Youby Austin Grossman
Mulholland Books, 400 pp., $25.99
Our modern world increasingly encourages its population to plop down in front of computer screens to work, play, or just stay relevant. As the number of monitor monkeys increases, though, the representation of that world is not proportionally represented in movies and books. That's probably because any "action" occurs unseen in the cyber world while all outward appearances are of staggering torpidity. For that reason and others, the world at large knows little about how the video game industry turns an idea into an interactive world to explore.
The latest title from nerd-repping author Austin Grossman follows a group of kids who mature along with the tech and gaming industry of the Eighties and Nineties. The largely bullied crew seeks escape in the imagined worlds they've made real within the digital confines of Apple II computers. As time passes, the group loses one member, Russell, to a more stable career, as one of their more enigmatic and brilliant compatriots dies. Fast forward to 1998, and Russell finds himself returning to the friends he abandoned for a job at Black Arts, a gaming studio the group now runs. From there, Grossman jumps back and forth between the clan's formative years, losing themselves in virtual dungeons, and their current struggles to create the final installment of their signature series.
Much of the novel is spent describing the changing landscapes of computer technology and the ins and outs of making a big-budget video game. Grossman manages to keep those industry details interesting but without sacrificing verisimilitude; the author's cred as a video game consultant (including for such local releases as Epic Mickey and Dishonored) no doubt helps him achieve this balance. Grossman's insights imbue the plot with a sense of time as PCs evolve from data processors to a communication medium, a tool these teens use to bring their dreams to life even as they grow up.
The nostalgia is thick, but Grossman doesn't long for youth. Instead, he celebrates a time when video games were deeply personal creations – coded epistles to kindred spirits telling them that they are not alone.