RIP Hugh Walker, 1949 – 2016

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.

Yes, my dad was Paul Merton

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.

From this site

222 Comments

  1. Freud says:

    My condolences.

  2. Lakshmi says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, John. That’s a very moving article.

  3. Megazell says:

    Til all are one.

  4. djhworld says:

    Lovely article, sorry to hear of your loss.

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    yhancik says:

    Oh John, I’m sorry for your loss :(
    Please take good care of yourself

  6. Shadow says:

    While he’s not much of a gamer anymore, I also had the blessing of having my father introduce me to computers and gaming.

    My heartfelt condolences, John.

  7. GernauMorat says:

    What an excellent write up. Words don’t help, but for what its worth: sounds like he did an excellent job of being a human.

  8. SpakAttack says:

    Thank you for sharing – I’m very sorry for your loss.

  9. daphne says:

    I’m sorry for your loss… Shit, I remember the Grimrock diaries here, I can’t believe it’s almost been four years.

  10. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    What a beautiful word-portrait. It brought me a wistful smile, and I hope it brought you, John, a measure of peace.

  11. Futuramic says:

    Brilliant article, sorry for your loss.

  12. dethtoll says:

    Sorry to hear about that. My dad was maybe a few years older and he died in November after an accident that broke his neck in the summer. It’s still pretty raw. We didn’t even get along that great, but I wasn’t done talking to him.

  13. craddoke says:

    My condolences to you. This was a beautiful article and tribute to your father that reminds me that the hours spent playing games with my kids are by no means wasted.

  14. songkran says:

    Sorry to hear about your Dad. Thank you for sharing.

  15. souroldlemon says:

    Thank you for the article. It’s good that you have the strength to write about it and it’s important to find the space to grieve now.
    It takes a long time and you never totally get used to the absence.

  16. silentdan says:

    My condolences, John. My father’s a few years older than yours, and I tell myself there’s probably a decade or more between today and his funeral, but then something like this happens, and we’re reminded that nothing is certain. Hang in there.

  17. DeusExMachina says:

    Keep enduring man

  18. Thurgret says:

    My condolences.

  19. Risingson says:

    I am so sorry for this loss, John. But I am sure he is gone being proud of you.

  20. mbourgon says:

    My condolences – he sounded like an awesome guy.

  21. mbelinkie says:

    Longtime lurker, but I registered just to say I’m sorry for your loss. I know Hugh must have been an extraordinary father because you are an exceptional writer. Best wishes for the whole family during this sad time.

  22. Muad'Dib says:

    Sorry for your loss, John. Thanks for sharing the story.

  23. Firkragg says:

    My condolences. I also lost my father quite suddenly over a year ago. Though I cannot feel the depth of your loss (that would require I’d be you), I will say I respect it while feeling sorrow. I will forever carry a picture of my father with me till the end, so he’ll never leave me, and in that I find solace at least, because i’ll never have to look far for his opinion on things, because he is always in my head somewhere. From what i’ve read of the Grimrock diaries and this article of course, I hope and believe you might do the same.

  24. FunnyB says:

    Truly a brilliant article. I am sorry for your loss.

  25. Harry Chambers says:

    Ich read RPS for several years now. This is the first time I comment on an article. It really touched me. I lost my Father when I was 5. Now that I am in halftime (35) I start to miss such biografical influences. You are rich. And you can be proud. You should check his saves and finish the games your father couldnt finish.

    TL:DR Touched me more then the death of David Bowie.

  26. icecoldbud says:

    A lifetime of great times to treasure. Sorry for your loss.

  27. VisibleMachine says:

    Very sad, hope you’re ok and take your time to get back.

  28. DiscountNinja says:

    I’m so sorry John. I know it might not be much, but you’ll always have those games and experiences and nothing can take that away.

    I lost my father last year and he sounded very much like your own – I remember sitting on my own small chair in an office not unlike your fathers. Mine used to make up all sorts of reasons for me to read things out of the game manual for him, so I would feel like I was helping. We must have lost years to Command and Conquer and Neverwinter Nights.

    Somewhere, there’s a giant pad of paper with all our scribbles and theories from the various Myst games on it. I don’t think I’ll ever have the strength to look through them. I’m not sure i’ll ever be able to play Discworld Noir or Titanic: Adventure out of Time without him.

    I don’t think the Steam username gets any easier. It ticks down the days since he was last online which still hurts, but I don’t have the heart to unfriend him. Honestly, I’m a bit scared what will happen some day to the account if I never log back in, deleted for being too old.

    I wish I had met your dad, he really sounds like a great guy and my kind of person. What I found when mine passed away was that no one wanted to listen to me about him – people only ever wanted to talk and tell me things would get better. If you ever want to tell more stories like these to then I’ll definitely be here to listen.

  29. Ooops says:

    So sorry for your loss. It feels like you’ve experienced a remarkable level of interaction quality with your dad. As such, the time spent together that way certainly counts double or triple. Still, 66 is a ridiculously, unfairly young age to depart.

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    Bluerps says:

    I remember reading those Grimrock diaries, and that I enjoyed them a lot. I’m sorry for your loss.

  31. Stellar Duck says:

    Oh, no.

    I am so very sorry for your loss, John.

    Thank you for sharing these words.

  32. rocketman71 says:

    Sorry for your loss, John. I loved your father’s articles about Grimrock. Thank you for sharing.

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    Skabooga says:

    My condolences to you and your family, John. Sending you all the love. He also clearly enjoyed computer games, to the point of writing amateur reviews – even before the age of the internet and blogs! I’m glad that you followed in his footsteps.

  34. jimmycrash says:

    Sounds like a great Dad John. So sorry for your loss John.

    I know it’ll be meaningless right now… But someone far more wise than me told me once that when you know someone well enough they’ll never really be gone, because you’ll know instinctively what their opinions on new things would be… after losing my mum in 2011 I can vouch for that being true.

    *Big Hug*

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    X_kot says:

    Thank you for sharing his memory with us, John. Please take the time to heal as best you can; we’ll be here for you when you’re ready.

  36. philigan says:

    Very sorry to hear about your dad, John. He sounds like a wonderful guy.

  37. Hydrogene says:

    Very moving article John. Thanks for sharing with us what seems to have been a very special relationship between you two, linked by games and imagination! I wish I could share that kind of intimacy with my own dad, but his only gaming experience is Solitaire…

  38. ginzoo says:

    I`m sorry for your loss.

  39. Shadowhaxor says:

    Sorry for your loss. I too lost my father suddenly, almost 10 years ago now. He went to work, healthy and never came back. It takes time to heal and you started already by expressing your feelings. It gets better and you have a huge support group here.

  40. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Without meaning to take anything away from anyone, I was genuinely much sadder about John’s news than I was about anything else I heard about this week. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your Dad John, and anything remotely connected to Dungeon Master is always going to resonate with me. Dad in a Dingeon reminded me of first trying to figure that game out when I was about 9 or 10, with my Dad trying to make helpful suggestions from over my shoulder. But also, my Dad was my first point of contact with videogames. I think we get our childhood passions, not so much from well-meaning earnest encouragement given to us, but more from observing the things adults around us are enthusiastic about, and wanting to be like them. RIP Hugh.

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    chiroho says:

    I’m trying to build a similar relationship that you and your dad had with my own son, currently 13. I only hope that I can get that closeness you and he obviously had.

    You definitely have my condolences, John. One day in the not too distant future I’ll be there with my own dad. I know reading this will likely help me then.

  42. linea says:

    So sorry to hear that John. My condolences.

  43. sandman2575 says:

    I can only imagine how painful this must’ve been to write. A really brave thing to do. Thanks for sharing it, John, and my sincere condolences to you and yours.

  44. Somerled says:

    My condolences, John.

    It sounds like he was a wonderful man to you and to everyone.

  45. anHorse says:

    The Grimrock diaries were fantastic

    Sorry about your dad

  46. Llewyn says:

    John, I am frequently critical of your writing about games, but when you write around games – your personal pieces about fatherhood, about depression and this celebration of your father – you are frequently brilliant. I think I may have forgotten to tell you this in previous comment sections.

    In common with the other commenters, I’m very sorry for your loss. And ours, for that matter: your father’s experiences with Grimrock made very good reading and I’d have liked to read more of That Kind of Thing. I hope writing about him brings some comfort.

  47. Morcane says:

    After losing my father in November last year, this hits home big time. My sincere condolences, thank you for a very moving article.

  48. Josh Millard says:

    This is a wonderful eulogy, John. I’m sorry for your loss.

  49. ariston says:

    That was a very moving article… it’s good that you can find the strength to talk/write about your dad… sounds like he was one of the good guys, and a gamer at that!

    Very sorry for your loss.

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    edna says:

    Ah man, that’s very sad. Glad you found it within you to write though. I’m sure there was some catharsis in it for you, and it was a truly moving piece.

    You are fortunate to have had a relationship like that with your dad. Though doubtless that makes losing him all the harder.

    SADFACE

    (hope that makes you smile and isn’t horribly misjudged on my part)