What do people really know about how video games get made? Sure, today’s players know that games get designed, drawn, produced and tested. That’s more than their forebears. Still, the idea of what drives people to make games — other than the fact that it seems like a fun thing to do — remains one that continues to feel frustratingly out of reach. We generally understand how performers’ personalities inform their film-making, writing and music creation. But what part of a person’s soul goes into a video game?
There have been books like Masters of Doom, Smartbomb and Extra Lives, which all chart the arcs of careers and histories inside the video game industry. But, Austin Grossman’s new novel might be the most illuminating effort at answering that question yet. That’s because Grossman writes from his own personal experience of having helped build the worlds of games like Ultima Underworld II, Thief: Deadly Shadows and Dishonored.
“YOU is a novel about games and game development,” Grossman told me during a phone conversation two weeks ago. “The central characters met each other in an Intro to Programming class in 1983 in high school. One night, they had a long, rambling conversation about Tron and virtual reality and it winds up with them collectively asking ‘Will we ever be able to make the ultimate game?’ “
“That’s what I thought about constantly in 1983,” Grossman confessed. “I saw Tron. I thought to myself, ‘Is there going to be a game that’s going to be like D&D but where we get to go inside it, and it’s just all real and we can do whatever we want?’ And I would think to myself, ” ‘Is that going to be possible one day?’ ” In the book, they decide to do it.”
“They decide, ” ‘OK, we’re going to take a vow that our lives are going to be about getting to this ideal.’ Which is a nonsense ideal. Four of them continue on with this and start a new game company. And the fifth guy graduates from high school and breaks away, thinking like, ‘Why do I need that stuff?’ The novel actually starts in 1998, where the fifth guy who broke away and went to law school comes back, and says, ‘Hi, I want to work at your game company.’ He finds out what happened to them, as they decided to push as far as they could toward making the perfect ultimate game. He gets a job there as a designer, discovers a weird bug and starts to dig into the past while learning the trade of game design. The main character learns about one of the original four friends’ death and gets caught up in a mystery around a hidden technology that one of them made before he died, which might be the key to the holodeck technology. But, really, it comes to grips with what the real passion of game development is.”
Grossman thinks that there’s more than a desire for money or relative amounts of fame in the hearts of the people who become game designers. “The big question is, ‘What are we all trying to do when we make games?’ What is the animating vision that’s pushing us so hard to push the technology forward every year to create this medium? If you go to E3 every year, the technology leaps forward at a frightening rate. This novel is set in 1998 which is right around when graphics and accelerator cards are taking over the look of games. It was one of those scary jumps.”
“I remember Doom,” Grossman reminisced. “Suddenly everything had sort of bloom lighting on it. Everything had levels of detail. Everything got specular. I thought to myself, ‘Man, this is about as real as games could possibly get.’ ” But it keeps jumping forward. And it makes me wonder why are we trying to make another world that we can go into? So, as the main character finds out what happened to his friends and what their stories were, you start to wonder if there is a dark side of what they’re all trying to do, like with the Manhattan Project. It’s my way of working out why the best minds of my generation tried do this ridiculous yet compelling thing of making video games”
I thought it a bit paradoxical that Grossman spent part of his time working on Dishonored — in an environment where he has to be really spare and economical with words and language — while, at the same time, writing a novel where he has free reign to sprawl all over the page. I asked him if there was there a big of cognitive dissonance moving from one thing to another within the same time frame. “I do notice the contrast. I wouldn’t even say cognitive dissonance, though. I would say, “This is where we get to let it all hang out.” During the day, I’ve got to count my words. When I switch to the book, it’s ‘No more haiku. No more tweets.’ Too much language does not belong in games, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love to work with it. I just sort of figured out where in my life I would get to do what. I could afford to be spare in games because I know that later on I’ll get to do whatever I feel like doing.”
And, it’s not just the people who already play games that Grossman is trying to reach with YOU. “One of the purposes of this book is to try to open that world [of game development] to non-gamers,” he explained. His last novel, 2007’s Soon I Will Be Invincible deconstructed the psychological forces and emotional baggage that drove a set of super-powered heroes and villains to become costumed characters. Grossman says that he wants to do something similar in YOU. “Games are really interesting and tons of people make them,” Grossman said. “Yet it hasn’t been talked about in a very satisfying way. Why are people doing when they play games for hours and hours and hours out of their day? What are they feeling? What’s driving the people who play and make games? It’s a really human experience and I want to write about it in a way that felt satisfying and truthful.”
“I feel like there are a lot of emotions bound up in games,” Grossman continued, “but the majority don’t have names.” Something unique comes from the mix of the familiar — anger, fear, exhiliration — and with the experience of interactive control. “You go and sit down and play and three hours later you get up and what happened? You don’t remember what happened. It’s just time that got sent away. Where did it get sent away to? What’s happening in your mind?”
Talking to Grossman, I compared it to my own experience playing Shadow of the Colossus. I did things for reasons that weren’t always clear , driven partly by the scripted narrative but also by this unnamable urge that I had to follow. “I was playing and I was, like, ‘Ouch, this game is making me feel things that I didn’t really quite know I could feel this intensely. And I have no idea how they do it,’ ” said Grossman, thinking back to his own time with the PS2 classic. “My job with the book is try and capture some of that and make it intelligible. Try and get gamers and gaming to feel human rather than an addiction.”
Anyone who gets really depressed about how that broad sensationalistic brushstrokes that misrepresent video games will find things to like about YOU. I asked Grossman about why he thinks those interpretations linger. “Partly, I think it’s a lack of a vocabulary,” he answered. “People don’t know how to talk about the experience. They compare it to addiction or they compare it to God I don’t know what else. Video games get cast as a dirty secret or just something degenerate or reptilian unless you know better. But, you know what? Millions of people do know better. I just want to put that down into words.”