Gabrielle Zevin Believes Games Show People Who They Really Are

In Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the novelist explores the intimacy of gaming together.
Gabrielle Zevin
Courtesy of Hans Canosa

In her new novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin presents playing video games and understanding each other as kindred activities. “There is no more intimate act than play,” states one character states during a fictional interview with Kotaku, “even sex.” For those who will struggle to square this conviction with the image of teenagers screaming into their mics as they firebomb enemy soldiers, the book acts as a kind of corrective. In telling the story of game designers Sam and Sadie, Zevin probes at many of the themes that energize video games as a medium: their narrative depth, their therapeutic value, their casual violence, their toxic industry. And the possibility of living a better life in a virtual world.

To go even deeper, WIRED spoke with Zevin over Zoom about her book, the public perception of gamers, and the problematic brilliance of Metal Gear Solid. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: Why did you choose game designers as your protagonists?

Gabrielle Zevin: It’s funny, you write a big book, and you have about a million answers to this question. But you’re kind of encouraged to give a concise answer. So I feel silly when I’m talking to somebody who writes about games and understands games, making it so reductive, but I’ll give you the reductive version first.

The first generation of people to play video games as children were born in the late ’70s, and early ’80s, in America. We call them the Oregon Trail Generation, because they were likely to have encountered Oregon Trail in a computer lab and in a school. And what was interesting to me was if you had played video games, and consumed video games as a narrative experience for your entire life, how that would kind of change your expectation of life itself.

We’re very affected by tech, we know this, but there are very few places where you can visually see the evidence of this change as easily as video games. Look at Pong in the ’70s, with the extreme minimalism of two lines and two dots, compared to where the book ends in about 2012: You get to games that have really cinema-quality graphics and storytelling experiences, something like The Last of Us.

So Sam and Sadie’s story comes from them being a part of this very specific generation?

To me, it was just an interesting period of time. When you’re chasing something in tech, it’s difficult to have any perspective on the very current moment. So I was really cognizant of the fact that I wanted the book to end with some space between where the book ended and what games actually are now.

So you had the first people who actually played games as children, and you also had tech moving really fast. But you reach a point in the ’90s, where there’s some access to tools, some access to the internet, and some ability to be a relatively small studio and make a big game, and so that was a moment that interested me, the Doom era of things.

We see these things come in cycles, and I think, obviously, App Store was another thing that democratized games for a bit, or even the Nintendo store opening up to smaller developers. But I think the ability to make a game that hit a lot of people with a relatively small team, I think was maybe easier to imagine in the mid-90s.

Courtesy of Knopf

There’s a love story at the heart of this book. I think some non-gamers believe games have a kind of black hole where their heart should be. This is obviously an unfair characterization, but it felt like this book was in some senses a corrective to that idea. That actually you can generate these extremely intense and loving relationships through play.

Well, my dad’s a computer programmer. Both my parents worked at IBM for their entire careers. So I was raised in tech, basically. And I think I see gaming as having the possibility to be a profoundly empathetic experience. I think the idea of the gamer, like the capital-G Gamer, this kind of misogynist dude shouting insults at women, is antiquated and not true.

If you look at it, there are so many people that have played games their entire lives, like myself, that don’t necessarily identify themselves as gamers in that sense. I’ll have people occasionally telling me that they have no connection to video games, and that they don’t play video games at all. I have to say, I just don’t think anyone doesn’t play video games. And I don’t just mean, like, you play Wordle. If you’re playing Facebook, if you’re playing Instagram, if you’re playing on a social media network—as in, using one—you are playing a game, it’s just a sort of dull game with no end. So I think that there just aren’t people that aren’t gamers. So the idea that, again, the person who is a gamer is somebody who is less empathetic, less romantic, or less trying to seek human connection is sort of old fashioned or possibly just ignorant.

Related to that, do you think there are narrative limits to games? I guess a better way of putting this is: Could you tell Sadie and Sam’s story as a game?

I don’t think I could. I’m not somebody who’s attracted to the ways in which games are like movies. That’s not something I personally want to play. I like the ways in which games are like games. I think the thing to understand about games is that they are a really young art form. Just because right now there isn’t a natural way to necessarily tell a complicated story of this kind in video games isn’t to say that there won’t be. So I don’t think this story would be suited to games, but there’s part of me that has an impulse to still say I would love to try.

Would you say that’s why we tend to not see many good film adaptations of video games? This is slightly off-topic, but you’re also a screenwriter, so I’m curious to know what you think.

It’s complicated. Most of the things I see in film do not capture at all what’s fun about a game. Maybe they capture the idea of the world. Or maybe there’s just a real disconnect in the sense that the desire to play something is just not like the desire to watch something. So when you remove that, I don’t know that the experience is ever the same. Effectively all you’re saying is, “I like this character, I like this world.” But I think it’s hard to capture what somebody might truly enjoy about the experience—and I won’t mention any particular material—of playing that game.

It’s not to say people won’t get close and won’t continue to try. Have you ever read that book called Johnny Got His Gun? It’s about this soldier who wakes up in bed. But it turns out, he’s missing his eyes, his nose, his ears, his arms and his legs, he doesn’t realize why he can’t move. I think to an extent for a gamer, when you watch a movie of a game you really loved there’s a feeling of that, like an actual kind of paralysis, in that this thing in which you had some at least illusion of control, you now have no control. So I think possibly phenomenologically it’s just difficult to turn a game into a great movie.

I did notice in the book that Sam, and to some degree Sadie, kind of gamify things. Sadie initially reduces their relationship to a timesheet that she checks off when she visits Sam in the hospital; at one point Sam reduces their interactions to an RPG. So as much as your book is a corrective on how people view games and gamers, it’s also showing them how humans often think of things in terms of games. You were saying before that social media is a giant one. Were you thinking about that as you were writing, that there are ways to see the world through the lens of games that are quite reductive?

Yes, I think so. But I also think it can be positive as well. I think one thing that people learn from gaming, if they can manage to get it into their real lives, is to not give up on something. That you kind of just keep trying, most problems are solvable, if you have enough time, or if you can buy enough tokens [Laughs].

Obviously, gamification has entered into so many aspects of our online lives and just our lives, period. You’ve got something like Noom, it’s going to teach you how to game your way into losing weight, or whatever it is. We know this. Like, why are people willing to spend a zillion hours moving rocks in a game when they wouldn’t want to move rocks in real life? I think it’s just kind of the application of that, too. Again, when you can see something as a game, I think there’s a possibility to solve certain problems in your life. You see that there actually is some way in which you might solve this.

I noticed in the acknowledgments, you say that it wouldn’t have been possible for Sadie to get that copy of Metal Gear Solid. And I was wondering …

Yeah, it’s like two years early.

Yeah. I thought it was a really good choice, because it’s a game that’s so smart but at the same time contains the scene Sadie reacts against, where you spy on a female character exercising in her underwear. When it comes to games, I feel like this mix of puerility and genius isn’t unique to Metal Gear Solid. What was your reason for choosing that particular game?

Pretty much exactly what you just said. To me, it’s such a profoundly intelligent game, I don’t want to be short about it. But I’ll say it’s not a game I love to play, but it is a game I appreciate and admire. I think, obviously, in that scene, [Metal Gear Solid designer] Hideo Kojima is probably—I think he’s making fun of the American militarization complex, or what have you. And you can justify some of that as being a visual that’s winking in some way.

But that said, to me, it is that you’re playing something that you think is quite intelligent, and then it seems strangely exploitative, or just cliched. And obviously, you see that through Kojima’s career. I think he’s a super interesting game designer, with places where I can see we do not feel the same way about things. And so to be somebody who can appreciate that, I think I relate to Sadie in that scene. You have to close down part of your brain to even imagine yourself as somebody other than yourself to really even understand the game. I think that in itself is an empathetic exercise.

In the book, Sadie is barred from certain roles because of her gender, others because of race or ethnicity. I’m wondering whether you could talk a bit about having characters who are alienated from the industries they want to be a part of.

Generally, the best art comes from people that are a bit alienated from the system. I think it’s that friction that actually leads to making good books or good games, and not just being like, I’m a company man, or something for that system.

One of the things with Sadie is that she knows the system is not designed for her, but is also really eager for validation for her genius from that system as well. I don’t think she considers herself a feminist of that era. It probably changes the kinds of games she makes, and the kinds of things she thinks are good. You see that when she makes Masters of the Revels.

Later on in the book, she’s drawn to something that will seem serious, that will seem like, Hey, this is really smart. It’s about Shakespeare; it has a little bit of the old ultraviolence in it, and so I think it’s part of wanting that validation. It’s hard, I think, when you’re in a system, to escape just becoming part of that system.

This may be a bit of a spoiler, but I’m not spoiling it for you …

I’ve read it.

[Laughs] Yeah, not for you. There’s this act of violence at the center of the story, this shooting. You make it very clear, and I think most people are down with this idea now, that games don’t cause violence in any direct way. But when we play, say, Call of Duty, we get cheap thrills out of something that should be so serious. I wonder, should this trouble us? What was the intention of that violent scene? It seems to implicate the reader a little bit by using the second person.

Again, so much of the book to me is the conflict between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie are trying to create, and the imperfect world they live in. Video games are not 100 percent violent, but the world is 100 percent violent, and so in the book, even the game that kind of causes the violence is not in and of itself a violent game. So they, the people that are angry at it, are angry because of what it says. They react to it in the same way that maybe an extremist reacts to Charlie Hebdo comics. That was what I was thinking about.

I did feel a responsibility to have great clarity on the point of whether video games lead to violence. We know that this is just a politician’s screed that is used to distract from other things. I wanted to be clear on that point, but I do think I also wanted to express the ways in which I think virtual worlds, virtual spaces, have consequences in the real world. For many years people sort of acted as if once they went online, their real person stopped, and now we don’t see it that way quite as much. But I think I wanted to talk about how our online lives can have actual consequences in the real world.

Sadie’s game Solution which, I know it’s been pointed out, is a take on Train by Brenda Romero—I thought that was a very good example of what games are very good at, which is making you complicit in something, in this case an atrocity.

It is a take on Train, certainly, but it also to me is about my experience gaming and how bored I get with cutscenes. I’m just somebody who, when they come up, I’m like, I know this information is relevant to me. But I’m also like, skip, skip, skip, skip, please, let’s get back to the game. I’m reading it as fast as possible. Yet there’s a lot of beauty often put into cutscenes wasted on me, and often information.

Obviously Train’s a board game, and I think that Solution has mechanics that are particular to video games, like how we can be so eager to just assemble a certain widget without a thought about what that widget is, and what that means.

That was the thing I wanted to explore with Solution. Also just thinking: What could an enterprising undergraduate in 1995 make? What’s the other aspect of that game? The tech throughout the book was the driving force. I spent a long time looking at what were the top 20 games of any given year. Just to get a sense of what people were playing and what the games could do at that time.

It felt very much like Sadie worked through trauma by playing the game Pioneers. It was a reminder of the therapeutic value of games. Do you feel that as well?

I do. I remember playing Stardew Valley for the first time during the pandemic and just being really impressed that one guy made it, and that’s great, but also this sense that you can get peace in a virtual world that may not exist in the real world. It had this sense of, This world is beautiful. It might not be real, but it’s beautiful.

It’s so funny because, for me, Pioneers was just as much thinking about what they call “muddy dress movies,” where you have a sort of torrid lesbian affair of some kind. I think it’s funny that if you tell people something is a game, they won’t necessarily see the arthouse movie that it actually is, at some level.

I believe in the possibility for real human connections in virtual spaces. I also believe that the virtual version of yourself might very well be the best and truest version of yourself. If you look at the character of Sam, I don’t think he feels comfortable in his body. I don’t think he feels comfortable as a human.

We don’t have to necessarily be the worst versions of ourselves behind the mask of an avatar, though it often seems as if we are. People think we have it all figured out in certain ways, but in fact we’re just babies and toddlers when it comes to all these issues. We haven’t figured out exactly the best way to be good citizens, good humans online yet, and that’s OK. Because all these things are really young.

And for Sam, virtual worlds provide an escape from the judgment he feels he receives for his identity.

I mean, and a physical body that doesn’t work perfectly. I think being a game character, or in a game, he feels more at home than in his life. I think there are people for whom that’s true.

Alright. Well, those were all the questions I was going to ask. Thanks so much for talking to me.

If I could leave you with one thought. People often ask, “Why talk about games?” But the reason to talk about games is that they are the preview of so much of what is to come. If you look at something like Roblox, you get a little preview of what the metaverse is going to be like. If you look at something like Facebook and Farmville, you get a sense of how powerful games actually are, because the majority of people that play games are not necessarily a 14-year-old boy on Fortnite. This is why, as a subject, video games are so powerful, because I think they are in everyone’s lives.

I totally agree.

I mean, one of the most effective ways to get data on people is probably to watch them play a game—especially those who don’t know that they’re playing. But the real reason I was attracted to gaming is because it’s a subject that’s like a magnet, it’s like this great big bowl. If you look at the last 30 years of gaming, you see the history of pretty much everything, of what it was to be an artist and a citizen. I think the reason I liked gaming so much as a subject was because it has all the subjects in it—it’s a grand subject.

Contains all the mediums before it, etc.

They have everything. We all live at that intersection of art and technology. That’s where games live, in a really easy way to see.