YOU by Austin Grossman - Revengeance of the Nerds
There are literally hundreds of movies about filmmakers and thousands of books about authors, but there are virtually no video games about developers. There are exceptions like Game Dev Tycoon, but they're few and far between, and will likely never garner the kind of prestige in their own industry that movies like Singin' in the Rain and 8 1/2 have for filmmakers, and fiction like The Seagull and Wonder Boys have for authors. This is because in most mediums, the process of making the art becomes part of the art. The artist is unseen, but his or her presence in the work is palpable. When we listen to Tchaikovsky's last symphony we're hearing the work of a man who knows he's dying. When we see Michelangelo's depiction of the Last Judgment we're seeing a gay Catholic's fear of hell. The creative process of video games follows a far more circuitous, nonlinear path; so much so that by the time we gamers get our grubby little mitts on the end product it's been subjected to so many alterations from so many different people there's hardly any trace of the original vision it grew from. Though we'd like to think differently, despite playing his video games, we know nothing about Shigeru Miyamoto(Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda). We know nothing about Peter Molyneux(Black and White, Fable). We know more than we ever wanted to about Suda51(No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw) but that's probably all an act. An inexorable part of looking at Persistence of Memory is wondering what Salvador Dalí was thinking and feeling and how that led him to paint some melty-looking clocks, but we don't wonder what the developers were thinking and feeling when they made Grand Theft Auto IV or Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 or the umpteenth iteration of Madden. With advanced technology permitting developers to tell more emotionally resonant stories and the growth of indie games allowing for more personal narratives we may be on the precipice of that all changing, but for most of us gamers the process of game design will remain a shadowy netherworld, as remote and abstract as Ultima Thule was to early cartographers. In his new novel YOU Austin Grossman seeks to rectify this, portraying the arduous odyssey of video game development, as well as all the elation and heartbreak that accompanied the advent of modern nerdom itself.
Austin Grossman is the scion of a prestigious literary legacy, which is a classy way of saying it would be easy to write off his career as the product of nepotism if his abundant talent weren't so glaringly obvious. He's the son of Allen and Judith Grossman, both of whom are novelists, poets, critics, and professors. His brother is Lev Grossman, a successful novelist in his own right as well as a senior writer and book critic for Time, and his sister is Bathsheba Grossman, a sculptress known for incorporating scientific and mathematical principles into her designs. Austin is the author of the fantastic 2007 superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, which portrayed the tragicomic lives of recidivist supervillain Doctor Impossible and freshman cyborg superheroine Fatale. Besides telling a good story, Soon I Will Be Invincible managed to bring a sense of depth to a notoriously two dimensional medium, masterfully articulating the rage and melancholy that seethes beneath the surface of comic book panels and makes them so profoundly resonant for the geeks, the losers, the social outcasts, the grown men writing stuff on video game websites. In YOU, Austin brings his considerable powers to bear on another bastion of the nerdscape.
Austin Grossman has a long and appropriately melodramatic history with the video game development industry. According to the About The Author at the end of YOU
Austin Grossman is a video game design consultant who has worked on such games as Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, System Shock, Flight Unlimited, Trespasser: Jurassic Park, Clive Barker's Undying, Deus Ex, Tomb Raider Legend, Epic Mickey, and Dishonored.
That's quite a list. Deus Ex and System Shock are legitimate classics, and Dishonored will likely prove to be as well. It neglects to mention some less beloved games Austin has worked on, games like Deus Ex Invisible War, Project Snowblind, Battle Realms, Driver: Parallel Lines, and Frontlines: Fuel of War. It doesn't matter, if everyone who was somehow involved in a less than stellar game was exiled from the industry it would vanish in a day, Austin clearly just didn't want to list everything he'd worked on and only included games he was proud of, save for one. One game that was such an infamous catastrophe its absence from the bio would've been far more conspicuous than its inclusion. That game is Trespasser. It was the first and last game Austin Grossman was the lead designer on, and his experience making it casts its shadow upon YOU.
Trespasser was conceived as a tie-in with the crappy movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park, depicting the adventures of a woman(A female protagonist, which was still a big deal in the hoary days of 1997) whose plane crash-landed on the island InGen bred their dinosaurs on, one year after the events of the film. The actor who portrayed John Hammond in the movies reprised his role for the game, the heroine was voiced by Minnie Driver, and the project had the backing of none other than Spielberg himself. It seemed everything was in place for Dreamworks Interactive to churn out yet another crappy, tossed off tie-in game to a summer blockbuster. Fortunately for all of us, (at least in hindsight) Austin Grossman and then-partner Seamus Blackley had ambitions far greater than all that, and after three long years of development they managed to produce a glorious, broken fiasco of a game. Trespasser was not ahead of its time. Trespasser was not light years ahead of its time. Trespasser was so beyond anything else being attempted that you'd have to use theoretical physics to describe the unfathomable distances that lay between it and the rest of the video game industry. Six years before Half-Life 2, Trespasser tried to incorporate a fully realized, fully interactive physics engine into its gameplay. Trespasser had enormous outdoor 3D environments. Each dinosaur was designed to have an advanced artificial intelligence system incorporating an emotional palette that influenced how it behaved. Trespasser was an incredible, fantastic vision, and did not work at all. This was 1998, and 3D environments were still modeled by 2D sprites, even the best graphics cards on the market couldn't decently model Trespasser's world. The physics didn't work, dinosaurs couldn't enter buildings because they'd pass through solid objects and get stuck. The dinosaurs had such intense mood swings they would become frozen in place, a bug that was fixed by hardwiring their rage at maximum, though they still moved with all the dynamism of a corpse floating down a lazy river. Due to difficulties programing both of the heroine's arms in concert the designers ditched her left arm entirely, leaving her just one spastic, nightmarishly animated arm to work with. Running the game was so taxing that only one or two dinosaurs could appear onscreen at a time. When Trespasser was finally released the paucity of money, time, and skilled staff the developers had had at their disposal was readily apparent in every malfunctioning, bug-riddled level, and it was met with a mix of righteous indignation and morbid fascination. It was abundantly clear that the gaming revolution Austin Grossman & Co. envisioned was still far off.
In YOU Austin channels the trauma of Trespasser into a new narrative, using the power of storytelling to fix a crappy reality, a theme that resonates throughout YOU's story. The time is again 1997 & 1998. The place is an office building in the Alewife neighborhood of Cambridge Massachusetts. The hero is no longer Austin but a lost soul named Russell. Russell forged a friendship with semi-popular charismatic Darren, unfathomably deep Lisa, and video game genius Simon in 1983 when their shared passion led them to create the Realms of Gold game as their final project for Mr. Kovacs' intro to programming class. Though he shared a great deal of joy with Darren, Lisa and Simon during High School, adventures both of the electronic gaming and more generally adolescent variety, Russell never stopped wanting to escape the cold, lonely world of the geek, and when he went to college he lost touch with them. When YOU begins Russell has returned to video games after a sustained period of failing to find anything worth his while in the real world.
I went on to an English degree, a year of law school, an internship at a doomed newspaper in Dallas, sublets in Cambridge, Queens, Somerville, San Francisco (a new start!) Austin, Madison, and imminently, nowhere.
He's interviewing at Black Arts, the video game studio his friends founded. In his absence Simon's genius has birthed an empire.
It was called the WAFFLE engine, a witches' brew of robust world simulation and procedural content generation, the thing that powered Black Arts games first, to critical success, then to profitability, then to becoming a runaway phenomenon.
Russell gets the job despite not having touched a video game since the heyday of the Commodore 64, and he approaches the world of development with an outsider's anthropological perspective and a deep reservoir of latent passion.
The novel is split between two time periods, though they fit together so cleanly the transitions between Black Arts studios and High School are barely noticeable. Russell's time at Black Arts is spent familiarizing himself with, then loosing himself in the society of game design and the digital worlds Simon crafted in his absence. The characters of Darren, Lisa and Simon are largely confined to the past. When Russell takes his position at Black Arts Simon is dead, having perished in a freak accident. (He walked into an open elevator shaft.) Darren leaves Black Arts to start his own company soon after Russell joins and remains absent for most of YOU's 1997-8 narrative, leaving Russell to be promoted to Creative Director in his absence. Lisa is still present at Black Arts but remains as distant and inscrutable as ever. As he struggles to finish the seventh and likely last game in the Realms of Gold series Russell rediscovers his love of video game worlds, but no attempt is made to resurrect the sense of camaraderie and quasi-divine purpose he, Simon, Lisa and Darren felt when they were writing Realms of Gold 1: Tomb of Destiny in COBOL on a Commodore 64. The age of heroes is over.
I was born twenty years too late to be present at the inception of electronic gaming, but Austin Grossman does an excellent job of conveying the exhilaration felt among gaming pioneers, the sense that they didn't know what they were doing and therefore could do anything, the relief they felt when they discovered a sanctuary from the cruelties of reality. As Russell narrates it Simon represents the apogee of the nerd condition, a boy for whom video games are the only salvation from a reality hell-bent on destroying him. YOU doesn't give us the direct window into Simon's misery and rage that Soon I Will Be Invincible provided for Doctor Impossible, rather we're forced to infer causes from effects. What was so terrible for Simon in this world that he made a dozen games in the Realms of Gold fantasy series, Clandestine spy series, and Solar Empires sci-fi series in order to escape it? Though it seems Russell knows, he neglects to tell us outright. If his experience as a developer at Black Arts is any indication, it may be that the worlds Simon made are simply better than this one.
In between flashbacks Russell relates the culture of video game development to us with an OCD thoroughness. We learn with him what alpha builds and beta builds are, what a TDR is, how every NPC has to be invented, placed on a list, designed, inserted into a complex map of AI behavior stimulus-response, and systematically debugged.
Don said it was like we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors weren't even going to follow the script.
It should be boring, but it isn't. In fact, Russell's descent into the clusterfrag of video game development is enthralling. The minutiae of the business isn't just interesting in itself, but shows just how much you have to love video games to even attempt doing this for a living. Not just video games, but ideas, the process of mythmaking, the act of creation, the very way the human mind works.
The main characters in Black Arts' three main franchises are derived from the real Darren, Simon, Russell, and Lisa, the original tetralogy of friends that created Realms of Gold 1 & 2. YOU describes them as
(1) A muscular guy with a sword
(2) A bearded guy in a robe
(3) A skinny guy with a knife
(4) A sexy lady
Russel is Prendar the half elf thief in Realms of Gold, Nick Prendergast the spy in Clandestine, and Pren-Dahr in Solar Empires. Darren is Brennan the warrior in Realms of Gold, Blandon the CIA contact in Clandestine, and Brendan Blackstar in Solar Empires. Lisa is Leira the warrior princess in Realms of Gold, Laura Mortimer the love interest in Clandestine, and Ley-R4 in Solar Empires. Simon is Lorac the wizard in Realms of Gold, Karoly the enemy agent in Clandestine, and Loraq in Solar Empires. As soon as Russell starts work at Black Arts he encounters a game destroying bug that Simon programmed into every Black Arts game all the way back to the first Realms of Gold, and he's forced to go back and play through every game in the Black Arts cannon to try to remedy it. In addition to covering Russel's time in High School and working at Black Arts, YOU contains a fully realized fantasy world in the form of Endoria, the land Realms of Gold takes place in. As YOU progresses and Russell plays game after game to trace back the root of Simon's sabotage while simultaneously working to produce Realms of Gold VII: Winter's Crown in time for Christmas, the world of Endoria is unfolding around him, it's history and mythology silently but deliberately infiltrating the world of Cambridge Massachusetts until it's just as real as the quote real world unquote, which doesn't put up much of a fight anyway. Russell holds conversations with the Heroes of Realms of Gold in his apartment, grilling them for information that will let him undo the damage Simon built into his games.
The bug Simon inserted takes the form of a sword called Mournblade, which the more perspicacious among you will recognize as an Elric of Melniboné reference. The Mournblade is an incredibly powerful weapon that channels the life from its victims into whoever's wielding it, but also slowly drains the life of its user, forcing them to take life after life until it inevitably kills them. The Mournblade shows up periodically in Realms of Gold as a sword, Clandestine as a sniper rifle, and Solar Empires as a vibroblade. As Russell struggles to finish building Realms of Gold VII the Mournblade begins appearing more and more often in the hands of various NPCs, killing supposedly unkillable characters and slicing the game narrative to ribbons. YOU doesn't explicitly say why Simon put the Mournblade bug in his games before he died, but Austin Grossman frames it as the ultimate expression of a unique breed of melancholy anger that characterizes nerds. It's present in Lisa.
“So what 'your story' do you want?”
“She killed every fucking person in the world and threw their goddamn key in the lava.”
It's present in Russell.
What did I want? “Probably I'd have a gun and go into Harvard Square and murder people.”
“This is why they hate us.”
And, before he died, it was present in Simon. Russell tells us about a physical altercation Simon got into with Darren at computer camp, with the puny Simon struggling to inflict damage on his physically superior opponent, scratching and biting. The reason for the attack, as well as the primitive virus Simon unleashes on the BitKids Summer Camp computer network, is never explained—however, if you had an adolescence as painful as Simon's, there's really no explanation necessary.
Your adolescence doesn't have to have been as profoundly miserable as Simon's to appreciate YOU, but it helps. YOU may be easily characterized as a paean to video games and the people who make them, and it certainly is at that, but it's also acutely aware of the price exacted by genius. YOU is not a tragedy, the freak accident that felled Simon is exactly that, he's no Byronic hero, dieing for his art. If there's any tragedy in YOU it's that Simon exudes a greater presence in his games than he ever did in life, and while he created such beautiful, exciting, elaborate worlds, the same passion that drove him to build came from a place of such frustration and despair that he had to insert something that would eventually burn it all down. When Russell SPOILER ALERT finally fixes the bug he saves the game worlds Simon created, but he also takes a part of Simon out of them. A dark part, a part he was clearly ashamed of. But where else is genius going to come from?
“So that's it?” I said. “I'll never do magic?”
“There are certain scrolls————of doubtful authenticity, mind you—————that claim that once in a millennium, a young person of talent and matchless courage will have the chance to rediscover the world of magic—————certain words, at least, and one great sign. This person will bring the return of magic and remake the world in an age of splendor that will come. Madness, yes, but great splendor, too.”
“But that's not me.”
He laughed. “Ah—————no.”