Every now and again Tony Ingram goes into his den at night and closes the door. He loads up a PC game from 1992 and ventures forth into a world of dungeons. Ultima Underworld is his way of connecting with his father, on the days when he misses him the most.
Tony's dad James (pictured above, right) passed away three years ago. It was lung cancer. He was in his early 50s. For Tony, who now has a child of his own, playing Ultima Underworld isn't so much an act of memorial or emotional tribute, it's a way for him to cope with feelings of loss.
At night, when he's tucked his two-year-old into bed, he often finds himself drawn to the game's Stygian Abyss. The rhythms of its exploration and combat take him back to a time when he and his dad adventured together, when they shared pure escapist fun.
James was one of those dads who encouraged his kids to fool around with computers and computer games. Back when Tony was a 12-year-old, he and his dad played Ultima Underworld a lot.
"Ultima Underworld sends me down this deep memory hole," he says. "It's a trigger for me to think of my dad."
Back in 1992, Ultima Underworld was a huge deal. Blue Sky Productions (later, Looking Glass) took the immensely popular Ultima RPG universe and gave it a first-person 3D make-over.
It's a role-playing game in which players choose their class and character, interact with objects and fight monsters. Ultima Underworld was a genuine innovation which still serves as an inspiration for many of the first-person RPGs we play today.
"I pull out Ultima Underworld every now and then but it's not self-indulgent," says Tony. "I want to play the dang game because it's fun and I like it. But at the same time it's inextricably linked to this memory of my father."
Although Tony plays Ultima Underworld as a way to remember his dad, their first interaction with the game was not a happy one.
"When I was 12, I was really into Magic: The Gathering and D&D. I was given this PC game box which had a dude with a sword going down into a catacomb. I'm like, yes, I will do this."
"He loved this computer. It took him a couple of days to fix it."
Dad wasn't around that day so Tony tried to get the game to run on the family PC. "I was a pretty nerdy kid, messing around with DOS and stuff. My dad definitely enabled that in me. I started messing with config.sys and autoexec.bat. I didn't make copies or backups. I didn't make a boot disk. I attempted to reboot the computer to play the game and it bricked the computer."
When Dad got home, Tony tried to explain how the expensive family computer was no longer functioning. "He loved this computer. It took him a couple of days to fix it. But he didn't blow up at me. Once he got it to boot, he then took the time to run the game and we proceeded to play the crap out of that game."
Tony recently shared his story with other Ultima Underworld fans on a forum. The old game is back in the news because some of the original developers, including designer Paul Neurath, are making a successor called Underworld Ascendant. Neurath saw Tony's forum post and got in touch via email.
"I don't want to sound too corny or anything, but when I play that game I think of my dad," says Tony. "That's kind of all it is. The emotions have gotten less intense as time's gone by. But honestly, I can't get over when Paul sent me that email. I just cried for a little bit. I hadn't really had ... I hadn't had my dad moment in a few months."
Memories and Games
Tony says the way he and his dad played Ultima Underworld was typical of their relationship.
"I always thought I knew exactly what to do and he always thought he knew exactly what to do," he laughs. "There wasn't a lot of collaboration. It was more progress through conflict. We were both bullheaded guys so our gaming together was, 'no, do this' or 'you missed it'. But it was always in good fun. There was never ill will or anger."
Growing up, Tony's family always spent time playing games. "There was lots of Scrabble, canasta, Trivial Pursuit. We had all the consoles. We were gamers and so games have created some of the most important connections I have. Or connections maybe isn't the right word. Memories? It's kind of weird and totally nerdy, but I love it. It's part of me and part of my family."
James was interested in gadgets and toys. He liked to take things apart and connect them and create new toys. He was, says Tony, "an inventor and a tinkerer."
Talking to Polygon about how he plays the game these days, Tony makes a self-discovery. "Now that I'm thinking about it I just realized that I've been playing tinkerers in Underworld. I just realized that. I've been rolling tinkerer characters. Because that's a character class in that game, which I always thought was totally useless when I was younger.
"Now it's like, yeah, maybe I do actually do that because of my dad. In his life he took things apart and put them back together in ways that they never should have been put together. He invented things. He destroyed things.
"Here is a game where tinkerer is a class and I always pick it. It's funny, because you never really know what they do. They have a weird skill set. The stats are all kinds of strange. They're good at armor repair, which is useful, because you find a lot of bad armor in Ultima Underworld. Gosh. I never really put that together. I've been playing these characters who are a lot like my dad."