Novelist Austin Grossman is obsessed with both the video games people play and the developers who make them. Gabe Soria gets with the program.
Illustration by Ron Rege, Jr. , art direction by Yasmin Khan
Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April, 2013)
You, the new novel from Austin Grossman, is a testament to the enduring appeal and agony of fictional world-building. Framed as a quasi-coming of age tale, the book is narrated by the prodigal member of a crew of four computer game enthusiasts who create an enduring, Eternal Champion-esque video game franchise while still in high school. Seen through the prism of the video game industry from the homebrew days of the early-80’s to the tech explosion of the late-90’s,You explores what video games mean to us and how they both shape and distort the lives of those who create and consume them.
Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Shall be Invincible!, played with the tropes of Silver Age and Bronze Age comic books by taking the standard stories of a would-be world-beating villain and rookie superhero and digging deep into the motivations behind each as they move toward a standard epic confrontation. You does the equivalent for the world of a fantasy video game, delving into the motivations of not only the creators, but of the characters in the games themselves. It’s a strange and affecting experience that gets close to the reasons behind why we sit by the console campfire to both tell and have stories told to us. Arthur rang up Grossman—a veteran video game writer and consultant—to have a chat about all this mess.
Q: Video game novels, besides novels actually based on video games, it’s a very small club: Lucky Wander Boy (see Endnote 1), Ready Player One (2), Microserfs (3), Reamde (4) and now You. What inspired you to set a novel in a world that doesn’t lend itself so much to stories about its creation?
A: Gamers feel like an embattled minority. The public think they’re either pathetic or violent, and I don’t feel like that myself. I felt that this was an area of the culture that hadn’t been described too deeply or clearly or truthfully as it could be, so someone should take a whack at this, and I nominated myself. Video games are a really kind of an odd and varied and deep experience, and that needs to be represented. It was an interesting experiment so I gave it a try.
Q: While You is a book about video games, it’s a book about storytelling. It’s a book about the stories we tell each other, the stories we want to hear. And the title itself: You. It seems to evoke that special place in storytelling that video games occupy. Life itself is a first person experience, most novels you read are third person experiences, but video games themselves, as a method of storytelling, are in the second person. It’s all about pointing at you, the player.
A: That’s exactly the sense of the title, that’s exactly the weirdness that the book tries to grapple with. The storytelling of videogames is something that the closer you get to it, the weirder it is. Is a video game telling you a story? Is it telling itself a story? It’s kind of in this weird intermediate state that’s hard to map to anything. When I lecture about video games I talk about LEGOs and Barbies a lot, because you have to go to these places to find good analogies for the storytelling in games. I think that’s probably why storytelling in videogames has kind of lagged behind, because we can’t get a handle on what that moment is, you know, when you pick up the controller and you commit to making yourself a character. It’s really odd, and no one is done figuring out what exactly that means.
Q: The second person is such a weird perspective. A lot of people might not know what you’re talking about when you say that something was occurring in the second person. It’s also interesting to me that the book itself ,and the arc that it describes, it serves almost as a clandestine history of the development of video games from the early-80’s to ’97.
A: I was born in 1969, so I got to be around for the entirety of major new entertainment media and watch it transform. I wanted to try and narrate that experience. I started working in games in ’92, which was just a bizarre moment. It was right when we were moving towards first-person 3D games. It was like a hobby industry at the time; it was right before CD-ROMS came out, before Myst (5) came out, and it gradually started mainstreaming itself. Anyway, it was a weird moment to go through and I wanted to sketch out how that felt.
Q: Everybody in this book is driven by a need to tell a story and to share some story with the world. Tell me about your feelings about videogames as a storytelling medium and why they persist as these ways to tell these grandiose old stories.
A: Most video games tell stories pretty badly. They do it really imperfectly yet people are drawn to try to do it, and try to do it again. One of the things I’ve learned working in video games is that people who play games want a game with a story but they want some way to own that story. The moment you put a lot of story in a game you immediately put yourself under siege, because there’s a whole category of people out there who are trying to break your story and break your game and find their way out of it. I used to hate those people. But now I understand it. They’re being forced through a story but they want to have their own story. The pride for me in evolving video game design is to make games that will allow you to own your own story. They’re more about giving a player tools to tell a story and less about recounting a story to a player or having them walk through it.
The medium is starting to fragment into more linear games that are kind of like amusement park rides that walk you through your story, and then there are more sandbox-y stories, more player-driven stories where it’s about the player. The other side of that is the games where it’s just a bunch of LEGOs on the floor, where people are building their own stuff. Personally I’m kind of a closet ideologue where I feel like games need to be more and more player-driven.
Q: Who’s doing it right?
A: When I think about the extreme level of doing it right I think about EVE Online (6). I haven’t learned how to actually play EVE Online because it seems incredibly complicated, but when I read about it and about how there are these huge events and players run scams on each other and stage wars and economic wars, it’s this narrative that is completely developed by players working with other players, versus the other side, something like Call of Duty (7) where you’re walking through a narrative and you’re done with it. By comparison, EVE feels like a weird perpetual machine where it just kind of creates more and more story for itself out of the elements that players have been given. I’m over-simplifying if I say that one is better than the other, because then of course there are games like Shadow of the Colossus (8), which is just fantastic and which is completely a linear experience. We’re working on this incredibly mysterious, awesome problem that is still being worked out and is so exciting.
Q: You capture a lot of that in the book, that being God, being someone who creates a video game universe, is so exciting and yet so boring at the same time.
A: It completely is. The development cycles are compressed in the book, but a two or three-year development cycle is a chilling experience. You’re just working with this dysfunctional piece of software everyday. People don’t seem to know how games are made. Video games are such a popular medium, but there aren’t many accurate depictions of what game development is like out there in films or books. I think Microserfs was quite good in that line. We kind of need more Microserfs.
Q: Our attention is so divided nowadays that I often feel guilty for getting involved in a game.
A: I sometimes feel guilty for making a game. Someone could watch a Kurosawa film and have a better few hours. It’s a challenge to make games that are WORTH people’s time, that are worth the time that you’re putting into them. I feel okay about playing Minecraft (9) because I feel like it’s a genuinely beautiful game. I’d read and studied about architecture to build the stuff that I wanted to build. I feel like I had done something at the end of that time. But there are plenty of video games where at the end of five hours my mouth is completely dry and I have no idea what happened to the time. And that’s devastating and I feel like, “What medium are we making?” But in a very good game you’ll come out of it with three or four moments, that there’s something there, there’s some feeling or emotional contact there, that let’s you know the medium is worthwhile. There’s that quote from Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Is there a video game for the frozen sea within us or is it just going to kill a couple of hours at the end of the day? I feel like next year we’ll do it better…but I feel like the indie game movement is sort of teaching us to do it better or giving us the opportunity to do it better. I think we’ve had a terrible decade from 2000 to 2010, and we’re having a good couple of years now with the indie movement.
Q: Why would you say that it was a terrible decade?
A: Okay, I exaggerate a little, but I feel like it’s really expensive to make a deep, content heavy Triple-A game. And for a little while that was the only game, as it were, in town. It made people very conservative. You have a very expensive development model, and if you’re a writer on that game, you write everything out in the first couple of months and you literally can’t revise because there’s a team of artists putting together the 3D environments and animations. You can’t make changes and everything gravitates towards a mediocre center.
Q: It’s like big-budget filmmaking.
A: It is, except people occasionally people make a really good big-budget film. But also, as 3D graphics got better, they got more detailed and they became more labor-intensive, and they got dragged more into an aesthetic. I mean, there are brilliant looking games from the 80s, but they had their own aesthetic; when you see Space Invaders, it says “video game.” It had its own little style. But that’s kind of gone away because starting in the late-’90s, we managed to make basically very shitty, movie-like images. They’re incrementally less plastic-y looking film animation. Obviously there were really good games made in the last decade, but I think the industry was kind of digging itself into a hole, and I think that’s kind of over now, which I’m very thankful for.
Q: Now, unlike the film industry, which is still very expensive, top-heavy, hard to distribute and hard to make any money off of if you’re a small filmmaker, you can be a small development team in the game world and if you have an original enough vision, you have the methods of dissemination in this new decade, and also a method of monetizing your idea. You can’t do that with movies. It doesn’t work that well with records anymore.
A: People can get on the Apple Store, they can get on Xbox Live Arcade—that’s true. With Kickstarter and so forth that there are a ton of new models for getting games out there and it is kind of awesome. Although if you go online you can read many, many heartbreaking stories about people whose games kind of fell off the Top 50 list and two years of work were totally lost. You only have to read two or three articles describing that experience before you never want to work on one again, because you know that’s it’s true. But it’s also true that people have the opportunity.
You know, I had a real problem figuring out when to set [the book]. I chose 1998 for a bunch of different reasons, but I thought to myself that I should have chosen 2004, or 2012. I’m hoping that people won’t feel that it’s some sort of weird eternity ago. I’m sure that people will read the book who were not born in 1998. It was kind of the last moments when you could sit down and build a level in a game editor and not need a really extensive 3D modeling thing to get that done. The last time I was fluent in a high-end video game editor was like the Unreal engine in 2000, and after that point I lost it. But anyway, [‘98] was a peculiar moment. I remember it as programmer versus programmer. Polygon count versus polygon count.
Q: Beyond the technology, a lot of the book is about these stories that we return to, these stories that make us feel heroic, that make us cry because they’re tragic, that make us aspire to be a better person. You hit upon the idea of the archetypes, and I love how you make them the characters in Gauntlet (10). They’re like Joseph Campbell sort of figures in the video game world. You obviously love Michael Moorcock’s work. The Eternal Champion (11) stuff is referenced in the book. Why are the characters in the book persistent in pursuing this ideal?
A: Working in the game industry, you’re soaking in it. The mono-myth is so totally, absolutely totally controlling every game that’s being made that clearly I had to write about it, but I had no idea. I’m much more familiar with the sensation of wanting to resist it, the temptation of wanting to run rampant and murder everybody in the kingdom. It’s so incredibly persistent, even among people who couldn’t even name Joseph Campbell. It’s there or it’s a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of it. At this point it’s almost weirdly the post-modern version of itself. It has this almost zombie-like persistence in the medium. If you go to E3 year after year, the technology changes but the characters and the story don’t. It’s just very strange. And you get bizarre games like Shadow of the Colossus that pop up every once in a while that remind you that there are completely other spaces that we can be exploring. I don’t know. I hate Joseph Campbell. [laughs]
Q: The book also functions on one level as a sort of satire of the gaming industry as well. The idea that this franchise, this brand that the main characters started in high school would find iterations in skateboarding games and kart racing games…
A: If I tried to write about games as if they were incredibly great and serious and emotional all the time, it would just ring incredibly false, so that had to be done. You have games like Super Smash Bros. (12), where Pikachu is fighting Mario, and the desire for brand reach just kind of destroys that Joseph Campbell narrative…I find that kind of hilarious.
It’s a fine line to walk. I love video games. I didn’t want to make them look stupid, but I wanted to truthfully talk about how weird they are. There’s no way to write about some video games without making them sound ridiculous, because they are. And that’s just fact. But I made video games before I wrote novels and it’s kind of good training to not take things too seriously and just realize that anything you could imagine could happen because it can and let’s all relax a little.
1/ D.B. Weiss, 2003. Novel concerns one man’s obsession with the (fictional) obscure old video game of the title. Author Weiss has gone on to become a co-creator of the television show Game of Thrones.
2/ Ernest Cline, 2011. Dystopian adventure tale in which the protagonists attempt to solve an elaborate puzzle hidden within a globally popular immersive video game.
3/ Douglas Coupland, 1995. Strangely affecting story about a group of Microsoft exiles developing a “God game” in which the player can build whatever they desire out of blocks.
4/ Neal Stephenson, 2011. Globe-trotting thriller wherein much of the action is motivated by events in an astoundingly popular MMORPG (massively-multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), from the author of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.
5/ 1993. One of the most popular and influential computer games of the last two decades.
6/ Astoundingly intricate and involved science fiction MMORPG. Jaw-dropping in scope and head-scratchingly hard to penetrate, it has a sophisticated in-game system of economics, among other features.
7/ A popular franchise of first-person war and combat simulators with varying degrees of verisimilitude; players of various Call of Duty games can take on the role of a soldier in WWII, a member of a counter-terrorist group, etc.
8/ Often considered one of the most beautiful video games ever made, Shadow of the Colossus follows a young man’s quest over a vast wasteland to find and defeat a series of gigantic creatures. It was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005 and has since been re-released for the PlayStation 3 and more.
9/ One of the most popular and wide-reaching video games currently being played. Notable for many reasons, including its sandbox gameplay (reminiscent of the game being developed in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs), its almost limitless mutability and the fact that it was independently developed. Notch, the game’s creator, is currently developing a space exploration-themed MMO called 0x10c.
10/ Atari, 1985. Fantasy arcade game where four players could play simultaneously as they explored a vast dungeon. Notorious for its uncanny ability to suck quarters from a kid’s pocket due to its compulsive playability and iconic voice-over warnings (i.e., “Elf needs food… badly” and “Elf is about to die!”).
11/ Nifty Jungian hero archetype created by author Michael Moorcock in which an aspect of an immortal idea of a warrior for balance is reincarnated across time and space and dimension. Fascinating, rip-roaring psychedelic stuff, and worth looking up.
12/ A raucous meta-fighting game series incorporating many popular characters from various Nintendo franchises. This author finds it hopelessly confusing in its kitchen sink/anything goes aesthetic, but it is well-loved.
The videogames I fantasized about when I was 13 are almost here
In 1982, Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes was the science fiction novel that made me want to be a video game designer. Full of future-technological nonsense (holograms!?), the book still lives and breathes the naive dream of a fully realized interactive game-world for grownups. Dream Park made me curse the fact that I was born in 1969 because I just wanted the future of gaming to be now. But here are four projects for the coming year that put us at the very gates of Dream Park… —Austin Grossman
Johann Sebastian Joust: A game of open-air mayhem, a video game which is all controller and no screen. Everyone holds a motion-sensitive Playstation Move controller, as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos play. You can only move at the pace of the music—your controller knows if it’s been moved too fast—otherwise you’re out of the game. Your goal is to jostle somebody else’s controller while moving yours at a gentle, baroque pace. Go!
Clang Science fiction author Neal Stephenson is the face of this successful Kickstarter project, an effort to make the ultimate sword-fighting game. It’s what I always dreamed of since reading his novel Snow Crash: a fully analog sword-fighting game—you move in the real world, and your deadly blade moves in the game.
Oculus Rift Another Kickstarter-driven gamer dream turned reality. The goggle-mounted virtual reality of the 1990’s returns, only this time it does what it was supposed to do—put you in a vivid, realistic 3D world. Higher res, faster tracking, lighter weight, and stereoscopic 3D.
Project Glass Virtual reality is where you’re fully in a world of illusion—augmented reality takes your view of the world around you and overlays virtual elements. Google has created a glasses-sized device that can do exactly that and in late 2012 they sent working prototypes out to developers so they could get started. Other companies like Valve Software (Half-Life, Portal) are rushing to compete. But we all win, because we’re going be wearing glasses that put us in a living fantasy world. And we’re going to look like idiots. It’s going to be awesome.