Why do gamers worship John Carmack?

The art of play.
Aug. 6 2004 5:33 PM

The Temple of Doom

Why do gamers worship John Carmack?

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Doom 3 was released just a few days ago, but it's already a classic. The sequel to last decade's pioneering 3-D gore-fest Doom has drawn ringing praise from critics for its ghoulish realism; PC Gamer called it "a masterpiece of the art form." This week, the New York Times presented a great-man theory of Doom, crediting the game's creator, id Software co-founder and technical director John Carmack, as the sole force behind its success. An executive vice president of Nvidia told the Times his company designs graphics cards—what the computer uses to display super-realistic images—just to accommodate Carmack's upcoming games. They're that good. "He's a genius, a rare person," the exec gushed.

"Genius" is a word we normally associate with an artist—the lone auteursecreted away in his garret. Given Carmack's cultlike following—fans call him "Carmack the Magnificent"—it's obvious many gamers regard him much like Stanley Kubrick or It-boy musician Jack White, creators whose personal mojo inspires fanatical devotion. But are the best video games really created by single visionaries? Do games have auteurs?

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Judging by Doom 3, I'd say yes. Though many "survival horror" games have copied Doom'sinnovations, none come close to Carmack's best titles. Mostly, he's a master of capturing the what's-around-the-corner scariness of a good horror movie. In Doom 3, he takes the inherent claustrophobia of cramped, military-industrial settings and amps it up with ultrarealistic visuals and insanely creepy sound effects. Even when you can't see any monsters, you hear them hissing and gibbering off in the distance. Your avatar also carries a military radio, so while you're hip-deep in your own chaos you also hear far-off Marines screaming as they're slaughtered. Carmack is our video-game Virgil, walking us through his digital version of a gothic hell.

Of course, he didn't make the whole thing himself. Doom 3, like any modern mega-game, required a team of over 25 designers, from the guys who program the basic physics (part of Carmack's job), to the artists who draw monsters, to the sound engineers who craft those sadistic F/X. Really, Carmack is just like a movie director: His main role is to impose a unifying vision on a huge, collaborative process.

If you look at most other innovative, massively successful games, you'll find designers whose imprint is all over the thing. At Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto invented the company's anime-class graphics and goofy, bloodless play, which has stretched from 1981's Donkey Kongto today's Mario Kart: Double Dash!! Will Wright, creator of Sim Cityand The Sims, pioneered the concept of simulation-as-game and perfected a visual style—isometric viewpoint, teensy pop-art characters—so cool-looking that ads and music videos are now plundering it. Myst, the first successful game centered around a dreamy, explorable world, was crafted by two brothers in the backwoods of Washington.

One reason game designers aren't typically considered auteursis that their artistry isn't necessarily on the screen. The most important innovations in video games are invisible, deep in the guts of the software. Much like Venetian artists perfecting the camera obscura to trace figures from life, or George Lucas creating high-end special effects so he could shoot Star Wars, the best designers create new tools to midwife their games into existence. Carmack's brilliance came in coaxing the low-power chips of 1991 to display a speedy "first person" view of a 3-D world. Will Wright conjured new artificial-intelligence models to govern the behavior of his Sims. Peter Molyneux hired a philosopher to help him craft the moral galaxy of Black and White.

Molyneux, Wright, Miyamoto—odds are you've never heard of these guys. How about Alexey Pajitnov? Probably not, though I'd wager you've played his game Tetris. That's because the mainstream media almost never profiles the creators of games or talks about how games get made. But game fanatics hardly care what the mainstream thinks. Most treat their favorite designers like rock stars, which is why some game publishers now slap their names on titles, as with American McGee's Alice. It's possible that this rabid online fan culture will eventually infect conventional media, bringing game designers fame much as TV fan sites like Television Without Pity have raised the profile of formerly neglected television writers and producers. The New York Times did, after all, see fit to write about Carmack—maybe he'll even be in the Arts section next time, rather than ghettoized in Circuits.

The rise of game auteursmight not be a force for good, though. As Hollywood has shown us, a sure-fire way to get wretched art is to tell a director he has the Midas touch. If John Carmack is the Martin Scorsese of video games, then John Romero is the Michael Cimino. Back in the 90s, Romero—co-creator of the original Doom—decided he was the true brains of the operation, bragging to fans that he was "a god." (His words, actually.) After taking his millions and setting off on his own, Romero took five interminable years to produce the virtually unplayable Daikatana. Artist, auteur, God—call yourself whatever you want. Just make sure the game doesn't suck.

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