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An oddball pairing that led to ‘Doom’

Special to The Times

John Carmack and John Romero might not have the same name recognition as, say, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but they too are computer pioneers, well-known among video game devotees. That Americans spend more money on computer and video games than they spend on movie tickets is probably due, in large part, to the pair. Journalist David Kushner’s “Masters of Doom” tells the unlikely story of how these troubled suburban kids created some of the most influential and controversial video games ever, most notably “Doom” and “Quake,” and presided over a multimillion-dollar empire.

Both boys were obsessed with computers and games early on. Romero couldn’t keep himself away from the local arcade, even after being beaten and grounded by his stepfather. And having mastered all the games he played, Romero yearned to make some of his own. He fared poorly in school, listened to heavy metal and allowed his imagination to run wild with scatological and violent thoughts, expressed first in his drawings. By age 11, Romero was producing some odd illustrations, to say the least. “In one,” writes Kushner, “a dog named Chewy was invited to play ball with his owner. With a strong throw, the owner hurled the ball into Chewy’s eye, causing the dog’s head to split open and spill out green brains.” Yet by the time Romero was 16, he’d found a somewhat healthy outlet for his gaming obsession. Despite his stepfather’s warning that he would never earn any money by making games, he began winning programming contests and landed his first job a few years later.

Of the Two Johns, as they came to be called, Carmack is the more eccentric (and compelling). Kushner writes of how, as a 7-year-old, Carmack had a ninth-grade comprehension level; he was a late talker who developed a speech impediment, “adding a short, robotic humming sound to the end of his sentences, like a computer processing data: ’12 times 12 equals 144 ... mmm.’ ” He was a whiz kid who applied his problem-solving abilities in interesting ways. When, as a means of punishment, his mother locked his comic book collection in a closet, Carmack was unable to pick the lock, so he removed the hinges and pulled off the whole door instead. Later, he was sent to a juvenile home for breaking into a school, using homemade explosive material, to steal an Apple II computer.

When Romero met Carmack in 1989, at a Louisiana software company, there was an instant kinship between these misfits. Romero was energetic, expansive and gregarious (Kushner describes him as “a human exclamation point”); Carmack was awkward, taciturn and antisocial. Initially, the duo were united by “their admiration for fast-action arcade games, their desire to emulate them and, most important, their unbridled confidence in their abilities.” Both quickly outgrew their stultifying work environment, and started id Software, their own hugely successful company, while still in their early 20s. Only later would their business philosophies and personality differences cause an irrevocable rift in the partnership.

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What fueled the Two Johns’ quick climb to success was partly their obsessive (and admirable) devotion to experimentation, and to pushing computers to the limits of their capabilities. Carmack and Romero revolutionized how video games were conceived and played, including creating the concept of side-scrolling for PC games, in which the action appears to continue beyond the player’s screen. They also made games much faster, more graphic and more violent.

In planning what would become their first major success, the Nazi-themed Wolfenstein 3D, the two incorporated digital sound and plenty of blood and gore. As the big checks began rolling in, so did the backlash; immersion in the game seemed so realistic that “many [players] began complaining of motion sickness ... Wolfenstein vomit stories became items of fascination online.” Despite the unfortunate side effects, offensive content and shocking violence, Carmack and Romero had created a sublime addiction, and an influential style that spilled over into other aspects of pop culture, including MTV. Explored in the aftermath of the late-1990s technology sector collapse, the giddy early days of Carmack and Romero’s start-up company, with its “hacker” ethic, seem almost quaint. Kushner describes the day-to-day atmosphere at the company as a group of brilliant, bleary-eyed young workaholics trading dirty jokes, testing video games and subsisting on soda, pizza and candy. Just as vividly described is the partnership’s bitter dissolution, as the atmosphere became tense and competitive, and the “two visions that had once forged this company were irreparably tearing it apart.” Carmack wanted to grow slowly; Romero had grandiose visions of expansion. He was forced out of the company in 1996.

Yet the more troubling fallout of their games, with their 3-D shooters and “deathmatch” concept, are not explored nearly enough. Kushner does examine the implication of such games in the Columbine shootings and congressional hearings on violent games, but not as fully as he might have. Of course, the subject is far too complex to simply assert that violent video games are responsible for such tragedies, but more critiquing and insight, rather than straight reportage on this issue, would have been useful.

It’s clear that Kushner is passionate about his subject. He spent five years researching the book and admits having grown up himself a Dungeons & Dragons and video game enthusiast. But “Masters of Doom” suffers from some weaknesses, aside from the author’s generic reportorial style. Both Carmack and Romero had dysfunctional familial relationships (and Romero was married and divorced with two sons by the time he was 21). Their girlfriends and wives are underdeveloped portraits, as are the complex family issues that must have ensued as the young men achieved vast wealth and fame.

Further, Kushner provides overly explicit detail of quotidian matters and peripheral figures; Carmack’s cat Mitzi, for instance, figures too prominently (“She stretched out lazily on the monitor, letting her legs dangle over the screen”). And for all its surfeit of detail, the book leaves readers wanting to know more about the post-breakup lives of Carmack and Romero, more so than what is provided in the book’s epilogue, which ends on a flat note. Quibbles aside, the truth is that any rabid fans of Doom and Quake -- and those intrigued by the astonishing influence those games had on popular culture -- are likely to devour this book in one sitting. Although no profound lessons are to be learned from “Masters of Doom,” it does tell a fascinating story.


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