As my Youtube productions and a few of my prior articles have implied, I’m a fan of video games. My opinion on them hasn’t changed since my Shadow of the Colossus article in that I believe video games are a mostly frivolous but fun hobby that can occasionally be more relevant to a man’s life. In particular, the business behind and surrounding the video game industry has been at various times a topic of much discussion in the manosphere (namely Gamergate, Feminist Frequency, and the other bouts of SJW spastic hand flapping that arise every so often).
The book I am reviewing, Masters of Doom, is highly relevant to men in general and those of us seeking fame and fortune in the blogosphere (or other burgeoning industries) in particular: for while this book has nothing to do with social justice kerfuffles, it is an excellent, gripping portrait of both how far talent can take a man, and how even extreme genius can still fail.
The book centers around gaming’s fabled “Two Johns” (Romero and Carmack): their collaboration and friendship, their falling out, and the rise and fall of the companies they founded. The book opens in medias res in 2000, showing the disdain the former partners share, and laying out how the two men are fundamentally different personalities: the former a swaggering and effervescent rock star, the latter a scientist who would happily describe himself as being “robotic”. Worth noting is that 2000 was also the high point of their pop cultural impact: “This book deals with two games-one was played in life, the other was lived through play” (Foreword).
Similarly to the juxtaposition of the two lead personalities, the book is written both technically and emotionally well: The writing is vivid, placing the reader directly in those 24 hour programming sessions fueled by pizza and Jolt Cola. It also pulls off the difficult task of making computer programming come off as genuinely exciting, explaining the technical aspects of game programming simply for even those who have no knowledge of them. Most importantly, it portrays all involved fairly and with 3 dimensions, and properly characterizes the surrounding Zeitgeist:
Despite the fundamental differences between the two Johns, there are similarities. Both were precocious youngsters who grew up in somewhat abusive settings-Romero’s father walked out on the family and his stepfather discouraged his love of computers, while in contrast Carmack came from a family of academics who were strict authoritarian over-achievers that wanted him to follow in their footsteps. For both young boys, video games (and later programming) were seen as an escape from their lives, and as a way to achieve greatness: “Hackers were revolutionaries, outlaws, artists, the only ones who grasped why the computer was a revolution” (Chapter 2)
Starting in Chapter 3, the book goes linearly from 1989 to 2000. The two Johns meet at Softdisk, a small-time Louisiana based software development firm that they quickly use as a mere day job and source of funds for their game-production moonlighting (similar to how I and many other bloggers remain “Wagecucks” until we can sustain ourselves with our internet endeavors), forming the core group of 5 endearingly off-kilter programmers and artists that would eventually found Apogee and iD.
Further innovation comes in Chapter 4, when the boys essentially pioneer the concept of shareware, a gamble that promised to make them a 90% profit should it be successful (a similar ethos to the self-publishing blogosphere today).
As the preceding two paragraphs imply, I found many parallels to the manosphere and internet culture in general, in both positive and negative contexts: while still in their 20s, the iD boys become millionaires through Shareware such as Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D, being figureheads in a greater “do it yourself” culture of game modding and sharing. Their dedication to their craft is plainly visible in the writing, as they avoid sexual intercourse and even walk through hurricanes to get to work. Similarly, there have been bloggers and content creators that have struck it rich through combinations of innovation and sheer tenacity.
However, this fanatical dedication to creating bigger and better games, combined with the fundamentally different personalities of the heads of iD, led to gradually increasing creative clashes when making games that would ultimately lead to their falling out. Lord knows there have certainly been internet personalities that have crashed and burned, including those in our corner of the internet.
It is in the grungey 90s (corresponding to Chapters 6-9) that iD Software reaches its high point, not only financially but culturally as well. Doom and Wolfenstein 3D capitalize on the growing public craving for violence and “attitude”, showing how iD masterfully capitalized on what was just becoming trendy. iD was something new and quintessentially American: young creative men bucking tradition and pioneering a new path. The industry needed rock stars, and they were it. Like any rock star, the company met controversy-several countries banned Doom. This controversy, of course, did nothing to stop Doom‘s popularity: iD had established itself as the “bad boy” of software (Chapter 8). In 2016, an evolution of the 90s mainstream’s politically correct culture, this undoubtedly sounds familiar to anyone who follows neo-masculinity, the alt-right, or other conglomerations of frustrated young men-both cases show that young men will always resist the urges of their society’s schoolmarms. In the 90s, it was violence that rankled, in the new 10s, it’s masculinity and “hate facts”.
The first 9 chapters depicted the glorious rise, and the last 7 depict the ignominious fall-more accurately, the fall of one of the Johns in particular, and the breakup of the original id team. The creative differences that had always been with the company only grew in the 1990s, as each member of the team wanted to do something different, ultimately going their separate ways.
In particular, the breakaway success of his first few games massively goes to Romero’s head (referring to himself as “God” in the office, among other things), and he mistakenly believes that his wunderkind skills as a programmer will translate to success as a project manager and director at his new company Ion Storm-with the results being the disastrous Daikatana (and to a far lesser extent iD’s Quake 3, which wasn’t bad so much as it was a letdown). Thankfully, it appears at the very end (the book jumps ahead a few years) that Romero has humbled himself, and learned from the failure of his “magnum opus”.
And that, truly, is what a reader can take away from the book: The Two Johns, as well as their cohorts, were visionaries; self made men that struck it rich young and made multiple classics of their medium that are still referred to today. But even the greatest genius can fail through a combination of arrogance and extenuating circumstances (the Columbine shooting probably would have killed Daikatana even if it were a good game).
Success can also be damaging and lead to failure down the line: From John Romero’s arrogance and Carmack’s increasing perfectionism leading to impossible demands on their programmers, to the destruction of two of John Romero’s marriages, to (perhaps most damaging of all) the legions of fans literally falling to their knees and worshiping the titular Masters of Doom (Chapter 7).
But with all that being said, it is better to have succeeded and then failed then to never have tried, and, Daikatana not withstanding, one gets the impression that everyone involved is ultimately fairly satisfied with their lives- Romero is currently teaching at UC Santa Cruz, and Carmack is finally grasping his childhood dream with his ongoing involvement on the Oculus Rift project. And of course, iD Software and Doom itself are still going strong.
Accordingly, I myself was satisfied in reading this book that clarified the mythology surrounding one of my favorite games. Masters of Doom did, indeed, make me its bitch.
“All barriers are self imposed…we slept on floors, we waded through rivers to make games. Losing that pioneering spirit is what lost us the world of games.”-John Carmack
You can buy Masters of Doom right here