SYNOPSIS: After years of drifting through post-college life Russell joins Black Arts, a video game developer founded by friends of his from high school. He is unexpectedly thrust into a leadership role and forced to solve the mystery behind a bug that could ruin the new game and have more far-reaching consequences besides…
PROS: Written by someone with experience in the field; gives a sense of appreciation for things largely taken for granted in video games.
CONS: Nostalgia is expected to carry much of the book; very little conflict; uninteresting and shallow characters; confusing format and perspective shifts.
BOTTOM LINE: There is probably enough decent material here to fill a movie, definitely not enough to float a 400 page novel. There’s too much nostalgia and not enough substance.
You get a package in the mail from SF Signal. You rip it open, it’s Christmas in May! Inside is a hardbound copy of Austin Grossman’s latest novel, a fictional look inside the world of professional game makers. You’re excited to begin reading it. You haven’t read Austin’s Soon I Will Be Invincible but it sits on your overflowing shelf. You’ve seen some great review for Austin’s latest, comparing it to Ready Player One by Ernest Clines and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. You have read (and loved) The Magicians and The Magician King, books written by Austin’s brother Lev Grossman. You are anxious to begin and so you curl up on the hideous burnt orange couch in the living room and start reading…
From early on you develop a personal connection with the book. The story is set in 1998 with flashbacks to the 80’s, and you were too young to actually own any of the nostalgia being hurled at you. Your generation cut its teeth on gaming consoles like the Play Station and the Nintendo 64. You’ve never even touched a Commodore 64, let alone played a game stored on a floppy disk. Still – you understand where Russell, the narrator, is coming from. In recent years your interest in video games has flagged considerably. The X-Box 360 spends more time running Netflix Instant Queue than generating gamescapes. It wasn’t always this way and so the rose-tinted glasses come on and you share in the magic of first discovery.
Russell reminds you of the tension that comes with starting a job way over your head, the wandering that comes with post-adolescence, the desire to escape from tedium and build a world with endless possibilities. Russell isn’t the most compelling of protagonists but that’s okay (at first) because maybe, just maybe, he’s meant as a stand in – one of those voiceless heroes that game developers love to use because it “allows players to pour themselves into the mold.” For a time you are mesmerized by the dedication it takes to build a game. You always knew it had to be extensive work, you watched G4 frequently and you still visit IGN and Kotaku for gamer news, but you never imagined the sheer level of mind-numbing commitment. You begin to develop an appreciation for all the tiny details you never even considered as Russell simultaneously plays every Black Arts game and works to design his own addition the line. You marvel at the early technology and the things it could accomplish. You are absorbed by the section of the novel set at a computer camp for kids. It is easily the best part of the novel.
But things begin to drag from there. You are confused by the perspective switches, from Russell’s first person to the video game’s second person. You understand the purpose behind them but it breaks up the flow. Much about the novel seems designed specifically to break the flow. The formatting is also awkward, switching perspectives at the drop of a hat, for long or short periods of time, occasionally italicized but more often not. Russell explains things about Darren and Simon, the original Black Arts founders, that it seems unlikely that he would know. You read about Russell designing games, and Russell playing games, and Russell playing games (but from your perspective), and you read Russell’s flashbacks and his encounters with the four video game archetypes in the real (fictional) world. These last bits bother you the most perhaps, because they seem superfluous. You suppose this is where some reviewers got the Fight Club angle and that bothers you as well.
Surely the novel makes for an interesting look behind the scenes of video game development but should you want to read that you could always pick up a nonfiction book. The games of Black Arts are somewhat interesting enough and you can see Austin Grossman’s own experience with real world game writing present in each. The games themselves are pretty archetypal, and if the book succeeds at anything it is making you want to put down the novel and play the real world equivalents. When you read a novel you expect some sort of conflict, but what conflict is there to be found here? There’s a mystery bug that is wreaking havoc in the game world, in all of the Black Arts game worlds. Russell decides that the only way to solve the mystery is to play each Black Arts game from start to finish, in chronological order. If there’s a logic behind this it is purely narrative. So essentially, you’re reading about a guy playing a game, wondering why you don’t go play a game yourself.
The mystery of the game bug has limited real (fictional) world consequences. There’s a chance that the bug could send Black Arts out of business or cause Y2K or some such, but no weight is ever given to the crisis and so the stakes never rise beyond “beating the game” essentially. The mystery (if it can really be called a mystery) is eventually solved and the conclusion is anticlimactic to the extreme. There is no fanfare to herald the solution, nor any excitement over the release of the new game. There is no development from any of the characters, nor in the form of their relationships. The book just sort of ends and you are just happy you can now write the review and start something new.
You know that there are those who will enjoy the book. You suspect that these will be hardcore gamers or, more likely, those with rose-tinted lenses. You are disappointed, but at least the novel didn’t devolve into a terrorist laden techno-thriller like Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE.