Why Doom creator John Romero says video games are 'the greatest art form'
Legendary game designer tells his personal and professional story in Doom Guy: Life in First Person
Game designer John Romero's works tend to speak for themselves — and until now, he was happy to leave it that way.
That was until Romero — co-founder of id Software, makers of genre-defining first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake — was pitched an idea while attending a conference in Toronto.
The event organizers said they wanted to hear more about the games he designed, but also about his upbringing and how he became the person he is now.
The ensuing talk was called A Life in Game. Since 2020 he's presented it at multiple conferences. It then became the basis for his new memoir, Doom Guy: Life in First Person, which details not only his start in the games industry but his turbulent childhood.
"I thought, you know, there are a lot of kids like me ... probably all over the world," he told The Sunday Magazine's guest host Rebecca Zandbergen. "And maybe through my story, they can see ... that they can come through the part of their life that's difficult, and they can be successful, too."
Romero is of Mexican, Cherokee and Yaqui heritage. He grew up in the desert of Tucson, Ariz., with a family constantly struggling to live above the poverty line.
"My father was [an] alcoholic, and when he got his paycheck, he would gamble it away usually," he said. "Part of the family was in the drug trade. There was violence because there was alcohol around. And so, yeah, it was kind of a rough upbringing."
Romero found refuge from his family situation in part by playing games at the local arcade, though he didn't always have enough money to pay for them. But in the summer of 1979, his brother and friend found something else that would change his life.
"They said, 'we found a place where we can play games for free.' And I'm like, 'No way.' So I immediately followed them on my bike and they led me right to the computer lab at the local college," he recalled.
Students in the lab were taking a programming class. His friend fired up another computer to show him some text-based games — a far cry from the action-packed arcade titles of the time.
"And [my brother] said, 'that's how you make these games. You have to tell the computer how to put the words on the screen and all that.' So I was like, 'I want to do that.'"
Romero co-founded id Software in 1991 with three other members, most notably programmer John Carmack.
The team would make several games including 1993's Doom, which puts you in the role of a nameless soldier mowing down demons from hell with a host of realistic and sci-fi-inspired weaponry.
Doom's lasting impact "can't be overstated," the Washington Post's Gene Park wrote.
"Ideas from Doom would define and shape gaming and internet culture, its influence omnipresent throughout the 21st century in games like the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty series and Fortnite."
Romero told Zandbergen that some of Doom's earliest prototypes weren't set in first-person perspective — the signature style that let the player see the game from the perspective of main character's eyes.
Instead, the marine — later dubbed Doom Guy — could be seen on the screen. But hardware constraints at the time allowed them to illustrate the complex environments faster without having to draw the character at the same time.
"We knew that we had refined that style of game and that it was becoming a dominant style, not just a weird experiment," Romero said.
That experiment has continued to pay off. The Doom series of games have sold more than 10 million copies over its numerous entries, including Doom Eternal in 2020.
That sense of speed and manoeuvrability makes it stand out even compared to modern shooter games.
"Play Doom for a few hours and then load up any modern first-person shooter [and] you'll be shocked at how slowly your character moves in comparison," YouTuber Chris Franklin said in a 2012 video essay.
"The game just feels right to play."
Franklin also praised the sound design of weapons in the game. Doom II's super shotgun fired with a thunderous boom, compared to its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D, whose weapons felt more like "pop guns."
That visceral digital violence became a lightning rod in 1999 as stories emerged that the Columbine High School shooters were fans of Doom.
Romero noted that the reaction to Doom, heavy metal and other popular media at the time mirrored the Satanic Panic that started about a decade prior.
"I'd say probably 100 million people have played Doom and a lot of other, you know, violent video games all over the world, not just the United States," he said.
"And a lot of studies have shown that there isn't a connection between video game violence and real-world violence," he said.
Are games the 'greatest art form'?
Romero has over 100 games on his resume including classics like the Commander Keen series. He moved on from the series by the late '90s, but still occasionally releases new levels he designed for Doom and Doom II, most recently in 2022 with proceeds going to support people affected by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But he's not done yet. In 2015 Romero co-founded Romero Games with his wife Brenda Romero, an award-winning game designer in her own right. They're working on several games, including Sigil 2, and an as-yet unnamed first-person shooter game.
Romero said he believes video games are "probably the greatest art form ... a fusion of code, of music, of writing, of design into something that is super complex to put together."
"We're creating something that is not something you stare at, or you are just watching for two hours. We're creating something that people can be in, and it requires the player to to make that story happen," he said.
"And at some point the, you know, establishments will catch up and really realize it."