Saturday, August 31, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: You, by Austin Grossman (SPOILERS)

RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

I went into reading this book with high hopes, because I thought a novel about making video games, with a mystery involved, would be interesting. But...

The first problem is that whoever wrote the jacket copy made false promises. The main character, Russell, gets a job with old high school friends at their company, Black Arts Games. The book's description says, "But mostly he needs to know what happened to Simon, his strangest and most gifted friend, who died under mysterious circumstances soon after Black Arts' breakout hit." This is a lie. Russell reminisces about things they all did together back in their high school days, but hardly gives a thought to the circumstances of Simon's death. The false expectation set up there IS NOT THE AUTHOR'S FAULT, but there are plenty of things that ARE the author's fault, and he is not helped by the way the cover sets readers up for disappointment.

To start with the positive, as far as I can tell Grossman gets everything right when he describes the video game industry in the late 1990s; I've known many people in that field since the early 1990s, and I was tickled to see mentions of a couple of people I met long ago, John Carmack and John Romero. But describing an industry accurately does not necessarily make an interesting story. Russell is a very low-energy main character, who sort of drifts into his job as a game designer without really caring about games, and then he gets an undeserved promotion to lead game designer when a bunch of the company's employees leave. He does develop some motivation and job satisfaction along the way, but then the book wanders into long, long, long descriptions of him playing through the whole backlist of the company's games, and having conversations with the games' characters that could be interpreted as either imaginary or magical.

The most interesting thing about the book is the hunt for a mysterious "bug" that goes through all of the games, occasionally causing the appearance of a devastating weapon that wreaks havoc and does things it should not be able to do. However, I found it difficult to stay interested through the looooooooong sections of game summary. There's hardly any dialogue in the entire book, and few scenes with conflict, tension, or action that's shown directly. Russell spends a lot of time pondering the nature of games and wondering whether it's okay to like his job rather than preferring to work in a more conventional profession, such as being a lawyer (he's a law school dropout), but he never seems to fully engage with his life and move forward.

And another thing! There are many places in the book where Russell describes things that he wasn't present for, such as events in Simon's life, so he shouldn't know about them. They could possibly be interpreted as vivid imaginings, but they're not presented that way. They're told as if they're facts and Russell is an omniscient narrator. That bothered me every time it happened. I was not as bothered by the shifts between Russell's first-person story and the sections of second-person "you" describing the player in a video game, but the third-person omniscient sections took it too far.

The book was just barely engaging enough to keep me reading all the way to the end, but it took a lot of work to get through the second half, and I kind of wish that I hadn't.

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  3. Nothing since August. Is this blog dead?