“You” follows Russell on his foray into game design when he joins “Black Arts,” a development team started by a group of his old high school friends. His friends turned their school coding project into a grandiose and successful franchise of fantasy RPGs, while Russell drifted away during college in an attempt to distance himself from his “nerdy” past. However, after feeling lost and unfulfilled in every other career path, Russell eventually returns home to video games and joins up with his old crew – now one member short as the key dreamer, Simon, has mysteriously passed away. In a strange turn of events, Russell finds himself in the middle of a company restructure and is placed at the helm of the new installment of the franchise. The novel, told in the first person, recounts his struggles as he tries to navigate this new role and solve the last puzzle – a massive bug in the game engine – that Simon left behind.
I finished “You” a few days ago and I’m really struggling to put my finger on how I feel about this novel. I really want to walk away from this review saying that I loved the book, but I don’t think it’s that clear cut.
One of the positives of the book was that I inherently felt drawn to the story. I’m a giant video game nerd though, so I can’t tell if that’s a merit of the writing itself or the subject matter. You see, I’m a gamer in the sense that, while I may not be very good at games, I truly love them as an art form. You haven’t really experienced video games until you’ve found yourself in a fully immersive world – usually matched by an incredible story – and gotten absolutely lost in your character. It’s a strange phenomenon. You fuse with the character to become this other, fictional person with a unique backstory that nonetheless retains a small part of your consciousness and moral compass; it’s incredibly difficult to describe. Austin Grossman (the author) does a much better job than I at doing so, and it’s one of the things that I appreciated most about the novel.
Once Russell starts playing the games his company develops, he becomes immediately connected to the main characters in his franchise. He sees himself – and his friends – in each of the four recurring heroes as he plays through Black Arts’ franchise. He forms legitimate connections to them, spacing in and out of daydreams where they appear to him during his everyday life as “real” people (more on that later). He welcomes the immersive escape of video games; as someone who feels lost in the real world, becoming this new and purposeful character helps to give him meaning – even if unconventional – as he wades through his life and struggles through what seems to be depression. It also gives him a common thread to others in the real world, and is arguably a key factor in reestablishing healthy interpersonal relationships off the screen. If nothing else, the book does a great job illustrating how intimately you can connect with a video game world.
I also enjoyed the technical aspects of the story. Grossman is, outside of writing, a video game consultant. He’s had experience in true game development; his knowledge of the process is evident and this novel gives you a real glimpse into the nitty gritty day-to-day life of a game designer. At times, it’s as complicated and exhausting as you would think; other times, it seems like the best job in the world. Russell spends some of his days planning for every single possible outcome or bug that a player could find his game, and stressing over how to portray the game to the public so that it has a successful launch. But, almost in tandem, he’s busy doing “market research,” playing through all the games his company has ever produced in a laid back work environment, surrounded by people who are as passionate about their creations as he is. It’s definitely an eye-opening read for anyone who’s ever considered what life would be like in game development.
Unfortunately, I felt as if I spent too much of my time with the book either confused or disinterested. While Russell’s connection to the characters was a plus, the book randomly denigrated into the aforementioned scenes where he imagined the characters coming to life in his apartment. Hell, in one scene he even goes on a dinner date with a game character he “falls in love with.” It was difficult to tell if these mirages stemmed from an overactive imagination or exhaustion; in the date sequence, it could easily have been a metaphor for a real date with a real person. I’ll never know. Whatever the reason, these instances just felt weird and a lot of the time, very sudden – they appeared with no warning, and were pretty jarring.
In fact, “jarring” could also describe the odd flow of introspection that occurred throughout the book. One moment, Russell is describing the game he’s playing or the character’s backstory. The next moment, the soliloquy suddenly transforms, even midsentence, into an observation about his own life – referred to in the third person, to throw in another element of grammatical awkwardness. I could appreciate the intricate parallels that Grossman painstakingly drew between the virtual and real world, but the way in which they were introduced made some of the scenes very hard to follow.
And while we had a lot of interesting story threads to follow in Russell’s real life – the inner workings of game development, the relationships between the characters, what happened to Simon – we didn’t follow them quite that often. A majority of the book was spent fleshing out the fantastical world and lore of the video game itself. I get that the world of the game was Simon’s escape and chance to see himself in a new light, which is why it was placed front and center. But if I wanted to read the lore of a mystical world, I’d have picked up a fantasy novel instead of a book that was supposed to center on game development. I found myself flipping forward, anticipating when we might get back to important action; a lot of the lore building felt superfluous.
That said, because we spent so much time covering the lore of Endoria (the world of the RPG), most of the real-life action felt rushed, underdeveloped, and in some cases forgotten altogether. Without giving away any spoilers, there are a fair number of questions introduced that simply never get resolved or answered. At the end of the novel, I was left expecting… more.
This book wasn’t a bad read, but it wasn’t exactly enthralling either. Perhaps its a case of expectation versus reality, but the jacket cover misleads you into thinking this novel will be some sort of epic gaming adventure along the lines of “Ready Player One.” If that’s what you’re looking for, this is not the book for you. However, if you appreciate meandering world development without much action, and you just want some insight into game development, it’s at minimum an informative read.
“A generation of lawyers and statisticians cut their teeth on the to-hit and damage tables of medieval fantasy. File it under yet another ridiculous thing that probably saved somebody’s life.”