We of a certain age (When did we get this old?) grew up with video games. That is, we (more or less) matured with the medium. We were gamers before video games were mainstream. Sure, the jocks played Nintendo, too, but we were the ones who emerged, dazed, from our parents’ basements after a marathon session, pale and hollow-eyed, squinting at that damned bright orb in the sky. We had worlds to explore. World to conquer. Why waste time chasing a ball?
YOU begins when Russell, ivy league graduate and law school dropout, aimless, adrift, interviews for a position at the game studio Black Arts. The catch: Black Arts is the successful brainchild of two of Russell’s former friends and high school classmates, Darren and Simon. Simon, the troubled genius who created Black Arts’s signature line, Realms of Gold, died several years earlier in a freak accident. Lisa, also part of Russell’s high school crew, is a programmer at Black Arts. Despite a desultory interview, and absolute inexperience with games, Black Arts hires Russell as a designer. Russell proves himself an apt designer, but as he and his colleagues toil over the next entry in Realms of Gold, they begin encountering, with increasing frequency, a catastrophic bug that threatens the success of the game. Thus begins Russell’s (and the reader’s) journey down the rabbit hole of late 90s video game design.
It’s clear that Grossman is familiar with the process of game production. (Indeed, he worked as a game designer on Epic Mickey and Dishonored, among others.) And the details Grossman provides ring true: The programmers camping out in sleeping bags under their desks; the rivalries and resentments between different departments; the vampire existence that begins to set in as it becomes normal to stay at work until 2 or 3 in the morning and return to the office around lunchtime the same day. Grossman has lived this, and he provides readers a window into the everyday lives of game developers.
If the anthropology of game makers is of interest to readers, it is Russell’s relationship with his friends Simon, Darren, and Lisa, that will be more widely recognizable. Grossman structures YOU in “ages,” i.e., “The First Age,” “The Second Age,” mirroring the mythical timeline of Simon’s opus, Realms of Gold. Russell and his friends met during a high school programming class, a collaboration that spawned the first Realms of Gold game. Even then, the personalities that would flower in adulthood were evident: Simon, the eccentric loner; Darren, the charismatic leader; Lisa, so left brained that she is practically alienated from emotion. And Russell? Russell is, oddly, something of an empty shell. Russell is the odd-man-out, the one who will abandon his friends as he readies himself for college and, presumably, a less nerdy adulthood. Russell’s seeming dearth of personality is at first troubling, but eventually provides readers payoff as he discovers himself. It’s a trait, also, that Grossman cleverly uses to permit readers to project themselves into the story.
Of course, YOU is about video games, or, rather, the meaning of video games, why they matter, why they’re so important to so many people. And, as the title of the book suggests, it’s not about the game, really. It’s about you. Games, like books, permit users to project themselves into the story, to explore new worlds and new modes of thought, and, ultimately, to discover themselves. As Grossman says, it’s “[y]ou and the machine, like Scheherazade and her king mixed up together in one, trying over and over to tell yourself your own story, and get it right.” Highfalutin, perhaps, when one considers that many games are based on fast cars and guns and bombs, but any player will realize that there’s truth in what Grossman says. Like Simon, we’re creating ourselves, even if we need to get away from this world in order to do it.
YOU is not all nostalgia for lost adolescence or rhapsodic prose about the power of games, although those elements are present. (And Grossman is judicious in his use of them.) There is humor here, too, of a surreal sort, that vaguely reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Russell becomes so absorbed in game design that he begins to have dreams about Realm of Gold characters. He asks the wizard, Lorac, if Lisa might have a crush on him. “Isn’t this more of a Brennan question?” Lorac replies, referring to his warrior teammate. Lisa’s left-brainedness is both tragic and comic: She doesn’t know what it means for a game to be “fun,” and, playing an Asteroids-style arcade game, she just wants to use her “triangle” to shoot the other shapes on the screen.
YOU is a pleasure to read, an ode to video games and nostalgia and the pain of growing up and finding one’s place in life. Like the lives of Grossman’s characters, the novel isn’t perfect. The plot is threadbare, a vehicle, really, to explore the history of Russell and his friends, and at times in meanders. Grossman sometimes veers into sentimentality, but readers who know some of Simon’s pain won’t mind. (And if we can’t be sentimental in novels, where can we be?) YOU isn’t fantasy and it isn’t sci-fi, but those elements are present. A well-told story about friendship and life (and videogames), YOU is highly recommended.