The Story of You

Hey, it’s been too long since I had a review up here, so let’s look at You, a novel by Austin Grossman.

This was the second novel by Grossman, who’s still probably best known, especially among us nerd types, for his superhero novel, “Soon I Will Be Invincible.” This is a novel about the video games industry and probably classifiable as science fiction, partly because it’s set in an alternate universe where Ultima III and Tomb Raider and Wolfenstein existed right alongside and in competition with the novel’s fictional Black Arts Studios and Realms of Gold games, partly because the book covers fantasy, espionage, and science fiction gaming, and partly because Black Arts’ signature game engine, WAFFLE, does things that normal game engines probably can’t do.

Our plot focuses on four people who became friends in high school — brash, charismatic Darren, nerdy hyper-genius Simon, quiet, furious Lisa, and Russell, the guy who can’t match up to any of them, and knows it. When they were in high school in the ’80s, they all helped create — in handwritten and physically-typed-in code — the first versions of the “Realms of Gold” fantasy computer game, which would eventually go on to become a popular game franchise.

Years later, Darren, Simon, and Lisa go on to found Black Arts Studios, and Russell goes off to law school. And when he burns out on law, he goes crawling back to his old friends, or what’s left of them. Darren is the public face of Black Arts and a gaming industry legend. Lisa buries herself in the code. Simon is dead. And soon after Russell joins the team, Darren leaves, takes off with the senior developers to found a new game studio all his own, and Russell finds himself promoted to design lead for Realms of Gold VII. He’s not ready. He has to be brought up to speed on how to design a modern game. He has to learn how to lead a team on creating a playable game.

He has to learn how to make sure You have fun in the game. You know — You. The player who experiences the game. The player who sees themself as the hero. The player who keeps the studio profitable.

And the high pressure and focus gets Russell thinking hard about the Four Heroes of Endoria, the characters who’ve headlined all the Realms of Gold games, sometimes imagining conversations with them, sometimes dreaming about them. Brennan, the warrior. Lorac, the wizard. Prendar, the half-elf thief. Princess Leira, the beautiful archer.

And he has to deal with a truly game-breaking bug — Mournblade, a sword that drives its owner to endless bloodlust, allows them to kill any character, including unkillable NPCs, and curses them to inevitable death. No one knows where it comes from, no one knows how to fix it, and its effects can potentially reach beyond the game world to cause real-world catastrophes.

Can Russell track down the Mournblade bug? Can he save the Realms of Gold franchise and Black Arts Studios? Can he come to terms with his past and with the people he used to be friends with?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I liked it a lot. If you’re going into this hoping for science fiction props like proton cannons and alien invasions and mutated penguins, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It’s a story about people, with plenty of diversions to examine gaming, the concept of play, and how we perceive fictional heroic archetypes.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s almost unremarked upon that Black Arts runs on a game engine that’s just a shade away from a fully sentient artificial intelligence. No one really knows how WAFFLE works — because Simon, the company’s secretive genius, built it and didn’t leave a user’s manual around for anyone else to review. It’s so good, they’ve actually loaned the code out to the financial sector to help regulate and stabilize the markets. What looks to everyone else like a complicated but well-designed spreadsheet program, looks more like a bunch of goblins and dwarves selling stocks in a village market if you look at it through the Realms world engine. And Lisa speculates that the Mournblade bug actually got loose in the financial markets through WAFFLE and caused Black Monday…

There’s a lot of drama here — not just the drama of the real-world characters, how their less-than-happy childhoods gradually turned into less-than-happy adulthoods — but also the drama of the fictional game characters. Grossman gives the 2-D game characters, Brennan, Lorac, Prendar, and Leira, their own fully-realized backgrounds and histories, sometimes contradictory, sometimes impossible, sometimes nonsensical, but he lets them have their own inner lives. He lets them be people, beyond the thin origin stories written up for game manuals, and it makes for beautiful reading.

But there’s lots and lots of humor, too. Russell’s observations of the game business are funny, many of his “dialogues” with the game characters are grimly humorous, and his E3 demo for Realms VII just gets funnier the longer it goes on and the more disastrous it gets. And Black Arts’ sports-themed spinoffs of Realms of Gold, always financial flops, are also great: Black Karts Racing, Realms of Golf, and Pro Skate ‘Em Endoria: Grind the Arch-Lich.

And then there’s the mystery of Mournblade — how does it work, why does it manifest, where is the cursed sword hiding, and how can it be found and destroyed?

Looking for a low-key science fiction read that emphasizes character and plot while offering a look into the computer gaming industry? This is one you’ll want to find and read.

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