Carmack and Romero are a real-life dynamic dup who created the blockbuster computer games Wolfenstien 3D, Quake, and Doom, and the anti-heroes of “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture,“ a compulsively readable biography of the pair written by journalist David Kushner.
Kushner was a natural for the project. As a recognized authority on computer games who has covered them for scores of publications from Wired to Salon, as well as the digital music columnist for Rolling Stone online, hes a true aficionado whose passion for technology is nicely balanced with a clear empathy for his subjects.
Some have hailed the eccentric “Two Johns“ as the Lennon and McCartney of video games, and Kushner builds a compelling case for such a bold comparison. The two were geeky whiz kids who took what was once a hobby of marginal interest and built it into a veritable art form. Along the way, they evoked the ire of countless parents and the U.S. Senate with the violence and controversy of their games, were courted by the likes of Bill Gates, and grew so big, so fast that their Cinderella story was destined to become a nightmare or a soap opera.
In this case, it was a little of both, and the games the pair lived for became anything but. Carmack describes their wild ride together as one where “You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on and the dedication to go through it. We slept on floors, we waded through rivers.“ That sort of observation almost sounds romantic, but the reality of Carmack and Romeros saga is that is a dark one, in many regards.
But before they revolutionized the video gaming world, there were humble beginnings. In the first chapter, “The Rock Star,“ Kushner lets us into the world of young Romero, setting the stage by looking at a backdrop that was of equal parts of teenage angst, budding genius, and broken home:
“Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again. A scrawny kid with thick glasses, he pedaled past the modest homes of Rocklin, California, to the Roundtable Pizza Parlor. He knew he wasn‘t supposed to be going there this summer afternoon in 1979, but he couldn‘t help himself. That was where the games were.
Specifically, what was there was Asteroids, or, as Romero put it, “the coolest game planet Earth has ever seen!“ There was nothing else like the feeling he got tapping the control buttons as the rocks hurled toward his triangular ship and the Jaws-style theme music blipped in suspense, dum dum dum dum dum dum; Romero mimicked these video game sounds the way other kids did celebrities. Fun like this was worth risking everything: the crush of the meteors, the theft of the paper route money, the wrath of his stepfather. Because no matter what Romero suffered, he could always escape back into the games.
At the moment, what he expected to suffer was a legendary whipping. His stepfather, John Schuneman -- a former drill sergeant -- had commanded Romero to steer clear of arcades. Arcades bred games. Games bred delinquents. Delinquency bred failure in school and in life. As his stepfather was fond of reminding him, his mother had enough problems trying to provide for Romero and his younger brother, Ralph, since her first husband left the family five years earlier. His stepfather was under stress of his own with a top-secret government job retrieving black boxes of classified information from downed U.S. spy planes across the world. “Hey, little man,“ he had said just a few days before, “consider yourself warned.“
Romero did heed the warning -- sort of. He usually played games at Timothy‘s, a little pizza joint in town; this time he and his friends headed into a less traveled spot, the Roundtable. He still had his initials, AJR for his full name, Alfonso John Romero, next to the high score here, just like he did on all the Asteroids machines in town. He didn‘t have only the number-one score, he owned the entire top ten. “Watch this,“ Romero told his friends, as he slipped in the quarter and started to play.
The action didn‘t last long. As he was about to complete a round, he felt a heavy palm grip his shoulder. “What the [expletive], dude?“ he said, assuming one of his friends was trying to spoil his game. Then his face smashed into the machines.
Romero‘s stepfather dragged him past his friends to his pickup truck, throwing the dirt bike in the back. Romero had done a poor job of hiding his bike, and his stepfather had seen it while driving home from work. “You really screwed up this time, little man,“ his stepfather said. He led Romero into the house, where Romero‘s mother and his visiting grandmother stood in the kitchen. “Johnny was at the arcade again,“ his stepfather said. “You know what that‘s like? That‘s like telling your mother ‘[expletive] you.‘ “
He beat Romero until the boy had a fat lip and a black eye. Romero was grounded for two weeks. The next day he snuck back to the arcade.“
Not too many years later, Romero and Carmack would meet at a small tech company in Louisiana in the mid-1980s and recognizing a kindred soul in the other, went on to form their own company, id. Their approach to computer games was innovative in every sense of the world, especially technologically and financially. The obsessive late nights scarfing pizza and quaffing Diet Coke became the incubator for these two game geniuses to channel their imagination and alienation into a wildly successful franchise. They opened up the world of computer games, and in the process, nearly opened up each other.
Kushners expertise on the topic is a great aid in the reader understanding the obsession with computer games that can overtake both creators and players, and its hard not to be dazzled by the way he makes it seem accessible and understandable. If youve ever played one of the Two Johns masterpieces, you wont want to pass this riveting bio by, but the appeal of this book is much more far-reaching than that, making it a highly recommended read.