"It's just a positive energy book," says John Romero of his recent autobiography Doom Guy: Life in First Person. If John Romero had written his autobiography in the nineties, it would not have been a positive energy book. Every copy would be in the landfill with the E.T. cartridges, and Romero would’ve been holding the shovel.
Today, Romero stands up for trans rights and indigenous representation, but in the nineties, Romero put swastikas in Commander Keen and Doom. When asked in an interview what it was like to have sex with his girlfriend, who was also his colleague, he gave a full reply—by email, which somehow makes it worse. What he said, and that he said it, his team says, “does not represent John Romero’s views or attitudes in 2022.”
Romero, and the world, are better for it. It’s good that he spent the nineties designing levels for games instead of writing books. He also had around a decade to practice and perfect his thing at id Software, the studio he co-founded, and be celebrated for it. The studio’s most famous products were Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, but you can add Romero himself to that list.
If he was not video games’ first level designer, he was the first great one. He made games he wanted to play, and so he saw his levels as a player would. He would play them and revise them over and over, as a sculptor chips at marble, until all that remained was fast and furious fun. He could be a ruthless, clear-eyed editor. Stealth and subterfuge slowed down Wolfenstein 3D, so they were cut from the final game. When creative director Tom Hall struggled to align with the vision of Doom, he was cut. It was unsentimental, but correct. Doom only feels like Doom when played at high speeds, where you’re charging across lava while mowing down zombies with a chaingun and trading rockets with a demon, learning the rules while in awe of the spectacle.
A Romero level must be, in the first place: an intricate and intentional 3D labyrinth packed with contrast and spectacle, spatially coherent and intuitively navigable, that teaches the player while trying to kill them, with a roller-coaster core path plotted through it. That same level must not break, but get better, when all the enemies are removed and the space is made an empty battlefield for a free-for-all multiplayer deathmatch. Because this is where the stories happen.
“When you make a space that people are going to play through, every player’s run-through is a different story,” he’s said. “How many stories took place in Doom’s [first level] over the past 25 plus years? Whether it's deathmatch or single-player, or anybody’s unique way of going through there, these 3D spaces let millions of people create their own stories in them for decades.”
Few game designers ever reach, or are comfortable with, Romero’s level of fame, and fewer still get book deals for their memoirs. Romero has been the subject of biography before. The journalist David Kushner’s accessible, appealing history of id Software, Masters of Doom, functioned as a joint biography of Romero and his id co-founder, programmer John Carmack. In Kushner’s telling, Carmack was order and Romero chaos, a trash-talking, highly bankable young gamer whose games were a fixture of computer labs, frat houses, and congressional hearings on gun violence, who found the culture in want of a video game rock star and grew to fill the vacuum. “You could see it happening over the course of time,” Jay Wilbur, id’s first CEO, told the Dallas Morning News in 1997. “It was a look he cultivated, the long hair, the duster coat, the fast cars. The next thing you know, we had a guy who looked like ZZ Top walking around the office.”
Romero today dismisses the “rock star” thing, but at one point he did peacock around a Doom tournament in a T-shirt with the game’s logo on the front and the words “WROTE IT” on the back. He then told the Austin American-Statesman he was there “so we can beat everybody.” Kushner recalled his fans bowing and chanting at his feet: “We’re not worthy. We’re not worthy.”
“Here were all these people,” wrote Kushner, “who loved games as much as he did.” But here was the gamer so good he made the games the gamers loved.
A sticking point with Romero’s colleagues was that he spent too much time playing games — but if he had not, he would not have been, as he was known online, “The Romero.” “He is the most intense gamer you’ll ever know. It’s a sport for him. He builds muscles playing games,” Wilbur said.
Romero is the rare game developer whose fame rested in large part on his talent as a player. “Furious feuding surrounds the title of in-house Quake champion,” reported Wired in 1996. “Romero’s reputation as an unmatched Doom champ… is an essential part of the id legend. Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski recalls seeing Romero as his “enemy” whom he nonetheless studied, as George C. Scott’s idealized Patton did Rommel, to defeat. “I had nothing and I wanted it,” he remembers feeling. “You had everything and you flaunted it.”
Rarer still is that he was a game developer who thrived on calling his fans motherfuckers. “The trash-talk is foul and funny, witty and misogynist, [sic] homophobic and democratic, and unremittingly non-personal,” recalled Romero’s childhood friend Christian Divine, who went on to write at Romero’s post-id studio Ion Storm. “I can understand being horrified by the scene,” Divine remembers. “However, when somebody shouts out ‘Suck it down, cocksucker. Your ass is mine!’ right before they splatter your player into bloody gibs, it's really little more than the geek equivalent of athletic taunting. Part of the gamer's code is to not take this personally.”
When Romero split, not amicably, from id Software and Carmack, he took these fans and made them colleagues. “I, we — all of us — loved Romero,” Sverre Kvernmo, a Romero fan turned Ion Storm level designer, told Wired in 1998. That Wired reporter found Kvernmo and Romero at the office, engaged in deathmatch, with the loser to “drink rotten milk out of a jug that’s been sitting there for months.”
At Ion Storm, Romero dreamed beyond his gifts. The studio was an unfocused and expensive fiasco. Daikatana was supposed to be the greatest John Romero deathmatch shooter ever made and with “an epic storyline with time travel, fleshed-out characters, and many twists and turns” — all things he once had the presence of mind to know did not help him. Romero’s success as a first-person-shooter designer was to think ahead of the curve, to push the genre into faster, bloodier currents. At Ion Storm, he became just another game developer who had no idea how to tell a story.
With Daikatana and Ion Storm, the inveterate gamer lost, and they lost hard. The fall from grace bodied his career and goodwill for a generation. The gamers he had risen up to soldiers now devoured him like the pack of hyenas did to The Lion King’s Scar. Romero had it until he didn’t; he won until he lost.
This is the Romero story, per Kushner. It’s a tidy Greek (geek) tragedy with a beginning, middle, end, and moral. In a sense, it’s all anybody needs to know about John Romero. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, we look for meaning in the mire of John Romero’s career. Now Romero has written an autobiography to say not to do that. Doom Guy is a corrective to the narrative of Masters of Doom — at points, explicitly so. It’s also a corrective to storytelling and editing. John Romero is not a story, he is a person; Icarus was more than the sun, and Romero is more than just an idol who fell from grace.
The Life of a Child's Dreams
Alfonso John Romero was born in Colorado Springs in 1967, to Alfonso and Ginny. “They had problems,” writes Romero. “Or perhaps I should say my father had many problems and my mother had one big one: my father.” A violent, unfaithful alcoholic, Alfonso once drove his sons, aged six and four, into the Arizona desert and left them there, as a spiteful barb to their mother, who’d pleaded for some help getting the kids out of her hair. Years later, Romero’s mother was aghast to learn that he remembered this.
“Oh my god,” she said. Tears started to well in her eyes. “You remember that, Johnny?”
I had never discussed it with her. In my family, when something bad happened and was over, you didn’t bring it up again.
“I do,” I said.
She was crying, which, of course, made me tear up, too.
“Tell me you’re okay? Did it affect you?”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m okay. It didn’t affect me.”
Ginny’s second husband was John Schuneman, a consultant for the Air Force who once smashed an 11-year-old Romero’s face into the screen of an Asteroids machine. “He told me he knew karate, told me he’d kick me into tomorrow and other general threats whenever I wasn’t behaving as he expected me to,” Romero writes. “This was his major tool, and it worked…. I did my chores as soon as I was asked or needed to because I didn’t want to find out what would happen if I didn’t.” Later, Romero reflects that he survived both his father and Schuneman “by trying to avoid creating friction with others and steering clear of disagreements that didn’t involve me. That was one of my survival strategies."
Romero found escape in the action of arcades, where he discovered the potential of video games and the importance of being very good at them. “Space Invaders was the first game to save high scores and let players put their initials next to them.... What kid didn’t want bragging rights when they had skills at a kickass game?” he writes. “I competed with myself plus everyone else who’d ever played the machine before me for the high score. It taught me the value of mastery—the better I was, the longer that quarter lasted.”
But an 11-year-old with a paper route only has so many quarters to spend, so you can appreciate the significance of the moment when he finds out there’s a place where he can make games for free:
“John, you’ve got to see this!” Ralph said.
“A place where there are video games, and it doesn’t cost any money. You can play for free.”
I looked at Rob. We were the same age, although he was a grade behind me at school.
“It’s true.” He nodded.
“For free,” Ralph said again.
Romero has had the life of a child’s dreams. He went to school for programming — the place with games that didn’t cost any money — and got so good on the computer that the Air Force enlisted him for a special mission. Love, marriage and children came in the manner a child might expect adulthood to provide them: promptly and automatically. Like his father, Romero married young and fathered two boys by the time he was 21.
He first got a job making games for Softdisk, a software magazine, where he met kindred spirits: John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation — poor Adrian, it will say “no relation” on his tombstone), and Tom Hall. They were hot shit, individually and collectively, and they started their own company making the coolest, fastest games ever seen on a computer. Romero’s wife and children did not slow him down because they lived in another state. Romero was with the rest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a lake house, playing D&D, and eating microwave pizza. Per Kushner’s Masters of Doom, it was a place where they could get into “‘crunch mode” or ‘the death schedule’ — a masochistically pleasurable stretch of programming work involving sleep deprivation, caffeine gorging, and loud music.”
Later, flush with cash, id Software moved to a Dallas apartment complex with a pool. Romero called that period “the best summer of his life.” He was a millionaire, with a Ferrari, a red Testarossa with “stealth radar and laser detectors.” And success, he says, never changed him.
However, Kushner found the faultlines in the adolescent fantasy. In Masters of Doom, he wrote that John Carmack was cold and antisocial; Adrian was irritated by Hall’s exuberance; and Romero talked trash about his boss at Softdisk. Romero’s version of history, which otherwise closely parallels Kushner’s, makes a point to deny all of this, even the suggestion of tension. In reality, Romero says, he never disparaged his boss (“Why would I dislike the guy who gave me a chance to learn the PC?”), Adrian did not “loathe” Hall, and John was not “reclusive and anti-social”, which Romero knows better than anyone, because he was with him from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. in the office, every day, working. In response to a Masters of Doom anecdote where the boys are mildly drunk at a New Year’s Eve party, Romero clarifies “none of us smoked, drank regularly, or did drugs…. We got high on games and programming. That was it.”
If you really want to hear about it, the truth is these were nice boys making cool games, and nothing ever got out of hand. After all, it’s a positive energy book.
Tighten Up the Narrative on Act II
Despite their high-profile split, Romero takes pains to assure the reader that he has a good relationship with Carmack. When Romero recounts having to fire people at id or Ion Storm, he is quick to highlight the industry success they have since enjoyed, and in some cases, he gives no reason for their firing. Romero extends this grace, generosity, and protection not just to all former colleagues, but his abusive father (“Most of the time, my father was fun—blasting music, singing, working on cars, laughing, cooking. We camped and explored in the desert. My love for our traditional food and my sense of humor come from him”) and stepfather (“He took us in, took care of us, gave me lectures that I hated but that also somehow sunk in, and ultimately recognized and enabled a talent he knew I had”).
In an interview with Romero, journalist Dean Takahashi repeatedly expresses surprise at the book’s terse, emotionless recall of certain major events, like with Romero’s part in firing Hall, his “life mate and closest friend” from id Software, or his own ousting from the studio years later. “There wasn’t as much emotion as I thought there would be,” says Takahashi. Romero brushes off the note: “Those things,” he says, “happened pretty quickly.” Moreover, he says, if he had “ten more sentences around Tom'' that would have meant cutting the same number of sentences elsewhere.
If you have not read the book, you cannot begin to imagine how Romero spends his sentences. Here he is on the process of adding the “II” to the Doom II logo:
Keeping Don Punchatz’s original DOOM logo was a given. We couldn’t imagine changing it. However, we needed to add a “II” underneath. Kevin had an idea to make a nicely lit, high-resolution piece of art using a tool that was starting to make some waves in the game industry. Over at Cygnus Studios, Steve Maines was learning this program, 3D Studio R4, the predecessor of 3D Studio Max. After talking with Kevin, Steve used it to create the “II” with detailed texturing and lighting. It looked great, so Kevin incorporated it into the box art.
A reconstructed conversation between Romero and Carmack about the details of the Quake engine runs seven pages. It’s interesting for game historians, but it is longer than — combined — the accounts of Hall’s firing, Romero’s firing, Romero and Carmack trading shots in the press, the “Bitch” ad, and the bitter ousters of Ion Storm CEO Mike Wilson and COO Bob Wright after years of internecine warfare and perceived corporate sabotage.
Romero fancies the book as, beyond just a memoir, a history of id Software, the “definitive”, “authoritative” account. Unlike Kushner, Romero was there and is blessed/cursed with a rare memory condition by which he can recall the size of the monitor Adrian used in 1991. But while “positive vibes only” might make a pleasant creed for living — Romero, in the book and today, evinces a happy, healthy humility in well-adjusted, well-off middle age — it is clearly inadequate as an approach to history. The story of John Romero, by John Romero, is about dramatic things happening to a person who is not affected by them.
“In general, I don’t know that I dwell on difficult things,” Romero told Takahashi. “I can’t. I have to accept it and move on. That’s maybe where you don’t see me having a lot of emotional response.”
At Softdisk then id Software, Romero made his bones while living apart from his children. In his book, he acknowledges this reality but none of the pain, or that pain might be expected to exist. “It had been a great year but a tough year — one that had cost him his wife and kids,” wrote Kushner. “Faced with the choice, he’d chosen the game life over the family life… he was living with a new family now: the gamers.”
In his book, Romero does not elaborate on this except to underline what a great year it was. He also doesn’t recognize the clear benefit of this choice to his career. It’s all very well to advise game industry hopefuls to “[s]eek out game development communities online or join a local game jam,” as Romero does, but it is disingenuous not to acknowledge that an inextricable part of his success was choosing to live across the country from his sons so he could spend all day and all night making and playing games with John Carmack. Romero’s father left his children for personal demons; Romero did the same for virtual ones.
At Softdisk, Romero dated an employee named Beth McCall. “Since she knew how committed I was to my job and to my growth as a game creator,” Romero writes, “I wasn’t worried that it would become an issue and kept on with our development schedule.” It? What is “it”? Love? Romero and McCall married, but the relationship fizzled: “She had no interest in games, and so was always doing her own thing.”
“John is really closed, and he doesn't like to talk about things that aren't going well," another former partner, Stevie Case, said in 2000, an observation no less true now.
Case, a developer at Ion Storm, dated Romero from 1998 to 2003. She is this book’s phantom limb. One will learn more about Romero from her story and her absence from his book than any conversation with John Carmack.
In 1997, Case, 20, was a Quake fan who drove from Kansas to Texas to face Romero in deathmatch. “I know a girl who can kick your ass,” a mutual friend had told Romero. He replied: “No way. Never happen.” Case lost, but afterwards, Romero’s website updated with the following: “I didn’t know that [Case] was a female, and she wanted to trash me in a Deathmatch in front of everybody. Presumably so she could blather all over the Internet (much like myself) that she destroyed Romero. Can’t let a little girl get away with that…. Don’t ever let a little girl beat you in Deathmatch. Deathmatch is a man’s game and women will never fully understand it. Not with a million rockets up their *&@#’s.”
Romero has denied posting this himself, but it doesn’t really matter. Romero, said his spokesperson “used language at that time during matches that he would not find acceptable today. He is apologetic if he said anything in ‘trash talk’ that upset anyone.” (Not to be taken personally.)
Romero offered a rematch, which Case won. Case’s friend recalls Romero beating his keyboard to bits with a hammer; Romero says that never happened.
“How did you feel about being beaten at your own game by a woman?” Case asked him in a 1998 interview. “I knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” he replied. “One day, I would miss lunch or something, my energy supply would be super-low and someone would take advantage of that and beat me in Quake. Hahahaha, just kidding. You beat me fair and square and it was really fun to see a woman smack the living s**t outta me in my own game.”
In this community, a girl who was good at games was a woman king. “The whole Quake scene is dying for women,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. “There are a lot of eligible bachelors out there. It's amazing, there's all these games designers and players out there and so few women. It's sometimes hard for them to meet girls as they dedicate their whole lives to it. So the girls in the Quake community are treated really well. They're very nice to us.” That Romero would hire Case to Ion Storm and then, one day, ask her out to dinner now feels sickly inevitable.
It felt like a victory to Case at the time, although that wasn’t for long. Romero, she says, had firm expectations for her appearances — she had “to be the most womanly woman.” And for her efforts to please him she was ruthlessly sexualized and abused by his fans, the enthusiast press, and industry colleagues.
In 2003, the couple broke up. Romero accosted Case with chat transcripts suggesting she had been unfaithful with a producer at the company THQ. “He woke up, read it, went INSANE, called everyone at Monkeystone, FIRED ME,” she wrote to a friend at the time. “John has turned exceptionally scary. ‘I love you, but because I cant have you I am going to FUCK YOU UP!’ Crazy shit out of a movie!”
Romero denies saying this or uploading a “shrine” to Case after her Quake victory, even though it was a known condition of their competition that the loser did so, and he has acknowledged doing so before. But he does not deny sending those transcripts to the THQ producer’s boss. Indeed, he maintains that this was the responsible thing to do.
There is more in Romero’s book about the Page Up key than Stevie Case. John doesn’t like to talk about things that aren’t going well.
Stand Still So I Can Shoot You
Todd Porter, a co-founder of Ion Storm, called Romero “too nonconfrontational,” and Romero cops to it. Porter himself was a problem Romero failed to confront. He was unpopular both with labor and leadership (Romero called him a “military-style leader, referring to people on his team as units, soldiers, or troops, and ordering them around accordingly…. lots of minor clashes and differences of opinion over leadership styles and management boundaries”) Porter generated multiple complaints around “patterns of unacceptable behaviour and choice phrases.”
“I don’t remember whether it was John first or Tom, but they were both absolutely ready to fire [Porter],” recalled then-CEO Mike Wilson. “And on the way [to the meeting to fire him], John says ‘You know, I don't think I can do it. I think we're firing [Porter] just because everyone hates him. And we really haven't given him a chance to fuck up.’” Romero gave it to him. There were enormous consequences for him and his team, and somehow Porter himself wound up replacing Wilson as CEO.
Romero acknowledges his failure to act both here and in an uncomfortable episode in the long development of Quake, where an “exceedingly taxed… irritated” Carmack sent an all-staff email with letter grades for everyone’s work on the game. (Romero got a C, Carmack an A-.) Romero was aghast then and still is, and all these years later, he still has questions about the grade. But he says he can’t imagine not “walking into his office and saying, ‘What’s going on? Let’s talk about this and figure something out.’”
However, when it mattered, he didn’t say or do anything. Neither did anybody else. Romero’s relationship with Carmack continued to deteriorate well past Romero’s exit from the company. “As a child, when things got bad, out of necessity, I stayed quiet and waited for it to pass,” Romero writes now. “Everything that happened at Ion Storm is a direct result of that flaw in my character.”
That includes the “Great Mistake,” which he said in his memoir “I’ll be learning from for years to come.” In 1997, Mike Wilson came to Romero with the draft copy for a Daikatana print ad. It read: “John Romero’s About to Make You His Bitch. Suck it Down.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” Wilson told him.
Never mind that this was trash talk, and the gamer’s code is not to take such personally. The ad wasn’t well received even back then. It was the flashpoint of Romero’s (are we thinking now unearned?) hubris, a karmic guarantee the game would flop, cataclysmically. The ad is Romero’s sin, his self-own, King Midas grabbing his dick.
“That’s not something I would say,” Romero recalls telling Wilson in the moment. It is, of course, something he would say. That was his voice. Whether Romero approved of the ad then or disavows it now, that was the person people thought he was and who he wanted so badly to impress. This is a book he was paid to write because he was the man who’d say that.
It's the irony of ironies then that the King of Deathmatch, the Titan of Trash Talk, considers himself fatally non-confrontational. Of course, these are different contexts. Games gave Romero — the boy who was punched in the face over and over by his father and stepfather until he learned not to say anything — a space to be loud, brash, and aggressive and where he could be celebrated for it. In games, men abusing other men was a sign of fellowship, not its absence. Romero found his people in games, where everybody agreed nothing was to be taken personally, and the violence was always virtual.
Romero recounts the moment that his mother, who does not play games, challenged her son to a Doom deathmatch. “Stand still so I can shoot you,” she yells. So he does: the son stands still and the mother shoots him until he is dead. And she is delighted, and he is delighted, because this is just a game, and nothing affects anyone at all.
But this is John Romero, and games are for him nothing but personal. If success did not change Romero, as he claims, it is because before and after his millions, he was a gamer. He used to be a boy glued to pinball tables and Asteroids machines, programming incredible adventures from his imagination, awed by Tom Hall’s creativity, John Carmack’s scrolling graphics, Adrian Carmack’s blood and gore. He was a boy who dreamed of a place where the games are free. “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was wake up and make games every day for the rest of my life. How lucky am I that this has happened?”
“He was like a perpetual 15-year-old boy,” Case said in 2022. “That’s ultimately why I wanted to leave him. ‘I’m not 15 anymore. I want an adult life. I want to have dinner parties and adult friends.’ And he had no interest in that.”
In the 20 years since Ion Storm, Romero has never stopped making games, though never with the budgets or to the acclaim of his major works. There have been mobile games, ports for the Nokia N-Gage, failed MMOs, and Kickstarters. One might read this as a career in soft decline, but Romero swears he is simply happy making any game.
It’s a common misconception that people who work in video games get to play games all day and like it. Romero is the only person for whom I could believe that is completely true. Romero, at 55, still has a boy’s earnest enthusiasm for play. This is a man whose favorite games are Minecraft and World of Warcraft, but otherwise is just a guy who really loves games, and the concept of getting to run around and make up stories. “I have the life I dreamed of as a kid — to wake up and make games every single day. I could not imagine anything better,” he writes, and I believe it.
Romero is now married to the designer Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero). He did not discuss their relationship in depth in the book but notes that “game designers in a relationship spend an inordinate amount of time talking about games.” They are professional partners in game development. Occasionally, they make games with their children, too. Here is the family that video games made; I cannot imagine he has ever been happier.
Not that you would necessarily know.
In Doom Guy, Romero’s story extends past the full stop of Kushner’s Masters of Doom, and readers will find a Romero who has, despite his constant assurances to the contrary, changed. He’s now on the side of progressive politics and avoided John Carmack’s descent down the pipeline from programmer libertarianism to alt-right coziness. Romero declares for trans rights and fundraises for Ukraine. He is generous with his time and genuine in his love of video games.
Romero also now proudly and publicly identifies as indigenous; he claims his long hair as a symbol of cultural pride, not thriftiness or rock star affectation. “If you have indigenous characters in the game, you should also have someone who is from the tribe who you are trying to represent to be there to consult and give you that insight,” he says now. It’s doubtful this was on his mind for the creation of Daikatana’s Black sidekick Superfly Johnson. He did not invite consultation on, and was lucky to be stopped from shipping, a Doom level where players would tread on the face of Jesus Christ.
An outside observer — a Kushner, let’s say, though Romero does not seem to appreciate his editorial lens — might perceive a growth here. Romero doesn’t really acknowledge a change of any kind, and in fact, does not seem to understand personal growth as a concept separate from aging. The famous fallout with Carmack, he writes, happened only because both men were in their twenties and inexperienced. Now, they are in their fifties and experienced, and therefore would not have made any mistakes. In youth we are foolish and in age we are wise, and this process happens automatically and correctly, according to Romero.
Romero makes no effort to reconcile his young and old selves, even when it would be to his benefit. But to take credit for having grown is to admit having you once needed to, and that, it seems, was too much. That wouldn’t be a positive energy book. That would be a book of spoiled milk and motherfuckers, broken keyboards, and kissing fans. It’s better to maintain that we were always decent people and that the things that happened shouldn’t be taken personally, because they were so unimportant they did not affect us at all.