So last week we were talking about Daikatana, and it’s status as a sort of tentpole example of auteurism gone wrong. Which makes it an important study for me in particular, since I’m the one who’s always moaning about the faceless, corporate, committee-designed industry of today and how it could use a dose of auteurism.
Now, of course having one visionary taking charge and responsibility for the project isn’t always going to result in a good game. It hinges on the skill of that one person. But I argue for it mainly because it makes things a hell of a lot more interesting. The usual characteristic of committee-designed games is being bland as fuck, as its features are pinned one by one to the happy middleground that every member of the committee agrees is basically fine. A lone director can take charge and push the features to the fringe, and this can result in a bold, challenging work, or it can create something so cartoonishly misguided that its awfulness becomes a thrill ride in itself. Either of which is still better than a cowardly mediocrity. You can party in a black suit, you can party in a white suit, but a grey suit? Good for meeting the girlfriend’s parents, maybe.
But John Romero managed to get into a position to make his ill-fated dream project by leveraging the fact that he worked on Doom and Quake, two of the most important titles in the history of PC game development. The world was a lot smaller back then, and the entire credits list for Doom could fit on a single screen in big letters. A surprisingly large percentage of the names on that screen became big names off the back of it. We already know what opportunities John Romero found with that on his resume, but let’s see where it took some of the other names on the list. Specifically, the ones with extensive Wikipedia pages.
Named in an unfortunate incident in which his parents mistook the ‘name’ box for the ‘nationality’ one on the birth certificate, and I’m going to keep making that joke until I’ve heard at least one person laugh at it, American McGee seems to like doing the Clive Barker thing where he sticks his name on the front of all his game titles. He went from Id to Electronic Arts after Quake 2, and made what is probably his most notable game, American McGee’s Alice; a twisted take on Alice in Wonderland (aren’t they all) with a platform-combat focus.
After that, he passed the noughties making games like American McGee presents Scrapland and American McGee presents Bad Day L.A., neither of which set the world ablaze (although the second one might have pissed a few fires out). Eventually he returned to the last point when everything seemed to be working out alright, and made a sequel to Alice, Madness Returns. I reviewed this in ZP, and felt could most charitably be described as alright, if a bit pretentious.
In 2013 American McGee attempted a Kickstarter campaign for a new property called American McGee’s Ozombie, which failed to meet its funding goal, presumably because zombie games in Kickstarter stand out like a chipolata at a thumb wrestling tournament. But then he did another Kickstarter, for a film project called Alice: Otherlands, and that one succeeded. I’m guessing American McGee’s motto at this point is ‘There’s Always Alice.’
Bit of a cheat, this one, because Tom Hall doesn’t actually appear on the credits page of Doom. According to Wikipedia, he left Id Software before Doom was released after some kind of dispute related to the amount of gore. I’d assume he was arguing for there to be less gore, but since he then went to Apogee and worked on Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem 3D, I guess he wasn’t completely averse to gore as a concept. Maybe he was arguing that there should have been more gore in Doom and creeped everyone out. Perhaps today he is better known as Sergeant Mk. IV, the guy who does the Brutal Doom mod.
Not really, of course. Hall loops back around into the story of Doom‘s aftermath by co-founding Ion Storm with John Romero, and his personal baby was the sci-fi action RPG Anachronox. Which, along with Deus Ex, are the main arguments for not tarring all of Ion Storm with the Daikatana brush, because Anachronox was fairly critically acclaimed for its story. I don’t know much about it, which is odd, because I remember playing it at some point. I guess that goes to show what kind of lasting impression it created. I do remember it being quite slow to get going, and I was a young spod who couldn’t spare much time in between eating a constant supply of Haribos.
You know, everything I read about John Carmack enforces the notion I have that he might be a robot from space. Apparently he was arrested for stealing computers as a kid, and the police psychiatric report said he had ‘no empathy for other human beings’. And you know something’s wrong if an American policeman is calling you out for inhumanity, arf arf arf.
But John Carmack was the driving force of Id all the way from Catacomb 3D to Rage, and the recurring narrative seemed to be that he was the best possible person to have around if you were making a new graphics engine, but he had trouble with things that require human emotion, like telling an engaging story. There’s even a graphics algorithm named after him called Carmack’s Reverse. Not quite the same as Michelangelo’s David, is it? We see what happens when Carmack doesn’t have someone around who can write a good story for him: we get Quake 2, a game on the cutting edge of graphics tech, which could do nothing to stop it being achingly dull.
You know, for all the people that came off it and became names, it’s interesting that Doom itself is not a name-driven game. It’s not John Carmack’s Doom, it’s not specifically associated with any of the dudes on the list any more than any others. And I think that’s what makes it even more interesting. Perhaps committee design isn’t always a highway to mediocrity, perhaps, with the right committee, it can produce something engaging, but also universal. As long as the committee’s small, and full of weirdos. Ideally making first-person monster shooters. WELL I DON’T KNOW!