July 17, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Austin Grossman's debut novel Soon I Will Be Invincible was one of the most entertaining books I have read in years. His followup, You, is a complex and compassionately told story of friendship in the early days of the video game industry.
Bookslut wrote of the book:
"No one thing can “save" us. That's Grossman’s 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."
Video games are musical. Every generation of technology has its characteristic sound. Asteroids has that Jaws-like pulsing heartbeat. C64 games had their characteristically shrill but somehow beautiful quality. In 2012, Journey became the first video game whose soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy (note: not to be confused with the 1983 arcade game based on the rock band of that name).
Playing a video game for hours, the music seeps into your blood, and the moment it plays again you're pulled back years or decades, emotionally, mentally to that time in your life. It's an experience I tried to capture in one passage of the novel, a kind of 8-bit musical Proustian rush:
The haunting melody of “Laura’s Waltz” had to be one of the finest compositions ever written for the 6581 SID chip. It managed to suggest in three channels of flat eight-bit tones the gaiety and prescient sadness of Paris’s lost generation, the waltz’s plaintive keening and the warbling of its higher registers soaring over the buzzy, percussive bass. When I heard it playing, it felt like a soundtrack to that whole lost sophomore year of college, through and past my first failed relationship. I saw myself growing up, all in a few months going from overage teen to disappointed grown-up, and there was that middle space where it all came together, a sixteen-color Paris between the wars. For some reason I felt as close to having a life as someone who had no life could possibly feel.
These are the kinds of moments I wanted to capture in prose, in this novel about a lost young man who drops out of law school to get a job at a video game company founded by friends of his that he abandoned after high school. Immersed in the weird culture of video game development he finds a calling for the first time in his life. When he stumbles on a weird bug in the code base, he has to trace the mystery of where it came from in the form of a story about how the company, and the whole medium, began.
"The best ever death metal band out of Denton were a couple of guys who'd been friends since grade school." This is a touchstone for the entire book, that archetypal story of two kids with a weird friendship, and a combination of passionate genius and directionless rage, that doesn't quite fit any particular purpose. Only it's not a rock band this time, it's the early Eighties and they decide to make computer games. "When you punish a person for dreaming their dream, don't expect them to thank or forgive you…"
The guys who wrote "Don't Fear the Reaper" also recorded what is basically musical Elric fanfic. It's funny now, yet in its time and place it was totally and unbelievably awesome. As with so many, many things in this list.
A friend and I used to drive around to this song. We were lonely and angry and felt weird, and this is what we listened to - that opening harmony was like a severe sugar rush, and then the drums kick in and you hit the gas of your shitty car; juvenile and sentimental but at the time I clung to it for dear life. I have seen the movie "Highlander" more times than I have seen any other film. I don't say I'm proud of this, it's just a fact.
I literally blink back tears hearing this one again. In 1997, roughly I had just moved to Los Angeles a few years before. I was pouring my heart and soul into creating Trespasser: Jurassic Park, a punishingly ambitious game that would become a near career-ending fiasco.
I lived a sad, solitary existence and every night before I went to bed I would play through the Rainbow Road level of Mario Kart 64, a ridiculously overlong monotonous level, just a black void with bright strips of rainbow winding through it. Weird neon images of the characters floated overhead so exactly like the pictures behind your eyes when you're trying to go to sleep. I remembered it so vividly, I had to write my own version of Mario Kart into YOU, in which the four epic heroes of a fantasy realm are transported across space and time and forced to race each other in motorized go-karts, in a moment that sucks pretty much the last vestiges of gravitas out of their franchise.
"I Know What You Think of Me" - Barcelona
"I hear things behind my back. I read Vonnegut and won't look up in calculus class."
This is basically where the character of Lisa is coming from - she was the weird girl in high school, who always wore long dresses and was really good at math, and there was no one remotely like her in her school or her town so she had to figure out life for herself. She ends up as lead programmer for the game project; as one of the few women in the company she embodies a kind if outsider perspective on the gaming world.
This song and the accompanying cinematic is abominably cheesy and lame, but used to just sweep me away despite all better judgment. Really I do enjoy quality music and literature, but when the castle is collapsing and the guy looks back for a second…? And that other guy holds the axe up and the camera flies overhead…? Uh, yeah. I'll go now.
Today, Halo is synonymous with the jock end of the video gamer demographic, the dudebro gamers in frat houses and on military bases. People forget how daring it was for Bungie to put choral music over their splash screen rather than techno! And how clearly it transmitted the idea of the sublime scale of this huge artificial biosphere. I wrote about my experiences with Halo here; the theme still gives me chills, and I fed the memory back into Black Arts's fictional outer-space franchise, Solar Empires.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: a peek inside the corporate video game world. Don't listen to this all the way through. Please just don't. It's a corporate anthem for Infogrames, the French company that would later buy the Atari brand, change its name, then aggressively tank the brand into nothingness. It embodies a perfect, crisply enunciated sugary cynicism, now shaded with a schadenfreude that it's not even worth having given how cruddy its object is.
As the final glory note trails off, we all re-evaluate our place in the scheme of things. Why was this created? Some kind of team-building corporate retreat or holiday party. Who sang it? Maybe it's we'd rather not know. She was really good. She deserved better.
I know and love this song from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. Both because it kicks ass, and because me and a friend played it obsessively for three months while we camped out in corporate housing in Austin Texas while we worked on Deus Ex for Ion Storm (which is still the game I am most often asked about despite, even though I was only a contractor on it). All through those months we laid plans for a startup company; we wrote hundreds of pages of docs for a cyberpunk MMO called "Nightside." I tried to imagine myself rich, founder of a game studio, a game design mogul. It never became a reality but, believe me, it was going to be awesome. It would have changed everything.
Austin Grossman and You links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists