Were John Carmack and John Romero the Lennon and McCartney of PC gaming? Spin magazine contributing editor Kushner answers yes in his detailed re-creation of the genre’s transition from basement to big time.
Creators of the notorious games Doom and Quake, “the Two Johns” achieved fortune by transforming a previously marginalized subculture. During their archetypically 1980s dysfunctional adolescence, computer games were considered a fad for seedy arcades, yet the duo simultaneously discovered a hacker underground exploding in fanzines and university labs. When volatile game addict Romero met coolly monastic programmer Carmack at a low-end Louisiana software startup, he saw the potential in his new friend’s ideas, specifically when Carmack divined how to duplicate Nintendo’s “scroll” on then-limited PCs. As in any scruffy underdog tale, readers will initially root for the Two Johns, although their tendency to betray backers and associates is an unsettling portent. By 1992, their team of unorthodox programmers had settled in Texas, and their company, id Software, rapidly established itself with violent “first-person shooters” like Wolfenstein 3-D. Then Doom became a full-fledged phenomenon, creating a blustering “deathmatch” culture. Predictably, id’s outsized success fractured the company into two entities, as Romero focused on pure design and a rock-star lifestyle while Carmack assigned importance to innovative programming. Kushner bolsters this narrative with a resume of rapid technological transformations over the past ten years, explaining why “porting” the games for different hardware became increasingly lucrative as shareware-style distribution became less so. He writes perceptively about these twists of commerce and technology, yet the book becomes rather repetitive in its portraits of all-night hacks, deathmatch sessions, frenzied game releases, and programmers’ increasingly petty conflicts. (Perhaps inadvertently, the author suggests a pathetic insularity as characteristic of many in the gaming world, who seemingly forsake community involvement and political awareness for their beloved PCs.) Many may well skim the final third in pursuit of the dirt on the Two Johns’ eventual falling-out.
Laudable coverage of an undeniably important, unsettling cultural transition.