Teenagers of the 21st century are as likely to bond over video games as they are rock music or movies. Gabrielle Zevin’s exhilarating, timely and emotive book is perhaps the first novel to truly get to grips with what this means.
Sadie and Sam meet as precocious, somewhat awkward children in a hospital where Sadie’s sister is being treated for leukaemia and Sam is recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash. Sam hasn’t spoken since the collision, but Sadie gradually drags him from his self-imposed exile, via long sessions of Super Mario Bros in the hospital games room. Their video game-enabled friendship sets in place a major theme of the novel. “To allow yourself to play with another person is no small risk,” writes Zevin. “It means allowing yourself to be open, to be exposed, to be hurt.”
Eventually, the two fall out, only to meet again by chance eight years later in a crowded Boston subway. Sam is at Harvard, Sadie at MIT and they both still love video games enough to start developing one together, aided by Sam’s charismatic roommate Marx. Their game, an artsy adventure inspired by Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, is a smash hit and the trio set up a development studio in Los Angeles. But as their success grows, so does the complexity of their intricately entwined lives. Marx starts a love affair with the game’s hippyish composer. Sadie falls back into a troubling sub-dom relationship with Dov, an abusive male coder who could be modelled on any of the dozens of rich, 40-something predators patrolling the games industry. Meanwhile, Sam stays quiet, still being slowly eaten away by the physical and mental toll of that childhood car smash.
For those who don’t play or understand games, the lengthy descriptions of the development process may at first be trying. The novel explores, with considerable accuracy, the complex technological challenges, the inherent sexism of the games business (Sadie’s contribution is constantly underplayed by fans and journalists), and the compromises involved in meeting the demands of publishers. But throughout it all, Zevin’s avoidance of jargon and her descriptive skill ensure accessibility – and the narrative is grounded by the fragility and humanity of the characters. Video games, for them, are a therapeutic source of escapism. Sam is part Korean, part Jewish, and the success of his games allows him to transcend his awkward sense of unbelonging. Sadie has been overlooked in a family where a sick sibling took all the attention, but her protagonists are free to become heroes. Marx is a handsome, charming playboy who’s never been taken seriously until he becomes CEO of their studio. The worlds they create are progressive and uncompromising, even as a destructive love triangle develops among them and tragedy looms.
Comparisons will almost certainly be made between this book and Ernest Cline’s blockbuster Ready Player One, if only because there are still so few novels that seek to investigate the appeal of video games and our relationships with them. But while Cline’s book is an uncritical celebration of hyper-consumerist geek culture, a trivia-obsessed male fantasy of power and entitlement, Zevin’s is a much more complex and interesting novel about how our lives and experiences are now mediated through technology. There’s a moment early on where Sam wants to help Sadie through a bout of depression and Marx is attempting to coach him. “Let her know you’re there,” he says. “And if you can manage it, bring her a cookie, a book, a movie to watch. Friendship is kind of like having a Tamagotchi.” It’s a lighthearted reference to the virtual pet phenomena of the 1990s, but it also shows how, in the modern era, digital culture reflects and replaces real-life intimacy.
Zevin has written young adult fiction and Tomorrow … leans towards the accessibility of that genre; the subject matter, too, will no doubt attract a younger audience. But this is not a YA novel about video games. Instead, it’s a novel where video games are a conduit for self-expression and emotional connection, and where play is the most intimate and important human activity there is. Game development becomes a compelling metaphor for the way in which we build our friendships and love affairs – a process of imagination, effort and shared myth-making. On two occasions Sam and Sadie say to each other: “There’s no point in making something if you don’t think it’ll be great.” They’re talking about games, but they mean relationships too.
Love, says this engrossing novel, is a creative project, and like any work of collaborative art, it is demanding and thoughtful work; there will always be risks and heartbreak involved. But the rewards are riches we could never have imagined or experienced alone.