1 June 2013

Review: You, by Austin Grossman

As a teenager, Russell ran with a pack of geeks - Lisa, Darren and Simon. The were the ones who, given 15 minutes on a shiny new Apple II at school, news what to do - knew that this was going to be the future. Together, they created a game world. But Russell drifted away, looking for an ordinary career, and Simon died. Years later, Russell returns to the company founded by Lisa, Darren and Simon, a company still developing games that have at their core the fruits of those long, after hours sessions in the computer lab.

There's a reassuring shakiness about Russell's narration. A great deal in hinted at but never spelled out. The story of the four friends is told in short highlights, intercut with play from the sequence of games they made over the 80s and 90s - games that feature four heroes, "the same four heroes you found in any video game that featured four heroes, anywhere" - a fighter, a magician, a thief and a princess. As the pressure of game development deadlines increases, Russell also has to embark on a quest through the successive games to track down a bug that could threaten not only the company but even the wider world - a bug built in from the start and propagated through every successive build and update since. Delving to the source of this means coming to terms with what he ran away from all those years ago.

It also means interrogating the whole lifestyle of gaming, in debates which Russell holds increasingly frequently with the four heroes themselves - Brennan, Lorac, Prendar and Leira. As Grossman cuts back and forth between straight narration, ongoing gameplay, dreams(?), debate with the heroes, flashbacks to the 80s and extracts from game manuals and helpfiles, it becomes less and less clear what is "real" and what is a "game". As a games designer, Russell's job is to make games that confine and chivvy the player along the chosen narrative. But he and his friends set out originally to make the ultimate game, in which the player can do whatever he wants - a totally lifelike experience. So when is life a game, and a game life?

It's an intoxicating read, leavened by humorous interludes such as Russell's experiences demoing a game at a trade fair, when everything goes wrong, and for me there was a glow of nostalgia in the D&D language and early 80s computers. It all stops in the early days of the Web, which is right, I think, because then it can celebrate an age before the really big corporations began to throw their weight around again.

I'm so glad I read this book. For me, it was touching, nostalgic and - despite concluding in 1998 - modern. I wrote my first computer program in about 1979 or 1980, in BASIC, on a Nascom 2 computer with 32kb of RAM. It was a Space Invader clone. I thought at the time I was very clever: to make it work I had to add a realtime keyboard reader routine which I got from a photocopied fanzine. I never made a career out of programming, but I can relate to the sense in this book that Grossman describes of coding as a creative act, insane fun, and something newly and wholly unexpectedly within reach.

The nearest book I can think of to this would have to be Cryptonomicon but "You" is less of a thriller, while still more weird than other books which use game conventions and insights such as Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam or Charles Stross's Halting State - though it recognisably shares something, an outlook, an aesthetic, with them.

Highly recommended.

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