‘You’ and the Minutia of Coding Vintage Video Games

Douglas Copeland’s Microserfs and jPod might be the most famous novels dealing with working life at computer software companies, the latter of which is set at a video game manufacturer. Well, now there’s Austin Grossman’s You, another novel set in the world of video game development, with a bit of a twist: this one’s largely set in the halcyon days of the tech bubble of the late ‘90s, with flashbacks to the days of the personal computer’s infancy in the early ‘80s. You, in fact, is presumably an autobiographical novel: the author is a video game design consultant (he is also the author of Soon I Will Be Invincible, a previous novel about a comic book supervillain).

For this reader, however, You could have been called Me. I’ve never worked at a video game manufacturer, but I’ve worked for a digital design agency, and the world of video games and website building seem to be precisely the same: I got my job a number of years ago by way of a high school friend, as does the protagonist of You (though in the latter case, it’s a matter of a plurality of friends). I’ve also had to work into the wee hours of the morning on projects – the main character in You wakes up one morning at his desk using his sneakers for pillows – and I’ve also had the experience, as the protagonist of You does, of wading into introductory projects as means of a test to see if you actually fit in with the company culture.

Thus, You is not just about video games, it is about working in the technology industry. And I have to say, based on my experience, You is pretty accurate. But You isn’t just for computer nerds: there’s a heavy fantasy and sci-fi element as well, and anyone who has played tabletop RPGs will appreciate the world that Grossman brings to life in the novel.

Sadly, this element really begins to overshadow the working-life aspect of the book, bringing it closer to a game than an actual rumination on what it’s like to work on the cutting edge, which is why You winds up sorely lacking. In fact, reading You slowly becomes a little like watching someone play a video game (which is boring in and of itself), and then delves into almost watching someone code a video game, or at least de-bug it, which is godawfully tedious. In fact, all attempts at character development get jettisoned in an attempt to render what it’s like to build an immersive video game to a T, at which point just reading this novel becomes stressful.

If you’ve ever read books to escape to a fantasy life where your concerns at work can just melt away, You is not for you. Just reading You, you get caught up in the anxiety of actually having to build a video game. To that end, the reader should get paid overtime for reading this novel, instead of having to shell out for the privilege. By the last 100 pages or so, I’d simply stopped caring, but that’s mostly due to the fact that the novel simply stops making sense, and turns into something out of a session of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I may carp about the reading experience of You too accurately simulating a workplace as much as I’m intrigued by this element, but by novel’s end, itl had simply gone into another realm altogether and was trying to be an actual video game. Which, of course, just doesn’t work unless your book is one of the Choose Your Own Adventure variety.

It’s sad, because You starts out with a crackerjack premise: the main character, Russell, joins a video game company started by a few high school friends he had lost touch with (he’d gone to try his hand at studying law, but found that he wasn’t quite suited for the legal world), and is quickly posed with a perplexing problem. There’s a bug in the video game the company is working on, and it’s a serious one as it involves a black blade that allows anyone who touches it to kill everyone (while slowly dying oneself) in the game. And the problem’s root is somewhere in the entire library of games that the studio, Black Arts, which seems to be modeled after the real-life Sierra On-Line (which became defunct in 2008) to some degree, has published.

This turns the story into something of a mystery, as Russell has to go back and play the company’s old video games to see if the bug turns up in any of them and has replicated itself and infected the rest of the company’s flagship titles. Which may lead one to ask: so why does the problem only turn up in 1997 and not somewhere before? Well, I have to say that I’ve read You from cover to cover, and the book doesn’t really have much of an answer for this. In fact, the book quickly devolves from being a novel about working for the man into a laborious slog through fictitious video game titles that, truthfully, wouldn’t be much fun to play outside of the author’s own imagination.

It’s a real shame, because You does pose some interesting points that get waylaid in the narrative within the narrative. There’s a lot to be said about how technology companies operate, and how they get bought out by bigger fish that may not be actually interested in the concept of video games as a whole, and may be more interested in the technology that fuels such games that they can use to their own end. There’s a cool insider look at how E3, the big annual gaming expo, operates. There’s lots of rumination on how video games have positioned themselves to be even bigger than Hollywood. There’s even a few indirect jabs at the late Roger Ebert’s assertion that video games could never be an art form. And there’s also a lot of video game history and back story for those of us who were just coming of age when computers started to be cool and affordable by the average family. (I had a VIC-20, the precursor to the Commodore 64 and its sort of low rent cousin, in the early ‘80s.)

However, and even though this sounds like a lot for a book to take in, much of this gold occurs in the book’s early half. Eventually, the book’s silly side takes over and what the reader eventually gets is narrative where the heroes of the video games of the Black Arts titles themselves actually come to life and start having conversations and interactions with our narrator. I suppose this is just Grossman’s way of saying how video games have become so realistic and intertwined with real life for some, but this element really detracts from some truly profoundly interesting things that You has to say.

This is particularly damning as You actually only too fleetingly raises the issue of what it must be like to work with friends you knew in high school, but floated away from during your college years – which is where the meat of the characterizations should reside. Tragically, this is a glossed-over element, making the characters all seem two-dimensional to each other in a 3D gaming landscape, and it isn’t until page 271 or thereabouts – roughly three-fourths of the way through the book – where one character actually addresses that Russell may just be, you know, using people he actually had bonds with simply to earn a paycheque. And then, as quickly as it is brought up, this is dropped like some unwanted piece of inventory in, well, a video game.

In the end, all You is really about is, to quote the text itself, being “in the goddamned games business.” It just hammers home that the characters “were rock stars and doing the most exciting thing on the planet and getting paid for it.” The entire book is, thus, kind of like one long advertisement for the sanctity of the video game, and the coolness of working in the video games industry. In short, this is the sort of screed that an undiscerning 15-year-old boy would find enticing, if not for the fact that much of the narrative is set at the precise moment where such an ideal reader was just being born, and the flashbacks go back even farther than that! It’s unfortunate, because there are glimmers in the pixilation of You’s universe where it strives to say something more, about the industry as a whole, about what modern-day work life is like, about the nature of taking a transient technology and making something real and meaningful out it.

Alas, in the end, You is about a vapid as playing Space Invaders in the arcade. Maybe this is just a sign that the Video Game Industry novel is still in its infancy even though its subject matter is not. Or maybe Grossman is simply a better maker of games than a writer of novels – I recall that I read Soon I Will Be Invincible when it came out, but struggle to remember anything about the book beyond the very basic plot, and I suspect that You will befall the same fate in a few years’, if not weeks’, time.

Regardless, the most damning thing about You comes six pages before the very end, where the author actually asks the following question in the text: “Can’t we get this over with?”

You simply overstays its welcome: it’s the sort of thing that might have made for a fine novella, but at its present length of nearly 400 pages, it just rambles on to the point where it starts being incomprehensible and utterly joyless to read. As the author delves deeper and deeper into the Black Arts backcatalogue, the reader will probably stop caring about the nature of the problem besieging the company. You may be about a software bug, but the novel bugs me. There was so much potential for something rich and enticing in a narrative about struggling to be on the bleeding edge in You.

Ass much as I hate to say it, aside from some interesting points raised and then quickly dismissed, you would probably be better off playing a video game than reading about how one gets made. You is patently and alternatively stressful, boring and silly as a book. At least a good video game offers something more: a chance to escape to a fantasy world, rather than being in mired in one that may too realistically mirror the one you’re already in. And the latter is precisely what You is, sadly, too much like. That is, of course, when the book isn’t being entirely laughable and becomes like a game that nobody in their right mind would be interested in playing.

RATING 3 / 10