There are stories that appear to grasp all of my thoughts and loves and ideas right out of thin air and hurl them onto the pages of a book. These moments are few and far between but lately I had that very experience with You, a novel about video game design written by Austin Grossman.
It’s a book that appeared to jump into my bag unexpectedly as soon as I recognised the art style in the bookshop as the front cover was clearly adorned with an illustration from Superbrothers and of course I knew that a special something must lie inside.
You is the story of a games designer and the novel follows this character’s experience of working on a fictitious, open-world RPG for the Realms franchise. This is a series of games about hit points and Dark Elves, ancient mines filled to the rafters with orcs and endless fields sprinkled with wolves, thieves and the occasional ice giant. Yet besides these mysteries, within the code of the game itself lies a world-ending glitch that drives the design team to the brink of insanity; our protagonist must find the glitch before the game ships and save their creation from the quirks and eccentricities of the designer that came before them. It’s a video game murder mystery!
Although reading a book that finally gets what games are all about was terribly exciting, it was Grossman’s curiosity that’s bound up in You that had me on the edge of my seat:
Realms 1.0 was just the beginning: they would build and build into 2.0 and 20.0, into cities and kingdoms and systems within systems and interfaces within interfaces and princesses and starships and submarines and grassy fields and volcanoes and floating cities and laughing gods and blackest hells and on and on, because there would always be something else there over the next hill, beyond the turning in the road, down the dark hallway and into the next room, and somewhere in there you’ll escape at last, escape yourself and forget and forget and forget and live in a story forever.
The first time I played Oblivion, which is a very similar franchise to the fictitious world that Grossman describes, I wondered at the game’s potential, its infinite stories, its open, unbound freedom. For months the shared experiences of this game were cross-examined in friendly arguments and forums online; Oblivion could blossom with so many choices that we all questioned whether or not we had played some part in its design: would we steal that loaf of bread today or would we sneak out underneath the stars? Would we spend our mornings being chased by wooly mammoths and their giant companions, or would we instead choose to explore the sewers in the hope that we might stumble upon the contaminated lair of the Brotherhood?
As far as I can remember though, Oblivion was never a game which took itself very seriously: the designers were well-aware that the game was about orcs and demons and portals to hellish dimensions, and I’m reminded of it because Grossman captures this feeling precisely with his Realms series, too:
History progressed, blissfully free of historical or political or technological progress. Kingdoms rose and fell over the millennia, but there was no trend toward democracy, no Enlightenment, no industrial modernity, no Luther, no Hume, and absolutely, definitely no gunpowder. No Principia Mathemetica or Declaration of Independence. We held certain truths to be self-evident, but those truths were that elves hate orcs and wizards can’t wear metal armour.
The book also discusses the role of stories in video games, namely, how do you tell a great story without taking away the control of the player? Cutscenes! Level design! The benefits of using fire arrows over magic spells! It’s these sorts of ideas that are discussed in the book and we see the protagonist strip a video game to its most basic components in order to find out how he can put them back together in ways we’ve never seen.