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Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!

This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.
Of course, that doesn’t imply that I never experienced the phenomenon created by these games. For someone growing up through the 90s, it was in fact inescapable. Also, being a keen reader of all things technology meant that the fascinating story of the two, seemingly polar-opposite Johns was always around the corner. Hence, my approach to the book was more from a literary and biographical perspective rather than a nostalgic one.

Nothing escapes Wikipedia these days, more so when it involves high profile personalities like Carmack and Romero. With the back story already in place, the devil had to be in the details for the book to create some value. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t add much in the form of insights and fails to create an “aha” moment. The book paraphrases conversations to keep the story going and it seems incredulous that the author has even been able to capture the gist of most of the interactions considering that the sources themselves might be unreliable narrators several years later. Nonetheless, it is a coherent, chronological progression through the Greek tragedy that was 20th century id.

What it does well is bring out the personalities of those involved in the saga. Not for the first time, we encounter a story involving two diametrically opposite personalities who are united by a common passion for technology. John Carmack as the wiz-kid was the sole indispensable member of id and couldn’t be antagonised at any cost. At the same time his lack of empathy created an impalpable tension with others. John Romero as the fun designer inarguably kept the team spirit going but was fallible to attention and fame. Besides these contrasting characters, we encounter a plethora of “supporting cast” who contribute to the story in their own right.

The book also covers the Columbine massacre but is unable to cover it from a balanced perspective and instead feels the need to defend the case for Doom and the gaming industry at large. It is quite evident that the author is not immune to hero-worship and hence tries his best to highlight the highs rather than delve on the lows of his heroes. On that account, this book isn’t at the level of what Walter Isaacson managed to accomplish with Steve Jobs. Similarly, the writing is pretty straight-forward, like an extended magazine article and hence makes the book a bit onerous rather than engaging to read. All things considered, it is worth a read if you have any interest in id or the two Johns, but I wouldn’t recommend it to be included in anyone’s immediate reading list.

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