I've been reading Austin Grossman's You, a novel I think would be a worthy addition to any gamer's bookshelf.
Essentially the book is a fictional story about a game designer for a company called Black Arts in the late nineties working on an Elder Scrolls-esq game that's beset with all the usual problems that arise in the development process – crushing deadlines, industry cloak-and-dagger-ing, difficult personalities, insane pressure from investors and unmeetable expectations from the fanbase – and some not so usual ones – mysterious deaths, a unexplained and creepy bug that persists throughout the entire Realms series.
So far it's been a fun read and a real trip back in time to the age of just when I was being introduced to the world of computer games. I'd been a console gamer my entire life, but it wasn't until the millennial shift and high school that I had regular access to computers or understood what that could mean. You has an almost religious reverence for computers and PC gaming, and it's plot charts the history of the early young PC owners and the geek-programer culture that grew out of the Apple II's and Commodores of the 70's and 80's and would produce the game makers of the new age.
But to me the meat of the book doesn't rest in the mystery plot, or the surreal weirdness of the glitch that seems to run through all of Black Arts' games like a curse. To me, the real value of the story is in the characters. The collection of nerds and outcasts turned computer demagogues and failed lawyers over the eroding passage of time.
Knowing Grossman's own career trajectory and past, it's hard not to view certain parts of You like a thinly veiled autobiography. He's obviously put a lot of his own life and struggles down on page for this book. I don't mean that in the sneering or mocking way one might point to a self-insertion character, on the contrary I think its what makes the book work so well for me. Write what you know after all, and Grossman knows nerds. He knows my people.
While some characters are undeniably pastiches of industry icons and archetypes, it doesn't take much of a leap to see the dim outlines of people Grossman has known personally. The quirks and annoyances ring a little too true, the affection and occasional bitter jealousy a little too deep. The dorky fumblings of their high school years too familiar.
You reminds me of my own time in high school. I grew up in the gaming world Grossman helped to define with his work on games like Thief and Deus Ex and I wasn't alone. High school is a world made of cliques and clearly defined in-group and out-group designations. It was only a matter of time before the nerdiest of my peers sought each other out, and together we carved out our own little network of would-be wizards and space marines.
Mike introduced me to computers. His dad was some kind of old time programmer, his basement scattered with old binary input machines, half-built PCs, and even a handmade keyboard. The blood ran true to his son, if there was anyone nerdier than me, it was Mike. He had an unabashed love of anime, games, heavy metal, and cheesy action movies – enjoyed unironically. If he was ever embarrassed of his collection of Dragon Ball figures and Transformers, displayed in a big messy pile on his book shelf, he never showed it. He was totally comfortable with the type of nerd he was, for good and ill.
Dave was terrifyingly huge, vertically and horizontally. With comically thick glasses, a wardrobe of wrestling and motor-sport T-shirts, and the ability to sprout a full beard in a few days without shaving. He seemed like some kind of living cautionary tale on the dangers of growth hormones in our cattle. He was our designated hitter for runs to the Beer-Store and as far as I know he never once struck out. Of the nebulous network of nerds that made up my friends and acquaintances, I knew and understood Dave the least. One of the few things he ever told me about himself was that he had a complete collection of Stephen King novels, a fact he revealed to me with what I thought at the time was a baffling degree of pride. Despite looking like Sasquatch, He was some kind of mathlete who ended up with a scholarship to a fairly prestigious university. I imagine he's crazy rich now and busy engineering the next generation of ATV's and rocket-sleds, still crouched behind a computer with the same intensely creepy look of utter indifference that would come to define him in my mind.
Ben was the strangest addition in our group. Tall, athletic, handsome in a goofy kind of way. He was a farm boy who would sometimes miss class to help his dad with the fields. Strong, fit, he was a member of both the football and rugby teams, ran track, and was deathly terrified of speaking in front of a crowd. Despite all signs pointing in the direction of house parties and jock-level popularity, he drifted into our group with a sheepish but deeply earnest interest in our Magic cards and comic books. He had an ageing computer that Mike helped upgrade with spare parts and pirated software, and soon enough we were getting daily reports of his adventures whether we wanted to or not. Whatever satisfaction he couldn't find in the jock clique or his vaguely unhappy home life he found in the tombs of Diablo 2 and Dungeon Siege. He was at once both the coolest and the nerdiest member of our collection - a sports star with an army of high agility Amazon warriors and Zeal-specced Paladins at his beck and call, each with personalized histories and painfully embarrassing high-fantasy names.
There were others who would band together in the “computer programing club” after class to misuse the resources our educators provided us with. Shawn, keeper of the Monster Manuals, conquering General of a hundred games of RISK, and who seemed to harbour an unnamed but barely concealed dislike for me. I never got to the bottom of that mystery. Forest, the resident RTS guy who would insist and insist on making us play one, then waste no demolishing the competition while we tried to figure out exactly what a Zerg was. The punk, Andy, who's all black wardrobe and passionate love of Marilyn Manson would forever doom him as a “high-risk individual” after the events of Columbine (a stigma not altogether unfounded if you knew him).
All in all we were a collection of conflicting personalities and contagiously un-cool weirdos who would never have spoken or had anything to do with one another if not for our shared overriding love of computer games. I made other friends in high school, craved out a place for myself in a semi-respectable clique of seniors by the end of my graduating year. But it was only in that computer lab with that group of misbegotten loners and nerds that I really felt like I could be myself.
When I think back to that time, there is this weird mix of embarrassment and nostalgia, a bitter tonic of shame and geeky-pride. I'm not proud of who I was back in high school, I have a recurring fantasy that it could have lasted one more year, or I could have somehow experienced the growth and personal leaps in maturity I did in the time after school a bit earlier in life, that I could have somehow eeked out even a slim year as a cool (or at least not painfully dorky) person in high school. Maybe then I would have bothered with a Year Book, or a class ring, or one of the other mementos people hold on to from their teen years. Instead I severed ties and burned bridges to who I was then, eager to move on with life.
And that's what rings so familiar in You. That sense of deep camaraderie marked with shame. The nostalgia for a part of yourself you're not quite comfortable admitting to. The days when you would retreat into the basement with a bag of junk food and not emerge for nine or ten hours. The private marathon viewings of Evangelion and Record of Lodoss War. The nights both wasted and celebrated. The missed opportunities and the painful formative experiences that shape who you would eventually become.
It's a fascinating book with an intriguing mystery, a never ending supply of smart, savvy game references, and a real heartfelt tone. And maybe, if you're a certain kind of nerd, you might see a little bit of your own self in Grossman's melancholy reflections.