‘Video games open us up to the whole spectrum of human emotions’: novelist Gabrielle Zevin on Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow | Spell

Games have always been part of the life of writer Gabrielle Zevin. Her first experience, she recalls, was playing Pac-Man at the Honolulu hotel where her grandmother owned a jeweler. “I was about three years old at the time and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be just perfect if I wasn’t limited to a quarter… if I could keep playing this game forever and ever?” Now 44, the veteran author has written her first novel about games. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the story of two programmers, Sam and Sadie, who founded a studio in the mid-1990s and over the course of a decade, creating interesting games as their lives and relationships become entwined in complex, often heartbreaking ways.

It’s an art novel for the digital age, a captivating meditation on creativity and love, and arguably the first novel to grapple with the culture and meaning of this often misunderstood medium. It was also a resounding success, shooting straight into the New York Times bestseller list and earning her an interview with Jimmy Fallon.

Games are a topic she was born to write about. Both of her parents worked for IBM, where her father was a programmer. “His background is pretty much the same as Sam’s,” she says. “He was a math genius who was tired of academia and decided he wanted to make money with computers.” One day in the early 80s, he brought home a work computer preloaded with games. “It was titles like Alley Cat and Jumpman. I remember playing those games and thought they were a solution to a problem I had during my childhood, which was that I was an only child. Now I finally had someone to play with.”

She later discovered the graphic adventure games from Sierra, the pioneering company behind the legendary Space Quest and King’s Quest games. “I remember finding these games so beautiful and intricate, it seemed like a whole new kind of storytelling.” They were known for their user input – players had to type phrases such as “Go north” or “Pick up dagger” to solve puzzles. Was her interest in these highly textual games a clue to her future as a writer?

“There was the particular copyright challenge of trying to figure out the exact set of words that will unlock the answer,” she laughs. “I don’t think I felt that way at the time, but all those games are like hundreds of hours of practicing writing characters and figuring out how certain words work. You have to be incredibly empathetic with the person who designed the game to figure out what’s going to make you win.”

During her writing career, Zevin always saw games as an escape, something separate from her work. For 17 years she wrote books without references to video games. When her latest project didn’t sell as well as its predecessor, she found herself looking for those old adventure games again – a conscious retreat to the joys of childhood. But when she had to track down a copy of her old favorite game, Gold Rush, she started thinking about how games are overlooked and sidelined as cultural artifacts. She was also fascinated by the dynamics between Roberta and Ken Williams, the married couple who co-founded Sierra and designed many of his titles.

Cultural artifacts on the sidelines… Gold Rush.
Cultural artifacts on the sidelines… Gold Rush. Photo: Sierra Online

Years ago, she’d read Stephen Levy’s Hackers, which chronicled the early days of computer upstarts like Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, and a long chapter on Sierra. As she thought about Morgen, she read it again. “I was struck by the dynamics and also the Boogie Nights-esque atmosphere, this kind of wildness of early game development,” she says. “In the end, I didn’t write the 80s because it wasn’t as interesting to me as the 90s. So I came across David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, one of my favorite books describing video game making. And from there I took over.”

Her lengthy research process involved playing many video games. “Even though I’ve been playing for 40 years, you realize all the gaps in your knowledge,” she says. “Most people’s gaming history is itinerant at best – mine certainly was. There were all these kinds of games that I hadn’t played because they were tied to consoles I didn’t own. And the more I researched, the weirder I found it to be how little fiction has treated game-playing and game-making in a serious way, given the number of people who play.

What has impressed many readers is how accurately it portrays the often problematic culture of the game industry. Did she hang out in game studios while writing? “The beauty of life today is that there are endless interviews [on YouTube],” she says. “I can see how” [The Last of Us director] Neil Druckmann works without talking to him. I’ve spent a lot of time watching people play games: video game experiences lend themselves well to the Internet. That way it was easy to learn a lot of things.”

The book also captures the darker aspects of the industry, including rampant institutional sexism. When Sam and Sadie set out to promote their first game, their publisher Opus, a thinly veiled proxy for giants like EA and Activision, tries to push Sam as the face of the game. As Sadie puts it in the novel, “the game industry, like many other industries, loves its wonder boys”.

So if the game is a success, Sam gets the credit. However, when the duo’s follow-up flops, fans and journalists concoct a story where it was more Sadie’s game than Sam’s. “A lot of it came from experience as a novelist,” Zevin says. “It turns out that sexism plays out the same way in many sectors. I noticed that the books written by women that were really praised were usually less than 300 pages, while men’s books had to have this huge canvas and take up a huge amount of space. When I started, people were excited to find handsome young male authors in a way that wasn’t just about female literary voices or people of color, and I am both. I have a male partner and we’ve made movies together, and I’ve had the experience of being called his wife in a major newspaper. I’m not his wife. We are not married. It’s just a way to minimize my contribution.”

The complications of sex and power in the gaming industry are personified in one character, Dov Mizrah, a veteran game designer who created a best-selling first person shooter in the early 1990s – a clear reference to Doom. At the beginning of the novel, he is Sadie’s coding teacher at MIT and immediately sees her talent as a game designer. He supports her career, but the two engage in a sexual relationship that becomes abusive and controlling. Dov’s combination of respected elder statesman, philanthropic teacher and problematic predator could be based on several well-known industry veterans.

“I enjoyed writing Dov,” Zevin says. “I didn’t see him as purely bad. I was interested in the complications of that situation. He is a good game designer, many of his opinions about games are the ones I share, such as his love for Tetris. He is a great mentor in many ways, giving Sadie access to resources. He takes her job seriously.”

But when they are in a relationship, the power dynamics become exploitative and harmful, and he can get away with that. “I’ll have a younger reader come up to me and ask, why isn’t Dov being punished at the end?” says Zevin. “I think because the book ends in 2012, you know! He was probably fine until about 2017. And then things got pretty bad for guys like him…”

Zevin on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Zevin on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Photo: NBC/Paula Lobo/Getty Images

Ultimately, though, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an optimistic treatise on video games as a legitimate creative endeavor and how play, like love, is an intrinsic part of our lives, especially in the digital age. In many ways, it’s Zevin’s experience as a lifelong gamer, rather than any research she’s done on the industry, that makes this book so successful. The book contains the ghost of that teenage girl who fell in love with the Sierra adventure games and the worlds they opened. The novel says that play is a lifelong skill and that games offer the same illusion as love: immortality.

As Zevin puts it: “Some people think you reach a certain age and you’ll never play again – that game is actually for young people. I find that incredibly unhealthy. People are playful by nature; we use play to find out all kinds of things about ourselves, who we are, the world we live in, but playing is also just playing, you know? To me, so much of the book is about the conflict between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie are trying to build and the real world they live in, and by creating these worlds they are able to create spaces that allow them to be more to really be yourself.

“It’s possible to play games without ulterior motives, but I think they provide a place where we can actually be vulnerable and be more open to the full spectrum of human emotions — as strange as that may seem.”

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