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Charge That Windmill

Alex Gambotto-Burke stands up for the Romeros, Molyneuxs and Cages of gaming.

Several months ago, I buried John Romero. I dug a little hole for him in the garden, covered it with dirt, and said a few poignant words over the spiteful-but-soothing strains of Paul McCartney's Too Many People. It was an emotional moment for me, because I really loved the guy. We'd had some great times together: the time, for instance, that his home was destroyed and we went out to get a new one. Or the time he chased his girlfriend around for over an hour, before finally taking a nap in the miniature Taj Mahal nearby. Mostly, though, I just remember him pressing his face up to the water jet, his jet-black, silky, slimy mane billowing out like a raven's wing. He was a spectacular goldfish.

To allay any suspicions that I named a Black Moor after one of the games industry's most storied figures just so I could write a piece like this at some point in the future: my daughter named him. Over a week, I'd spent about four hours interviewing Romero in two consecutive slabs, so it was inevitable that she'd heard his name at some point. And when we went out to find a replacement for Batman, our previous fish who'd just suicided in the dust-balls under the kitchen table, she looked up at me and said, "Let's call him John Womewo." Struggling to come up with a better idea - and disarmed by that cute-ninja gaze that toddlers have - I shrugged, and said, "Okay."

And why not? Just as John Romero the man is ambitious, persistent, and occasionally adorable, so too was John Romero the fish. It was a fitting tribute, and I was heartbroken when I discovered that someone - be it a cleaner (my suspicion), or that teenager for whom I'd refused to buy a bottle of Smirnoff Ice Double Black the night before (my wife's; he wasn't a bad guy) - had poured bleach into Romero's fountain abode, fatally poisoning him and his aquatic friends. He lived for a few more excruciating days, but after the third day of swimming side-saddle, I decided to put him out of his misery.

Daikatana. But seriously, the man is misunderstood.

John - the bipedal, endothermic John - has a lot to live up to in my mind, but I think he can make the cut. For while he's stumbled occasionally - one recalls the Ion Storm debacle most prominently, although Romero denies mismanagement on his behalf - I can't help but admire him for his ceaseless enthusiasm for the new. I love all designers like that. We, the people, tend to punish public figures when they appear to be punching above their weight, but I've always preferred a well-intentioned mess to calculated blandness, certain heads of state notwithstanding.

And it's not just mere fancy; those tirelessly quixotic designers have often paved the way for the innovations we've all come to cherish. Take Romero himself: his successes at id Software, where he designed three of the most influential games of the past two decades, inspired an entire genre. His work with the DWANGO team on DOOM set the foundations for the modern online multiplayer technology that allows fragrant West Virginian youths to question your sexual proclivities on Xbox Live. And even Daikatana, deeply flawed as it was - though not nearly as awful as it's made out to be - was... actually, no, that's drawing a rather long bow.