My dad was the kind of man who would let me be in the room with him while he watched TV if I didn’t breathe too heavily. If I asked a question, he’d ignore me. If I giggled, he’d tell me to shut up. It wasn’t what I called bonding time, but he was the reason I fell in love with videogames at a young age. When I wasn’t watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as he snored loudly on the couch, I was stood silently next to him as he played 'kid-appropriate' games like Leisure Suit Larry and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist until my mum told me to get ready for bed.
Oh sure, I had a few actual age-appropriate games that I played to help me improve my sub-par math skills, but no game enamoured me more than watching my dad play Duke Nukem 3D, a game about a roided-out protagonist with a buzzcut who kicks ass and would chew bubble gum if he had any. That was the game my dad and I bonded over more than anything else when he was alive. Now, the parental lock was on the whole time, so I never saw the excess gore and strippers flashing their boobs in dimly lit bars as a child, but that game was the reason we bonded at all.
It was the first FPS he brought home. Moving through a 3D space like that for the first time was entrancing for us both. I memorised how he pressed the keys, the way he moved around the map. Every secret door. Every ammo location. Every enemy spawn. I even memorised every time he would switch weapons, whether it was to conserve ammo or take out a wild pack of pig cops. I memorised all these things for dozens of levels: take a step back, grab a pistol, shoot the yellow barrels by the ventilation shaft, drop down. Immediately turn to the right, shoot an assault trooper. Jump on the billboard ledge behind you, grab the rocket launcher and then blow out the side wall to the theatre’s ticket booth at the end of the street.
I ended up memorising my dad’s gameplay so thoroughly that when he finally decided to give me a turn at the keyboard, not only did I start beating his best times, but I started finding secret places he hadn’t yet. After about a month or so of us playing Duke Nukem 3D, my dad brought home the official guidebook, a massive 318-page ‘bible’ of every cheat, secret location, map, and strategy. It was after school on a Friday, and my dad jetted out of work early to pick up the guidebook, but when he got home, I was already on his computer, blasting my way through the secret Launch Facility level. He was annoyed with me at first, but then he realised he didn’t recognise the level I was playing.
"How’d you get there?" he asked. I turned, smiled, then restarted from the beginning of Toxic Dump to show him how to get to the secret exit. Now he was silently watching me play. For the first time he was seeing how fast I could go through each level, and all the secret places I discovered without the help of a guidebook or him. When I punched the button at the secret exit and loaded into Launch Facility, I paused the game to look at my dad, who simply nodded and said, "Interesting. Have you seen the zoo level?"
I shook my head, then my dad showed me how to get into the demo level, which was basically multiple cages filled with enemies. He directed me to the end, to a cage packed with Battlelords, and told me to open it. They all rushed out towards me, screeching and firing their chainguns. My dad and I both shouted and laughed at the screen as I frantically tried to take out one before the rest left me in a bloody heap. "Try it again like this," my dad said, giving me tips on where to aim and what weapons to use.
For many years after that my dad would stop and watch me play a videogame if he happened to pass through the family room. He didn’t always ask me questions about the game, but he cared enough to stop what he was doing to see what I was playing.