I recently finished the science fiction novel YOU: A Novel by Austin Grossman. The novel is about Russell’s returning to get a job with Black Arts a game development studio. Russell distanced himself from his high-school friends with whom he got into designing a role-playing computer game. After dropping out of the liberal arts to law trajectory he had been on, he goes back and gets a job with the company his friends had created in the meantime. Grossman has worked in game design, so the book has an authentic feel. It is also good on how franchises are maintained as the story turns around the creation of yet another sequel to a tired franchise with flashbacks to when they created the other versions. There are a number of interesting ideas and enigmas to YOU including:
- YOU is about the dream of the ultimate game. The book starts and ends with the question of the ultimate game and how the imagining of that game is so important to gaming,
Finally, there is the secret of the ultimate game, inscribed on a series of crumbling scrolls in a language that is no longer well understood. But partial translations suggest that the secret of the ultimate game is that you’re already in the ultimate game, all the time, forever. That the secret of the ultimate game is that the ultimate game is a paradox, because there’s no way to play a game without knowing you’re playing it. That games are already awesome, or else why are we making such a fuss? (p. 365)
- Part of the issue of the ultimate game is the drive to greater realism as if graphical realism were the only metric. The novel forces us to ask what is realism and whether better graphics are necessarily more immersive (compared with better stories or more open worlds.)
- Simon, the genius behind the game engine of Black Arts dies before the beginning of the novelistic present in an elevator. It isn’t clear how he died, but it seems relevant at the beginning of the novel. Grossman answered questions about the novel here including an answer about how Simon’s death is a “bait-and-switch.”
- Finally, there is a really interesting reference to the story of love told in Plato’s Symposium that men and women are separated and want to join up again,
To forestall any future threat, the gods decreed we should each be separated into halves, and each half hurled into a separate dimension. There was the human half, weak but endowed with thought and feeling, and the video game half, with glowing and immortal bodies that were mere empty shells lacking wills of their own. We became a fallen race and forgot our origins, but something in us longed to be whole again. And so we invented the video game, the apparatus that bridged the realms and joined us with tour other selves again, through the sacred medium of the video game controller. The first devinces were primititive, but every year the technology improved, and we say and heard and sensed the other world more clearly. Soon enough we’d be able to feel and smell and taste and live entirely in our own bodies again. And on that day, he finished portentously, we’d challenge the gods once more.
“First of all,” I said, “you ripped that whole thing off from that story in Plato. …” (p. 301)