GRAMNames have always been a part of writer Gabrielle Zevin’s life. Her first experience, she recalls, was playing Pac-Man at the Honolulu hotel where her grandmother owned a jewelry store. “I was about three years old at the time and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be perfect if I wasn’t limited to just one room…if I could keep playing this game forever and ever?” Now 44, the veteran author has written her first novel about her games. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the story of two programmers, Sam and Sadie, who set up a studio in the mid-1990s and, over the course of a decade, create interesting games as their lives and relationships intertwine in complex , often heartbreaking. ways.
It is a künstlerroman for the digital age, a fascinating meditation on creativity and love, and perhaps the first novel to grapple with the culture and meaning of this often misunderstood medium. It has also been a resounding success, going straight into the New York Times bestseller list and earning him an interview on Jimmy Fallon.
Games are a topic he was born to write about. Both parents worked for IBM, where his father was a programmer. “His experience of her is pretty much the same as Sam’s,” she says. “He was a math genius who got tired of academia and decided he wanted to make money on computers.” One day in the early ’80s, she brought home a work computer that was preloaded with games. “It was titles like Alley Cat and Jumpman. I remember playing those games and thinking that they were a solution to a problem that I had in my youth, which is that I was an only child. Now I finally had someone to play with.”
Later, he discovered graphic adventure games from Sierra, the pioneering company behind the legendary Space Quest and King’s Quest games. “I remember thinking that these games were so beautiful and intricate that they seemed like a really new kind of storytelling.” They were famous for user input: players had to type phrases like “Go North” or “Pick up the dagger” to solve puzzles. Did her interest in these extremely textual games hint at her future as a writer?
“There was the particularly literary challenge of trying to figure out the exact set of words that would unlock the answer,” he laughs. “I don’t think I thought of it that way at the time, but all those games are like hundreds of hours of practice writing characters and figuring out how certain words work. You have to be incredibly empathetic to the person who designed the game to figure out what will win you.”
Throughout her writing career, Zevin always saw games as an escape, something separate from her work. She for 17 years she wrote books without any reference to video games. When her latest project didn’t sell as well as her predecessor, she found herself reaching back for those old adventure games: a conscious retreat to the pleasures of childhood. But having to search for a copy of her old favorite game, Gold Rush, got her thinking about how games get 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 designed many of her titles.
Years ago I had read Stephen Levy’s book Hackers, which documents the early years of computer upstarts like Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, and has a long section on Sierra. As he reflected on Tomorrow, he read it again. “I was impressed by the dynamics and also the atmosphere of Boogie Nights, this kind of wildness from early game development,” he says. “I didn’t end up writing about 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 the making of video games. And I just took it from there.”
His long research process involved playing many video games. “Even though I’ve played for 40 years, you realize all the gaps in your knowledge,” she says. “Most people’s gaming stories are itinerant at best; mine certainly was. There were all these kinds of games that she hadn’t played because they were tied to consoles that she didn’t own. And the more she researched, the weirder it became to me that little fiction has treated games and game making in a serious way, considering how many people play games.”
What has impressed many readers is the accuracy with which it describes the often troubled culture of the games industry. Was he hanging out at game studios while he was writing? “The good thing about living 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 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 rampant institutional sexism. When Sam and Sadie set out to promote their first game, their publisher Opus, a thinly veiled representative of giants like EA and Activision, is looking to push Sam as the face of the game. As Sadie says in the novel, “The gaming industry, like many industries, loves its wonderful kids.”
As a consequence, when the game is successful, Sam gets the credit. However, when the duo’s follow-up fails, fans and journalists concoct a narrative in which it was more a game of Sadie than Sam. “A lot of that came from his experience as a novelist,” says Zevin. “It turns out that sexism plays out in a very similar way in many industries. I noticed that the books written by women that were really praised tended to be under 300 pages, while the men’s books had this huge canvas and took up a huge amount of space. When I first 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’m both. I have a male partner and we’ve done movies together, and I’ve had the experience of being called his wife in a major newspaper. I am not his wife. We’re not married. It’s just a way to minimize my contribution.”
The complications of sex and power in the games industry are personified in one character, Dov Mizrah, a veteran game designer who co-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 tutor at MIT and immediately discovers his 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 elder statesman, philanthropic teacher, and troublesome predator could have been based on several well-known industry veterans.
“I liked writing Dov,” says Zevin. “I didn’t see it as purely evil. I was interested in the complications of that situation. He is a good game designer, many of his opinions on games are ones that he shares, such as his love for Tetris. He’s a pretty good mentor in a lot of ways, he gives Sadie access to resources. He takes his job seriously.”
But when they’re in a relationship, the power dynamic becomes exploitative and hurtful, and he can get away with it. “I’ll have a younger reader come up to me and ask, why isn’t Dov punished at the end?” Zevin says. “I’m like, because the book ends in 2012, you know! He was probably fine until around 2017. And then things went pretty bad for guys like him…”
Ultimately, though, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an upbeat treatise on gaming as a legitimate creative endeavor and how gaming, like love, is an intrinsic part of our lives, especially in the digital age. In many ways, it is Zevin’s experience as a lifelong gamer, more than any research she has done in the industry, that makes this book so successful. The book carries with it the spirit of that teenager who fell in love with Sierra’s adventure games and the worlds they opened up. The novel says that gambling is a lifelong skill and that games offer the same illusion as love: immortality.
As Zevin says: “Some people think you get to a certain age and you’ll never play again; that game is more or less for young people. I think that’s incredibly unhealthy. Human beings are naturally playful; we use the game 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? 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 by creating these worlds, they are able to create spaces that allow them to be more truly themselves.
“It’s possible to play games with no ulterior motives, but I think they provide a place where we can be really vulnerable and more open to the full spectrum of human emotion, as strange as that sounds.”