Let me be up front and tell you that while Level Up does touch on the topic of video games it is not nearly as much about the games as you might first suspect. Video games come up and they are used as a metaphor but they are one of several metaphors used in the book. It is really the story of how a boy grows up with the expectations of his parents while tying to balance it against his own desires to be happy. We see Dennis Ouyang go through his life oscillating between hiding himself in video games which he loves and beings quest to becoming a gastroenterologist despite the fact that he has no interest in the job. After his farther dies and he gets kicked out of college he is visited by four little angels that act as nagging guilty consciences that demand that he fulfill his destiny of becoming a doctor. So he whips himself back into shape and is slowly but surely is on his way to satiating the angels. He makes friends and even finds love but he is constantly plagued by the fact that he is going into a career he hates. Despite the addition of the angels it is an extremely relatable story. We have all expectations place on us by the people who raised us and know how they can conflict with our attempts live our own lives. The more the exceptions placed on you the more the book will speak to you. Dennis and his friends sell the story by being delightful characters that draw you in. The art simple and has a very independent comic vibe but it is expressive while maintaining a warm feeling. Level Up is a nice one book story with a fairly important lesson for anyone who is lacking direction their life or remembers what that feeling is like.
The first chapter where we see Dennis’s failed attempt to get a Nintendo for Christmas might be the most relatable scene of the book, you wanted him to get it but knew he wouldn’t. And it is just as easy to struggle with Dennis as he weighs his father’s desires against his own changing perspective. It said it all to me when Dennis’s mother told him “Love is for people. Not work.” Each generation in each culture deals with this difference in thinking, but the Asian American experience depicted here should be very familiar, I know it mirrors my friend’s stories. But I think what was refreshing about this story is the balance it strikes in the end proving you don’t have to cast off your family completely to be who you are. Though I have to say that parents might need this lesson more than kids. Gene Luen Yang brings these lessons in with video games, humor, and great pacing. Sparse words are needed as Thien Pham perfectly conveys everything you need to know visually. A perfect collaboration.