2013 • 400 pages • Mulholland Books
The first identity I ever explicitly owned was gamer.
My brother is significantly older than I am, and I experienced his nineties adolescence secondhand as a small child. The signifiers of cool (for a given value where whatever your older sibling does is awesome) were the SEGA Genesis in the corkboard entertainment center in my brother’s room, the familiar weight and heft of a Nintendo 64 controller, and a discarded Street Fighter II strategy guide that I poured over in the family van. I remember perching on a medicine ball and watching him play Warcraft II, the two of us in perfect, rapt silence; I remember fleeing from the room as he faced off with Ganon for the last time in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Pop culture starved as I was, video games became my childhood imagination’s major anchor.
For me, video games were all about exploration, storytelling, and mastering a different world, in a way that I, stranded in suburbia, had no actual chance of doing. It certainly helped that Link, who I logged the most time as, was like me: blonde, left-handed, and a child in an adult’s body. I never felt like I was playing Link. He was simply an alternate version of me.
Austin Grossman’s You talks about these identity politics unique to gaming in a way that only someone who truly understands gaming from that particular perspective does. Grossman, a writer and video game designer, knows that landscape intimately, managing to make what might have been a twee concept—protagonist Russell occasionally sees and interacts with the four main characters from the video game franchise Realms of Gold—into something familiar to any fan: what’s the line between what was on the table and what you brought to it? And does that line even matter?
The characters of You are not only gamers, but game developers, who grew up right alongside the development of video games from literal curiosity cabinets to culture defining artifacts. Darren, Simon, Don, and Lisa, after their friend Russell abandons them for college and a “normal life” after high school, found Black Arts. It’s only when Russell, having bounced from would-be lawyer to improv actor to no longer either of those, applies for a job at Black Arts that they reconnect and start to dig back up their shared history. That history is all the more potent for being played out both in teenage tech camps and the mystical world of Endoria, garages and tombs. The double consciousness of the teenage fantasy fan in the eighties(or, indeed, of any teenager) is explored sensitively but not sentimentally, especially coming from the perspective of Russell, who takes a while to find a positive identity as a geek.
While there’s plenty of forward movement (as Black Arts struggles to make the deadline for the latest Realms of Gold game whilst fighting off a game-destroying virus) and a hint at a darker past (Simon, the heart of Black Arts, dies in a freak accident before the novel opens, so I naturally assumed he was murdered, which never comes to pass), You is less interested in resolving conflict than it is in revealing the process by which video games are made. Setting the novel in 1997 and working backwards allows Grossman to cover the major eras of video game development before the means to make and distribute video games became more accessible in the aughts. They even attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a vague Holy Grail of mine as a child before I started going to conventions, and Grossman captures the singular energy of that expo during the nineties.
Grossman writes about gaming in a way that actually captures it. It’s incredibly difficult to capture one medium with another, but Grossman manages in a way I haven’t seen before. (I’m told Ready Player One also does this, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I will, though!) In Russell’s quiet, internal, and yearning voice, he talks about gaming in a way that’s both nostalgic and clear-eyed. For instance, on seeing a glitch, Russell reflects:
“It was remarkable, terrifyingly remarkable, and deeply uncanny, the way a broken simulation always is; something about it suggested a brain having a stroke, an invisible crisis in the machinery. It had lunged up momentarily from the depths of the code base, a flash of white fin and gaping mouth seen for an instant, then gone again. (45)”
But the ending left me with a sour taste in my mouth, akin to my utter rejection of Chuck Klosterman’s self-loathing in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The first ending, which highlights why humans tell each other and ourselves stories, is perfectly fine. It’s the second, at the end of a coda, that says that the greatest game of all is reality that rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the sentiment—I had to stop playing World of Warcraft because I have a hard enough time coming up with goals and dreams for myself, let alone my Troll rogue—but it implies the tired, smug line that people who love video games just can’t face reality. I am assuming that this is far from Grossman’s intention, since video games are such an important part of his life, but I just can’t shake that impression off.
I rented this book from the public library.