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Some of the most interesting minds at work in the American arts today can be found in the video-game industry. Such designers as Jonathan Blow, Jenova Chen, Clint Hocking, Ken Levine, Jason Rohrer, and Kellee Santiago all aspire to an imaginative excellence most novelists, visual artists, and filmmakers would recognize instantly. But whereas most people have a ballpark conception of what it means to be a film director or a painter, hardly anyone can tell you the first thing about what it’s like to make a video game.

Austin Grossman attempts to remedy this with his second novel, You (Mulholland Books, $25.99), which concerns a (fictional) middling 1990s video-game company called Black Arts. This is familiar territory for Grossman, who has worked in and out of the games industry for the past twenty years. His ingenious first book, Soon I Will Be Invincible, depicted a world filled with superheroes and villains, but its integument was that of a psychologically observant literary novel. With You, Grossman is, once again, crossing the streams of his putatively adolescent and adult fascinations.

Desperate for a career do-over, Russell, the narrator, comes to work at Black Arts as a twenty-eight-year-old failed journalist. (Two of Russell’s childhood friends founded the company.) Grossman was born in 1969, the same year as his narrator, which allows him to write evocatively about the “floods of quarters warmed with adolescent body heat” and the sense all young gamers had of being “dimly aware that we were the first people, ever, to be doing these things.”

After only a few weeks at Black Arts, Russell is unexpectedly promoted to lead game designer for the company’s next title. His thoughts on making and playing games (“we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors who weren’t even going to follow the script”) form the core of You, giving Grossman the occasion for some of the most startling, acute writing on video games yet essayed.

As a piece of straight-up fiction, however, You is not always successful. Video-game characters, Grossman writes, are “paper-thin, just empty things you steered around the world to get what you want,” and this seems dismayingly applicable to some of the people we meet in the novel. Russell’s blandness as a character may be inevitable (he spends most of the book sitting in front of a computer screen, after all), but the people who drift into his orbit also tend to be types of a single — and not particularly memorable — note. Thus when the emptily iconic characters from Black Arts’ story lines begin to invade Russell’s dreams and give him advice, you pay attention. That a wizard rendered in pixels upstages characters of ostensible flesh and blood is either Grossman’s sly commentary on games or his unwise surrender to them.

You’s plot turns on a piece of baleful code implanted deep within the engine that powers all of Black Arts’ games; how this bit of digital malevolence embodies itself, and what it does, is both upsetting and amusing, as is Russell’s half-ridiculous, half-profound, and highly Platonic explanation of why any of us play video games in the first place:

To forestall any future threat, the gods decreed we should each be separated into halves, and each half hurled into a separate dimension. There was a human half, weak but endowed with thought and feeling, and a video game half, with glowing and immortal bodies that were mere empty shells, lacking wills of their own. We became a fallen race, and forgot our origins, but something in us longed to be whole again. And so we invented the video game, the apparatus that bridged the realms and joined us with our other selves again.

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