I have been pretty much blindsided by a novel I tried on a whim. Two of my passions collided in the blurb on a mailout, regarding Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin; novels and video games. It’s rare that the two meet. Sometimes you get a few tidbits here and there, a few easter eggs, or a game namecheck from a geeky character. Often you get non-fiction about video game art and history. Once we got Ready Player One.
But TATAT is a very different beast to those. It’s a novel, propelled by two characters, detailing the trials and tribulations of some two decades designing and developing video games. It’s art and tragedy. It’s super highs and debilitating lows. And it’s really really good. Like you’ll be thinking about it when you’re not reading it good. Like it’ll inspire you good.
Sam and Sadie are young kids when they meet. Gaming is their hobby and shared passion. It isn’t until years later in their twenties at MIT that they meet again and decide to make video games together. The two of them gel together like the best of friends, one’s strength is another’s weakness, but together they bring out the best and worst in each other. At the same time, they are both deeply flawed, often selfish, realistically drawn characters. Things don’t always go to plan, friendships stutter and plans go awry.
They create their first game in college, an arty successful indie, that catapults them to the big time, lets them start their own studio, make more games and grow and evolve as people. The novel is as much about the friendships and relationships between the lead characters as it is about the ups and downs of video game design and release schedules. The intensity of crunch and designing a game puts direct and realistic strain on relationships. And it’s a novel about work, and the worth you put on your career, and creation, to the detriment of everything else.
As a gamer, Sam and Sadie’s ideas, their discussions, their concepts and drive, these are what will draw you in. The relationships, the heart and soul of the novel is what will then latch on to you.
Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow is being billed as a love story without any romantic entanglement, and while that’s true to an extent, I think that direction of marketing does it a disservice. It downplays the strengths of a novel about friends designing video games, and tries to make it appeal to a Richard and Judy book club crowd. That’s a very different (and much bigger, more lucrative) audience because gamers are not massive readers as a group. Publishers definitely think we like a concept art book though, don’t they?
But the games are what really make the novel. Gabrielle Zevin is a lifelong gamer, and it really shows. Her bio mentions Stardew Valley. And in this novel she’s created a string of vividly imagined and starkly defined video games that Sam and Sadie design and make, all of which could be real, and at least a couple of which you’ll wish you could actually play.
As a gamer it was kind of cruel and tantalising to describe half a dozen games and worlds you’ll likely never get to play and explore. But it’s also intensely interesting as a pretty well-researched examination of video game design. The traps and pitfalls, the scrutiny, the shame of using someone else’s work or who gets the credit. The stink of failure, the pain of bad reviews. It’s incredibly readable, watching Sam and Sadie bring their series of games to life and being along for the ride.
At some level, it’s about games being a microcosm of real life, and life a macrocosm of games. Games allow the character’s catharsis in their own fictional lives, to work through trauma and depression. They are a release from the real world of random uncontrollable shittiness, into something perfectible.
Towards the end, there’s a wonderful sequence where a character deals with their depression through living in one of the game worlds and avoiding their real one. The section is told as if it’s a completely separate novel, set in an entirely new locale, but you soon decipher who it’s about and the game they’re playing. They talk to NPCs as if they are real people and it’s all got a pretty meta vibe. Perhaps it’s not the most subtle of metaphors, but as with all the games featured in the novel, it holds a mirror up to the concurrent narrative in the real world.
Could it be gaming’s first great novel? Well, yeah, it really could. Most authors still don’t dare reference video games in their literary novels for fear of disapproval from the highbrow novel scene. That Zevin has and in such style is encouraging for novels of this type and content in the future, and for the normalising of gaming culture, and its amalgamation into literature.
I will issue a small caveat I had, regarding that same literary feel. To be fair, I very nearly bounced right off the novel in the first three chapters. The readable style that exists for the rest of the novel, just isn’t present in those opening two dozen pages and few strange thesaurus-picked words jumped out and interrupted the flow of the prose. Thankfully that feeling disappears and doesn’t return, and the book grows and develops into the strengths I’ve already described, drawing you along in an almost effortlessly readable style. If that kind of thing is noticeable to you at the start, trust me it’s so worth pursuing just a few pages later.
This isn’t a review and I’m not going to give Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow a score. Finger Guns is a video games site and we review games and peripherals, not novels.
But I hope that this article inspires a few people to pick up a novel they would never have otherwise taken a second look at. You should never judge a book by its cover, and it is hard to know that this is anything to do with video games, let alone intricately focussed on the work of games design, programming, releases and business. It’s also about two wonderfully realised characters, but I’ll let the marketing team sell to that crowd. You should read it because it’s about your favourite hobby, and happens to be a damn fine novel at the same time. Perhaps you’re off for your holidays, and need a summer read? Well, don’t just pick up any old airport paperback, make it something memorable that’ll whisk you away and inspire you.
Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin was published on 15th July 2022 and is available in Hardback and ebook formats.
From the Blurb:
Two kids meet in a hospital gaming room in 1987. One is visiting her sister, the other is recovering from a car crash. The days and months are long there. Their love of video games becomes a shared world — of joy, escape and fierce competition. But all too soon that time is over.
When the pair meet again eight years later, the spark is immediate, and together they get to work on what they love – making video games to delight, challenge and immerse players, finding an intimacy in digital worlds that eludes them in their real lives. Their collaborations make them superstars.
Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow is the story of the perfect worlds Sadie and Sam build, the imperfect world they live in, and of everything that comes after success: Money. Fame. Duplicity. Tragedy.