Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a novel about two game designers who are best friends and collaborators. The book is about the love they share in work and play, and how it transcends the boundaries of romantic love and physical spaces. Meeting by chance in a hospital as children, Sadie Green’s and Sam Masur’s lives revolve around games — both use games as a means of escape. Sadie, whose sister is being treated for cancer at the hospital, looks for companionship in her otherwise lonely world. And Sam, who is recovering from a devastating car accident that left him disabled, speaks for the first time since the crash when playing games with Sadie.
Zevin’s novel traces the path the two take to become successful game designers as they partner with Marx Watanabe, a helpful and kind college stage actor turned video game producer. Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow covers both the joy and devastating nature of the video game industry — touching on themes of evolving technology and the challenge of being a woman in these spaces — through the complicated, decade-spanning friendship between Sadie, Sam, and Marx.
Polygon spoke to Zevin about the complexity of love and friendship, the intimate nature of play, the growth of the video game industry, and how that all comes together in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Polygon: What is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow about? How does it relate to any of your previous work?
Gabrielle Zevin: I find Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow somewhat hard to describe. I’ve been vaguely saying it’s about love art, video games, and time. It’s the story of Sam Masur and Sadie Green, who have a 30-year friendship and artistic collaboration. Sam isn’t a physical person, and Sadie is a physical person, and yet they are the most important people in each other’s lives. For them, it’s this impossible puzzle of what do you do when the most important person in your life isn’t any of the usual suspects? It’s not a child, and is not a spouse. That’s essentially what the book is about.
In terms of how it relates to my previous books, something I’ve been interested in is that gaming is also a kind of storytelling. I think it relates pretty clearly to say, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which is a book about how we create experiences out of the stories and things that we consume.
That’s the book I was thinking of when I asked that question.
It’s funny. I think there’s some percentage of A.J. Fikry readers who are just like, “What does gaming have to do with what she’s done in the past?” And I think it’s just a disconnect on their part in terms of — and it’s not most of them, just some percentage — understanding that a game can be a story.
One of the blurbs on the back of the book describes Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as the next great American gamer novel. Did you set out to write a book that could be described as a gamer novel? Or did the themes of friendship, love, work, and time come first?
I think they both came at the same time, really. The first generation of people to play video games as children were born in the late ’70s and early ’80s in what we call the Oregon Trail generation, because they would have played Oregon Trail in a computer lab at school. This generation was moving into their 40s and even 50s, and I was intrigued by the fact that you can see the coming-of-age of an industry right alongside the coming-of-age of the people inside that industry.
If you look at video games, you can clearly see the evolution of something like Pong, which is like two lines and two dots, to something like The Last of Us, which has cinema-quality graphics and is basically indistinguishable from a movie in many ways. I knew I wanted to write about video games as a cultural experience before I knew exactly what the themes of the book would be. I didn’t know what would come out from that.
After my last novel came out — Young Jane Young — I had been searching for a particular game that I played as a kid. You can’t find every game that you played as a kid anymore, because they’re so tied to particular hardware. It occurred to me that games, which had been seminal storytelling experiences for me as a kid, could actually be lost. That’s probably when I first started thinking, “Oh, I want to write something about games, which is something that obviously tons of people do.” If you’re using Facebook, if you’re using Duolingo, you’re playing a game. You’re participating in some kind of rewards-based system. Pretty much everyone on the planet games at this point, in some form or another.
It’s funny. I really never talked about the fact that I gamed for 40 years. My dad was a computer programmer. The first games I ever played came preloaded on his work machine. I have gamed for effectively 40 years and never did so with an ulterior motive — never thought to myself, Boy, I think there’ll be a book in this someday.
There are so many intersections in the book — race, gender, and class with work, technology, and art. It spans how the video game industry has changed over the years, too. Can you talk about how you approach writing these characters through that cultural shift of 30 years?
I wanted to write about something that took place over a great span of time, and the history of video games was a great way to also talk about the history of being an artist and a person on the planet. Games are a great subject, and draw other subjects to it. It’s like a big bowl. You could look at the history of almost any subject and see a shadow history of the world for the last X number of years.
I think the book was always about the conflict between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie attempt to create and the imperfect world they lived in. I wanted it to be about the history of games in the last 30 years, but also just the history of what it meant to be a person in the last 30 years.
On the title of the book, when and how did you make the connection between video games and the Macbeth speech?
There was a theme I’d been playing with, which was the link between play and play, like theatrical play and games. It occurred to me, especially if you’re playing a massively multiplayer online RPG, that it’s very similar to being a theater nerd. Maybe the person who’s playing the massively multiplayer online RPG isn’t necessarily the same person who does theater, but it isn’t necessarily not the same person.
The “tomorrow” speech is one of the first bits of Shakespeare I ever committed to memory. I gave some of those interests I had in Shakespeare to Marx. I liked that he could interpret one of the bleakest speeches in all of Shakespeare as the opposite. But of course, I have to point out that he’s in salesman mode, he’s trying to convince people to name his company Tomorrow Games, so as to whether he truly believes it, I don’t know.
You can look at any piece of art, like many, many times, and eventually, it takes on a different meaning. It takes on the context of when you’re looking at it. It has always been interesting to find new meanings in old things.
There’s been some really cool stuff over the past few years with people recreating plays or putting on live shows using games like The Sims 4.
I have seen some of that stuff — it really flourished during the pandemic. I don’t think that everybody who ever played a massively multiplayer online RPG always realized they were in some kind of theatrical incident, which I think is cool.
The scene that takes place in Pioneers, the game that Sam made, is really beautiful and captures the depths of people’s online lives. Why was that game space the perfect place for Sadie and Sam to reconnect again?
They’re game designers, so that made sense to me. But also, there are things that Sam and Sadie both can’t say to each other in the real world that they find easier to express in virtual ones.
I thought of it as an Old West, sweeping love story that happens to be a video game. What they’re playing out in my mind is this love affair in the Old West. It has a lot in common with Portrait of a Lady on Fire or something like that as it does with some massively multiplayer games.
I’m interested in phenomenology games, generally. Why do we move piles of rocks in Stardew Valley, but not move piles of rocks in our real lives? I think this is just an extension of that. Why is it easier to sometimes express things through play than it is in our real lives? And I think that’s because play isn’t just play. Play does mean being vulnerable. Play means being open. Play can be so positive and healthy. And yet sadly, for many people play ends or officially ends when you become an adult. But there’s so much potential for growth in video game worlds.
What makes play so intimate?
I think it’s that you do have to say, “I’m going to be vulnerable.” You risk being foolish, you risk being hurt, and you risk revealing yourself in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Do you have any favorite games that do storytelling particularly well that you turn to?
Some of my favorite games are probably the games I played as a kid. You make favorites when you’re young, and I think you kind of look for maybe some of the same elements in them.
When I researched the book, I had to play games that were beyond what I usually played. I’m not a Grand Theft Auto player, but I was like, I’m going to if I’m going to write it. I dipped into pretty much anything that was mentioned in the book, at least for some period of time.
But when I think about my most formative gaming experiences, I think of the games made by Sierra — Sierra action-adventure games. I think they were really beautiful, especially King’s Quest , which was the first game that I ever read that had a female protagonist. They were really hard to solve. And you have to call on your knowledge of literature, often, to solve a game like King’s Quest 4. And I think people can underestimate how immersive they were. Because at the point I was playing them, you couldn’t easily Google the answers. So you would spend 60 hours figuring out, like, I need to place the rock under the knife, or whatever it is. But I do think these games, even like the lamentable Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, King’s Quest — all the various quests they made at that time — were probably the first games I really, really loved.