By Alec Meer on June 1st, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
They’re clearly lacing the drinking water at Arkane with Creative Itch Juice, as both Dishonored’s co-lead Harvey Smith and one of its writers, Austin Grossman, have put out novels in the last couple of months. Of course, both are esteemed games industry figures from long before that, having worked in the fabled Looking Glass/Ion Storm mines and contributed to some of the most-respected titles in PC gaming history. Unsurprising, then, that they’d have something to say about their experiences. I’m yet to read Smith’s Big Jack Is Dead – that’s next on my list – but I have made my way through YOU, Grossman’s fiction-ode to videogame development and his first novel since the popular supervillain tale Soon I Will Be Invincible.
YOU, I think, strives to be about two things: the pernicious, exhilarating, razor’s edge life of being a game developer, and the potential power of videogames as a means of self-expression. Latterly, it’s also an almost science-fictional tale of apparently malevolent code-gone-wrong and with the ability to recur across multiple games, but I wonder if that element of the book – and the one I’d call its weakest – exists primarily to provide a narrative structure for what might otherwise be Random Scenes From The Life Of A Mid-90s Game Developer.
It is those random scenes that I found most fascinating, however. I’m not a games developer myself – one day, one day – but I’ve visited enough studios to have a certain concept, cobbled together from scraps of information, naive preconception and far too much supposition, of what that life is like. YOU, which I hope I’m not too bold in presuming is very much based on Grossman’s years of experience at multiple studios, shows me an awful lot more, good and bad, encouraging and discouraging. The dreaded crunch time inevitably plays a big part, as do the greedy, counter-creative financial decisions of management, as does the strange horror of being upstaged by other developers at E3 and giving a poor presentation to those vultures in the press.
As one of said vultures, I winced several times throughout the novel at the recollection of the unsympathetic or dismissive generalisations I’ve written so many times about games and game elements I knew nothing of the genesis of. The trials and tribulations of an initially naive then quickly worn-down game designer, and the infinitely more bitter lead programmer he works with, proved to be magnetic stuff – minute dramas coalescing and evaporating within pages, each time affectingly evoking a sense of ultimate doom and overwhelming panic, but then gone, dealt with. Bug, squished. And now the next one. Is that what it’s like?
The novel’s greatest accomplishment by far is that the vast majority of its events essentially happen in one chair, on one screen, as our existential crisis-locked hero battles demons internal and external, professional and personal within the glowing, ethereal micro-world of the game he’s making and the games which preceded it.
Whether this drama can translate so effectively for someone without any interest in seeing behind the curtain of game development I’m not sure. The novel’s careful to remain human in tone and in its sympathies, avoiding a deluge of buzzwords and technicalities, and using its predominantly confused, development-inexperienced protagonist Russell as a justification for having other characters explain essentials such as QA, builds and AI routines. But getting something out of the novel does depend on being willing to emphasise with a guy sitting in a chair, repeatedly being told why he can’t make something on a screen do what he wants it do. Is that a taller order than feeling warm towards the supervillain protagonist of Grossman’s last novel? I don’t know. It worked for me though, that much I know.
As did a sort of alternate history run-through of the formative years of PC gaming, from the earliest ASCII-based dungeon crawlers up to what sounded suspiciously like a less disastrous Ultima IX. The leaps, bounds, wild successes and scrabbles in the dirt of the developers of the time is the focus though, rather than necessarily the games themselves. The likes of id and Epic make cameos, while ‘Black Arts Games’, the studio (founded by childhood friends) our hero winds up at, seems to be based heavily on a gestalt of Ultima outfit Origin Systems and Doom creators iD. A ludicrously ambitious, freeform, lore-heavy roleplaying series is their mainstay, but this fictional studio is more bound up in the other trends of the 1990s than Origin ever where. They also have an increasingly cynical, meatheaded, post-Doom first-person shooter series , and they have an epoch-spanning strategy franchise that sounds a lot like Civilization but with a series-spanning ongoing sci-fi plot (shades of Origin’s Wing Commander series, perhaps. I know you want to exclaim ‘Alpha Centauri!’ but for whatever reason that never became on ongoing franchise).
Beyond that, they have the kind of awful, joke-gone-too-far IP exploitation common in the latter half of that decade – skating and golfing games starring the swords’n'sandals heroes of their other series. Everything right and wrong about that arguable golden age of game development, all encompassed within the one studio. YOU is steeped in love for games, but it’s not afraid to laugh at them and it’s adept at making us chuckle along with it.
There’s also something of a Carmack-Romero analogue in Black Arts’ founders – the impenetrable, quiet, detail-obsessed savant programmer, and the flamboyant, charismatic, arrogant, glory-hunting lead designer. As the auto-mythology of the early iD years makes it so tempting to believe, the love-hate dynamic of these father figures of the new digital age is the essential fuel for the success and ambition of these early action games. Russell, despite rapidly finding himself a lead designer by circumstance, and despite having been friends with these introvert and extrovert godheads at an earlier time, is as much an onlooker to their cold war as we are.
Basically, YOU is all the distilled drama of the videogames industry over the last two decades – the in-fighting, the pomposity, the rise and falls, the here today gone tomorrow money, the fads and the tedium of genres and settings. It stops short of the PlayStation era, more or less, but the looming threat of the more modern era’s move to relentless, one-note shooter is very much in evidence. The games YOU spends the most time with are wildly ambitious sandbox roleplaying games of the type that your average RPS reader (and writer) often dreams of, related to its ongoing theme of questioning the concept of ‘the ultimate game’, but by the time Russell arrives at Black Arts these are falling out of commercial favour as shooters’ grim march advances. YOU to some degree documents the rise and fall of a legendary age, but it does leave hope that great things still await us.
What it also does – and for the most part avoiding unnecessary floweriness or grandiosity in favour of wit and pith -is convey the state of mind we’re in when playing a game. Rather than describe the mechanics of the assorted games Russell plays through in his hunt for the errant code that threatens to destroy Black Arts’ latest game and indeed the studio itself, YOU writes the imaginary as if it were real. Graphics don’t matter. Or, rather, graphics would not be interesting to describe. Actions and results are. Conversations with NPCs are conversations, not the lines of text they really are, battles with enemies are dramatic Hollywood duels rather than button pushes and hitpoints, and worlds made solely of ASCII characters are given as much (far more, in truth) geography and atmosphere as today’s Skyrims and STALKERS. This is the truth about games: what we see in our mind’s eye, not what we see on the rectangles of glass and plastic we stare at.
But while a thoughtful economy of language and is employed in these scenes, latter-chapter dives into the pseudo-metaphysical – partly a reflection of Russell’s crunch-devastated state of mind and partly what I found at times to be a slightly overwrought level of waxing lyrical about living in the immaterial world – can feel disjointed. By that point the plot has become fixated on this concept of a major bug that repeats across every Black Arts game, due to every Black Arts game being able to import the savegame from the previous Black Arts game. From their first ASCII roleplaying game to their most recent 3D man-shooter, everything is linked. Essentially, it’s the pan-sequel cause and effect promise that the Mass Effect series promised but never entirely delivered on, writ large on a cross-genre,cross-franchise. decades-long basis.
What an amazing idea. The ultimate game indeed, only here the results of this programming miracle threaten to be disastrous rather than that perfect wish-dream of a living, changing, undying virtual world inexorably shaped by player’s whims. The latter half of the book is focused on finding this dark code and establishing its strange purpose: a mystery tale, in fact. I must be careful here, due to my own limited understanding of programming, but despite the appeal of this concept, I did find it – and the apparently ‘evil’ recurring bug – distractingly fantastical. The Ultima games reached for the stars I know, but they weren’t digital miracles.
Fantastical is fine in its own right, but it left me confused as to what the novel was trying to be – was it fiction based on the games industry, or was it gentle, subtle cyberpunk? Without this element, I suppose YOU might have read a lot like a Douglas Coupland novel, but with it I felt the book was trying to be too many things at once. The final pages seemed to me unsure of how to reconcile the disparate threads of personal memoir, industry history and sci-fi mystery, and so the novel ends in scattered verse and oblique proclamations.
Again, perhaps it’s simply my own ignorance of programming, but when YOU dabbled in the metaphysical and the seemingly impossible I enjoyed it less than when it was a document of a life in a young, strange, hopeful-but-cynical industry that had yet to set itself too many rules. On that basis, for its insights into game-making and game-playing alike, for its unsentimental yet warm depiction of the people who work in games, I recommend YOU highly. As a piece of exploratory fiction about identity and meaning in virtual worlds, I was less convinced. As a mystery yarn, I simply didn’t find it credible. I suppose I’d rather Grossman had written a straight memoir of his own experiences in and thoughts on the industry – on that front, YOU is steeped in well-shared knowledge and a light, careful wit that I’d unquestionably sign up for more of.
YOU is out now, as a book and for those plastic pseudo-book things.