May 2013

Walter Biggins


You by Austin Grossman

According to one theory of neuroscience, our neurons and synapses build on top of each other over time, like an intertwined root system in layers of soil. The top layer is the grass, the trees, the flowers, the stuff you smell, breathe in, eat, and see. Those plants are more evolved and sophisticated, biochemically speaking, than the roots. Theoretically, you should just be able to yank the higher-evolved plant out from the root system -- after all, itís outgrown its primitive roots, which frankly canít do or produce all the cool stuff thatís at surface level -- and plop it into higher-evolved, chemically processed soil.

Every gardener and farmer knows how wrong this is. Though the roots feel gummy and behave clunkily, though their functions are simplistic and inefficient compared to the stuff grown on top of it, the roots are grown into the whole system, not just the bottom. And so with our brains. We canít separate the primitive call-and-responses and base instincts from our higher thought processes without killing ourselves. Even when scientists try to extract -- through surgery, drugs, or talk therapy -- our instinctual or deepest-rooted fears from all the coping behavior weíve built on top of those fears, they canít do it without damaging us to the core.

In some ways, every adult geek understands this extraction process, and how it fails us time and time again. Every sci-fi nerd who went dateless on prom night (and every other night), every D&D fan who saw his friends dwindle from three to two to one, every girl who pretended she was uninterested in higher math so that jocks could find other reasons to ignore her, we all had reasons to leave geekdom behind when we left home. We found new acquaintances who didnít know, or would ever need to know, that weíd spent multiple all-nighters cramming down Ursula K. Le Guin novels and grinding through levels of Dragon Quest. What good did it ever do for us? But those digital roots and twines cling to us. We canít extract ourselves from them without losing the best parts of who we are, even if those best parts look (to us) like acne scars, lonely masturbation, and a decided lack of eye contact with anyone even remotely attractive.

Russell, the geek protagonist of Austin Grossmanís remarkable new novel You, tries the extraction, anyway, despite all this:

I was born in 1969, which was the perfect age for everything having to do with video gaming. It meant I was eight when the Atari 2600 game console came out; eleven when Pac-Man came out; seventeen for The Legend of Zelda. Personal computers were introduced just as our brains were entering that first developmental ferment of early cognitive growth, just in time to scar us forever.

Itís the scars that Russell remembers, the intense fear of social isolation, the loneliness. One summer at computer camp, age fourteen, Russell and his friends Darren, Lisa, and Simon co-created Realms of Gold, a prototype fantasy/adventure/strategy game so basic that there are no graphics. All characters, dungeons, monsters, forests, dales, and magical spells are made of ASCII text. Thereís no sound, no color, not even scrolling screens. This is the quintessential rogue-like game, named after Rogue, one of the first and most-copied games. (Grossman even gives his fictional game a name that can be made into a partial acronym for ďrogue.Ē) Realms of Gold would spread, by floppy disk, cassette, and word-of-mouth, all over the country. Within six years, Darren, Lisa, and Simon would be rich. RussellÖ well, Russell quit. "I went on to an English degree, a year of law school, an internship at a doomed newspaper in Dallas, sublets in Cambridge, Queens, Somerville, San Francisco (a new start!), Austin, Madison, and imminently, nowhere." He has failed, or at least he feels like a failure in the way so many of us do as we approach thirty. Russell attempted to extract his best, most socially adjusted parts from his glistening, mucous-like membrane -- ďIíll reinvent myself!Ē -- only to find himself lost and bereft. As Grossmanís novel begins, itís 1997, and Russell is interviewing for a job at Dark Arts, the video game company founded by his old pals.

In some ways, theyíve left him behind by growing more into themselves. After all, itís 1997, and some have embraced their nerdery. Computer engineering, with video game development as its rockstar corollary, became an avenue for financial and social success for geeks, starting in the mid-1990s. Darren, Lisa, and Simon didnít exactly revel in their geekdom but they found a use for it, a way for its roots to reach toward water. Darren is the companyís charismatic visionary, able to imagine cool worlds and convey them simply and charmingly to his engineers, designers, and financial backers; letís just call him the Steve Jobs of Dark Arts. Lisa feels more like Nintendoís Shigeru Miyamoto, a brilliant thinker and innovator who doesnít appear to actually like video games that much but sees them as an avenue toward something richer and stranger. Simon, who is dead and much-missed by the time You begins, actually designed the engine that runs all Dark Arts games; heís the creepy, possibly autistic genius thatís closer to Steve Wozniak than the other Steve.

Russell, though, isnít quite anything. He keeps trying on different fits -- anything but ďgaming geekĒ -- and nothing works. You is told in first-person, through Russell. Since Russell canít make himself fit an appropriate stereotype, neither can he fit the people around him into slots. His characterizations of character tics, fashion sense, vocal mannerisms are precise and idiosyncratic, befitting the failed writer and social butterfly that he is. Here he is, half-remembering/half-imagining how a lonely teen might see computer game design as salvation:

The world narrowed to the tiny realm where he was always pushing on to the next screen, the next castle, always in a private dream of concentration and hard reflex, like a stoner kid doing bar chords over and over until his fingers were cramped and the muscle memory was there even in his sleep, always on the verge of some conclusion on the next screen, the crucial revelation that never quite appeared, that he could spend his life chasing, unless he learned to make them, unless he got to set the rules himself, unless he could put what he wanted in that castle, lock it away and bury it in a dungeon for a thousand years. Heíd come home at nine or ten, biking home even in winter, snow in his eyes and silting up in his collar.

Russellís so hyper-observant about the behavior of others that he senses a great shift in the company even before it happens. Darren leaves abruptly to start a new company, and takes Dark Artsí best designers and programmers. Suddenly, Russell finds himself as the lead designer for the latest iteration of Realms of Gold, scheduled to ship in eighteen months and already rampantly over-budget and behind schedule. Everyone but Russell is blindsided by all this. Russell, bless him, is more bemused and resigned. Heís so Charlie Brown-esque about the industry that he fails to see how Dark Arts is changing him for the better, making him funnier, more vulnerable, more willing to commit to something beyond himself, more willing to stick with something even when it becomes difficult.

A major difficulty springs up immediately in Realms of Gold VII. Dark Arts games are now graphics-intensive, with sound design and lighting schemes rivaling Hollywood blockbusters. Sure, but like our brains, the engine commanding it all is still the kitchen-sink, bandages-and-spit baggy monster that the foursome designed in 1983. And an awful glitch is slicing through the roots, threatening to rot the entire company.

Crises, though, have a way of bringing out our best selves. The novelís funniest, bravura section is a moment of raw panic for Russell, as he presents a crucial Realms of Gold VII demo for techheads and nervous underwriters at E3, the largest tech/gaming expo in the country. The Simon-created glitch creates a berserker syndrome in the game just as Russell tries to show off the cool new stuff that the game can do:

ďAnd hereís the baron himself -- weíll see heís a romantic at -- okay, I guess heís decided to make a stand. Very -- one sec -- very brave. Heís not really programmed as a combatant. The blood is just a particle system, but we save its location on the textures -- spatters pretty well. Youíll see heís dropped his inventory -- gold, dagger, andÖ the jewel itself. Nicely done. And I see we have some more servants arriving.Ē

Russell survives the demo. Even better, it forces him to present his funniest, most improvised, most resourceful self -- the self he tries so desperately to hide. For once, his inner monologue matches his outer one.

If Russell doesnít find total salvation in game design, thatís only because no one in You does. Games offer wonderful possibilities, Grossman implies, but also severe limitations. Games donít quite achieve the emotional depth of movies, as annoyingly cinematic as games have become. Because of the technical limitations in how players can interact with them, they never quite become art, and, in a ferocious and funny argument mid-novel, Lisa argues for an ďanti-artĒ stance toward video games. Coding might make you rich, as it did for Simon and Darren, but it wonít make Simon any less isolated or Darren any less of an asshole.

No one thing can ďsaveĒ us. Thatís Grossmanís point, that we need communities and networks of connections between our past selves and present lives, just to survive, much less thrive. In You, Grossman shows how growing deeply into our roots and the interlacings around us can help us build better selves, and better possibilities for communality. Disguised as a comedic workplace thriller, You reveals the depth of the networks that make us whole, of the web of relationships that existed long before the internet went big.

You by Austin Grossman
Mulholland Books
ISBN: 978-0-316-19853-0
320 pages