Austin Grossman’s You has drawn some comparisons to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One from many venues but is a very different beast in many respects. While both lean on the nostalgia factor of readers You trades the frenetic action and bright palate for a more subdued story that occasionally stumbles but manages on the whole to be an engaging and entertaining read. Where Ready Player One is an open love letter to the 80s, You is a paen to a lost age an exploration on how the heart of an industry has changed over the long years.
You opens with Russell interviewing for a job at video game studio Black Arts Games after having spent years in a different (or rather several different) career paths. He has an in having gone to high school with the studio’s creators and having had a hand in the prototype version of the studio’s first major success Realms of Gold. Black Arts has recently lost their visionary programmer, Simon, to a freak accident. As a major change in company leadership shakes the company Russell finds himself delving into the past releases of the studio in a hopes to better understand both his own past and the legacy Simon has left behind in the code he has written.
It should be noted that Austin Grossman, as described in author biography, was at one time a video game designer and writer who worked on Deus Ex, System Shock, and Ultima Underworld II. These facts place Grossman’s own involvement in the game industry roughly close to the same period during which the novel is set. I have no way of speaking towards whether or not Grossman accurately represents video game development (a complaint I’ve seen in several other reviews) and truth be told I think that is irrelevant to the text of the novel itself. While the story might involve the development of a game You is a novel about the games industry, about growing up, and about the loss of innocence.
Throughout the novel Russell plays through the games released by Black Arts in chronological order while simultaneously relating personal historical information from his own life, and the lives of his friends. It is a story of growth and change on a personal level as well as a story of change on an industry level. As the characters in Russell’s life move into adulthood the loss of innocence, or one could say purity, is reflected in the changing nature of the games developed by Black Arts. In the novel as major financial backers step in there is a radical shift in the way the game is developed as the people holding the money don’t really understand the thing they are investing in. Grossman carefully contrasts the expensive cars and tastes of “Rock Star” developers, the bombastic and over-the-top ridiculousness of E3 with the desire for fun, for bringing friends together, for bragging rights, for telling a personal story that marked the early days of the character’s lives.
You is a retrospective coming-of-age story for the video game industry and a novel about reconnecting to the things that mattered to us in our youth. It’s a novel about remembering why we love the things we love even if they no longer resemble the thing they were. While average readers might take issue with its somewhat rambling nature or lack of a conventional cohesive plot (this isn’t a novel I’d hand to my Mom and expect her to understand) there is a certain charm to the novel’s eccentricities, bugs that work as features, that speak to a particular audience of gamers. You looks back at the golden days of youth, both of its characters and the industry in which they work, and its strong sense of nostalgia keeps away any potential indictment or finger pointing with regards to how the industry has changed over the years. You isn’t a novel that seeks to cast blame but rather one that asks to remember why we first picked up a controller, or dropped a coin in an arcade machine, all those years ago.