Austin Grossman's YOU is an interesting look into video game companies, specifically trading on the late 90's popularity of RPGs, delving into the rise of a fictional video game company and how Russell, the protagonist, fits in with it as they struggle to ship the next game in the award-winning Realms series.
For the most part, I enjoyed YOU. I think Austin Grossman did a great job giving the characters a sense of history, a weightiness to their conversations that most books just fall flat on. However, I did get the distinct feeling throughout the novel that he was just cobbling stuff together to expand the initial premise.
For me, the MC falls flat in many respects - he comes off first as a complete outsider that is jumping on his old High School friends' video game company as a last ditch effort. He is so out of touch with gaming that he mentions an old C64 game as the one game he'd like to make, without even knowing it existed. However, within a few chapters, we learn that he was a part of the original group that created this game, even coming up with key design decisions in creating enemies. While they did start out as a school project, there are many times throughout the book where it reads like "I know I said I was clueless, but I swear I played half of their games. I'm just now remembering it, despite working here for years."
That being said, I absolutely loved the design and worldbuilding that came with their fictional Realm series. Not only does he describe how each one plays, feels, etc., but it then builds on each of the characters, how they transformed from game to game, become darker, less perfect, fluctuating between idealistic fantasy stereotypes to frazzled, meth-head quality flawed heroes. Even as he branches out to the other games in the series, that loving sense of detail is continued with 4X strategy, FPS, point-and-click adventure, even Tony Hawk-style cash-ins. It's a fascinating look at how the industry changed, grew, and some of the problems that still face it. Russell even notes that the adults had noticed them and taken over, but then immediately corrects himself that they've always been there.
The main thrust of the storyline comes with a game crippling bug that he's trying to find the source for, which helps fuel his game playing spree. While the stakes were good for this element, I couldn't help feel that certain rules set up earlier in the book were thrown out the door. The most telling for me is that Russell notes that the Black Arts engine is built on an archaic save system that allows you to save, but immediately deletes your save as soon as you load the game again. However, he plays through (in chronological order) all of the Black Arts games (which easily consists of over a dozen games all using the same engine), loading his save data through each one. This detail may have been thrown in earlier and not mentioned, but once he reaches the Clandestine series, he notes that he is continuing his save through each game. This means he'd have to play through a dozen games, ranging from adventure to FPS to 4X to Starcraft:Ghost style adventure then back to 4X without dying once.
For an average guy, he's got some serious skill.
While the game limits push credulity, I did find the ideas fresh and imaginative, some of it even pushing what we see in current games. There were many ideas I could gleam from multiple games, as they curate and cull the best of the best, while also mentioning their direct competition.
Finally, the love story is wanting, even requiring a separate section just to introduce the idea that maybe the main female character might like him. Their relationship is an interesting one that does develop, but maybe I'm just as clueless as the MC, but her tone after that chapter changed dramatically for my taste.
YOU is an interesting look into the video game industry more than fifteen years ago. While the games the outline are not feasible, if you're a fan of gaming, you'll find something to enjoy in this.
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