Two Can Play That Game by Leanne Yong | Review
A highly enjoyable coming-of-age novel about creativity and relationships
Title: Two Can Play That Game
Author: Leanne Yong
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Released: January 31, 2023
This review contains mild spoilers.
I know we’re not even a week into 2023, but I’m telling you - this is easily one of my favourite reads of the year.
The premise is this: Sam Khoo and Jaysen Chua both reach for the last video game on the shelf - the one that comes with an exclusive ticket to a game design workshop. Sam wants it to further her career as an indie game designer, but Jay wants it too. They both agree to a video game challenge where the winner gets the ticket.
The experience is this: An incredible and heartfelt journey of relationships, family, culture, and passion - and hoo boy if you’re a creator of any kind, you’re going to find this relatable.
What I thought was going to be a fun read - which, don’t get me wrong, it was - turned out to be a multi-faceted exploration of culture, family expectations, changing friendships, and figuring out what you want to do with your life. Even the small details made the novel feel full - autism representation, post-pandemic life, the video game graphic cards, just to name a few. The writing itself had a really great voice that made it so easy to curl up with the novel.
I can’t relate to Sam on a cultural level, but I felt her experiences as a creator in my soul. While I don’t know a thing about coding and what goes into creating video games, the portrayal of the obsessive nature that comes of trying to make it big - or make it at all - with your creative project to make everything worth it was deeply familiar - and the complexity of feeling both proud and a little bitter when a friend starts receiving the success you so want. It’s Sam’s focus for so long that you’re rooting for her, which means when Sam realises it might not be the only path for her, the reader does too, and I loved that surprising development as you experience Sam’s story with her.
I don’t tell him that while it started that way, much of my dedication now springs from desperation. I’ve known for years that this is the path for me and I need to make it work, so I’ll back myself and do whatever it takes.
Diverse stories bring me so much joy, and I loved learning more about Singaporean and Malaysian cultures through his novel. From gwai zais to traditional drinks to the Asian Gossip Network, it was a lot of fun and gratifying to experience another part of Australia in this way and watch Sam’s struggle to find the balance between what her parents expect of her and what she expects of herself.
I accepted the scholarship because of how happy they were, the expressions on their faces that said, This made everything worth it. That moment where all their hard work and sacrifices culminated in a joyful, tangible result. It’s the moment I’m chasing with Vinculum, the moment where everything pays off and I finally step onto the stage I’ve been staring at for years. Both of these moments cannot coexist.
Watching Sam learn how to balance everything not only made her an enjoyable character to follow, but also an incredibly real one.
It actually surprised me how many relationships are explored, but it never feels like too much. I want to *squee* over Sam and Jay so much - I loved watching their rivalry blossom first to friendship and then to something more. They had this mutual respect for one another and it was really satisfying to watch Sam realise that while she’s determined not to ‘let a guy save her’, she’s allowed to accept support and that she’ll be made even stronger for it - something I think many of us need to hear ourselves.
But my favourite relationship was the sisters - the idea of them inspired Sam’s game, Vinculum. Sam’s younger sister Eva is also searching for the balance between pleasing her parents and forging her own way, and the way the sisters compare themselves to each other and butt heads and laugh was so reminiscent of my own relationship with my younger sister and I loved seeing that familiarity on the page. It all comes to a beautiful and satisfying conclusion, summed up perfectly by this quote:
It doesn’t matter if we lean different ways while straddling two cultures, or if there is a divide between our worlds we can’t quite cross. Like my game, we stumble along our individual paths, each affecting the other in ways even we might not completely understand, through an unseen bond. The vinculum. In so many ways I’m still wandering alone in the dark on my half of the screen, but knowing she’s on the other half? It helps.
All in all, Two Can Play That Game is an extremely enjoyable read, and a #LoveOzYA release not to be missed.
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