Christopher Owens 🔖 1991 was a pivotal year in pop culture.


On the movie front, Terminator 2 blew our minds with its use of CGI. The Silence of the Lambs was the first Oscar winning horror movie. The Disney Renaissance continued with Beauty and the Beast. And The Commitments, arguably, helped kick off the golden age of Irish cinema.

Book wise, American Psycho dominated the landscape. Douglas Coupland tapped into the general air of uncertainty with Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. John Grisham found fame with his second novel The Firm and Don DeLillo offered up Mao II as a respite from his monster works.

In September of that year alone, A Tribe Called Quest helped to define conscious and minimalist hip-hop by adding a jazzier element to their sound on The Low End Theory. Nirvana ushered grunge into the mainstream with Nevermind. The Pixies consolidated their reputation as the masters of the “quietLOUDquiet” dynamic with Trompe Le Monde. Primal Scream took indie music’s fascination with Ecstasy and acid house to its logical conclusion with Screamadelica. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers gave us Blood Sugar Sex Magic, catapulting them into mainstream consciousness.

Quite a year, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Less celebrated is that it was also the year that saw the foundation of a little game company called id Software. Based in Texas, it went on to change the face of gaming forever. Focusing on the PC, and releasing games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, id grabbed the zeitgeist by the balls and shook up everything we had known about gaming by that point and would become the centre of a moral panic by the end of the decade. Even Bill Gates was forced to sit up and pay attention to them.

For those who were there, it’s hard to overstate the impact these games made. As a seven-year-old when Doom was released, I would be hearing all sorts of tales about this ultra-violent game that made Mortal Kombat look weak by comparison. One of the first times I ever used the internet (in 1996) was to play Quake on multiplayer. Of course, with Xbox live and Twitch, this is just a common part of modern gaming. But the fact that you could play against your mates (and people from around the world) was astonishing to me at the age of ten.

However, within a few years, divisions within the core id team (which had been evident for a while) became deeper and would lead to a fracture which would lead to humiliation and a severe drop in credibility. A classic story of the rise and fall of big dreamers.

Thankfully, Masters of Doom captures this era with a mix of fan nostalgia and a realisation that this was a genuinely special time. Author David Kushner puts it succinctly:

Id was braced to…overthrow the status quo. Games until this point had been ruled by their own equivalent of pop, in the form of Mario and Pac-Man. Unlike music, the software industry had never experienced anything as rebellious…

While computer games had been mainly associated with consoles (indeed, 1991 saw the introduction of the Super Nintendo which led to the “16 Bit Wars” between it and the Sega Mega Drive), the PC had its own subculture of DIY gaming. And, with the PC slowly becoming The essential item to have since the television, there was a gap in the market for PC gaming.

Enter the Two Johns: John Carmack and John Romero.

Two highly creative types from dysfunctional families who were creating their own PC games in their teenage years. Two people with very different personalities, but both with the same mindset and understanding of PC culture. By managing to recreate Super Mario Bros on the PC, they not only beat Nintendo at their own game but also started laying the foundations of id’s success.

Shareware (where the first few levels of a game are given away for free as a demo in order to incentivise people to buy the game) becomes the way they sidestep distributors and stores, so id keeps all of the money. Although it’s estimated that less than 5% pay for the full version of Wolfenstein 3D, that still works out as a hell of a lot of money ($100,000 in the first month alone). When Doom becomes a pop culture phenomenon, even more money flows in.

The Two Johns become the talk of the industry, and indeed the world. But the foundations on which their friendship and company is based on start to crack.

Carmack is depicted as single minded in his obsession to push the technology further and further, living on a diet of pepperoni pizzas and Diet Coke (in fact, rumour has it that he was such a regular customer of Domino’s that the local branch kept charging him 1995 prices well into the early 2000’s) and even allowing his pet cat to be put down as she was getting in the way. As Kushner writes:

Carmack was of the moment. His ruling force was focus. Time existed for him not in some promising future or sentimental past but in the present condition, the intricate web of problems and solutions, imagination and code. He kept nothing from the past – no pictures, no records, no games, no computer disks. He didn’t even save copies of his first games, Wraith and Shadowforge. There was no yearbook to remind of his time at Shadowforge. There was no yearbook to remind of his time at school, no magazine copies of his early publications. He kept nothing but what he needed at the time. His bedroom consisted of a lamp, a pillow, a blanket, and a stack of books. There was no mattress.

Romero, by contrast, is highly creative but also highly self-aggrandising. The driving force behind the company in the early days (and one of the main people behind the creation of Doom), success goes to his head as his endless appearances at conventions, taking on fans in Doom deathmatches (and celebrating by using terms like “monkey fuck”) means he spends less and less time creating. When it comes to Quake (a game that would take the innovations on Doom and usher in a new era of 3D first person gaming), Romero’s wandering focus, Carmack’s narrow working methods and the lack of an overall team leader becomes a problem. One which doesn’t end well.

A gripping read (I read it all in one day) and with an eye for detail that non-fans would miss, Kushner is not only able to tell the tale in an engaging fashion but is also able to depict the excitement and pioneering spirit of the early 90’s that has, arguably, been lost with the internet and PC gaming now firmly entrenched in the collective psyche. But it was a period where it seemed anything was up for grabs in this brave new world. And the fact that a bunch of upstarts operating from Texas were able to outsmart Microsoft and pioneer 3D worlds in gaming just added to the idea that we were in uncharted waters.

1991, what a year.

David Kushner, 2003, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. Random House. ISBN-13: 978-0812972153

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist. 

Masters Of Doom

Christopher Owens 🔖 1991 was a pivotal year in pop culture.


On the movie front, Terminator 2 blew our minds with its use of CGI. The Silence of the Lambs was the first Oscar winning horror movie. The Disney Renaissance continued with Beauty and the Beast. And The Commitments, arguably, helped kick off the golden age of Irish cinema.

Book wise, American Psycho dominated the landscape. Douglas Coupland tapped into the general air of uncertainty with Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. John Grisham found fame with his second novel The Firm and Don DeLillo offered up Mao II as a respite from his monster works.

In September of that year alone, A Tribe Called Quest helped to define conscious and minimalist hip-hop by adding a jazzier element to their sound on The Low End Theory. Nirvana ushered grunge into the mainstream with Nevermind. The Pixies consolidated their reputation as the masters of the “quietLOUDquiet” dynamic with Trompe Le Monde. Primal Scream took indie music’s fascination with Ecstasy and acid house to its logical conclusion with Screamadelica. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers gave us Blood Sugar Sex Magic, catapulting them into mainstream consciousness.

Quite a year, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Less celebrated is that it was also the year that saw the foundation of a little game company called id Software. Based in Texas, it went on to change the face of gaming forever. Focusing on the PC, and releasing games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, id grabbed the zeitgeist by the balls and shook up everything we had known about gaming by that point and would become the centre of a moral panic by the end of the decade. Even Bill Gates was forced to sit up and pay attention to them.

For those who were there, it’s hard to overstate the impact these games made. As a seven-year-old when Doom was released, I would be hearing all sorts of tales about this ultra-violent game that made Mortal Kombat look weak by comparison. One of the first times I ever used the internet (in 1996) was to play Quake on multiplayer. Of course, with Xbox live and Twitch, this is just a common part of modern gaming. But the fact that you could play against your mates (and people from around the world) was astonishing to me at the age of ten.

However, within a few years, divisions within the core id team (which had been evident for a while) became deeper and would lead to a fracture which would lead to humiliation and a severe drop in credibility. A classic story of the rise and fall of big dreamers.

Thankfully, Masters of Doom captures this era with a mix of fan nostalgia and a realisation that this was a genuinely special time. Author David Kushner puts it succinctly:

Id was braced to…overthrow the status quo. Games until this point had been ruled by their own equivalent of pop, in the form of Mario and Pac-Man. Unlike music, the software industry had never experienced anything as rebellious…

While computer games had been mainly associated with consoles (indeed, 1991 saw the introduction of the Super Nintendo which led to the “16 Bit Wars” between it and the Sega Mega Drive), the PC had its own subculture of DIY gaming. And, with the PC slowly becoming The essential item to have since the television, there was a gap in the market for PC gaming.

Enter the Two Johns: John Carmack and John Romero.

Two highly creative types from dysfunctional families who were creating their own PC games in their teenage years. Two people with very different personalities, but both with the same mindset and understanding of PC culture. By managing to recreate Super Mario Bros on the PC, they not only beat Nintendo at their own game but also started laying the foundations of id’s success.

Shareware (where the first few levels of a game are given away for free as a demo in order to incentivise people to buy the game) becomes the way they sidestep distributors and stores, so id keeps all of the money. Although it’s estimated that less than 5% pay for the full version of Wolfenstein 3D, that still works out as a hell of a lot of money ($100,000 in the first month alone). When Doom becomes a pop culture phenomenon, even more money flows in.

The Two Johns become the talk of the industry, and indeed the world. But the foundations on which their friendship and company is based on start to crack.

Carmack is depicted as single minded in his obsession to push the technology further and further, living on a diet of pepperoni pizzas and Diet Coke (in fact, rumour has it that he was such a regular customer of Domino’s that the local branch kept charging him 1995 prices well into the early 2000’s) and even allowing his pet cat to be put down as she was getting in the way. As Kushner writes:

Carmack was of the moment. His ruling force was focus. Time existed for him not in some promising future or sentimental past but in the present condition, the intricate web of problems and solutions, imagination and code. He kept nothing from the past – no pictures, no records, no games, no computer disks. He didn’t even save copies of his first games, Wraith and Shadowforge. There was no yearbook to remind of his time at Shadowforge. There was no yearbook to remind of his time at school, no magazine copies of his early publications. He kept nothing but what he needed at the time. His bedroom consisted of a lamp, a pillow, a blanket, and a stack of books. There was no mattress.

Romero, by contrast, is highly creative but also highly self-aggrandising. The driving force behind the company in the early days (and one of the main people behind the creation of Doom), success goes to his head as his endless appearances at conventions, taking on fans in Doom deathmatches (and celebrating by using terms like “monkey fuck”) means he spends less and less time creating. When it comes to Quake (a game that would take the innovations on Doom and usher in a new era of 3D first person gaming), Romero’s wandering focus, Carmack’s narrow working methods and the lack of an overall team leader becomes a problem. One which doesn’t end well.

A gripping read (I read it all in one day) and with an eye for detail that non-fans would miss, Kushner is not only able to tell the tale in an engaging fashion but is also able to depict the excitement and pioneering spirit of the early 90’s that has, arguably, been lost with the internet and PC gaming now firmly entrenched in the collective psyche. But it was a period where it seemed anything was up for grabs in this brave new world. And the fact that a bunch of upstarts operating from Texas were able to outsmart Microsoft and pioneer 3D worlds in gaming just added to the idea that we were in uncharted waters.

1991, what a year.

David Kushner, 2003, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. Random House. ISBN-13: 978-0812972153

⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist. 

3 comments:

  1. Another great review of a work in an era I had little interest in or knowledge of. You go to different places Christopher - well away from the beaten track.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "1991, what a year"

    Good article Christopher.'91 was special in many ways. Good to see you mention Screamadelica. I saw the tour when it came to the Ulster Hall trippin' on Strawberries, what a gig! Also in '91 was My Bloody Valentines' Loveless album, on the back of Cocteau Twins' Heaven or La Vegas and Ride's Nowhere and just like that a new genre was born, shoegaze/dream pop. It's great to see today's kids filling Youtube with covers from these fine albums 30 years later. A much better era than the Britpop one that followed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Peter,

      yes it's been very cool to see shoegaze being reappraised over the last 15 years. Whenever I started getting into music, only the pioneers (MBV, Cocteau Twins) were celebrated whereas the likes of Slowdive were derided. However, with the likes of Jesu, Nothing and Deafheaven openly celebrating the genre, things are very different nowadays.

      Delete