“Video games are a young medium.” This is a common refrain among those who study them. I know I’ve said it on multiple occasions. Of course, this conventional wisdom ignores the fact that we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Spacewar! and the 40th anniversary of the Magnavox Odyssey. Additionally, thanks to the realities of business and technology, video games age in dog years; the difference between a game made in 2001 and one made in 2011 is much more apparent than two films or novels of similar vintages. The time to start writing the history of the medium has long since passed.
Thankfully, David Kushner realized this. His 2003 book, Masters of Doom, chronicles the birth of id Software and the tumultuous rise of two industry legends: John Carmack and John Romero. It’s a comprehensive book, one that straddles multiple lines: academic writing vs. literary storytelling, a focus on the medium vs. video games’ broader cultural significance, biographical detail vs. a holistic view of the industry. It’s a difficult task, but Kushner rises to the challenge and creates a work that demonstrates both the many changes and recurring themes in the medium.
In the absence of an entrenched template regarding how to document video game history, Kushner opts for a comprehensive approach. Masters of Doom is part biography, part business history, and part socio-cultural history held together with a journalist’s flair for a compelling angle. Early on, “the two Johns,” Romero (The Rock Star) and Carmack (The Rocket Scientist), become central characters in the story. Childhood obstacles, strong personalities, and unique talents drive them to change the medium. Ultimately, their respective philosophies (Romero’s thirst for innovative design and Carmack’s dedication to technology) send them on separate trajectories in an industry they helped mold. Along the way, a supporting cast of characters ranging from American McGee to the U.S. Senate appear, but they are usually explored in relation to Carmack and Romero.
This raises the ancient, intractable question of how important specific individuals are to historical events. If Masters of Doom is to be believed, the video game world would be a different place without Carmack and Romero. At times, this strains credulity, but Kushner ultimately makes a convincing argument. Thanks to years worth of research comprised of interviews, material from the personal archives of Carmack and Romero, and contemporaneous documents, we learn just how influential the two Johns were. Distilling highly technical details about programming while conveying the intangible spirit of fear and controversy regarding shooters in the 1990s is no easy feat. Kushner’s various sources help balance the tall tales with the facts, the technical with the artistic, and the glamor with the hard times.
Without Carmack, who knows how long it would have taken for smooth scrolling to appear on the PC? His pioneering work with the 3D graphics engine helped changed the way that the computer industry was structured. His dedication to sharing software and militant opposition to patents would shape countless games, including milestones such as Half Life. Romero’s macabre artistic tastes helped shed video game’s cutesy image. His relentless pursuit of a sublime game continues to shape the way that people approach games. His embrace of the rock star image showed that game designers could also be media personalities. Romero’s brash public persona helped spread his games across the industry and created a template for later gaming auteurs like Cliff Blesinski.
Although they are clearly the protagonists of the book, Carmack and Romero are not flawless heroes. Carmack’s monkish devotion to coding and borderline-autistic social skills isolated and alienated his colleagues. Romero’s hedonism and ambition did the same thing and left him exposed to disastrous failures like Daikatana, the game that helped found and shutter his own company, Ion Storm. While sympathetic towards Carmack and Romero, Masters of Doom never shies away from their humanity. The traits that made them geniuses, creative partners, and friends were also the ones that drove them apart.
Carmack and Romero are useful bibliographic subjects, as their flaws and triumphs were influential on the industry’s development. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom helped define genres and business practices. id Software ruled the shareware scene in the 1990s and made millions off of their games after giving away large chunks of them for free. Today’s demo and episodic content experiments look conservative by comparison. id’s support of the mod community created a template for player-created content and birthed a generation of level designers. Up through Quake, id maintained an extremely small development team that resembled the dozen-person indie darlings that we laud today. It’s difficult to imagine what a 20-person team triple-A game would look like today, just as it would be difficult to imagine developers like Carmack and Romero openly feuding with each other via publicly posted .plan files. From today’s perspective, id’s heyday was a time when multimillion dollar companies lacked the corporate infrastructure that they have today.
Seated in the year 2011, we have the luxury of seeing all of this, as well as the events that happened after Masters of Doom was published. We see Carmack more devoted to technology than ever. Rage’s amazing graphics engine is poised to redefine what is possible on PCs, consoles, and mobile devices — even if the game itself is underwhelming from a design standpoint. Romero seems more interested than ever in recapturing the chaotic excitement of being part of innovative design and business models. Seeing him jump into the Wild West that is the social gaming scene makes sense after reading about his love of the small-team, start-up atmosphere and his unpleasant experiences running a large company. Somewhere out there on Facebook is the promise of Shreveport, Louisiana, the town in which he and a group of guys made Commander Keen.
Masters of Doom suggests that Romero and Carmack were a perfect team, but their current trajectories suggest that we’ve lost this team to the ages. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another game in which Romero’s talented vision is brought to life by Carmack’s spectacular skills, just as it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a game as controversial as the original Doom. The days of twenty-person triple-A games are over, as are unfiltered public feuds between Ferrari-driving developer rock stars. The first person perspective will never again be thought of as a disruptive innovation.
Yet, while these times are past, Kushner’s Masters of Doom ensures they are not lost. Like Doom’s high-speed gun play, video game history moves fast. Within the span of a decade, the medium is redefined, fortunes are made and lost, empires like id rise and fall. Thanks to Kushner, we have a vivid picture of a dynamic medium, one whose rapid evolution stems from the strengths and weaknesses of high technology and human creativity.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.