YOU is a bittersweet novel about how videogames remake our histories

With his first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman brought dark, neurotic humor to the superhero genre. With YOU, a semi-realistic novel about a young videogame designer, he does something more profound. His characters' identities are forged during gameplay, so they can only come to terms with the past by revisiting old games.

YOU is a sprawling, melancholy book, which begins as a kind of dry, journalistic account of the first videogame generation, but soon immerses you in a fever dream of fantasy combat and galactic exploration whose edges merge seamlessly with memories. In the world of YOU, high-level thieves go to high school and warrior princesses have awkward dates over Vietnamese food in Harvard Square. It makes perfect sense when you consider how many hours our main character Russell and his friends all devoted to playing videogames in high school. What happened between tenth grade and eleventh? Well, their friendships suffered a fatal blow. That blow unfolded partly in the lands of Endoria, during a particularly horrific battle between dwarves and men. But it also happened at KidBits computer summer camp, where the pressures of college applications and career ambitions drove them apart.

Grossman's point is that our adventures in game worlds make us who we are as much as our adventures in the real world. And this particular story is ripe for such a theme. Russell has returned to Boston after pursuing an abortive career as a lawyer. Depressed and aimless, he applies for a job working at Black Arts, the videogame company founded by his old high school buddies, Simon, Darren, and Lisa. Back when they were teenagers, the four of them went to computer camp and wrote an early version of one of Black Arts' tentpole franchises, Realms of Gold. Now, it's Russell's job to be the lead designer on the latest Realms of Gold offering.

The problem is that there's a bug in the game engine. It will sometimes randomly spawn a weapon of terrifying power that slaughters even immortal characters — and also manages to mess up a key demo at industry trade show E3. The bug is messing up other Black Arts games, too, because they all run the same engine. Unfortunately the engine was written by super-genius Simon, who died in a mysterious accident years ago. To find the bug, Russell has to replay every Black Arts game, which takes him down a hallucinatory rabbit hole of high school memories, adolescent betrayals and triumphs.

As all this flashbacky drama unfolds, Russell still has a ship date looming ever closer. Grossman takes us deep into the minds of videogame designers at work, breaking chapters up into long lists of character classes, objects, and increasingly sleep-deprived descriptions of magical items. A videogame designer himself, Grossman knows videogame development intimately. And he's terrific at balancing between hyper-realism (meetings, checklists) and the hyper-surreal perspective of a caffeinated designer who sleeps under his desk and dreams about polygon render times.

Like a game, YOU is told from a range of perspectives as we "play" different characters in the game and in Russell's life. Slowly, Russell breaks out of his self-involved depression and begins to understand that other people are more than mages, warriors, and thieves. Building games teaches him sympathy, and an appreciation for how each of us inhabits a constantly-changing story.

Though this is thematically satisfying, it turns the novel into something like an MMO rather than a straightforward piece of writing. Mysteries remain unsolved; romances never bloom; broken friendships are left unmended. People go off in new directions without explanation. Sometimes life spawns a random tragedy that kills people — and even if you throw your controller across the room, those people are still dead. My point is that this novel is an intense and moving character study, not an action movie. And that's its greatest strength.

At first, YOU comes across as yet another book that wants to explain videogames to people who never play them. But by the end of the novel, Grossman has lured you into realizing that games have always structured reality, corralling our identities into a series of choices and levels and hopefully-not-apocalyptic weapons. Everybody is gaming, even if they've never heard of Bioshock and World of Warcraft. The trick is to make your game as beautiful and expansive as possible, so that you'll have something good to remember when your hit points are draining down to zero.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling, and the way fantasy shapes our perceptions of reality.