We’re reading YOU by Austin Grossman

10 Jul

Leigh Alexander explores the chasm between neat idea and commercial game.

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Mulholland Books, PPB £13.99

The great, shared eye-roll among all those in the business of making video games is that at some point in your career, you will have to hear about a well-intentioned acquaintance, relative or dinner guest’s really great idea for a video game. The joke is that nearly everyone has had a really great idea for a video game, but nearly no one understands the yawning chasm between glimmering idea and the machine of industry.

Austin Grossman’s You sheds light on the disillusioning reality of game development, where grim social outcasts work long hours on shoestring budgets, in the shadow of distant egos and clueless publishers. And they’re doing all this not even, necessarily, to create the next fantastic and believable world, but to try to fit more polygons on the screen, to sort the time-optimal number of software bugs to nuke, to puzzle out the caprices of ancient software routines no one has the time to renovate.

The novel excels in showing, as they say, how the sausage gets made — and sketches quite convincing illustrations of what sort of people would be idealistic, lost, or oblivious enough to fall into that breed of work. The story’s protagonist has halfheartedly faked his way through “normal” success, even “coolness”, since high school. The novel’s opening finds him surrendering, hat in hand, to seek employment at Black Arts, a fictional, mid-level game company founded by fellow outcasts from those younger days.

Memories of those days at computer camp are distant, but surface slowly as the team begins work on a crucial sequel in Black Arts’ flagship Realms of Gold franchise, among executive departures and the threat of lost funding all too common in the games industry. The once-friends are bound by tragedy: The accidental death years ago of Simon, the friend whose game-making obsession still leads them.

It’s hard to tell if You wants to dignify the creation of games or not:The characters are real enough, and elicit our empathy. There’s compassion here for the sense of not-belonging that might motivate someone to the strange and thankless work of game development.

Yet the story mostly relies on clear-cut, heavy tropes: the generic space franchise, the generic four-character fantasy franchise. While these provide immediate, recognizable touchstones for readers who aren’t necessarily into gaming, their dominance means that there’s really no scrappy hero story to be had here. Where’s the nobility in the building of such oft-made treacle?

Not in the game: the protagonist converses regularly with the game’s characters, and later delivers successive first-person accounts of playing these fictional games. A neat trick on paper, this just has the effect of making games in general seem ridiculous, repetitive, and dull.

The actual climax of the narrative, which finds the childhood friends unpuzzling Simon’s last wish, is buried in rote gamerspeak, muddled and meaningless. The title, You, alludes to one’s agency over a game’s characters, but there is precious little “you” can use as an entry point to Black Arts’ middling oeuvre.

The story’s protagonist was never quite “well-adjusted” enough for an ordinary career arc, nor was he ever the sort of dark, unusual brain it takes to imagine and program alternate digital realities. The book encapsulates that ambivalence, unsure how to feel about its subject matter. It does a fine job illustrating the culture of game creation. But though it tries and tries, it never really justifies the outcome of that creation. It’s a frustrating and ambivalent stance to take – but we’ve all been there.

Also on the blog: Leigh Alexander drifts out of her comfort zone in the company of James Smythe’s The Explorer.

And in “Three ways to play the future”, Leigh explores the future of on-line gaming. Read her now in Arc 1.1: The future always wins.

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