phone to ask is a gut-punch every time) – we somehow ended up with a pre-release ZX Spectrum 48K which he reviewed for… somewhere. And that, with its giant pile of memory, and 15 colours, allowed games to flourish.
Dad was a big Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone fan, those books first appearing the same year as the 48K, and his passion for fantasy fiction couldn’t have been better supplied. As text adventures began to appear, Dad not only voraciously played them all, but often wrote reviews for a fanzine called Adventure Probe. (I’ve been crawling through the scant archives of this A5 wonder, and have found a piece by dad on character interaction, on page 41.)
In 1984, fascinated by the possibility home computers offered to play role-playing experiences, Dad wrote his own game. Warlock, published as a type-in game in ZX Computing, was a text-RPG. It was, I’m going to argue now, one of the first rogue-lites. You were in a multi-floored dungeon, tasked with reaching level 0 and escaping with the Warlock’s gold. On the way you fought a variety of monsters via invisible dice rolls, and could encounter the terrifying Warlock himself. Terrifying because he was in CAPITALS. It was really about seeing how much gold you dared collect before you attempted an escape, with death being permanent. You can play it.
Later in the ’80s he used a lot of his time to play-test adventure games, including for the legendary Level 9, with me sat on his lap or on the stool next to him at the kitchen counter. I spent so many of my pre-teen years reading and playing text adventures that to this day I misinterpret the word “exam” to mean to look at something. His patience with my presence as he attempted to play these games is one of my favourite things about him. A patience that became more tested as I grew older and games became more complicated.
Fortunately for him, when the adventure diversified into graphic adventures and RPG/strategy games, we took different forks. His friend Ted Bugler was my point-n-clicking mentor at the other end of a beige phone, while Dad embraced the joys of the SSI releases, and the entirely inaccessible to me Civilisation (I enjoyed moving the boats around in the sea, but it was only seconds until a graph about wheat or something would appear). Occasionally we’d cross gaming paths again, as time at the computer became a more competitive pursuit. Then we’d be sitting next to each other, taking over from each other, banging hands above the mouse. It’s so weird remembering which games would achieve this, entirely forgotten oddities like 1997’s Realms Of The Haunting, or a game with which he was utterly obsessed, 1993’s Betrayal At Krondor.
From Speccy to Commodore 64 to Atari ST to PC, Dad and I always had games in common. We didn’t sit next to each other to play any more, but we’d still chat on the phone about games for hours. I am so glad to say that happened most recently last Tuesday, as we talked about his struggle to get into Fallout 4 despite his years-long love of Skyrim, and how he’d somehow managed to miss the gas station with the rocket on its roof. “Did you play male or female?” I asked. “Female, of course,” he replied. He always did. I meant to ask him why.
I regret I do not share his passion for history, nor his ability to remember all of it in one head. He did not entirely understand my love of comedy, although his indoctrination of me with incessant Radio 4 certainly contributed to a lot of my tastes. But while I loved to listen to him explain the fall of the Roman Empire, or the minutiae of King Thingy VII’s personal life (for the first twenty minutes, at least), and while he would often latch onto a comedian or comedy programme I was especially into, it was always gaming that ensured we could talk forever. The idea that he won’t play the next Elder Scrolls game, or that I’ll never see “hugh.w is playing…” appear on Steam again, seems impossible. (Including his peculiar obsession with Escape Rosecliff Island, which appeared so incredibly often I began to wonder if there was a glitch.) Looking at Dad’s Steam profile, the last game he played was X-COM: UFO Defense. One of his all-time favourites. (I’m assuming the “1,263 hrs on record” is more likely to do with his leaving his PC ever-running.) He mentioned he’d gone back to it after bouncing off FO4 on Tuesday, laughing at himself. I’d not be surprised if that figure was accurate if you started from 1993.
And perhaps rather significantly for RPS, Dad wrote a series of articles for us about The Legend Of Grimrock. As I was reviewing the pre-release code of the game, I knew he’d love it. This was Dungeon Master – one of the games that we both adored – born again. I got another Steam code for him, and asked if he’d be willing to chronicle his adventures. What resulted was some of the most utterly batshit writing I’ve ever seen, that I had to somehow wrestle into something we could publish. He literally wrote his internal monologue of the experience. You can read it all here. I can’t, not just yet.
I’ve inevitably told this story before, but I love it enough to repeat it without shame. When I was little, for bedtime stories my dad would sit me and my sister on my bed, he’d sit on the spare bed, and he’d tell us stories he made up as he went along. Stories about a humble roadsweeper who would stumble into adventures, perhaps finding a magic ring, or a mystical sword, and be sent by the King on great quests. At crucial moments, my sister and I would get to make decisions that would direct the rest of his life, whether he would walk toward the lake of fire, or the Tower Of Darkness. And in those decisions, Dad taught me that imagination was magic and infinite. He taught me that stories were mine to tell, that there was always possibility.
And as it happens, it appears that during those bedtime stories, some of the most famous fantasy authors of the previous one hundred years had been travelling forward in time and listening at my bedroom window, then sneaking back and copying my dad’s best ideas into their books. The cads.
My dad was an astonishingly generous man. He was a truly good man, complete with his flaws, his chronic insecurity, his lack of self-belief. He fought for his principles, sacrificed for his morality. And he was an incredible father. I am presently ruined by his loss, but it is with a pride I almost cannot contain that I know so much of the best of me is from him. This job, this ability to string words together, my passion for imagination, and a love for playing silly games, as well as a crusading desire for good to defeat evil. It’s thanks to him.
I love you so much, Dad. Goodbye.