Doom Guy: Life in First Person

Image of Doom Guy: Life in First Person
Release Date: 
January 10, 2023
Abrams Press
Reviewed by: 

“Doom Guy tells the fascinating story of the life and times of one of the greatest PC game developers of them all.”

In the early days of personal computers, there were essentially two kinds of users: programming nerds who recognized a new vista of coding and development, and those whose work required them to use the new-fangled PCs for word processing, spreadsheets, and databases.

Before long, the programmers were posting free PC games on early internet bulletin boards, and inquisitive users were discovering that their desktop computers were not only work tools but recreational platforms as well.

Enter John Romero, whose autobiography Doom Guy: Life in First Person tells the fascinating story of the life and times of one of the greatest PC game developers of them all.

Romero and the gang at id Software, the company he founded with John Carmack, Jay Wilbur, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack on February 1, 1991, soon became rock stars of the industry. In the aftermath, much as been written about Romero over the years, some of it giddy and some of it harshly critical.

Doom Guy is Romero’s opportunity to tell from his own perspective the story of his rise, fall, and bounce-back. Not afraid to explore his failures as well as his successes, he acknowledges that “writing this book has been a transformative process. It has allowed me to see patterns that have followed and defined me, patterns I may not otherwise have seen.”

He begins by painting the portrait of a youngster growing up in a low-income Mexican American family in Tucson, Arizona. He spent his youth immersed in pinball and video games, one of a crowd of kids wasting their time and pocket change in arcades, but for Romero, video games such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Pac Man were far from wasteful. Instead they were early influences, along with William Castle horror films and the Apple II+ games of Nasir Gebelli, that ultimately led him to success and fame.

Romero takes us through his early days in the industry, a young developer trying to find his place. When he meets John Carmack, a partnership for the ages is formed. Looking back, he points to the “traits [that] were essential keys to our future collaborations: his desire to push game tech and my desire to push game design through tech . . . the magic, I think, was rooted in our joint understanding of code and trust of each other.”

Despite their later split, Romero remains complimentary of Carmack throughout the book, avoiding negativity and taking most of the blame on himself for having failed to address staff problems when they threatened to pull the team apart after the success of Doom.

As it was, though, their first important hit was the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Over the course of three years after its release in May 1992, it sold over a quarter of a million copies, won several awards, and was named to the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame.

The next step, predictably, was a much better game engine from Carmack and a new design that would take them to the pinnacle of gaming success with Doom.

Romero’s description of the design and development of Doom is fascinating. We follow the ups and downs as the project moves forward. We laugh when he mentions, while talking about Adrian Carmack’s bloody and atmospheric game art design: “Adding to the ambience were the periodic sounds of a drill and patient screams through the walls from the dentist next door.”

We also shake our head in wonder at his story of the creation of the artwork for the game box. The model brought in to pose for reference photos wasn’t capturing what Romero wanted to see for their besieged marine hero, so he ended up taking off his shirt and grabbing the toy gun to show them what he wanted. Photos were shot, the model posed as a demon trying to claw him, and “I had inadvertently become Doomguy.”

After Doom and its sequel Doom II, which released with 600,000 copies that sold out in a month and grossed $30 million, Romero and Carmack set out to create the ultimate 3D gaming experience with Quake.

The problems caused by the slowness of the engine development and other internal staff crises ultimately led to Romero being asked to leave. He went on to form Ion Storm with longtime friend Tom Hall, and the last third of the book chronicles the difficulties he experienced trying to recapture the magic of the past.

In the final portion, Romero catches us up with what he did after Ion Storm’s demise. Fittingly, he became a Doom modder in his own right, designing and releasing new levels that excited fans who’d remained loyal to the game throughout the decades since its release.

He then addresses his Epilogue to young developers laboring to find their own way in the industry, offering sympathetic and positive advice and encouragement. He finishes with a farewell to all of us, programmers and gaming fans alike: “Thank you for reading my book and thank you so much for playing my games.”

Doom Guy is the heartfelt, engaging story of a young man who chases his dreams, catches them, and then must let them go in order to make a fresh start with a clearer, wiser outlook.