I have mentioned before that I enjoy playing video games, but I’m rather specific about which kinds of video games I like to play. I’ve tried a lot genres since I got my first gaming console (a first-generation GameBoy), but of all the genres available, I’ve always been drawn to RPGs, especially when I got a PlayStation 1 and started playing Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy VII. Though many video game RPGs are notable because of their graphics, what drew me to them was not so much the graphics as the stories they told. As a lifelong reader, books were able to provide me with new worlds to immerse myself in, albeit I could not interact with them in any deeper way. RPGs, on the other hand, were like books in that they had a deeper storyline than the average platformer, but with the added bonus that now, via the player character, I could actually interact with the world of the story, live in it in a way that a book or even a movie could not let me do. Sure, many RPGs operate on a very specific storyline still, and do not really allow the player to go hieing off on their own to do whatever they please, but still, it was better than having no control at all.
In recent years, increasingly advanced technology and more creative game producers have allowed for a variety of options that are not as limiting as the games that I used to play on my PS1 (or even on my PlayStation 2, for that matter). The “open world” format (wherein the player is free to roam almost wherever they want) is now very popular, reaching its current peak with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games. BioWare plays with the concept of a “romance option,” giving the player the choice of a handful of characters with whom the player character could pursue a romantic relationship based on certain dialogue and gameplay choices made throughout the game (this is most prominent in their Dragon Age and Mass Effect series). Now, more than ever, video game producers are going for a more cinematic look and story line, while at the same time attempting to give the player as many options as are reasonably possible to make the game more personal, so said player may become more emotionally invested.
But an interesting question is: what goes into making such games?What needs to be done in order to make a game in the first place, especially an RPG, which involves not just art and programming, but storytelling, too? YOU by Austin Grossman is an attempt to answer not just that question, but also why it is we play – and love – RPGs in the first place.
YOU begins with the narrator, Russell, who is looking for a job with Black Arts Studios, a video game company that’s on the edge of falling apart just after one of its founders, Simon (who is also an old friend of Russell’s) dies. He’s hired as a game designer for Black Arts’ upcoming release: the latest game in the company’s fantasy RPG series Realms of Gold. Russell reminisces on his friendship with not just Simon, but also Darren, Black Arts’ other founder, and Lisa, Black Arts’ chief programmer and the best after Simon himself, and in between he plays through Black Arts’ entire game catalogue, including the very earliest version of Realms of Gold, designed by Simon when they were all still in high school. But there’s still that game that needs to be finished, and Russell has to see to that, too. All of these plotlines intertwine and connect, oftentimes n the most unexpected ways, to tell a story about not just how a video game gets made, but how special they can become.
Some time before I started reading the novel, Hope told me that Austin Grossman and Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians series) are actually twin brothers. Now, there’s a lot that’s been said about twins, about how they’re actually very similar, but in their case, this is actually quite true, as reading the beginning of YOU feels like reading The Magicians. It’s probably unfair, not to mention likely incorrect, to compare the works of two authors – in different genres, no less – to each other because they’re twins, but I cannot help but notice similarities. Russell feels a great deal like Quentin Coldwater, with shades of Josh. From what the reader sees of him, Simon, too, seemed to showcase some of Quentin and Josh’s traits, but with Alice’s genius. Lisa is almost dead-on for Julia, with some shades of Janet. Darren reminds me of Eliot with some shades of Penny.
Even the general themes are similar: The Magicians series is about a disaffected young man who learns he is magical and finds companionship amongst others like him, who are all equally disaffected and have to cope with that. YOU is about a disaffected man who remembers and misses the magical days of his youth, when he and his friends believed they could do anything, and tries to get some of that magic back. Lev Grossman’s series and Austin Grossman’s novel are held together by deep threads about the complex nature of friendship, growing up, and love – love for others, of course, but more love for what one does.
Another thematic thread that both The Magicians and YOU have in common: the desire to escape from one’s current state of life. I have already made my sentiments regarding Quentin’s own thoughts on his brand of escapism known: I do not like what he does, though I understand the motivation behind his actions. Russell, on the other hand, expresses a similar reasoning as Quentin when he explains why RPG players love to play the games they do, and yet I accept his reasoning wholeheartedly, compared to embracing Quentin’s actions. I suppose it has much to do with responsibility: video games do not let one escape responsibility, or at least they do not cause any lasting harm to the people around oneself. The same cannot be said of Quentin’s actions. Again, however, I suppose it is incorrect to draw these comparisons, given how Lev Grossman’s series and Austin Grossman’s novel are in two completely different genres, and yet the similarities remain, and to me, as a reader of both authors’ works, somewhat inescapable.
What I do find unique about YOU, though, are its narrative style and the plot that lies at the heart of the novel: making a video game. As a player of video games with a very wide creative streak I have always wondered what it would be like to actually make one. I have often believed that I am capable of coming up with decent world-building, characters, and plots, and though I do not have the necessary art and programming skills, if I were to work with a reputable team I might be able to produce a satisfactory product. After reading YOU, however, I’m quite sure that I might not be able to do much at all except perhaps as a consultant for world-building and character creation. Having worked on such games as Deus Ex, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Tomb Raider: Legends, and most recently the superb Dishonored, Austin Grossman certainly knows what he’s talking about, and he’s not shy about showing the reader what goes on behind the scenes when a video game is made – and it is not pretty or easy. It’s unfortunate that the reader is not given a more concrete picture of what goes on in a video game company in the midst of production beyond the hints that it is an utterly exhausting business, since those glimpses are overshadowed by other things (mainly Russell’s stories about the past and his narration of the games he’s playing), but what is there is interesting, and rather terrifying to anyone who’s ever aspired to start their own video game company, or work for one.
A problem that a lot of reviewers appear to have with this novel is its narrative style. I will admit, it is not the easiest thing to follow: it starts out in first-person point-of-view, but gradually slides into second-person whenever Russell plays a game. It gets even more confusing when Russell uses “you” in his first-person narratives the way one would in casual conversation. and jumps back and forth between the past and the present. There is also no clear delineation between real-life narratives and video-game narratives; the reader has to guess for himself or herself based on context clues. This means, of course, that it’s very easy to get turned around in the narration, to slip and slide between reality and video game and work grind and retelling of past events – and I have to say, I rather like it that way. To be sure, figuring out where one is in the timeline, or even in which reality one is, can be challenging, but I do think that it reflects, to a degree, the ennui Russell feels about his life, about being twenty-eight and feeling as if he’s going nowhere, accomplishing nothing, because nothing makes him happy, he does not feel as if he’s found his place.
Overall, YOU is the novel I did not expect to find: a novel about video games that I could almost totally relate to. Ready Player One was not that bad a read, but it wasn’t quite something I could completely relate to, either, being as it was about eighties arcade games. YOU, however, is about RPGs: the genre I play the most, and the genre I love the most. However, it isn’t just about video games, or about video game players, or even the making of video games (though it does have quite a lot about that, too). When Russell realizes that adulthood is whatever he – us – want it to be, he essentially summarizes what this novel is about. It’s about growing up, and finding one’s place in the world, and the desire all of us have to find that perfect place for ourselves – a place where we can be exactly who we wish to be.