Review: You, by Austin Grossman

images>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: June 2013

Immediately I heard the sound of combat down the hall. Was something off? I’d run this section a dozen times. I ran down the hall, this time passing only dead and dismembered guardsmen. The halls were silent. I reached the main hall, where a goblin king should have been sitting, a bound maiden at his feet. Instead, the hall was a sea of dead bodies. The king who couldn’t be killed lay dead in front of his throne. Far at the back of the hall, I saw two figures fighting, and in a moment one was dead. The other was my sister, a black sword in her hand, and there was a moment when she turned, ready to go for me, and I felt an irrational panic, like very little I had felt before in a game. The eerie, substanceless mannequin approached, her black pixel eyes swelling to an inch wide on the screen, and all at once her death animation began. She arched her back and then threw herself violently to the stone floor. Like any dead creature in a game, she spawned her inventory, a few coins and the sword, which promptly disappeared. Before I could stop myself, I shut the computer off, all the way off, powered down.

I booted the computer back up and ran the editor. Both the king and the woman were flagged immortal. I ran the level again, three more times, with no trouble.

It was remarkable, terrifyingly remarkable, and deeply uncanny, the way a broken simulation always is; something about it suggested a brain having a stroke, an invisible crisis in the machinery. It had lunged up momentarily from the depths of the code base, a flash of white fin and gaping mouth seen for an instant, then gone again.

***

Russell is having a bit of an early mid-life crisis. Dissatisfied with the button-down, expectation-laden life he’d been pursuing, he tosses aside the future in law he’d been working towards for a chance to reunite with some of his former high school friends at Black Arts Games—a ragtag group of video game-coding misfits and eccentrics. Does Russell belong in game design? Well, no, not necessarily, and his lack of feel for the industry is readily apparent. But because of his history with Simon and Darren, the co-founders of the studio who were once his nearest and dearest friends, Russell is given the opportunity to join the small team of coders behind the award winning Realms of Gold fantasy role-playing game franchise.

The leadership of Black Arts Games, however, is splintered. Some time before the start of the story, Simon died. And soon after Russell joins the team, Darren, wanting to create another company for himself, abandons the studio, dismantling the in-place power structure as he departs (in cocksure fashion, no less). As a result, the newly acquired Russell is thrust unexpectedly into a position of power he neither understands nor is ready for—project lead on the new Realms of Gold entry, Realms VII: Winter’s Crown, detailing the Third Age of Endorian history, as outlined by Simon during his youth, when the studio itself was still only a fledgling idea.

As Realms VII enters production and Russell slowly gets his industry wings, a mystery surfaces: an accursed black sword known as the Mournblade appears in the code. At first thought of as a software bug, the mystery of the Mournblade’s existence and its unstoppable killing power takes Russell, Darren, and Lisa (the final member of their fearsome high school foursome) through to the most extreme ends of Simon’s designs and the original code he created for this series. And the closer they get to understanding the nature of the Mournblade’s existence, the closer they are to unearthing the truth about Simon and the circumstances surrounding his death.

I wanted to like You far more than I did. Set at an interesting point in gaming’s history—the late-90s era where 3D is just beginning to pick up steam and some semblance of  “mature” storytelling is finally seeing the light of day—Grossman positions Black Arts Games as a studio in flux, caught between what gaming was and what it hoped one day to become. The Electronic Entertainment Expo had not yet hit its zenith, nor had the public embraced gaming to the level it has today, where everyone and their uncle has at least a game or two in their pocket at all times, thanks to smart phones. But similar to its position between two epochs of gaming history, You can’t quite decide which way to swing its sword. It attempts to cater to both seasoned gamers for whom conversations about the narrative merits of Doom versus those of Star Wars and Moby Dick will resonate, and newcomers for whom the spectacle and cope of E3 would likely marvel and confuse. Unfortunately, trying to cater to both sides equally means the novel never achieves its potential in one direction or the other and the narrative loses steam about two thirds of the way through, experiencing a crisis of voice from which it never recovers.

This crisis of voice is never more apparent than in the gradual filtering in of Black Arts’ back catalogue of games—previous entries in the Realms of Gold series as well as other titles in different series, like Clandestine. From an allegorical standpoint, the effort is interesting, and occasionally works to impact valuable character information, like small details about Simon’s troubled upbringing:

The boy’s father was dead, but the boy was too young to take the throne. His mother ruled as regent, so in the afternoons the prince played idly in a walled garden at the heart of the palace with Zara, daughter of the castle blacksmith. His mother soon married again, to a much younger man who despised the young prince. To be fair, he didn’t look like much of a prince, just a boy dressed in a sec of cut-down royal robes.

One day his mother came to him and explained that he would have to leave. His stepfather could no longer stand the sight of him, and wished to put his own son in his place. The following day he was to be sent away to a castle on a far coast.

As the novel nears its conclusion, and the mystery of the Mournblade is revealed, the inside-the-game portions of the narrative overwhelm the story and diminish any interest I’d developed in the characters. They felt near the end as if they were there to push the narrative within the narrative along, but to not actually be apart of it or be affected by it. Indeed, the final third of this novel is a slog. The only place where the gaming aspects of the narrative are truly effective, where they don’t distract from the characters, is in the coda at the end of the novel, but by then the emotional resonance is too little too late. To put it bluntly, the in-game elements just aren’t interesting enough to carry even portions of chapters, let alone some of the largest chapters in the novel.

Apart from the gaming and the mild industry politics and perceptions filtered throughout, You is a story about Simon and what his friends are able to learn, through his work and the worlds he created, about his troubled upbringing and inner turmoil. It’s about saying goodbye to a friend and to a shared dream. Sadly, the details surrounding these themes are suffocated by characters and worlds within worlds that simply never come together.

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