On the evening of Christmas 1992 I lay on the floor sobbing and screaming “HE KILLED ME!” repeatedly. I was referring to a game of Mario Brothers that my brothers were playing, having received it that morning. (I do maintain that my brother killed me in an underhanded manner — that being pausing the game when I was mid-jump, resulting in my inevitable fall into the chasm when the game was unpaused — and he did it was because I was winning.) That’s the last time I played a video game.
Nevertheless, I like listening to people talk about video games. Not those conversations about who scored a sick no-scope head shot, or which character’s passive ability allows them to farm the most efficiently, mind you, but about why video games can be meaningful and why they matter. That is exactly why I read Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, who has an interesting grasp on both the purposeful and the harmful side of habitual gaming. I went to a party where my friend gave a presentation on video games, how they’ve shaped his relationship with his brothers and how the hours he spends playing them make him feel content. Then I read Reamde by Neal Stephenson, which blurred the line between what happens in-game and what happens in the real world in a fascinating way, before it abruptly stopped and did less fascinating things. I like observing the way video games give their players epic purpose on a manageable scale.
When I came across You by Austin Grossman, the newest addition to video game literature, I was intrigued. Grossman is the author of 2007’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, and an experienced game developer. You is the story of four friends – Darren, Simon, Lisa, and Russell – who begin designing games in high school and start Black Arts Studios together. Darren is the charismatic leader, Simon is the aloof genius, Lisa is socially awkward but brilliant, and Russell is the one who thought he was above it all. When the rest of them went to UMass together he went to Dartmouth and then law school. At the beginning of the book, he has dropped out of law school and been hired as a game designer at the company that made his high school buddies rich and famous.
You is not subtle about the fact that video games are a metaphor for life, and this is what I liked best about it. During his job interview at Black Arts, they ask Russell to describe his ultimate game, and he is flummoxed. What is the ultimate game? A game that is both immersive and fulfilling? What will make him happy? What kind of man does he want to be? With the high-stakes hero’s journey laid out on the table in the first chapter, Grossman has 400 pages to explore every possible way the video game production process parallels Russell’s life. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in genuine energy. You get the feeling Grossman has been wanting to talk about video games in this way for a long, long time.
As Grossman has firsthand experience of producing a game from concept to shipping, he’s usually in one of two modes: explaining the logistics of video game production or showing how deeply you can read into them. Sometimes he just sounds like he’s bragging about how hard and awesome his job is, such as: “It was like we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors who weren’t even going to follow the script.”
The book is at its best when the two modes work for each other, when the logistics of playing a video game dovetail into what he’s saying about the vagaries of adult life. As Russell plays his way through the Black Arts catalogue, he observes the following: “It’s only when you finish the entire damned Realms of Gold III and start on the next one that you see one of the deep truths of the WAFFLE engine. Because when you type rogiv.exe, you get the prompt Import rogiii.dat?”
Those two sentences express something vital to Russell’s journey, the way he has moved from one path to another in life without ever really starting over, and they also unlock the plot mystery brewing at Black Ats, and they do it in language I wouldn’t have understood when I started the book. It’s video game language, and Grossman wrote a terrific book with it.