Like many of us, Austin Grossman has lived with video games his whole life. But, like a lot fewer of us, he went on make them, working as a writer and a designer on beloved titles like Deus Ex and Dishonored. Yesterday, his literary love letter to the medium—a novel called You—hit screens and bookstore shelves all over the world. In the essay that follows, Grossman talks about the classic games that inspired the key franchises in the portfolio of fictional dev studio Black Arts Games.
In my novel You, Russell Marsh quits law school in 1998 and gets a dream job at Black Arts Games, a small, critically acclaimed game studio in Cambridge, MA, making video games with his old friends (and one-time crush) from high school. He's rediscovering the thrill of pulling all-nighters at the dawn of a whole new medium, when he finds a weird bug in the software that might destroy their entire business. He begins tracing the bug from its start in 1983 through fifteen years of video game history, through all the interconnected games of Black Arts's different franchises.
You is a mystery story and it's a story about friendship, but it's been pointed out that it's also a capsule history of the game industry itself. And part of the fun of writing it was creating an alternate world of 80s and 90s video gaming, making up games that evoked the charm and fun of each phase of game history, fake versions of LucasArts style adventure games, roguelikes, RPG's, C64 games and Sega Genesis games, each with its period charm, characters and quirks.
It has also been pointed out that I myself worked at a small, critically acclaimed game studio in Cambridge MA in the mid-Nineties, called Looking Glass Studios, and some of the games I'm describing have a family resemblances to games we actually made like System Shock and Ultima Underworld. I'm going to try and get out in front of the real/fictional debate and lay out a few of You's influences - the games behind the games - to forestall both accusations of plagiarism and potential legal action.
(Above: a mock-up of an early cover design for You by Craig Adams and the staff at superbrothers HQ, makers of the hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. )
The Ultima Series
You takes place over a fifteen-year span, following the same four people and the same four game characters between 1983 and 1998, while their lives change and the game industry changes around them. Ultima was my touchstone for what happens to a game franchise that continually mutates and adjusts to new graphics technologies and design ideas. It's the first experience I had of revisiting a fictional place, Britannia, and seeing it through the lens of different technologies, watching as the places and characters I had imagined from tile-based graphics on an Apple II, sprout color and definition and depth over the years. It's a unique feeling. There's a sense of wonder as you gain a newfound window into the fantasy otherworld, mixed with disappointment as the place you imagined is banished by the "real" one.
In You, the characters start their careers in high school in an introductory programming class in 1983; when asked to decide on a group project, they create the only logical thing: a dungeon simulator. Over time they add more and more features to it, making it a richer and deeper simulation of a fantasy world, incorporating every cliche and fantasy in-joke and random cultural reference,, up to and well past the point of ridiculousness or usability, drawing players ever deeper into an abyss of treasure, memory, and wonder. They're making NetHack. Obviously.
Star Control II
There's a particular feeling I wanted to capture for the game of Solar Empires, a far-future series of game chronicling humankind's exploration of the solar system, then the galaxy. It was that feeling when a game just starts and you see the vast map, the galaxy, a vast glittering mystery, star clusters and nebulas and strange enigmatic stars hanging alone in the depths. You're just tingling with the feeling of what's out there to discover. That's when I looked back to Star Control II, a 1992 game that married SpaceWar! type arcade combat with galactic exploration, intrigue, and comedy. It's a game with far too few imitators, but I never forgot the sense of promise I felt looking at that galactic map, imagining the adventures to come, captured latent in this pocket universe—in what is a gloriously good video game.
The Last Express
The Last Express is a legendary game by Jordan Mechner (Karateka, Prince of Persia), lost for many years but recently released for iOS. It's an adventure game, a branching story of mystery and intrigue set on the Orient Express in 1914, at the brink of the First World War. It's an original, a moment when someone used the CD-ROM technology to re-imagine what video games could be (as Myst had done). The Last Express is elegant, grown-up, multilingual, beautifully hand-drawn over rotoscoped actors in an art nouveau style. It was a critical hit and financial failure, but offered a glimpse of a road not taken for games.
In the novel, Clandestine is The Last Express reimagined, closer to a LucasArts adventure game: A young man, Nick Prendergast, is recruited to spy on Parisian high society in 1938 and swept up in a world of romance and intrigue in the last moments before historical disaster overtakes Europe. I wanted to imagine, in the same way, an interactive adventure set in a glittering lost world. In the novel, of course, the world sees the game's genius and makes it a hit. Until…
The tide of history changes all of us, even in video games. In the early 1990's first-person shooters have their impact, and the character of Nick Prendergast is re-imagined for the first-person shooter genre. Clandestine 1 took place in the drawing rooms of Paris, but in Clandestine 2 through 7, the elegant young spy is retconned into a Cold War killing machine, a thick-necked, chain-gun-slinging Duke Nuke'Em knockoff who roams underground corridors gunning down Eastern Bloc guards and snapping necks in hyper-kinetic action set-pieces. Not that there's anything wrong with that! I tried to bring in some of the over-the-top feeling of the best late-nineties shooters. A little Duke Nuke'Em, a little GoldenEye.
I worked on the first System Shock in 1994, precursor to System Shock 2, and of course some of its creative DNA was grafted into Bioshock. writing the initial design doc before leaving for grad school the first time. I pitched four or five different versions of the story before we agreed on the final choice - the derelict space station, the hacker, the rogue AI - but one of them stayed with me. By no coincidence, the fictional Black Arts Games makes an immersive first-person shooter with 1994-era technology, and thus YOU was my chance to develop the System Shock that could have been!
It stars a teenage girl, raised in the asteroid belt, who steals a spaceship and runs away from home. She stumbles on an enormous, ancient spaceship - a starship, actually, humanity's first interstellar colony ship, a self-contained ecosystem designed to cross to Alpha Centauri over thousands of years. But it never made it. Its AI went haywire, the ship stalled in the solar system, while civilization outside the ship collapsed, and inside, the ship's crew forgot their mission, and divided into warring tribes. Humanity's future is still there, hanging in the balance.
Of course, I pitched this in 1995, when interstellar travel was out and cyberpunk was in, and the idea of a teenaged girl as a player character looked a great deal riskier. I'm not complaining - the System Shock we got was brilliant. But I missed that story, and I'm satisfied to have finally given it its due.
Super Mario Kart
Or substitute here any game that gratuitously borrows the cast of an epic fantasy franchise for the purpose of adding brand lustre to a sporting event. I must have the wrong kind of brain for these things, because I can't get over the basic wrongness of Mario, Princess Peach, and their serial kidnapper Bowser competing in a go-kart race. Does no one see the danger there? This is why I can't play Super Smash Brothers properly. Why are Link and Pikachu fighting? How do they even know each other? When is this happening?
In You, I couldn't resist taking this as far as it could go. The cast of You 's epic fantasy RPG (a warrior, a wizard, a princess, and a thief, obviously) are forced to endure the indignities of a kart-racing game, a golf game, an extreme skate-boarding franchise, and a fighting game, all in the name of monetizing their franchise. They also have to compete against their own cross-genre analogues - espionage versions of themselves, science fiction versions, unlockable-costume versions, which must lead to some awkward conversations in the locker room. For some reason, the wizard takes it all especially hard.
And the rest...
I've left out Minecraft, Gauntlet, Skyrim, Ico….it's a bottomless well. I started playing games when I was seven or eight, early text adventures on my parents' university mainframes, and I've been exposed to far more games than I can remember. Because of when I was born, I grew up alongside the medium itself, and games linked themselves deeper into my memories and unconscious thoughts and feelings than I can fathom, and they've shaped how I live and see the world. If You succeeds, it's because I've communicated what that's like.