Masters of Doom

May 25, 2003 By Glenn Turner
Alternate title: The Long Haired Freak & the Genius

We all have our id software stories - many gamers cut their online gaming teeth with Doom. Or when you attended your first large Quake LAN party. Or you were like me and spent hours playing Commander Keen, much to the dismay and vocal complaints of your parents. When you played old id games, you would feel a sense of urgency and shear glee that forced you to continue playing. So it's no surprise David Kushner brings that same energy to the story of id software's creation, Masters of Doom.

Masters of Doom traces the steps from John Romero and John Carmack's formulative teen years to the dissolution of Ion Storm at an easy pace, leaving plenty of time to flesh out all of the supporting characters and zeitgeist of the time. He opens with a retelling of a moment from teenage Romero's life - a battle between himself and his stepfather that is as engrossing as it is disturbing to read. We follow the separate paths of Romero and Carmack until they finally meet up at Softdisk and quickly end up spending more time on side-projects together than their jobs. Inevitably, id is created from the ashes of Romero's former company Ideas from the Deep.

We are privy to the environment that created Doom - Romero, Carmack and the rest of the id crew spend many late nights in a house by a cozy lake, surrounded by mountains of pizza boxes and empty soda cans, shattered keyboards lying on the ground on the ground just waiting to be rescued - friends helping friends code. Doom is unleashed on the world, and seemingly that's where everything starts to fall apart. Romero takes it upon himself to become the public figure for id and devotes less time to the Quake, id's Next Big Thing - flaunting id for all it's worth and spending valuable development time in interviews informing us how to keep long hair straight ("I always flip my hair over in front of my fave and look at the floor while using a brush and hair dryer to slowly dry all my hair. Brushing downward while drying will help straighten your hair and completely drying it will make sure it doesn't kink up or curl up.") Romero gets booted from id shortly after Quake is released, he goes to form Ion Storm with some of SoftDisk's previous victim's of id's success and id goes onto bigger and better things. The rest is history.

Kushner weaves every tidbit, every minor subplot with the utmost care - his words are delicately balanced to showcase those involved rather than to jump to the next id software release. In one especially poignant moment described by Carmack he spent an entire rainy night working on a new Comandeer Keen while everyone else had gone home. When the team arrived the next day to do work, they found that a natural moat had formed around the house. The flooding didn't stop Romero. He plunged into the moat and opened up the door. Carmack looked up from his computer and saw Romero standing in front of the door, light streaming in from behind him, smiling like a madman and soaked from the shoulders down - bound and determinded to make it to work. Vivid and detailed stories like this are peppered throughout Masters of Doom, giving depth to the historic events and those involved with id. Even if you are intimately familiar with the history of id, there are more than a few sections that prove to enlighten - such as the inclusion of American McGee (who you probably know better as the 'mastermind' behind American McGee's Alice) - his interaction with Carmack and Romero is priceless. Also included is the bitter battle of words between Carmack and Romero after the Ion Storm hype machine started rolling, as well as internal tension at id between developing Quest, a multiplayer rpg or creating Doom III.

Ultimately, Masters of Doom is the best of both worlds - it's informative, shelling out behind-the-scenes details like pennies and it's vastly engrossing: the rise of two men's love of games that create a mega-successful company and practically tear it apart. Carmack and Romero feel completely fleshed out due to the emotive descriptions that Kushner provides - the result is a narrative spun by a man that has seemingly known his characters their entire lives. It is a throughly compelling read, even if you despise everything that id stands for, even if you aren't a gamer - in the end, it's a well told story about a handful of guys who just want to create games.

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