‘You’ is about the history that persists among four close friends and how for one particular group fantasy games are tangled in personal fantasies and tragedies. The book takes the point of view of Russell, who has been estranged from the rest of the group. While Russell was studying law, Darren, Simon and Lisa have built a successful game studio, Black Arts. Darren is the charismatic designer and the face of Black Arts. Lisa is a brilliant programmer, possibly autistic, who has both naive and jaded personality traits. Simon was possibly the most gifted of the four, with an intuitive programming style and a troubled childhood. The book starts with Russell interviewing at Black Arts, years after Simon’s unanticipated death.
I was compelled to start reading by the cover art, obviously licensed from Sword & Sworcery EP, but ‘You’ did not take long to become shockingly relatable to me, and not only because of the title. In some ways, Russell’s experiences, especially in the beginning of the book, bore resemblance to my own. The book begins with Russell taking a job as a designer after time spent in a mostly-unrelated field. Not long after, Darren and many of the top designers leave the studio and Russell inherits the title of Lead Designer. My personal experience at Toy Studio was very similar. Already I was rooting for this book and its protagonist.
Descriptions of Black Arts games vary between an optimistic naivete about the capabilities of modern game technologies and tools, and a genuine knowledge of how game mechanics operate. The former I take as artistic license. After all, the author, Austin Grossman’s first novel was ‘Soon I Will Be Invincible,’ a tale of Justice League-analogues which plays fast and loose with the state of the art, as most all superhero fiction does. Here’s where I first realized that Grossman actually knows something about game design, from page 289:
“The tiny delay forced a slower, sneakier Nick, one who chose his shots, one who had to think, one who seemed rather more mortal...A quarter-second difference changed the feeling.”
The book also touches on the distinction between narrative and ludonarrative. Only in preparing this review did I learn that Grossman worked as a writer on beloved real-world games like System Shock and most recently Dishonored.
At the core of the fictional games of Black Arts studios is a simulation engine called WAFFLE which was written by Simon, and which is now increasingly exhibiting a game-breaking ‘feature’ called Mournblade. Mournblade is an artifact carried over from the first game Darren and Simon ever made, which was an ASCII-art fantasy game. Miraculously, WAFFLE’s code has changed so little that previous games are embedded in new ones, and saved games from earlier games can be imported into later ones.
The actual game design for Black Arts’ next title takes Russell virtually no diegetic time, and seems to be mostly a matter of listing nouns to include, so most of Russell’s time in the book is spent searching for Mournblade through Black Arts’ entire catalogue, including spinoff games like ‘Realms of Golf.’
The climax, while tense, is disappointing because its significance is explained only after the fact. The title character of Black Arts’ first game, Adric, is the ultimate wielder of Mournblade and Russell takes great pains to slay him (on a skateboard). While this difficult battle was raging on the page, in my head I was thinking ‘why is he doing this again?’ Afterwards, we learn that there is a rule stating that if Adric is killed the Mournblade goes away. ‘Oh.’
Still, I was swept along as Black Arts collapsed (apparently due to Bain Capital), and the book ends with Russell starting up a new game studio. A satisfyingly hopeful ending. Oddly, the day after reading this there were financially-motivated layoffs at Toy Studio, and I decided to start up a new game studio myself (details forthcoming). Coincidence? I think so.
‘You’ is an engaging book with an informal style and well-drawn characters. I’d recommend reading it, but I may be biased because it seems to have been written just for me. I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
Follow Rob Lockhart on twitter: @bobbylox