It’s not often that I find myself personally relating to a novel’s primary character, but Austin Grossman’s latest novel, YOU, hit me square between the eyes with the first 17 pages of Chapter 1 and never let up from there. Russell Marsh was born in 1969. Ditto. The first computer he touched was a Commodore PET. Ditto. (Marsh even reminisces about two games that were constantly played on my school’s PET — Lunar Lander and Snake.) Russell attended a computer camp over a summer break. Ditto. The book was a continual flow of flashbacks for me, one of millions of 80s geek-kids at just the right age during a decade where Pac-Man, Rogue, D&D, and Apple IIs were just a few of the greatest things to find their way into our young lives.
Now, keep in mind that YOU is 75% pure fiction. I say 75% because Grossman manages to weave a lot of reality into his fictional account of the Black Arts Games company. You’ll find dozens and dozens of real-world references — Doom, Ultima, Rogue, E3, D&D, Styx, TRS-80, 3M floppies, and the list goes on. What’s hard to accept is that Black Arts Games never really existed…
Black Arts Games: A company founded in 1988 by two (or more, depending on how you look at it) of four old high school friends after graduation, Simon and Darren. Simon, Darren, Lisa, and Russell… not quite outcasts, but definitely invisible to most of their classmates. Russell is the odd man out, always seeing himself as the one contributing the least to the group’s endeavors. He’s a job jumper, trying to find a career to call his own… and he’s walked away from law school to go back and interview with Simon and Darren’s company for a position. Any position, really. Lisa, a gifted programmer who is more into creating the tools and code than actually playing the games, can only shake her head in wonder at her old friend’s (very lame) answer to a key interview question: If you could make any game you wanted, what would it be?
And it’s this question that begins the back-and-forth tale of Russell’s youth and his current (well, 1997) goal of helping the Black Arts’ team get its newest game, Realms of Gold VII: Winter’s Crown, released.
Part of YOU’s story takes place in the mid-to-late 80s, and much of it focuses on Russell and his friends attending the KidBits computer camp. But instead of learning to program search algorithms using Pascal, a small group of campers use their free time (including swim, tennis, and soccer) to start coding a game — Realms of Gold II: The Second Age. The four friends had already programmed Realms of Gold I earlier in that school year, an ASCII driven game where the player was a simple + sign and monsters were represented using other keyboard characters. The engine for Realms I would end up being Simon’s greatest masterpiece, a game’s creation tool that no one (other than Simon) really understood, but that would become the backbone to all future Black Arts’ games. Hold that thought.
The other half of YOU’s story follows Russell, Lisa, and a small number of other interesting characters as they struggle to design, program, debug, playtest, and demo the Realms of Gold VII game. I need to be careful here with spoilers… a lot has happened to Black Arts Games, and it’s not all good. (This is a computer game company, and anyone who reads the headlines on Kotaku or in the pages of PC Gamer magazine is probably already aware that change — good and bad — is a constant with these kinds of companies.)
One big problem (and not really a spoiler if you read the book’s inside flap) is that the current game is experiencing a major bug. Russell’s got to find the cause of it, and what I really enjoyed about the book was his solution to hunting down the bug… playing through every Realms game ever made plus some other Black Arts’ games. It’s these play-throughs and the descriptions of the gameplay that many readers will love — there are just so many REAL games we played as kids (or adults) that are reflected in the fictional Black Arts’ games. For example, anyone who has played the early NetHack with its ASCII graphics will immediately understand the appeal of Realms I, and the progression of Black Arts’ games all have some real-world comparison. (Click here to read Grossman’s explanation for many of the fictional games’ inspirations.)
Russell slowly begins to unravel the mystery of WAFFLE, the coding tool that the four friends began developing in the mid-80s and that Simon continued to work on after graduation. Is the bug in Realms VII… or have all the Black Arts’ games been buggy? Wrap the bug-hunt up in some nostalgic flashbacks and some all-too-realistic game company shenanigans, and you’ve got… YOU.
I didn’t want the book to end. But software has to ship. So do books. YOU is highly entertaining, and all of us geek dads who grew up watching computer games grow and mature… well, this is one of our stories (and there really are so few that have made it into fiction form). When you finish it up, you may very well discover (as I have) that Grossman has written a book not for us… but about us.
Note: Two things — (1) fellow GeekDad writer Jonathan Liu and I have both enjoyed YOU. I wanted to include Jonathan’s take on the book, so below you find some of his thoughts on the book, and (2) I want to thank Austin Grossman for providing answers to some questions about YOU — you can read that Q&A below, just after Jonathan’s notes.
From Jonathan Liu:
Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, is one of my all-time favorites. I first read it six years ago and have re-read it a few times and recommend it to anyone looking for a great spin on the superhero/supervillain genre. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for Grossman to write another novel—I just wanted to see what other sorts of stories he could tell. So I was pretty excited when I found out about YOU, and doubly so when I learned it was about video games.
Grossman didn’t let me down. YOU does for the video game industry what Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay did for the comics industry: it tells a fictional origin story that is inspired by fact. It paints a portrait of the pioneers of video games, their heady ambitions to change the world.
More importantly, it rings true. Reading the book reminded me of watching Get Lamp, a documentary about the rise of text-adventure games, though YOU covers a broader range of video game history. Grossman knows his subject matter well: he has worked on many video games himself, starting in the 1990s. When his narrator philosophizes about the nature and significance of video games it hardly seems like fiction, and more like something from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
If you grew up surrounded by video games, YOU was written for you.
Q&A with Austin Grossman:
Kelly: Okay, so here’s an obvious starter question that you’ve probably been asked too many times — how much of the main character, Russell, is autobiographical? Did you sneak in any true stories from your history with the video game industry but change names to protect the guilty?
Grossman: I admit nothing, but it’s hard to miss that I worked for Looking Glass Studios, a small, critically acclaimed video game studio in the mid-1990s. Which completely changed my life, and I wrote with the memory of the feeling of excitement and possibility and discovery I found there.
It was odd – my first novel was so thoroughly a work of invention and I had to shift modes writing this one. I walked a line, knowing that the first few dozen customers were going to be other people who worked there. Many, many details and anecdotes made it in but are (I hope) sufficiently scrambled to qualify as fiction. All I will definitely say is that Peter Molyneux = Peter Molyneux.
Kelly: I cannot tell you how much I identified with Russell — I was born in 1969, too, and the first computer I ever touched was a Commodore Pet (with the smallest keyboard ever). I remember playing Lunar Lander and Snake on it, loaded via tape! This book was one long flashback for me. Just how many flashbacks of your own youth did you have while writing this novel? Were you in “that group” of kids back in the ’80s?
Grossman: I went through my version of it, but everyone was so much less connected in the ’80s, it was more like I hoped/imagined/dreamed that there was such a group. At the time I didn’t event know there was such a thing as computer camp. So this novel was more like a process of going back and imagining how it might have happened for other people, and what might have happened if the right people met each other at the right moment. One of the great pleasures of publishing this book is finding out how much people can relate to it.
Kelly: I loved playing Swords & Sworcery on my iPad, and there was simply no missing your book’s unique looking cover. Did you ask for that specific style for the cover or just get lucky with a great cover artist?
Grossman: I still I can’t believe we got our Sword and Sworcery cover. When I first started talking cover concepts with the publisher I sent them sample Superbrothers work to give them ideas. They sent me back various concepts, none of which seemed to capture the feel of the book. So with time ticking down, I went the hail-mary route and emailed Craig Adams, aka Superbrothers. He is a genius, and I am lucky he’s a very nice guy as well. I showed him an early version of the manuscript and I was – I’m still – stunned that he agreed to do the cover illustration himself. I seem to have good book-cover karma.
Kelly: Realms of Gold starts as a special project at a computer camp. I actually attended one of those in the summer between 7th and 8th grade, and the staff really did try to teach us spreadsheets and sorting algorithms. Your flashback to that experience was one of my favorite parts of the book (but in my case, a bunch of us skipped it and walked a mile to the mall every day to play arcade games rather than write our own game). What about you? What was your favorite part of YOU? What parts of the story are readers telling you are their favorites?
Grossman: I hear a lot about the computer camp section of the book, which I loved writing – I only wish I’d been sent to co-ed computer camp! I got sent to the regular all-boys hiking-and-boats Lord of the Flies kind.
I’m just far enough past publication trauma where I can like bits of the book again. I like the short chapter where Russell tries out VR goggles with Lisa. I really liked sending the fantasy characters to the spinoff games where they have to play golf and skateboard for no reason. I always like it when the video game characters show up in the real world – that was a moment in the writing process where I realized, ha ha, it’s a novel and I make fun things happen if I want them to.
Kelly: The behind-the-scenes stuff involving story development, alpha and beta schedules, bug fixing, and playtesters — it’s great stuff. YOU has definitely pulled back the curtain on what goes on in the fictional game development industry. How do these processes hold up to scrutiny in the real world?
Grossman: There are a great many real-world moments in there that I think pass the test – bug meetings, sleeping under my desk, learning the editor – it’s all straight-up reportage.
But I prioritized getting the day-to-day truth of it correct over a carefully worked out re-creation. So, for example, there’s no question that I cut a lot of corners on the tech. All that code re-use and procedural content generation are taken from real-world examples but I extrapolated very freely. And the project timeline is awfully rapid for the scale of game they’re making. Then again, they have unrealistically great tools, so maybe they could have shipped it.
Kelly: I’ve told all my friends and colleagues that YOU goes on the shelf right next to READY PLAYER ONE by Ernie Cline. These are our (geek) stories. Let’s say hypothetically that YOU was going to be turned into a mini-series for TV (I don’t think a two-hour movie could do the story justice) — do you think the subject matter and the technical aspects of the book’s games can be appreciated by non-geeks? (I’m trying to imagine reading this story having never played a Rogue or Ultima game.)
Grossman: I’m pitching it in my head right now: The Social Network meets Mad Men by way of Wreck-It Ralph! It could work! I think it always works if you have the characters strong and clear, and the game industry runs so much on personality – everyone’s passionate about what they’re doing, and you have this gamut from hyper-charismatic auteurs to borderline-Asperger’s people who are in computers because it’s what their brains are comfortable with, plus all the various loners and oddballs who wander into an industry just as it’s forming out of nothing.
(Plus: it’s a fun but tricky challenge to evoke in prose exactly what a computer screen is displaying – there were so many times there I wished I were writing a screenplay.)
Kelly: Your bio says you worked on (among other games) System Shock. Can I just tell you that I still have my mint-condition System Shock box, instruction manual, and CD (Enhanced Version – with Full Speech, Playable From The CD)? I believe I’ve played that game on every difficulty level and hearing Shodan taunt me never gets old. Please tell us (fans) some secret about that game… something only someone working on the game would know. Come on… spill it. (Even better, tell us System Shock 3 will be released in 2015.)
Grossman: That is fantastic! Of course the *original* version of the game shipped on nine 3.5″ floppy disks, but the full-audio version was so much better, I won’t fault you.
We talked through a lot of different versions of the story. Apart from the final version, my other favorite was about a teenage girl living in the asteroid belt who runs away from home and finds a huge derelict spaceship. I pitched it but it wasn’t really the cyberpunk tale we wanted, plus it was 1993, the pre-Croft Era, and no one was betting money on a teenage girl as a main character. But I always wanted that game to be real, so I re-created it in the novel as Solar Empires II.
I would certainly put money down for a System Shock 3. I can only assume Electronic Arts still owns the System Shock IP. Given the success of the BioShock franchise, and the revival of Thief and Deus Ex, how can they not make that happen?
Kelly: SPOILER QUESTION: Okay, I’m going to admit right now that you had me 100% fooled. Early in the story (page 123) Lisa makes a statement about her ultimate game (So what ‘your story’ do you want?) being about just burning it all to the ground… and I really did think the black sword was going to turn out to be her creation. Was that ever a possibility in your mind as you were writing?
Grossman: It was…but there were a lot of possibilities. I mean, the thing that kept coming to me as I wrote was, “Huh. Everyone’s got a reason. Every single person.”
Kelly: SPOILER QUESTION: I may very well have missed it, but one question is really bothering me now — do you know what WAFFLE stands for… and can you share?
It’s an exercise for the reader! My best efforts include, “World-scaped Aleatory Flora/Fauna Liquid-modeling Endorianizer” and “We Are Finally Finally Leaving Earth.”
Kelly: SPOILER QUESTION: The story ends (I believe) in 1998 or 1999 with the successful release of Winter’s Crown. (Oh, yeah… and the world gets saved from the black sword “virus” threatening the money markets.) So you’ve got 10+ years of potential Black Arts Games story left to tell. Is the Black Arts Games tale done? Might Simon have had another trick or two up his sleeve that warrants a follow-up tale?
Grossman: Yes! YOU left a lot of writing on the cutting-room floor, particularly scenes from Simon’s teenage life. I could see an entire YA novel from his point of view, covering life before and after camp, and up through his life as an unenrolled college computer-lab hanger-on. His untold story still has a kind of hold on me – I’m figuring out what to do about that.
Kelly: SUPER BONUS QUESTION: You’ve tackled superheroes/supervillains (Soon I Will Be Invincible) and now computer games… any hints on what we might expect from you next?
Grossman: This where we learn that I don’t know how to build a personal brand. Because my next book is called Crooked, and it’s the true secret testimony of Richard Nixon, our nation’s official worst president. A story of Cold War espionage with a touch of H. P. Lovecraft.
Which doesn’t mean we won’t revisit the worlds of YOU and Soon I Will Be Invincible in some form – I’m still talking to people about adaptations. Last year I wrote a story for a mad-scientist themed anthology (you can read the story here) that made me think a sequel was a real possibility.