On Austin Grossman’s “You”

Austin Grossman’s bildungsroman, You, traces the development of a group of friends who promised each other in high school that they would create the ultimate video game. The story starts in 1997, when everyone in the group is in their late twenties. The group’s genius, Simon, has recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and the narrator, Russell, who long since abandoned his friends for a more respectable life as a law student, finally decides that, at heart, he really does just want to make video games, and so takes a job that will reunite him with his friends in their successful game studio, Black Arts.

I won’t get into a complete plot summary here, but the gist is that there’s a deadly “bug” running throughout all of Black Arts’ games, and while trying to track it down, Russell has to go back and play through every game created by his friends, a process that is accompanied by several trips down memory lane, where we learn both the story of these four friends and the story of video games in general.

In other words, it’s not just a bildungsroman for the narrator, but also for video games as an art form. Which is one of the reasons why I liked it.

To be sure, the book does have its flaws; most glaring is Grossman’s attempt to externalize the conflict beyond the confines of Black Arts’ survival to the safety and security of the world’s economy. Through a strange contrivance, it seems Black Arts once sold software to an investment company that used it to automate the buying and selling of stock, and the bug that threatens the studio’s video games now threatens to take down the entire market; there’s even intimations that the bug was the cause of Black Monday, the stock market crash of October 1987.

I don’t know if Grossman was attempting to raise the stakes of the novel through this plot contrivance or using it to show how Simon’s computer-programming brilliance went beyond “mere” video games, but it felt a bit unnecessary. Thankfully, it’s just a small side of the story and not the driver of the main plot.

I do know that I enjoyed the way Grossman used video-game design as a method for characterization. Black Arts develops a fantasy-based role-playing series in the vain of The Elder Scrolls, a first-person shooter series in the vain of 3D Wolfenstein and Doom, and a strategy series similar to Civilization (though set in space). Each of the three series is designed by each of the narrator’s three friends, with their unique personalities coming through not in the dialogues or decisions they make in their real life, but in the way they design their games.

Grossman’s missed opportunity is failing to show us how the game the narrator is hired to design actually ends up being played; in other words, failing to show us the narrator’s “ultimate game.” Now, I say this despite knowing that the book is, to a large extent, supposed to stand in for that game (the book even opens with the line, “So what’s your ultimate game?,” to which the narrator responds, “Right. How would you define that?”), and despite Russell explaining his ideal game to the reader (one where the player  is completely free to do whatever he or she wants and the computer engine would still find a way to generate a story). I say it because, when Russell finally does demo the game he designed, we get sidetracked into the bug-hunting aspect of the plot. There’s never a “clean” version of his game being played.

I guess what I’m saying is that I shared Russell’s vision for an ultimate game and I wanted to see exactly how he would have pulled it off. Instead, the ultimate game gets left behind, and instead we get a traditional video-game plot where a group of four characters have to travel (literally [in the virtual sense]) to the end of the universe (which is also the beginning of the universe) in order to retrieve a magic sword from a big, bad boss.

While it’s not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, I enjoyed reading it and can easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing, imagining, and reading about the history of video games.