You don't need to be a gamer to appreciate and enjoy Level Up. The story is universal--primal--and speaks to the truth of what it means to be both a father and a son. It's a story of personal discovery and filial piety, handled well with humor and nostalgia.
Reluctant overachiever Dennis Ouyang has been groomed, since birth, to become a doctor--not just any doctor, a highly specialized gastroenterologist. Dennis, however, would rather play video games. Dennis becomes obsessed with video games, but he lives in the shadow of his parent's--and his father's--expectations. The weight of these expectations and early family tragedy take their toll on Dennis as he abandons his father's wishes to become a doctor by experimenting heavily with gaming, eventually allowing the games to consume his life, which has devolved into a sedentary, 8-bit bacchanalia. Dennis becomes consumed by playing video games and his academic future is now in jeopardy. However, a visit by four bright, determined, chiibi-esque angels steers Dennis back on the path toward medical school and family honor, proclaiming to him that becoming a doctor is his destiny. These seemingly righteous angels help Dennis to discover for himself what his destiny is. Using video games as a gimmick, Level Up is ultimately the story of a son trying to forge his own life while honoring the love and expectations of his parents.
Like Yang's other works, the protagonist is an unassuming, likable fellow whose internal conflicts manifest as surreal, whimsical totems of childhood. And, like his other works, popular culture references and stylized, contemporary dialogue help to reinterpret stories and struggles that have been going on for generations. What makes Level Up such a particularly powerful tale is that the age-old conflict between fathers and sons is given a fresh context when the story of the immigrant father is revealed.
Similar to the characters in Level Up, the art by Thien Pham is deceptively simple and unassuming. This style works particularly well with the angels, who are cute and easy to underestimate. Thien Pham, in the simplest of panels, is able to convey powerful, pure expressions of bitterness, guilt, contentment, and longing in his characters' faces.
Overall, while marketed as a book for young adults, Level Up makes a great read for adults, especially those of us in the X and Y generations. It will also make a great Father's Day gift for hip, geek dads.