Gaming's warped mirror

Gabrielle Zevin's blockbuster novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow captures the contradictions of the video-game industry—and commits the same oversights

July 6, 2023

In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the characters make games to tell each other that they’re in love. They make games as commercial products, but they also make games to communicate. They make games as a way to challenge their peers and to question themselves. They make games as a form of self-expression.

As a person who has written about video games for a decade and played them for a lifetime, I’m often asked the same handful of questions. Usually people ask me about what their children are playing, games like Fortnite or Minecraft. Sometimes they ask about the big game of the moment, such as Elden Ring or the new installment of The Legend of Zelda, which are so popular that even people who don’t normally play games are curious about them. Lately, I’ve been asked about Zevin’s novel. According to the New York Times, the novel has sold more than a million copies globally, and more than half a million in the United States alone. People want to know: Are developers really like that? Is this why people like you love games?

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is how fully it embodies its characters and their niche interests, sometimes jumping forward or backward in time to juxtapose their experiences, desires, and ambitions, so the reader understands them fully, even when they do not understand themselves. Reading Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as a person even tangentially related to the video-game industry is a bit like looking into a warped mirror. At times, I see the gaming world perfectly reflected, warts and all. At other times, the industry is distorted to make room for the book’s fictional characters, displacing some of the real people who inspired Zevin’s work. I did a double take when, in an early chapter, I came upon a quote from a fictional interview from the real-world video-game website Kotaku—my former employer. The characters mention game developers I know, or at least know of, games that I’ve eagerly waited for and played all night long. To answer the question I’ve been asked so many times: Yes, Zevin’s characters do talk about games the same way me and my friends do. And they make games in the same way. They make them as art and as artists.

For many tedious reasons (the relative newness of the medium, players’ hostility to anything they perceive as coming from outside their clubhouse), there has long been an ongoing debate about whether or not games are art. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow elides this question by delving directly into the lives of people who make games. From an early age, the main characters, Sam Masur and Sadie Green, feel almost compelled to play games and dissect them. They meet again as young adults in college. Sadie, who is taking a game-design course at MIT, joins Sam to make an original game of their own, and it becomes a massive hit.

Whenever some video game thing comes out, it reverberates through the relatively small and chatty industry. Though none of the developers I spoke to have read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow yet—I was interviewing them during a busy conference season—they all know it by reputation. 

One developer I spoke to, Darius Kazemi, has worked in commercial gaming, also known as AAA gaming, as a tester and a coder. He’s worked as an independent developer, too, making browser-based games and tools like this one, which suggests a random sandwich from Wikipedia’s list of notable sandwiches. He now works in federated social media. 

“There’s a video-game history book that has been taught a lot in schools called Replay,” Kazemi tells me over the phone. “The last chapter of that book takes place at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC [Game Developers Conference] in 2005. I was in that room, and [the author of Replay, Tristan Donovan,] really accurately captured the light, buzzy feeling.”

In Replay, Mark Healey, the developer behind the early indie game Rag Doll Kung Fu, described that scene to Donovon. He had been invited to the workshop to show the prototype of his new game. “In my mind, it was going to be a small little room with maybe 10 people in it, showing each other what they had done,” he said. “I turned up and it was a huge room with about 500 people in it. I totally panicked, because I hadn’t prepared a proper talk or anything.”

Rag Doll Kung Fu would end up being one of the first indie games sold on Steam, a now ubiquitous game marketplace owned and created by the developer Valve. These people, working creatively and pushing the technology of the time to its limits would have been cohorts of Sam and Sadie. Throughout the book, they, too, are caught in the push-and-pull to create games as an artistic endeavor and to create games as a commercial product.

Sadie and Sam are caught in the push-and-pull to create games as an artistic endeavor and to create games as a commercial product.

To Kazemi, the question of whether or not games are art is irrelevant—he has worked on games both as a cog in a corporate machine and as an individual artist.

“It partly depends on what your goal with the games is. If you are building the game completely non-commercially, then I think it can be an art practice,” he says. “It’s like any tension with any kind of commercialized product, right? Like the difference between, like, a student film or someone doing a video-art piece versus making a film that needs to be marketed and sold and run in theaters.”

Another developer, Robert Yang, sees the rise of indie games and Steam a little differently. Kazemi remembers a new scene opening up, but Yang’s experience has been one in which these tools have forced developers to turn their small experiments into commercial products.

“Platforms like Steam and Unity want to make it impossible to make games without paying them rent,” he says over email. Yang’s games, which are unabashedly about the experience of being a gay man, were once banned on Steam for having pornographic content and are still banned from the live-streaming platform Twitch

“Now so many indies are dependent on publishers, which is exactly what the first indies were trying to break free from,” Yang continues. “When I think about this cursed spiral, ‘democracy’ is not the word that comes to mind.”

Yang has referred to himself as “one of the most banned developers on Twitch.” But beyond being personally aggrieved, he has identified these policies around sex and nudity as one of the contradictions that now feel inherent to the medium. People who play games want games to be art—to be described and understood in the way Zevin writes about them in her novel. But the industry is terrified of anything that isn’t ad-friendly, and those attitudes set the tone for everyone who wants to make games.

“Gamers want so desperately for games to function as art, to witness games about the depth of human experience,” Yang wrote on his blog in 2015, after his games Cobra Club and Rinse and Repeat had been banned on Twitch. “Here is Twitch, a crucial platform in games culture that had 44 percent livestreaming market share in 2014, insisting ‘NO’—games should only ever snicker about sex and nudity, like some stoned tweens clutching smuggled Hot Pockets in the back of a movie theater.”

Yang expresses some surprise at the popularity of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.

“The book’s influence is definitely surprising to me, since we have been desperately yelling about our cultural value for years, and society never seemed to care before,” he says. 

Despite the lack of societal interest in video games as art, Yang understands that treating games as art can lead to more and better opportunities for the gaming industry as a whole.

“The public-art status of video games is important because sometimes society funds art as a public good,” he says. “Imagine commissioning free games for everyone, imagine free public arcades and game festivals.”

Dani Lalonders, the lead developer on the dating sim ValiDate, has witnessed the cyclical nature of conversations about video games as art time and time again. With the popularity of pop-culture products like The Last of Us, the HBO show based on the Naughty Dog game of the same name, new audiences are now approaching video games for the first time, reigniting conversations about their value in the world.

“Because games are so new, people don’t really consider it art,” Lalonders says over the phone. “The whole argument comes from people not really seeing video games as a medium,” she continues. To Lalonders, video games are the space where she expresses herself artistically, in the same way that painters are driven to paint and writers are driven to write.

These tensions are contained within Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as well. As Sadie, Sam, and Sam’s roommate, Marx, finally complete their game, they have to choose between a small publisher that understands their artistic vision and a larger one that will catapult them to stardom. When they choose the big publisher, Sam’s life is changed by the money, and he blossoms in the spotlight, but Sadie feels like her presence—and her work—is diminished by their success.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow shows the way that art mirrors life through both a poetic symmetry and a cruel re-creation of an industry’s growing pains. Throughout the novel, the competing drives of the gaming industry—straddling the line between art and commerce, creating new worlds that, above all, are commercially viable to men between the ages of 18 and 24—clash with each other, eventually erupting into violence. A prominent thread throughout the novel is the sexism that Sadie experiences, not only at the hands of her male mentors but also from her closest allies in the industry.

The renowned developer Brenda Romero has taken issue with an early plot point in the book, which depicts Sadie making a game called Solution. The game bears a striking resemblance to Romero’s board game Train. Crucially, both games depend on a harrowing twist: The player does not know that they are working for the Nazis until their work is complete. Zevin and her publisher have not credited Romero’s work, though the book is full of citations. In response to a request for comment, Knopf Doubleday provided a statement that they requested be printed in full.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a work of fiction and when crafting a novel, every author draws from the world around them. As Gabrielle Zevin publicly stated in last year’s Wired interview, Brenda Romero’s undistributed board game, Train, which Zevin has never played but was aware of, served as one point of inspiration among many for the novel, including books, plays, video games, visual art, and locales. The entire world, characters and themes of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow are solely Zevin’s fictional creation and the only games listed in the author’s acknowledgements are video games. Again, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a novel and not an academic or nonfiction text containing indexes, notes, or works cited. Knopf stands behind Gabrielle Zevin and her work.

To say that Romero takes issue with these comments would be an understatement. In a Google Meet call, she seems flabbergasted by the publisher’s refusal to credit her work and resolute in her desire to see this rectified.

“Through a representative, I’m talking with their team,” Romero said. “I’ve let them know very clearly that I don't want any money. I’m not interested in any pieces of their pie. I strongly suggested that they donate money to a Holocaust charity. I just want acknowledgement.”

Understanding the depth of Romero’s frustration requires understanding how influential Train is as a piece of game design. On her website, Romero describes Train as a game that explores complicity within systems. This doesn’t refer only to what players do in the game—loading little people-shaped tokens into train cars before inevitably learning that they are loading Jewish people onto trains that will take them to concentration camps—but also to what design does to a person. A game trains you to play it, but it also trains you to see the world in a certain way. 

A game trains you to play it, but it also trains you to see the world in a certain way.

Even though only one copy of Train exists—Romero believes it’s not ethical to monetize art about the Holocaust—it appeared at the Game Developers Conference in 2010, where Romero also gave a talk on her work. It is by no means an obscure game, and you can spot the lessons that designers have learned from it elsewhere in the industry. Spec-Ops: The Line, a 2012 military shooter that goes from banal to an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, at one point compels the player to use white phosphorus on what other characters insist is a military target. When the player investigates the damage, they realize that they have actually murdered civilians at the behest of the game’s user interface. I’m not sure that moment would have existed without Train.

When I read the portion of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow that features Sadie making a game about the Holocaust, I recognized Train. So did the game developer and author Jane McGonigal, who originally clued Brenda Romero into this aspect of the novel through a tweet. So did Tim Schaefer, the founder of the development studio Double Fine Games and the designer of dozens of critically acclaimed and beloved games, such as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts. Doom developer John Romero, whom Brenda married in 2012, is mentioned in the text of the novel a few chapters after Sadie’s game appears—but Brenda is never mentioned, and Train is not credited.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a beautifully written novel that depicts the video-game industry in a way that is shockingly real. It also re-creates the games industry in a sadder way: In its invention of a brilliant woman game developer, it makes another brilliant woman game developer invisible. It’s a diorama of what I love and what I hate about video games—the joy of play and the horror of exploitation.

This is the end mark. You have reached the end!

Keep reading

Ask a Founder: Should I sell my company or keep trying to grow?

A sale happens not because you want to sell, but because someone wants to buy

Elizabeth Zalman
May 20, 2024
Ask a Founder: How do I hire someone and have them succeed?

Founders can make or break a company, and getting over oneself is the key

Elizabeth Zalman
April 12, 2024
The inverted miracle of accidents

A senior scholar at the National Academy of Engineering explains why human error is a symptom—not the reason—for most safety failures

Guru Madhavan
March 18, 2024