“Video games open us up to the full spectrum of human emotions”: novelist Gabrielle Zevin on Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow | Games

games have always been part of the life of writer Gabrielle Zevin. Her first experience, she recalls, was playing Pac-Man at the hotel in Honolulu where her grandmother ran a jewelry store. “I was about three at the time and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be perfect if I wasn’t limited to just one quarterback…if I could just keep playing this game forever? ” Now 44, the seasoned author has penned her first novel about games. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the story of two programmers, Sam and Sadie, who started a studio in the mid-1990s and, over the course of a decade, created some interesting games as their lives and relationships intertwine in complex, often heartbreaking situations. manners.

It is a künstler novel for the digital age, a captivating meditation on creativity and love and perhaps the first novel to grapple with the culture and meaning of this often misunderstood medium. It was also a smash hit, jumping straight to the New York Times bestseller list and earning him an interview on Jimmy Fallon.

Games are a subject she was born to write about. Both of his parents worked for IBM, where his father was a programmer. “His background is pretty much the same as Sam’s,” she says. “He was a math whiz who had had enough of academia and decided he wanted to make money from 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 thinking they were a solution to a problem I had throughout my youth, which was that I was an only child. Now I finally had someone to play with.

Later, she discovered graphical adventure games from Sierra, the pioneering company behind the legendary games Space Quest and King’s Quest. “I remember thinking these games were so beautiful and complex, it felt like a whole new kind of storytelling.” They were famous for their user inputs – players had to type in phrases such as “Go north” or “Pick up dagger” to solve puzzles. Did his interest in these extremely text-based games hint at his future as a writer?

“There was the particularly scripted challenge of trying to figure out the exact set of words that would unlock the answer,” she laughs. “I don’t think I thought of it that way at the time, but all of these games are like hundreds of hours of practice writing characters and understanding how certain words work. You have to be incredibly empathetic with the person who has designed the game to understand what will make you win.

Throughout his writing career, Zevin has always seen games as an escape, something separate from his work. For 17 years, she wrote books without any video game references. When her latest project failed to sell as well as its predecessor, she found herself seeking out those old adventure games again – a conscious retreat into childhood pleasures. But having to track down a copy of her favorite old game, Gold Rush, made her reflect on how games are overlooked and cast aside as cultural artifacts. She was also fascinated by the dynamic between Roberta and Ken Williams, the married couple who co-founded Sierra and engineered many of its titles.

Cultural objects set aside… Gold rush. Photography: Sierra Online

Years ago, she had read Stephen Levy’s book Hackers, which documents the early years of computing like Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, and has a long section on Sierra. While thinking about Tomorrow, she read it again. “I was struck by the dynamics and also the atmosphere of Boogie Nights, that kind of early game development madness,” she says. “I didn’t end up writing 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 that describes the making video games. And I just took it from there.

His long 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 types of games that I hadn’t played because they were tied to consoles that I didn’t own. And the more I researched, the weirder I found the little fiction that treated gaming and game making in a serious way, considering how many people play.

What impressed many readers was the precision with which he portrayed the often problematic culture of the games industry. Did she hang out in game studios while she was writing? “The great thing about living today is that there are endless interviews [on YouTube],” she said. “I can see how [The Last of Us director] Neil Druckmann works without speaking to him. I’ve spent a lot of time watching people play games: video game experiences lend themselves well to the Internet. It was easy to learn a lot of things that way.

The book also captures the darker aspects of the industry, including its endemic institutional sexism. When Sam and Sadie set out to promote their first game, their publisher Opus, a thinly veiled proxy for giants such as EA and Activision, seeks to make Sam the face of the game. The gaming industry, like many industries, loves its wonders”.

Accordingly, when the game is a success, Sam gets the credit. However, when the duo’s sequel flopped, fans and reporters concocted a narrative in which it was more Sadie’s game than Sam’s. “A lot of that comes from experience as a novelist,” Zevin explains. “It turns out that sexism manifests itself in very similar ways in many sectors. I noticed that books written by women that were really praised tended to be less than 300 pages while men’s books had to have that huge canvas and take up a huge amount of space. When I started, people were thrilled to find handsome young male authors in a way that wasn’t about female literary voices or people of color, and I’m both. I have a male partner and we’ve done movies together, and I had the experience of being called his wife in a major newspaper. I am not his wife. We are not married. It’s just a way of minimizing my contribution.

The complications of sex and power in the gaming industry are personified by one character, Dov Mizrah, a veteran game designer who co-created a hit first-person shooter in the early 90s – a benchmark clear to Doom. At the start of the novel, he is Sadie’s coding tutor at MIT and immediately spots her talent as a game designer. He supports her career, but the two enter into a sexual relationship that becomes abusive and controlling. Dov’s combination of respected statesman, philanthropic teacher, and problematic predator could have been based on several well-known industry veterans.

“I enjoyed writing Dov,” says Zevin. “I didn’t see it as purely bad. I was interested in the complications of this situation. He’s a good game designer, a lot of his opinions on games are ones I share – like his love for Tetris. He’s a really good mentor in many ways, he gives Sadie access to resources. He takes his job seriously.

But when they’re in a relationship, the power dynamics become exploitative and damaging, and he’s able to get away with it. “I’m going to ask a younger reader to come ask me why isn’t Dov being punished at the end?” said Zevin. “I’m like, because the book ends in 2012, you know! He was probably fine until about 2017. And then things went pretty badly for guys like him…”

Zevin on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Zevin on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Photography: NBC/Paula Lobo/Getty Images

Ultimately, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an optimistic treatise on video games as a legitimate creative endeavor and how gaming, like love, is an integral part of our lives, especially at the digital age. In many ways, it’s Zevin’s experience as a long-time gamer, rather than the research she’s done in the industry, that makes this book so successful. The book carries with it the spirit of this teenager who fell in love with Sierra adventure games and the worlds they opened up. The novel says that gambling is a lifelong skill and that games provide the same illusion as love: immortality.

As Zevin says, “Some people think you get to a certain age and you’ll never play again – this game is more for young people. I think that’s incredibly unhealthy. Human beings are naturally playful; we use play to understand all kinds of things about ourselves, who we are, the world we live in, but playing is also playing, you know? For me, a lot of the book is about the conflict between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie are trying to build and the real world that they live in, and in creating those worlds they’re able to carve out spaces for themselves that allow them to be more truly themselves.

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

John C. Dent