Masters of Doom

By David Kushner

A few years ago Janet Murray, a professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a book called Hamlet on the Holodeck on the “future of narrative in cyberspace.” Her basic argument was that traditional narrative vehicles like books and movies are in the process of being replaced by new digital forms of interactive entertainment that are more like videogames than novels. The coming Shakespeares will be “cyber-bards” and their medium the immersive virtual reality of Star Trek’s Holodeck.

Well, the future is now. In 2001 for the first time videogame sales topped theatre box office in the U.S. Nintendo had already (at least temporarily) replaced Toyota as Japan’s most profitable company. If Game Theory is correct and recreational man – Homo Ludens, man the player – has replaced man the maker then game culture is the obvious result. And while the blockbuster videogame Doom may not have been the transforming watershed author David Kushner makes it out to be, it is representative of this profound cultural shift.

Two of Murray’s cyber-bards, John Romero and John Carmack, are the subject of Masters of Doom. From misfit computer nerd beginnings they went on to form their own game company, id Software, and created some of the nascent industry’s most commercial titles before falling out and going their separate ways. Enthralled by the concept of the Holodeck (its realization was considered a “moral imperative”), Romero and Carmack pioneered the 3-D “first-person shooter”, a game that unfolds from the player’s perspective with some sort of weapon usually featured in the foreground.

The “narrative” to these immersive narratives doesn’t amount to much. They may involve some basic problem solving, but first-person shooters mainly consist of running around killing creatures (or, in “deathmatch” play, other players). The point isn’t to tell a story so much as provide raw stimulation, a powerful and addictive drug. There is a telling moment early in the book when the id team is trying to develop a background story for the game Doom. Tech wizard John Carmack was prophetically dismissive: “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” When you’re selling stimulation – violence or sex – story doesn’t matter. In Murray’s analysis such old-fashioned narratives only get in the way of the ultimate goal, which is “satisfaction.”

Masters of Doom is a good introduction to the early history of the videogame industry, in large part because the conflict at its heart is so fundamental to that industry (not to mention our culture as a whole). Like film, videogames, insofar as they are an art, are technology driven. As David Cook writes of the history of film, “the cinema at its material base is a technological form – one in which technological innovation precedes the aesthetic impulse (i.e., no artist can express him- or herself in cinema in ways which would exceed the technological capabilities of the machines).” The split between the “Two Johns” (Romero and Carmack) has its roots in this sad fact of contemporary life. The more volatile Romero, with his notion that design should determine technology, was doomed to be replaced by “Engine John.” Even the pure thrills of the future will be industrial.

Review first published online August 5, 2003.