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Game Novels 3: You

by Greg Costikyan on 05/17/14 12:28:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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You is the first novel I've ever read that gives a sense of what it's actually like to be a game developer. Oh, there have been other good novels about games, but most that talk about game development (like, say, Reamde) are totally clueless about the actual process. Not surprisingly, Grossman has a past as a game developer.

In a way, this is odd; we expect people who write fiction about the movie business, or publishing, to actually know something about the subject material; but perhaps the game industry is sufficiently novel that few people, and certainly few novelists, do know about it. This is absurd, of course; if there is to be fiction about the world's most important entertainment medium, it needs to be informed by reality.

The protagonist of You, Russell, goes to work as a game designer for a game company founded by friends he met as a teenager at computer camp, called Black Arts, and located in Masschusetts. (Grossman got his start in the industry working for Looking Glass, a Boston-area developer, on System Shock.)

He's working on N in a franchise, where N is greater than 2; but the code base for the game has never been restarted, and has just accreted over time. And the tech lead on the first game, Simon, a close friend, died some time ago. Nobody quite knows what's going on under the hood.

At the risk of spoilers, what's going on under the hood is something close to hard AI.

There is a palpable sense here of what it feels like to truly commit yourself to a project, in a do-or-die way; and of the often unreasonable demands that implies. And there's also a sense of how fucking horrible corporate politics, and publisher intervention, can be to the loyalty and enthusiasm of the team.

There's also some fairly unlikely folderol about the capabilities of the AI, and its implications beyond the narrow constraints of the game industry; but raising tension is a novelistic technique, to be sure.

Austin is an evocative writer, particularly adept with characters who have strong self-doubts; and there are times when the prose is excellent, from a purely word-to-word, literary perspective. (Although perhaps his first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible is even stronger from that perspective.) Of the game-related novels I have read so far (both those reviewed previously and to come), he is likely the strongest writer, qua writer.

But in reading it, my basic feeling was: Oh thank fucking god! Someone has written a book that makes you actually understand what it feels like to be a game developer -- the heartbreaks along with the triumphs.

I'm sure most readers from outside the field won't look at it in quite the same way; and the book is not without flaws. The characters don't grow, much; some aspects of the posited technology are... highly unlikely. And the ending seems somewhat abrupt.

But there is far more to like than to dis here, and certainly, any game developer who likes fiction should pick this up.

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