I missed my Xbox while I was in England. I had access to one for the first half the year, during which time I managed to be completely disappointed by Assassin’s Creed 3. Then I moved, and Xbox-playing became a faded memory for a while. So when I came back home for the summer, one of the first things I sat down to do was play Xbox—and specifically, to play Mass Effect through from the beginning. I love this game series beyond all reason. Getting to be Commander Shepard—and not just anyone’s Commander Shepard, my Commander Shepard—and making choices that span not one but three games’ worth of story is an amazing, immersive experience. It merges my love of storytelling with my love of shooting pixels by proxy, and it does so seamlessly.
I probably shouldn’t have read You while binging on Mass Effect, though, because the juxtaposition makes it abundantly clear that playing video games is infinitely preferable to reading about playing video games.
You is a Coupland-esque sojourn through the halcyon days of 1990s game development. Back in high school and college, Russell and his friends Don, Lisa, Simon, and Darren created a video game. The other four went off to form Black Arts and make more games while Russell said, “See ya later, nerds” and tried to become a lawyer. When that didn’t pan out, he came crawling back, and the book begins with an awkward job interview. A few days later, Russell is lead game designer for the next big Realms game, because that’s life in the tumultuous world of gaming companies!
Reading You is a bit like navigating a very confusing, poorly-laid out series of identical corridors in a video game. The graphics are stunning, mind you—3D so real you think it’s going to spit at you, super-realistic physics on the blood spatters, footsteps that sound appropriate to whatever material you’re walking over. But for all these improvements, the camera never quite seems to be where you need it to be, and it seems like every single time you try to swing Lara over to the next ledge, this causes her to miss and plummet to her death. Oops. Sorry, Lara.
Austin Grossman has a background in game development, so he should know how the development process works. I do not have a background in game development, so I’m not going to nitpick. Much. Most of what he spins here seems realistic enough from what I’ve read elsewhere. The pressure and deadlines from Black Arts’ new, disinterested corporate investors is believable, as is their dismal short-staffing. That being said, the idea that Russell is suddenly the lead game designer, despite having no experience in this field and barely being able to program his way out of a cardboard box, is laughably contrived at best.
I also raise a critical eyebrow at the contention that Simon’s WAFFLE game engine is so ineffably amazing that a) nobody knows how it works and b) no one has replaced it so far. I’m familiar with the fact that, once in a while, a genius programmer comes along and creates something so tightly constructed that it’s difficult for other programmers to wrap their heads around the design and how it functions. These programs then stick around across generations of employees, legacies that “just work” and should not be prodded with a stick for any reason. So I can believe that, until now, no one has really been motivated to disturb Simon’s engine. Barely. (I’m sceptical that the engine was so amazing and ahead of its time that it has remained competitive for so long.)
But when an intentional bug buried by Simon in WAFFLE happens more frequently prior to the launch of Realms VII, Russell and crew need to find out how to fix it … by playing all the previous Black Arts games. Because they can’t just go in and tweak the engine, oh no. They have to fix the problem in the game! This is just so monumentally stupid and the kind of thing that only happens in bad hacker movies. It’s the kind of self-indulgent nonsense that sounds much cooler than it really is.
As Russell delves further into the history of Black Arts (because, remember, despite knowing these people in high school and now being the lead game designer, he has no experience with any of their games after he drifted away from them), he discovers that the bug stems from Simon’s latent daddy issues, amplified by the break in Simon’s friendship with Darren. Simon was bitter and decided to cause Y2K, or something like that. Once again, the actual over-arching plot is flimsier than any excuses game designers give for boobplate armour. And I’m pretty sure Grossman knows this, mind you—he writes games; he knows how plots like this work.
And so You reveals itself as a combination of schlocky homage to paper-thin storytelling in the name of glamourous gameplay and a breathless exploration of the nineties gaming zeitgeist. Grossman deliberately goes over the top with aspects of the plot, aiming for melodrama where drama would have been sufficient, because that’s what games (and the atmosphere around games) were like in the nineties. In this respect, I’m not sure then if You is poorly written so much as written well, but in a way that does nothing for me.
Grossman does a better job at capturing the sentiments of ex–computer nerd Russell. I wasn’t old enough back then to be part of the gaming world and understand the ambivalence felt towards the companies, like Electronic Arts and Activision, that were simultaneously propelling game design to glorious new heights and stomping upon the hacker ethos that had spurred the field in the first place. A lot of what Russell experiences in this book feels like an accurate reflection of what many game designers and gamers who had been around in the 1980s probably felt in the 1990s as technology took off and game design started to “get away” from them. When Russell visits E3, he has an epiphany that the event is not about game design; it’s marketing towards retailers. Gaming went big in a big way while he was away from the keyboard, and he’s just now understanding how corporatized it has become.
To this end, You reflects a lot of the ambivalence (or outright bitterness) we gamers feel in the present day. Grossman capitalizes on some of the nostalgia for the “good old days” when gaming was a more underground experience: 5-inch floppy disks, printing out code and then entering it into another computer by hand, all the little tricks required to fool a player into thinking they are seeing something the computer can’t actually generate. And I can’t really pretend to understand or feel this bitterness myself, only a wistful yearning for such understanding—but I can recognize it and sympathize with it, thanks in part to things like this.
So Grossman has created a story that is not particularly well-structured or well-defined, and whether that is an intentional bit of satire or just poor writing, it doesn’t work for me. Yet he has, through intention or accident, stumbled upon a key requirement in fiction, which is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be factually true, but should be emotionally true. Here, he succeeds. You is confusing as hell at times, and I admit I skimmed through maybe the last twenty pages because they were rambling and pointless. (Seriously, just skip the Coda. There is no need for it.) But it tugs on some heartstrings on a single, visceral level, which raises it in my esteem just a little bit.
There are so many ways in which this novel could be better. I enjoyed but couldn’t quite extol Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I’m inclined to be less charitable here. Grossman’s handling of character has not improved—no one in You, Russell included, has much in the way of depth, and I didn’t care about them at all. Knowing now that he has these connections to game design makes his approach to storytelling in both novels make a little more sense, but I still can’t praise either work’s story.
In the end, I don’t think you’d miss much if you skip You. If you want a better book about life in software development, read Coupland’s Microserfs and jPod.