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.Continue reading