The writer, who learned her craft playing 90s adventure games, on her love letter to a lifelong passion, the problematic aspects of the industry and the transformative power of play
Games 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 ran a jewellery store. “I was about three years old at the time and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it just be perfect if I wasn’t limited to a single quarter … if I could just keep playing this game for ever 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 set up a studio in the mid-1990s and over the course of a decade, make interesting games while their lives and relationships entwine in complex, often heartbreaking ways.
It is a künstlerroman for the digital age, an engrossing meditation on creativity and love and perhaps the first novel to wrestle with the culture and meaning of this often-misunderstood medium. It’s also been a resounding success, shooting straight into the New York Times bestseller list and earning her an interview on Jimmy Fallon.
Games are a subject she was born to write about. Both 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 maths genius who got tired of academia and decided he wanted to make money in computers.” One day in the early 80s, he brought home a work computer that was pre-loaded 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 is that I was an only child. Now I finally had somebody to play with.”
Later, she discovered the graphic adventure games of Sierra, the pioneering company behind legendary Space Quest and King’s Quest games. “I remember thinking these games were so beautiful and intricate, it seemed like a really 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 her interest in these extremely textual games hint at her future as a writer?
“There was the particularly writerly challenge of trying to figure out the exact set of words that will unlock the answer,” she 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 for writing characters and figuring out how certain words work. You have to be incredibly empathic with the person who designed the game to figure out what is going to make you win.”
Throughout her career as a writer, Zevin always saw games as an escape, something separate from her work. For 17 years she wrote books with no video game references at all. When her last project failed to sell as well as its predecessor, she found herself seeking out those old adventure games again – a conscious retreat into the pleasures of childhood. But having to track down a copy of her old favourite game, Gold Rush, got her thinking about how games are overlooked and sidelined as cultural artefacts. She was also fascinated by the dynamic between Roberta and Ken Williams, the married couple who co-founded Sierra and designed many of its titles.
Years ago she had read the book Hackers by Stephen Levy, which documents the early years of computing upstarts such as Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, and has a long section on Sierra. While mulling over Tomorrow, she read it again. “I was struck by the dynamic and also the Boogie Nights-like atmosphere, this kind of wildness of early game development,” she says. “I didn’t end up writing the 80s because it wasn’t as interesting to me as the 90s. So I came to David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, one of my favourite books that describes video game making. And I just took it from there.”
Her lengthy research process involved playing a lot of video games. “Even though I have played for 40 years, you realise all the gaps in your knowledge,” she says. “Most people’s game histories are itinerant at best – mine certainly was. There were all these kinds of games that I had not played because they were tied to consoles I did not own. And the more I researched, the more strange I found it how little fiction has treated game playing and game making in a serious way, considering how many people play.”
What has impressed many readers is how accurately it depicts the often problematic culture of the games industry. Did she hang around in game studios while writing? “The great 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 proxy for giants such as EA and Activision, seeks to push Sam as the face of the game. As Sadie puts it in the novel, “the gaming industry, like many industries, loves its wonder boys”.
As a consequence, when the game is a success, Sam gets the credit. However, when the duo’s follow-up is a flop, fans and journalists concoct a narrative in which it was more Sadie’s game than Sam’s. “A lot of that came from experience as a novelist,” says Zevin. “It turns out that sexism plays out in very similar ways across many industries. I noticed that the books written by women that were really praised tended to be under 300 pages whereas men’s books got to have this huge canvas and take up a huge amount of space. When I started out, people were excited to find handsome young male authors in a way that they just weren’t about female literary voices or people of colour, and I am both. I have a male partner and we’ve made films together, and I have 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 to minimise 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 bestselling first person shooter in the early 90s – a clear reference to Doom. At the start of the novel, he is Sadie’s coding tutor at MIT and immediately spots her talent as a games designer. He’s supportive of her career, but the two get into a sexual relationship that becomes abusive and controlling. Dov’s combination of respected elder statesman, philanthropic teacher and problematic predator could have been based on several different well-known industry veterans.
“I liked writing Dov,” says Zevin. “I did not see him as purely evil. I was interested in the complications of that situation. He’s a good game designer, a lot of his opinions on games are ones that I share – like his love of Tetris. He’s quite a good mentor in a lot of ways, he does give Sadie access to resources. He does take her work seriously.”
But when they’re in a relationship, the power dynamic becomes exploitative and damaging, and he’s able to get away with that. “I’ll have a younger reader come up to me and ask, why isn’t Dov punished at the end?” says Zevin. “I’m like, because the book ends in 2012, you know! He was probably fine right up until about 2017. And then things went quite badly for guys like him …”
Ultimately though, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an optimistic treatise on video games as a legitimate creative endeavour and how play, like love, is an intrinsic part of our lives, especially in the digital era. In a lot of ways, it’s Zevin’s experience as a lifelong gamer, rather than any research she’s done into the industry, that makes this book so successful. The book carries within it the spirit 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 that love does: immortality.
As Zevin puts it: “Some people think that you hit a certain age and you’ll never play again – that play is pretty much for the young. I think that’s incredibly unhealthy. Human beings are naturally playful; we use play to figure out all kinds of things about ourselves, who we are, the world we live in, but play is also just play, you know? For me, so much of the book is about the conflict between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie try to build and the real world they live in, and in creating these worlds, they are able to carve out spaces that allow them to be more truly themselves.
“It’s possible to play games with no ulterior motive, but I do think they provide a place where we can actually be vulnerable and more open to the full spectrum of human emotions – as strange as that seems.”