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“Masters of Doom” Book Review

There are not very many serious journalistic books about video games, so whatever few ones I can find automatically grab my interest. I found Masters of Doom by David Kushner at my local library a while back and checked it out right away. Nowadays it takes a lot for me to fully read a book in my free time that isn’t required for school, but just as the book’s subject was delightfully unusual, so was my experience reading it.

Masters of Doom may appear at first glance to be a book solely about id Software, the video game developer famous for Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein, among a few other franchises. However, once one delves deeper into its pages, it becomes apparent that this is more about, as the author likes to put it, “the two Johns”. That is, John Carmack and John Romero – the two infamous industry legends who were a huge part of founding id in the first place, and taking it to incredible heights. David Kushner treats his readers with some insight into the troubled backgrounds of the two men, giving, as he does with most of the rest of the book, enough of an unbiased look at the facts to let the reader draw their own conclusions. For example, was the fact that John Romero was beaten by his father as a child a contributing factor as to why Wolfenstein 3D became such a violent game? It’s up to you, and you become more deeply engrossed in the book as you think more and more into it.

I would love to see more books go as in depth into the history of a single video game company as this one, but I think I can tell why this sub-genre is so rare: I doubt there are very many, if any, other game companies with a history as twisting and interesting as id’s. In the beginning, the company is the dream come true for a few creative, talented guys fresh off of rudely quitting their last job together at another software company. Each member of the team is given a background story and described enough so that you get to know who they are and what they’re like. They all have their own weaknesses, but their varying strengths allow them to all work together so well. My favorite part of the book was during the time when id saw nothing but success – the small handful of employees were happy, and their games were quickly going from total obscurity to worldwide fame. This all culminates in Doom, the epitome of what (nearly) everyone in the company wanted to make in a game. For John Carmack, the technical genius who could spend weeks at a time alone working on coding, it provids a chance to make a ground-breaking graphics engine and a revolutionary “deathmatch” mode. John Romero, the fun-loving designer with as much of a passion for making games as playing them, is able to dive wholeheartedly into the design aspect, as the game is the sort of thing he had always wanted to play – full of intense action and non-stop fun. The game ends up being more successful than they ever imagined it would be, and everything looks good for id Software.

Everything doesn’t stay like that for long, however. The inspiring success story of id quickly becomes for its members a nightmare of unending dissention and bitter rivalry. Carmack and Romero become increasingly distant, yet they still continue to get universal acclaim by critics and fans alike for their games. It’s interesting to see how their genius was still at work even when they didn’t want to work with each other at all.

Eventually they don’t work with each other – Romero leaves id to start Ion Storm, the short-lived company that has since gone down in infamy in gaming history. It is at this point in the book that the focus of the story can be clearly seen as on the two Johns, not just id. The complete history of Ion Storm is chronicled in Masters of Doom, and one can see how that company begins much like id began, with a group of passionate and ambitious people working together on a dream project. Or so it seems… the dream is mainly only Romero’s, and the ridiculously huge group he hires to help him create Daikatana, his new big game, has more issues than even id. Once again, the author provides an unbiased look at the happenings inside the company, leaving the reader to decide where everything went wrong with Daikatana.

Carmack and Romero may be real people, but they make for some compelling characters in the span of this book. Even after I had finished it, I pondered their personalities, strengths, and weakness. I’ll admit that to get the full enjoyment out of Masters of Doom, it helps to know a little bit about the Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake games, but I think anyone interested in a good story about the rise and semi-fall of a company comprised of highly unique and talented people can have a good time reading this.

Pros: Very in-depth, well-done portraits of the main characters

Cons: A little bit of background knowledge is probably needed to enjoy it the most; as more people are introduced towards the end of the story they can become hard to identify

Final Score: 9 out of 10

By Josh60502

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