Doom Guy: Life in First Person Review

Doom Guy: Life in First Person by John Romero, Abrams Press, August 23rd, 2023

One of the better known books about video games is Masters of Doom by David Kushner which was published back in 2003 and which I read over a decade ago. I remember it being an enthralling read that told the story of id Software mostly through the personalities of John Carmack and John Romero; from their early days through to the early 2000s. A special appeal for me (and I’m sure most others), was that I had played many of the games they created including the Commander Keen games, Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM and Quake and so it was fascinating learning about the personalities and creation process behind these games. It also covered Romero’s more notorious and less successful work at Ion Storm which I wasn’t familiar with outside the mockery it received at places like Something Awful.com.

Romero seems to have generally approved of Masters of Doom but his memoir offers differing perspectives on a number of the events as well as delving more deeply into his early years and his life following the failure of Ion Storm through to today. 

I usually don’t write about anything outside of the content of books I review but I have to make some comments on the book itself. I purchased the hardcover edition and the dust jacket is frankly of poor quality and the front flap was even folded in half on the copy I received which has left an ugly crease. Normally dust jackets have a glossy finish but outside of the text on the front, the jacket has a rough feel. Books like this also often include related photographs in the center and this one doesn’t which is of course not mandatory, but a shame nonetheless. None of this is Romero’s fault but there is a general cheapness about this book and I would not recommend paying full price — even if you’re interested. The paperback may be a better option.

The first chapters of the book cover Romero’s early life and family. The first two chapters are remarkably similar and go over a lot of the same events and I’m surprised both the editor and Romero left it this way. After this, the narrative becomes more consistent but it was an odd start especially as he begins the second chapter with this:

I have hyperthymesia. Neuroscientists and researchers call this condition “highly superior autobiographical memory,” and pop-culture fans and journalists frequently apply the phrase “total recall”—taken from the movie adaptation of “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” a classic Phillip K. Dick story about implanted memories—to describe it.

 Given how much he subsequently repeats from Chapter 1 and his recollection of events further on, I have my doubts about this. I will give an example from Chapter 1 and from Chapter 2 to show I’m not exaggerating:

Chapter 1:

In addition to being Mexican American, I’m Yaqui on my father’s side and Cherokee on my mother’s side.

Chapter 2:

I’m a true American hybrid—part Mexican, part Yaqui and Cherokee, part European. My father, Al Romero, was a mestizo with Yaqui blood, from Tucson. He was a talented musician, a ladies’ man, a high school dropout, and a lover of fast cars. To my mom, Ginny, he was a real catch, and vice versa.

This repetition has further relevance because Romero seems to be very proud of his mixed heritage. He even throws his maternal grandfather (who he was named after), under the proverbial bus as a “racist” because he disapproved of his daughter marrying Romero’s father. Though described as a “real catch” above we quickly learn that his father was an abusive, alcoholic gambler, philanderer and criminal who abandoned John, his brother Ralph and his mother when both boys were young. There is even an anecdote of him driving John and Ralph and abandoning them in the desert to spite his wife. Some catch. Judging by Romero’s own words, his “racist” grandfather was right to have disapproved of the match and we further learn that despite all this, his grandfather was always good and loving to him (and presumably his brother), so this seems to be more than a little ungrateful.

After his mother was abandoned by John’s father, she was fortunate enough to meet a man who married her and took charge of both John and his younger brother. He was a disciplinarian but otherwise was good to his new wife and stepsons. We do get one negative anecdote of his stepfather smashing Romero’s head into an arcade machine for disobeying his order not to play them. But other than that, he seems to have been very good to the children who were not his own. He even gave Romero a significant early opportunity to learn coding by providing an Apple II+ computer and books about programming. Of course, his stepfather couldn’t see much good in computer games but that describes most men of his generation. Romero to his credit, does thank him at the end in the ‘Acknowledgements’ but as with his maternal grandfather, his own words sound rather ungracious in the early chapters.

I expected to mostly be focusing on the sections on id Software but these early sections were worth commenting on, especially since Romero seems to have taken after his father in a number of ways — and not just his looks. Romero himself left his first wife with two boys (though he did financially support them), and later a daughter too. He is currently on marriage number four with Brenda Romero, and has even adopted her children like his stepfather did for him. I wouldn’t normally want to bring up this dirty laundry but it isn’t irrelevant. As will soon become clear, Romero seems intent on sanitising much of his past.

Much of the time at Softdisk and id Software was told in Masters of Doom but Romero does offer some corrections to events that generally ring true. Something I do remember from Masters of Doom is being told that artist Adrian Carmack didn’t like their work on Commander Keen and was much more engaged when producing assets for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Also, that he was annoyed watching Romero and Tom Hall clowning around pretending to be green aliens and stuff like that. Romero seems to referring to reports like this in the following quote though I don’t recall one time that he directly refers to Masters of Doom

Before I leave the Softdisk era behind, I want to address a few things. A great deal has been written about this period—our time at Softdisk, John Carmack’s horizontal scrolling breakthrough, and the creation of Commander Keen. Most of it jibes with my version of events. I have, however, seem some reporting that overstates the group’s creative tensions and personality clashes. I realize this was a dramatic device that obviously added tension to our story, but at the outset, we were unified and in sync. Suggestions that John Carmack was reclusive and antisocial were not at all evident in the first few years. Yes, he had a superhuman work ethic and was brilliant, but he was a regular guy like me, and nobody spent more time with him than I did. As for tensions that existed among the rest of the team, I can’t speak for the inner feelings of everyone, but we were as high-functioning and collaborative and positive as it gets. It was a dream team of motivated, talented game developers. Once, I read a report that Adrian Carmack [no relation to John FYI] truly loather Tom Hall. He absolutely didn’t.

It is also a minor annoyance that he doesn’t include an index as it would have been helpful for quickly finding these parts of the book.

He later also responds to similar tensions between him and John Carmack during Quake‘s development which was the last project he worked on before leaving id Software:

Much has been written about our working relationship and our eventual breakup. It’s written as if we were fifty year-old Stanford MBAs who knew everything about business and not overworked, constantly crunching kids in our twenties with the whole world staring at us as we tried to do the best we could while creating a tech and a design that the world had never before seen. It’s written in polarizing terms, “animosity” being a favorite, with one of us pitted against the other because that just makes for a better story. The truth is that Carmack and I were friends, and we cared about each other, and we still do. We talked, we laughed, and like all friends, sometimes we quarreled and took shots at each other. We made great decisions, good decisions, and downright terrible partnership-ending decisions. As you read through all that happened, keep these things in mind. As Carmack stated in a 2022 episode of Lex Fridman’s podcast, this chapter of our lives certainly could have gone a different way if we’d been more mature and more experienced and not the twentysomethings we actually were, and I fully agree. 

Both of these exerts seem to be close enough to the truth and John Carmack has provided a positive recommendation on the back cover and they recently appeared on a stream to discuss Doom‘s development for the 30th Anniversary of its release late last year. It is also worth emphasising that though hardly “kids”, they were very young at the time and so lacking in the wisdom that comes with age. This is also what makes the story of id Software so fascinating as very young men becoming multimillionaires can really not be.

What was more interesting to me was what Romero would say about Ion Storm and he seems to have anticipated this by writing at the very start of this section:

First, I’d like to welcome those who turned directly to this chapter. It’s a wild-ride, most of it downhill. I’ve chronicled, to the best of my recollection, history as I lived it. As you read, you will likely note moments where I should have made a different decision or seen the writing on the wall, and you will not be wrong. I own the trainwreck that was Ion Storm. I learned a lot from it, and I certainly hope that in sharing and reflecting on the story of Ion Storm after nearly thirty years, you will, too. I offer some reflections at the end of its story. 

I can’t help but point out immediately that his hyperthymesia doesn’t seem to have helped much in this section. A name I was immediately looking out for was “Stevie Case” and I expect many will have similarly looked and largely in vain, because the name only appears once on page 323:

On August 1, 2001, the day after things with Ion Storm wrapped up, Tom and I founded Monkeystone Games along with Stevie Case, a level designer from Ion Storm.

In the ‘Epilogue’ he does state:

In writing this book, I put everything I could think of into it, except where it was necessary out of respect or request to leave some details or individuals out. I purposely focused on the positive and did not dwell too much on the negative, except to explain the facts about a situation with the hope that people might learn from my challenges and see that anything can be overcome.

I assume that this is his explanation for baffled readers like me. The relationship between John Romero and Stevie Case certainly has a salacious element that I can well understand both would want to avoid remembering but their relationship is very relevant to the events under discussion. His avoidance of his relationship with Case shows that rather than wanting to just focus on the positive, Romero wants to re-write his history in a way that he would like to remember. A good example of this is his “recollection” of how the infamous advertisement for Daikatana came to be:

“Mike [Wilson] was thrilled at the advertisement [Sasha Shor] created. I suspect readers already know what the advertisement was.

John Romero’s About to Make You His B**ch.
Suck It Down

Mike brought the ad to me. It was evident that he was hyped by what he saw. I looked at the ad, blinked, and leaned back in my chair. I laughed, a weird uncomfortable laugh. 

“I mean, that’s not something I would say, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“You say all kinds of sh*t when you’re deathmatching!” he replied.

“But I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think people reading the ad will think it’s cool or funny. It’s insulting and makes me sound like an a**hole. I wouldn’t say that.”

“Don’t be a pussy,” Mike said.

“It’s my name on the ad.”

I scrolled back through Mike’s advertising campaigns in my head. He though outside the proverbial box, and I had to admit that his efforts got results. 

“I wouldn’t say something like that,” I repeated. 

The look on Mike’s face said only one thing: It’s f**king awesome.

I begrudgingly agreed. “Okay, marketing is your job, so I guess I’ll let you do it.”

Mike left the office, ecstatic.

I do not believe this in the slightest. The trash talk that became synonymous with early online gaming wasn’t invented by Romero but at the very best, he did nothing to discourage it. That it is now associated with “toxic gaming culture” by today’s scolds is a more recent issue for Romero. John Romero may consider himself a different man today but today’s Romero isn’t the Romero of twenty five years ago.

This isn’t just my observation as Romero seems to have decided on this new interpretation of events as far back as 2008 and this was disputed directly by Mike Wilson who was “quoted” above:

While I am not at all interested in reliving those days, I will also not allow you to rewrite the history of it all, more to your liking and to my public detriment, and I will in no way take the rap for what you did (or didn’t do)with your dream company. So here are just a few reminders to jog your memory.

While my job title (which you gave me) was CEO of your company, I was one of two “junior partners” in a partnership of 6. I made about 1/3 of what the ‘big boy partners’ (as you liked to call yourselves back then) did and owned less than five percent of your company. I wasn’t awarded a 250k signing bonus like you were for signing up to your own startup and I didn’t have a personal assistant like you, nor occupy one of the 4 corners of power in the original Ion Storm building. And unlike you, I didn’t get to file a federal trademark for my own personal catch phrase,” Suck it Down.” I remind you of these things only to remind you that there was absolutely nothing done by me or Ion Storm, including the advertisements which bore your name and which you happily posed for, that didn’t require your full approval and grand signature.

And while I did think that famous B**ch ad was pretty funny, I’ll remind you that you signed that one too, and I’m fairly certain I wasn’t holding your hand or using a Jedi mind trick on you when you did it. I’ll also remind you that the whole reason for running the teaser ad was that we felt we should be starting to advertise the game since it you said was shipping so soon, for Christmas in 1997. Even though we had nothing but a logo and that signature promise to use for an ad 6 months before you promised Eidos and your partners that Daikatana would be ready to redefine shooters on shelves worldwide.

The only time I’d previously mentioned Romero and Ion Storm on this blog was for my review of Daikatana which I never played at the time but described as a “fascinating failure.” In that review I expressed some sympathy for Stevie Case who was quite young and seems to have been ill used. I referred to and linked to what was then a fairly recent interview with her; where she barely mentioned Romero. I didn’t know until I came to review this book, that just a few months after I posted that review there was an article about her in Vanity Fair by David Kushner (the author of Masters of Doom). She was interviewed for this article and there are nine instances where Romero had denied her record of events through a “spokesperson”. There is also an unintentionally hilarious correction at the end:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Brenda Romero as John Romero’s third wife. She is his fourth wife.

That Case was happy to bring this all up publicly just a year before suggests it was Romero’s decision (and not her request), to leave it all out of his memoir. Romero almost casually mentions most of his multiple failed marriages elsewhere in the book which makes excluding what was certainly his most public relationship all the more noticeable. It also casts a shadow over so many events in the book and on reflection, Masters of Doom given Kushner goes right along with the manifestly false “official” narrative of 2014’s GamerGate in the linked article.

So I don’t consider Case (or Kushner really), to be any more reliable than Romero but both he and Case share a desire to remember this well-documented time in a way that either makes them a victim or simply caught up in events out of their control. This is not where I expected this review to go but it is sad reflection of the world that all these personalities now want to put themselves in a positive light by the ever-changing and fractious standards of “progressive” morality today. Romero may now want to keep getting invited to speak at industry events and include his pronouns in his Twitter bio but he was once more than happy to be seen as the trash-talking gaming rock star he most certainly was. Similarly, Case while now a “successful” single-mother and feminist, did still agree to breast augmentation, a Playboy shoot and was ready enough to make use of these assets elsewhere. Everybody makes mistakes but it is absurd to try to re-write what is already well-known and easily contradicted by news articles, magazine covers, emails and plenty of still living people who remember it. And I note that the people Romero would now rather endear himself to today aren’t buying it either. I wonder how much more and who else Romero would like to forget? Would he pretend he never knew or even did an interview with Vox Day given how unmentionably evil he is considered by these same people? It would be interesting to find out.

The last section of the book following the demise of Ion Storm is interesting if only because this is where Masters of Doom ended. I do remember reading about the aftermath of this just a few years later when Romero had started the short-lived Monkeystone games with Tom Hall and Stevie Case mentioned above. This was still very early in mobile gaming. Although nothing that followed Ion Storm has been as high-profile, he continued to work as a developer and consultant on various projects. He also makes no mention of his third wife after his relationship with Case but before he married his current wife Brenda. I have to imagine that the fourth’s head was hovering above his shoulder at a number of sections of his draft.

The more recent events I was aware of which includes making new levels for the original Doom engine and his recent announcement of an FPS being developed by his company Romero Games. I was unaware that he had a cancelled Kickstarter back in 2016 for a new FPS prior this. I either missed it completely or just didn’t pay much attention as so many legendary developers were doing this at the time and unfortunately not with great results. Richard Garriott and Peter Molyneux had the two more notorious Kickstarters. Romero even cheekily subtitled it “A New FPS from Romero and Carmack” without specifying which Carmack. Nonetheless the wounds left by Ion Storm were still fresh enough just eight years ago that it was never going to receive the funding it needed to succeed.

Despite some very creative interpretations of his past as well as a number of obvious and shameless omissions, I would still give this (and Masters of Doom which I’ve so often mentioned here), a cautious recommendation if you’re interested in the history of PC gaming, id Software and how gaming came to be where it is today. As long as you ignore some of the exaggerated drama on Kushner’s part and the attempt to remove or re-contextualise much of it on Romero’s, you can get a decent account between both of what happened and both books are certainly engaging reads.

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