You by Austin Grossman

You by Austin GrossmanReview: You by Austin Grossman (Mulholland Books, 2013)

“We held certain truths to be self-evident, but those truths were that elves hate orcs and wizards can’t wear metal armor.”

Oh, the joy of this book. It’s made for us, just for us. Literature for nerds. Actual serious writing not just for us but about us. With the deepest of insights into our very souls. Touching and frighteningly accurate glimpses of our pasts and presents. Tantalising clues as to our futures. Zero lag and mind-blowing graphics. Okay, maybe not the graphics…

Austin Grossman’s You knows its target audience well. Like Ernest Cline’s incredible Ready Player One this is aimed squarely at those of us who grew up alongside video games, from Gauntlet to Grand Theft Auto. Grossman is an equal opportunities nerd though and the focus is split between digital geekery and dice-bound shenanigans. You tells the story of Russel, an aimless thirty-something who has wandered from degree to job and back again before finding himself applying to the rising star of a games company founded by his school friends Darren, Simon and Lisa.

Black Arts’ key franchise is the Realms series, a long-running fantasy RPG following the exploits of four archetypal heroes over millenia of their homeland’s history. It secured their place in the annals of gaming history, allowed the development of their Clandestine FPS series and made a tidy sum of money. Unfortunately all is not well in Black Arts’ inner sanctum. Following Simon’s tragic early death, Darren became the sole powerhouse behind the company. Unfortunately, no sooner has Russel arrived than Darren jumps ship to form a new company, taking most of the talent with him and leaving the remainder severely in the lurch. With a new game due to hit the markets and a newly-acquired massive debt to a venture capital group looming over them, Russel, Lisa, Dan and the rest of the crew must somehow pool their limited resources and craft that holy grail, the ultimate game.

You‘s structure is chaotic at times but in a refreshing rather than bewildering way. The core of the novel is Russel’s quest to construct the latest Realms game against all the odds, promoted to lead designer after Darren’s departure and thoroughly out of his depth. The action is largely played out in what should be an intensely dull environment – a man in a chair, staring at a screen – but managed to ensnare me straight away. Anyone with a lick of experience in computing or gaming will be right alongside him as he delves deeper into the lore of the series, the challenges of game design and the mystical arts of graphics and coding. Alongside this runs a series of flashbacks detailing how Russel and his friends came to their current situation from their first iteration of Realms as a school computing project. The third and most bizarre narrative thread comes from the actual heroes of the game, manifesting in Russel’s dreams (or is it reality?) and guiding him through the history of the Realms world. The chapters themselves are often unconventionally written, taking the form of instruction manuals, adventure game dialogue, interviews. It helps to keep the book moving when the plot slows down, maintaining its fresh, original air throughout.

But seriously? I’m here for the games. You plays out as more or less a history of gaming and those who love it. Set in the mid-late 90s when computer games first gained recognition as a serious and lucrative industry it’s perfectly placed to serve as a nostalgic feast for initiates and an accessible primer for newbies. While Black Arts is fictional the rest of the historical background is very much real, to the point of including a chronology of the rise of gaming. Grossman’s enthusiasm for the subject (he worked on some of the finest games ever including the ground-breaking Deus Ex) is so infectious that I found myself – horrible admission here – watching YouTube videos of other people playing through classic arcade games. And yes, I may have downloaded a few game soundtracks. And games, which I’m not allowed to do any more because they are my personal form of crack.

You is a wonderful book, not just for the nerds among us but for anyone who enjoys a warm and genuine tale of a man searching for and discovering his purpose. Its light nature belies a more serious aspect and reading does lead one down avenues of introspection and self-evaluation. It’s about self-discovery as much as anything else, about finding the hidden reserves within ourselves, and constantly reminds us that “the secret of the ultimate game is that you’re already in the ultimate game, all the time, forever.” No mean feat for a book about pixels.

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