Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Microreview [book]: You by Austin Grossman

Grossman, Austin. You. [Mulholland, 2013]

The Meat

You is the second novel by game designer Grossman, and one of a relative handful of works to explore that industry through fiction. Given the vast (and growing) cultural relevance of video games, it is perhaps surprising this idea still feels fresh and new, but it does. Grossman's pedigree as a designer doesn't hurt either--he's worked on such classics as Ultima Underworld 2, Deus Ex, System Shock and The Dishonored, and this experience lends You an authenticity that will be evident to anyone who grew up with PC games in the 1980s and 1990s. The appeal of this book to hardcore gamers should thus be self-evident.

Fans of the nonlinear narrative will also find much to like in the book's structure, where three distinct stories intertwine in unusual and interesting ways. The main narrative centers on the development of a final entry in a storied RPG franchise produced by legendary (and fictional) developer Black Arts Games. Once the brainchild of dynamic odd couple Simon (aka the reclusive genius programmer) and Darren (aka the brash ideas man/designer), Black Arts has recently fallen on hard times--Simon is dead, Darren has departed to start a competitor and the rump company has been sold to a private equity firm looking to recoup on its investment before shedding what assets it can. Thrust into this pressure cooker is Russell, a childhood friend of Simon and Darren who has recently come to Black Arts after drifting, career-wise, for some years. Without enough time, budget or any sense of job security past the ship date, Russell and old friends/Black Arts B-team Don and Lisa set out to make one last franchise classic.

This story provides readers with an insight into game production that most lack or are only vaguely aware of. It sheds light on the chaotic nature of the development cycle, and the overworked, poorly-fed and sleep-deprived men and women racing to get a product out under highly stressful conditions, not least of which is the abiding fear of shipping a buggy game. Unfortunately, there's a problem: a black sword that appears for no apparent reason and causes havok in the game world. In other words, the ultimate bug.

Russell divines that the malignant code was Simon's doing, and is deeply embedded in the WAFFLE engine used to develop all Black Arts titles since its ASCII beginnings. So he takes it upon himself to play through the entire back catalog. This acts as the basis for a parallel narrative, which is both a personal history of the friendship among Simon, Darren, Lisa, Don and Russell, and an alternate history of computer RPGs. As he works his way through, the walls between game and life erode for Russell, and the "four heroes" who feature in every Black Arts game come to life. A slipstream narrative emerges, where characters can communicate with designers and malicious game engine code can threaten stock markets.

The sum total is a book virtually bursting with interesting ideas, and Grossman is certainly clever in the way he weaves these narratives together. On an intellectual level, then, You is a resounding success. These triumphs, however, are let down by underdeveloped characters and their, frankly, uninteresting relationships to each other. Simon is supposed to be the enigmatic soul of Black Arts, but we never really get much sense of who he is beyond "introspective programming genius" with vague references to a bad home life. Darren, for that matter, is presented as a brilliant and charismatic "ideas man," though we never really see any of this. We're just told it's so over and over again.

Then there's Russell, the narrator. This faux-sophisticate/English major discovers a raison d'etre in game design, because it's oh so much more meaningful than the lives of all the squares. Sound familiar? That's because if you swap out game design for street brawls, Russell is a dead ringer for Edward Norton in the film adaptation of Fight Club. And many other stories. Making matters worse, when he's not playing through old RPGs or talking to game characters, Russell is semi-flirting with Lisa, who's personality can be summed up in three words: ornery, girl and nerd. Yup.

(Oh, and did I mention Don, the business casual executive guy? Actually, I can't think of a single other thing to say about him.)

While You is certainly a smart book, an original book and one that gamers will get a lot out of, I couldn't help but feel that I'd rather have been reading a memoir from Grossman, full of real stories about real people working in the real game industry.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the fresh ideas; +1 for the nonlinear narrative; +1 for ASCII, f*** yeah!

Penalties: -1 for Russell; -1 for Simon and Darren; -1 for Don and Lisa.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]