YOU, Austin Grossman’s engrossing new novel, we’re given a glimpse into the oddly exciting world of computer game design at the time role playing games and first person shooters were preparing to go from the insular world of D & D geeks who embraced computers in the early eighties and nineties to the global phenomenon they’ve become. Having spent time in this world, Grossman knows enough about the culture to speak with authority, and is also aware enough to know the legends and facts of who did what when have become hopelessly entangled. Sorting that rat’s nest isn’t nearly as important as showing what it felt like to be in that culture as it exploded from tabletop based games and button smashers to the first person shooters and immersive games we know today.
Russell, our narrator, has bounced around post-college, trying everything from acting to law to find where he fits in, before drifting back to Cambridge and leveraging his high school friendships and limited knowledge of programming for a job with Black Arts, a once cutting edge PC gaming company in danger of becoming obsolete. Simon, the genius of the group, has died, leaving the company with no clear direction forward. Darren, the extrovert who built Simon’s genius into a viable business, is jumping from what he sees as a sinking ship. The only remaining member of the original group is Lisa, the math genius who cares more about the nuts and bolts of coding than the fun people can have with games. In the chaos of Darren’s departure Russell is tapped to help right the ship and save the company if they can.
While detailing their attempts to find a way forward, including digging into code Simon kept private from everyone for the source of a mysterious bug that has seeped into all of Black Arts’ products. Realms of Gold, their flagship product originally created by the four core friends back in high school, almost seems haunted by this glitch. As Russell struggles at the floundering company, we get flashbacks of the friends as they’re learning to code and creating their game. Grossman does a wonderful job showing the awkwardness of this strange group of four, and how the game is eventually the only thing holding them together. A third element of the book is Russell imagining interactions with the four main characters of their game. As he spends time playing the back catalogue of their products, Russell converses with the D & D inspired Wizard, warrior, half-elf thief, and princess. Through conversations and interactions with them, he gets more insight into what happened to the friends between coming together and splintering apart years later.
YOU has been mentioned alongside Ready Player One, but I found more of Graham Greene here than the manic energy of Cline’s book. Austin Grossman is a remarkable, fluid writer, who actually makes descriptions of people playing PC games and debugging code fun to read and peppers the book with humor. Where Greene comes in is around the way Russell reminisces about the group, and comes to realize there was more going on than he understood at the time. My knowledge of both the games and programming are limited, so it’s possible someone’s going to pick apart the technical details for gotchas, but the important parts of this books – the characters and story – are sharply created and executed. Grossman balances the three stories very well, sliding effortlessly between the office, tense on the verge of an important product launch, to a coming of age story among nascent gamers, to fantasy tinged ruminations that ultimately combine to tell us why people build games, and why we play them. It’s an entertaining read, and a great one to put on your list for Summer.