Who is John Romero? It’s a question many who play video games can answer, especially those that grew up experiencing Doom, Quake, or Wolfenstein 3D. His contributions to the industry — and especially the first-person shooter genre — are almost impossible to measure, but that’s only a part of this story. Doom Guy: Life in First Person is a book that offers an in-depth look at what it was like being a rockstar programmer in the days of blood, sweat, and glory as the medium was quickly evolving. It also covers the bumps on the road and what hindsight offers for someone who never truly slowed down.
Masters of Doom by David Kushner is an excellent book that was published in 2003. As good of a look at the men behind the fabled video game empire of id Software as it was, it always felt like there might be more to tell. This is for those who want to know what Romero has been up to for the last 20 years, but more than that, there’s a more concentrated tale about his early life, which had only been lightly touched on previously. Now, in this more recent text, John Romero is telling the stories himself, which gives this book a more intimate viewpoint of those events.
Romero informs his readers early on that he has a condition known as hyperthymesia, which allows him to recall extreme levels of detail about his past — especially memories that excited him, and unfortunately, those that were harmful as well. This puts him in a unique position for telling these stories and the details shine through excellently in most parts, giving readers a better understanding of his perspective. There are moments, however, where he admits to not recollecting certain exchanges or simply quotes Masters of Doom’s version of the events for clarification. The things Romero holds back on are addressed and it makes sense to think there would still be a couple of secrets worth keeping over such an extensive career, even now.
This book explores a troubled childhood and how those experiences helped shape his career path, but that also means discussing some of the darker parts, which may be a bit harsh for some readers who just want to discuss the games. Romero talks about his family’s past with alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, abandonment, and child abuse, but also how his situation meant that many of these events couldn’t be avoided and how much his blood means to him. All of it shaped him. Some of this material can be tough to hear, but these moments are interwoven with interesting bits about the areas he grew up in and cultures that Romero embraced.
The book also goes a bit more in-detail about his early exposure to video games, how they became a form of escapism, and the efforts his parents went to in fighting against this new love. It may sound like the feel-good plot of an ’80s movie, as he eventually makes not only a career, but his own legend in the industry — but it actually happened.
Romero is also an incredibly talented video game programmer, but it was fascinating to hear him talk about approaching comics, music, and other passions as well. He probably could have made it in several fields with the way he was so quick to adapt, but coding and level design were his true areas of expertise. The man had some luck in the industry and a lot of opportunities based on his prior endeavors, but none of that took away from the hard work and long hours he put in.
People often forget that the majority of the story we know about him, John Carmack, and the others at id all happened when these guys were in their 20s, so many of the negative things that happened and bad decisions make a little more sense with that framing. Romero isn’t humble per se, but he’s definitely simple and straightforward.
This means it is nice to hear him admit that he can see a lot of the mistakes in his career were his fault or could have been handled differently. For example, they fired someone for not being in their D&D group, which, while there were other factors, is quite silly in retrospect. The latter half of his career shows even more of how he deals with failure, finds happiness being a little bit more out of the limelight, and how he and Carmack may have needed each other more than either one realized.
Life in First Person also delves into tech advancements, company blunders, and other game releases that shaped how id went forward. It’s a matter-of-fact look at how the industry was changing, even with events like the Columbine High School massacre. Romero and his cohorts were trying to be in the eye of the storm, heads down coding the next project, but it’s hard to stay that out of the chaos when almost everyone on the planet is playing your game.
Romero also reads the audio version of his book. After hearing Wil Wheaton narrate Masters of Doom excellently, it’s unclear if this is the right choice. Some of Romero’s line reads are a bit off, and the way he enunciates words like “roof” was a little strange. The delivery isn’t necessarily flat, but there is something missing. These words and the way they are projected are coming from the man who experienced it all, however, so there is something to be said for that, and a few segments are full of the passion he has tied to those memories. There should have just been more of that.
The stories here taught me a lot about the man himself, but it’s also full of valuable lessons about level design and how he approaches these projects to present certain aspects to the players. It retreads portions of Masters of Doom, but this takes its time, fills in a few more gaps, and talks so much more about his youth and recent years in way that makes it a fantastic read. And while some of the basics are widely known, Doom Guy: Life in First Person is an insightful read by one of the most influential figures in the industry.