In the beginning, they were perfect collaborators; in the end, bitter enemies. And in between, these two artists created some of the biggest hits of their time — monster smashes that revolutionized their field. But Masters of Doom is not another book about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Instead, the subjects are guys who fall short of being household names, though their renown is derived from the most ubiquitous of household appliances — the personal computer. But every joystick jockey who has twitched his way through a ”deathmatch” while snarling ”Suck it down!” knows John Romero and John Carmack. For the rest, David Kushner’s meticulously researched new book explains how these dark, damaged geeks became a potent and provocative cultural force in the 1990s.
With the videogames Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake, Carmack and Romero practically invented the popular genre of ”first-person shooters” — immersive and gruesome thrill rides whose sole objective is to blow away bad guys. (Or good guys, if you’re feeling sinister.) Carmack was the coding genius, a self-taught programmer who created bleeding-edge ”engines” that allowed progressively quicker play and more graphically rich applications. Romero was the design mastermind, a hardcore gamer who used Carmack’s tools to craft fiendishly clever virtual worlds. Carmack’s innovations fueled Romero’s imagination, and vice versa. The legendary company they started from a lake house in Shreveport, La., was called id Software.
A veteran videogame-industry journalist, Kushner portrays the two as complementary opposites. Each was profoundly shaped by broken homes, questionable parenting, and way too much pop culture. Natch, Dungeons and Dragons, comic books, ”The Lord of the Rings,” and ”Star Trek” were seminal influences. Both were weaned on Apple II computers and seduced by the burgeoning digital subculture — Carmack by rebel-hacker ethos, Romero by the growing stature of Apple cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (With sound reasoning, Kushner elevates id to the same league as Microsoft and Apple for fostering widespread acceptance of interactive tech.) Agitated by authority figures who thought videogames bred delinquency, Carmack and Romero escaped their teens supercharged by ambition and anger.
Yet Kushner’s narrative doesn’t truly ”game on” until 1990, when Romero and Carmack meet at the Louisiana software firm Softdisk. Soon the two are colluding to exploit their employer’s resources to make computer games together. These humorous passages give way to a ”Behind the Scroll Screen” chronicle in which the two labor on their watershed works in an atmosphere of geek-frat frivolity. Kushner tracks the blow-by-blow of key technical and gameplay breakthroughs, the risky business strategy of shareware distribution that made them all rich, and the evolution of Carmack and Romero into a pair of scary jerks. One anecdote details how Romero, angry at a deceitful freelancer named Burger Bill, drew a crude caricature of the employee and encouraged coworkers to take turns gleefully knifing it like slasher-flick serial killers — and then let Burger Bill happen upon the shreds before firing him.
Kushner’s most artful chapters come late, as he tracks the demise of the increasingly toxic Carmack-Romero partnership during the development of id’s last great game, 1996’s Quake. The issue, reports Kushner, was never about glory. Carmack, the impolitic, socially awkward hermit who connected better with his Ferrari than with people, had no problem letting Romero, the trash-talking, Playboy Bunny-dating lightning rod, attract more credit than he deserved. Toggling between the perspectives of the partners, Kushner shows with considerable nuance how the stress of managing success led to their unraveling, even as they blamed each other for it.
The book ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation, but it rings false — a bit of forced sentimentality by Kushner, who otherwise remains admirably detached. (His prose, on the other hand, could be more inventive.) And despite his access, Kushner doesn’t grill Carmack and Romero nearly hard enough on the tricky issue of violence and influence. After all, Doom was an obsession for Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the parallels between their mass-murdering crime and the game seem undeniable. But as a ticktock of the creative process and as insight into a powerful medium too often dismissed as kids’ stuff, ”Masters of Doom” blasts its way to a high score. Suck it down, indeed.