Dear John: An Open Letter to John Carmack

Dear Mr. Carmack,

As a man best known by his works, it's been a while since we've really seen you, hasn't it? DOOM 3 feels like it was so very long ago. And it was, wasn't it? Seven years is a long time to be off the radar, John. We've been worried about you.

But you didn't fall completely out of sight. Legendary developers rarely do (with the exception of that other John of DOOM fame), and so occasionally we'd hear from you, at a developer's conference here or a convention there.

And always, you were talking about the Next Big Thing. Id Tech 5, you called it, a game engine that was supposed to change things. Bigger textures, faster delivery, no more restraints, no more concerns over what code would work on what platform. And with id Tech 5 was to come Rage, a game that was supposed to be to gamers what its engine would be to developers: fast, complex, smooth. Limitless.

In retrospect, you never really talked too much about what Rage actually would be. You gave hints, of course, if vague ones. We expected a post-apocalyptic shooter with some driving elements thrown in—and not much else, really. As far as we knew, Rage was the Next Big Thing because John said Rage was the Next Big Thing.

But we believed you, by virtue of your pedigree if nothing else. You made DOOM, after all. That leaves you a bit ahead of us on the game-changers tally. Rage might require id Tech 5 to perform 72 gajillion kajooblieflops per second, but if John Carmack said he could make it happen on a PC, or an Xbox 360, or even on an alarm clock powered by a lemon and two paper clips, who were we to question a few irrationally futuristic claims?

And now, four years after you named it and who knows how many more after you first conceived it, here it is and here we are. And you were right—just like you told us, Rage is a post-apocalyptic shooter with some driving elements thrown in—and not much else.

Go look at a calendar, John. How long has it been since gamers first ran down corridors blasting mutants with shotguns? And at your bidding, no less? Rage isn't the revolutionary leap forward id wanted us to expect. It's not even a Painkiller or a Serious Sam, two throwbacks to your previous work themselves old enough to deserve throwbacks of their own. Rage is just more corridors and more shotguns, and when you produce a game like Rage, you're telling us that no, despite 20 years of development to the contrary, we shouldn't move on from that.

You're wrong, and what's more, on some level you understand that. Why else dress Rage up like something that it isn't? Why the self-aggrandizing pretention, the vestigial mission structure, the half-hearted crafting system, if not to disguise the shameful truth that Rage is a three-disc game that brought two too many discs with it? Did Borderlands inspire you? Did Bulletstorm frighten you?

On some level, I feel like I'm taking you to task too harshly for this. You're a code man, after all, not a story man. The innovations you create happen in a matrix of programming that we mere mortals rarely glimpse, let alone understand.

And those innovations are still there. Sometimes. Barely. When Rage isn't showing off its boring hubs or its lackluster weapon selection or all the combat mechanics that it doesn't have, those few times when you can just sit back and enjoy a particularly spectacular vista or a well-crafted facial animation speak to the level to which you surely must have aspired for all of Rage to be.

But then again, you stood up and claimed Rage as yours. The artists and executives, the Changs and Hollensheads and others, are on a very real level beneath you—and therefore on a very real level accountable to you. You're the godfather of the old Dallas Gaming Mafia; sometimes you have to make certain your caporegimes are up to their tasks. Otherwise, it's your name on the line.

There's a beautiful game hidden somewhere inside Rage, John, and maybe one day we'll all be lucky enough to see it. Someone's going to come along and take id Tech 5, smooth away all the blemishes and fill in the cracks left by Rage, and create something singularly enjoyable. It's just too bad that it wasn't you, it wasn't now, and it wasn't Rage.