Books

'You' and the Minutia of Coding Vintage Video Games

Austin Grossman's You is kind of like one long advertisement for the sanctity of the video game and the coolness of working in the video games industry.


You

Publisher: Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Company
Length: 383 pages
Author: Austin Grossman
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2013-04
Amazon

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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