Published on March 26th, 2013 | by Greg0
You: Video Game Nostalgia, Writ
If you’re a child of the 70s or 80s, then some of these words and names and brands might be deeply meaningful: Atari, Pong, The Wizard, Battletoads, War Games, Tron, Ultima, Maniac Mansion, Choose Your Own Adventure, King’s Quest, Sierra Entertainment, Doom, id Software, John Carmack, Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Sid Meier, Duke Nukem. For a good portion of us here, the items on the list are imbued with a nostalgia that comes from spending hours in front of the NES or Apple IIe or the first personal computers that used floppy disks and cassette tapes. We’re secretly (or not so secretly) fond of 8-bit music. We love introducing people to the oft-overlooked 1984 film Cloak and Dagger. And we miss arcades.
So, You: A Novel. It’s not the best name, but you can blame scribe Austin Grossman. Available April 16th from Mulholland Books, the official description is: “A NOVEL OF MYSTERY, VIDEOGAMES, AND THE PEOPLE WHO CREATE THEM, BY THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE.” The all-caps are theirs. And if you haven’t yet read the author’s debut novel, we recommend doing so- it’s better than this one, and nerdy in a more accessible fashion, covering superheroes and comic books in a way that most anyone can appreciate instead of delving quite so deep into obscure arcana.
Because You might have been a great book, but it’s too close to (and just not as good as) a few that have already been written. Lucky Wander Boy, for instance, is essential reading for anyone who loves video games and can stand to read about them- and it was written in 2003. Geekiness is not necessarily it’s own reward, and though the structure of the book is interesting, it simply isn’t strong enough to propel the narrative. Instead, you’re treated to characters that you don’t quite care about, including a relatively passive and uninteresting narrator. The most intriguing character is dead and his motivations only guessed at. There’s a hint of romance, but nothing satisfying, and it’s not because the princess was in another castle.
The author clearly knows his games, and the book guides you through various genres, connecting them in a sort of meta-uber-game that probably most every gamer has wished really existed. Imagine a set of inter-connected games, with shared characters, allowing you to import your progress from every setting. You start with a fantasy game like Ultima and end in a science fiction future, carrying your inventory and history with you. The catch- there’s a black box system underlying the games, a simulator engine gone rogue… even spawning a financial modelling and prediction engine that could somehow effect the national economy (it’s loosely hinted at and then more or less left alone). The central conceit- become a real-world hero by playing games- is tempting. But it’s not nearly as well-imagined or successfully plotted as the solid novel Ready Player One.
Books for gamers need to be fueled by more than just nostalgia and some fun references to cheat codes. Games and movies and even books usually create an artificial goal- find the princess, beat the boss- as basically some variation of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. But setting a goal that is more authentic means that the details matter. Here, the core audience will pretty quickly see through the illusion, and find the central problem unrealistic. And no amount of hand-waving- disallowing save games, not being able to understand the core platform of your code- can hide the fact that the book never figures out how to make the goal matter, or make sense. The settings may be faintly fun- reminiscing about summer camp, about the early days of computer programming and DOS prompts- and the some of the humor hits the mark solidly. But it’s not as quirky as Constellation Games, which comes from a unique perspective of reviewing games (and alien ones at that). An alternate past, with characters who barely care, is not a recipe for a compelling novel.
TLDR: You starts strong, but gamers-wanting-to-read-about-games-in-book-form would be better of checking out others in the growing genre. $15 hardcover, available widely.