YOU by Austin Grossman – Book Review
YOU is a fantastic novel written by Austin Grossman that gives an insider look into the world of video game development and design. Grossman is well known for his debut novel SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE but YOU has marked him as a major talent with serious skill.
There are some that compare YOU to READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline but this is true in only the most superficial sense. They both feature video games heavily and pay homage to the roots of video games – not to mention their superb writing – but that is where the similarities end. YOU is a complex narrative that focuses on a person’s identity. Written in such a way that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the syllabus of many video game development courses in the next year or two.
Try to define YOU by any normal parameters and you will soon find you are in way over your head. Like so many other great works of writing, YOU cannot be defined in simple, broad sweeping generalizations. Instead Grossman has crafted a narrative that works on many fundamental levels. Part homage to the life of a nerdy teen in the 70’s, part crash-course in video game design and development, part examination of narrative/friendship/career choice and so much more.
I had spent some time in college studying video games, both production and analysis, and one of the main themes of both derives from the oldest argument of the medium. What is more important, the story or the gameplay? Imagine my delight when Grossman not only acknowledges this question but also gives them both avatars in two of the main characters for us to enjoy and think for ourselves what matters most.
Russell, our protagonist in this story, is a guy that resonates with not only myself but also many of my friends. We’ve finished schooling, we’re ready to start our careers and lives, and yet we still don’t truly know what we want to do for the rest of our lives. Russell has spent time changing his major and has recently dropped out of law school, his apparent dream job. Instead he goes to Black Arts, a video game company started by his three high-school friends that has received award after award for their unique and brilliant game development engine. But that’s not the entire reason. Simon, the most brilliant and socially awkward of the group, recently died under strange circumstances and Russell is drawn to solve a mystery he left encoded into each of the games he wrote.
Speaking of, Black Arts has many award winning titles under their production belt. But it was Realms of Gold that started it all. Coded in the beginning to appear in the same vein as games such as Starcraft or Civilization and then evolving with time to be closer to Skyrim, Realms of Gold is familiar territory to every fantasy gamer. Four heroes span the ages, and every game, to interact with or be controlled by the player. Brennan the warrior, Lorac the wizard, Prendar the half-elf thief, and Leira the princess. Yet it is a series that transcends genre, dipping into the FPS (first-person shooter) world, and expanding into the nebula and star-clusters of deep space. But the heroes are always present, in one form or another.
Yet there’s something more nefarious hidden into the code of each game, something Simon wrote into the very first game he coded, something more dangerous than any video game company had thought they’d need to deal with. A cursed sword that is not bound by the constraints of any known rules, one that can break the code around it and cause all manner of problems, both for a failing video game company and the digital world at large.
YOU is a brilliantly written piece of fiction from author Austin Grossman. If you enjoy video games, fantasy, science-fiction – grew up in the 70’s, owned an Apple II and spent many nights lit by the glow of a monitor screen – if you don’t know who you are or what you want to be, YOU is a book you can’t miss.