Thoughts (loosely) based on Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Simon Parkin’s book Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession on the Virtual Front Line
I recently read a couple of books that made me feel an emotion I normally do not tolerate: regret.
Life is too short, right?
But these books made me feel regret for something profound, for something worthy of regret. For worlds I will never explore.
Regret for exploits I will never embark upon, regret for vast and foreign lands that I’ll never investigate, regret for maps and charts I’ll never utilize, regret for art and architecture that will disintegrate into the sands of time before I ever get to observe it.
Piles of regret. Mounds of regret heaped upon mountains of regret.
The funny thing is, I can’t complain about the scope of my travels (on this planet).
I’ve hiked through the jungles of Ecuador and Costa Rica; visited mountain temples in Thailand; clambered on the ancient ruins of Lebanon, and Jordan; experienced the great museums of Europe; examined the antiquities of Egypt, and shit out giant intestinal roundworms in Syria.
I’ve also driven across the United States several times.
I’ve gone cross-country with my friends, I’ve done it with my wife, and I’ve done it with my wife and our kids. I’ve descended into the colorful sandstone canyons of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico; I’ve climbed mountains in Montana; hit a whiffle ball off the Great Divide; viewed wildlife in Yellowstone; snowboarded the mountains of Colorado; and blew four rods in my buddy’s Wagoneer racing across Montana in order to catch Seinfeld.
I’ve traveled. While I’m no Johnny Cash, I’ve been to enough places to know I don’t need to go everywhere . . . man.
So why this regret?
Some weird bucket list immersive bullshit?
Swimming with the sharks in South Africa? Some kind of extreme cross-Atlantic rowing expedition?
Nope. If someone told me I could never leave New Jersey again, I’d be annoyed but not despondent. We’ve got the beach, some small mountains, fantastic pizza, and great Indian food.
What more do you need?
But what I have missed, unquestionably and irrevocably, are thirty years of video games.
Thirty years of digital worlds. Digital worlds that I will NEVER get to explore because gaming systems have become obsolete and these games will soon be lost in the silicate sands of digital time. Digital planets, digital jungles, surreal digital hellscapes, phantasmagoric digital sandboxes.
While I was traveling the world, raising children, practicing the guitar, playing sports, and– of course– drinking beer in various bars while watching sports, the video game industry was doing its thing. Pumping out better and better games, growing exponentially, and improving technologically.
And I pretty much missed it all.
The last time I played video games with any regularity was in 1993. And it was just one game: Road Rash. On the Sega.
That’s not to say I haven’t played any video games in the last thirty years– but I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “gamer.”
I tried to play some Madden football with my brothers, but there were too many buttons and too many plays. I watched them play some Grand Theft Auto. My friend Mose– who is an IT guy– networked some computers in his house so he could have people over to play Half-Life. I did that a couple of times, but I was awful (and not willing to put in the time to get better).
In 2004, My wife and I got into Dance Dance Revolution– I think we borrowed an Xbox– but we had to get rid of it once our first child, Alex, achieved mobility. You can’t be stomping on a pad to the Commodores’ “Brick House” while watching a TV for dance cues when you’ve got an infant crawling around. You’re liable to stomp your child’s head– and kids that age have soft heads . . . their skull bones aren’t fully fused yet.
Killing your firstborn by stomping his head while playing DDR is tragic, of course . . . but no one will see it that way.
They’ll just shake their heads and laugh.
We held off on getting a video game system for our boys for a LONG time, for obvious parental reasons. There was one awful Christmas when they were young when my brother said to me, “I don’t think you’re going to like what I got for them.” It turned out to be a Wii and I was like “no way.” They never got to open it. We were those parents. When my kids got older, they finally got a Wii, then a Switch and an Xbox. I played some Wii and MarioKart and Super Smash Bros. with them. I even took a shot at playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it gave me motion sickness.
Last year, I battled some zombies wearing the Oculus, which was fun, if a bit clunky.
But the last time I considered myself adept at a video game was when I mastered Road Rash. I was living with a bunch of my friends in a disgusting (but historically significant) house on Route 18 in central New Jersey. I was teaching math at a behavior mod school full of kids that couldn’t be educated in regular public school, and I was going to graduate school to get my teaching certificate and master’s degree.
On the days I didn’t have a grad school class at Rutgers, I would come home after teaching math to emotionally disturbed kids and collapse in front of the Sega. It was a long, exhausting day. I would put on either Sand in the Vaseline– a Talking Heads greatest hits album– or Ween’s The Pod, a drug-addled psychedelic masterpiece, get stoned, and play.
Road Rash was a motorcycle racing game, but the twist was that as you raced, you also fought people with chains and clubs and nunchucks and crowbars. Very fun. Once I got through all the levels, I got to this weird bonus level that consisted only of cops– and cops pull you over and end your ride. So you ride the final level for a moment and then the game just ends. It gets all blocky and fizzles out.
I was disappointed with this finale– I wanted some kind of digital trophy or a screen with a secret address– and if you send a postcard to the secret address, then the game designers mail you a special t-shirt that reveals you conquered the game.
I was a naive idiot back then.
My video gaming history up to that point was probably quite similar to many boys my age. I was born in 1970.
I remember my cousins playing Pong and Michael Lubowicki getting the first Atari on the block. It took some convincing, but my brother and I persuaded our parents to buy us the next gaming console: Intellivision.
My brother and I played baseball and football on Intellivision. I loved Night Stalker and Space Armada and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Pitfall. Intellivision’s primitive version of AD&D was a little scary to play late at night. You explored dark subterranean caves and there were weird creepy noises. Not exactly Nightmare of Elm Street, but it certainly created a mood.
In middle school, we had an Intellivision football league. We played at my friend’s house and his older brother– who absolutely loved all things sporting, but had MS and was wasting away in a wheelchair– took statistics by hand. We’d play the game– I can still remember my favorite play, which you would enter on the number pad . . . 9-6-2-4– and Matt would write down how many yards our players passed for and ran for. Though the game didn’t have teams and players, we imagined they did. I was the Seahawks and my running back was Curt Warner. Games were pretty lame back then. A lot was left to the imagination.
In college, my friends had a Nintendo. We all saved the princess (except for Murph, who would play for hours and hours into the night, to no avail) and we played lots of Tecmo Bowl and Nintendo Ice Hockey. Ice Hockey was interesting (at the time) because you got to choose your line-up: you could play any combination of fast skinny guys, medium-sized guys, or hard shooting slow fat guys. This portended to the infinite complexity of choosing a line-up in the current FIFA World Cup game.
And there was Tetris, of course. We would pass the Gameboy around at level 9.5 and play until someone achieved the five fiddlers (and the incongruous space shuttle launch). And there would be much rejoicing.
Some regard the Golden Age of video games as the arcade era. Centipede and Defender and Pacman. Arcades were fun and social and noisy and very weird, but I think the real video-game cultural touchstones and works of art were made later. Arcades were more of a surreal and dynamic social scene– the work of art was the arcade itself, not necessarily the games.
I don’t think the arcade games compare to the games I missed Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls and Halo. FIFA Soccer and Madden football. BioShock, Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption, and Resident Evil.
I missed GTA V. and Skyrim and The Last of Us and Dead Space.
I’m getting a taste of what I missed by watching The Last of Us on HBO. It’s fantastic. I wish I also played the game.
But The Last of Us wasn’t what instigated these feelings of nostalgia and regret.
And they didn’t come from the video games themselves– I have no access.
The feelings came from reading.
Because at times, reading can get you into trouble.
I recently read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, a lovely novel by Gabrielle Zevin that explores friendship, collaboration, gaming, love, and video game design. The book evoked some nostalgia in me for gaming– the book made me remember my video-gaming history. And the book evoked an odd form of nostalgia in me for things in the past that I sort of knew existed but missed.
Then I went down the rabbit hole. I read Simon Parkin’s Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline.
I read a long article at The Ringer called ‘Dead Space’ Only Gets Better With Age by Lewis Gordon.
It all made me think: what have I forsaken?
I usually try to keep up with the best TV shows, movies, podcasts, music, stand-up comedy, and books. I do a decent job at this. I’m not a movie buff or a mystery buff or a crime podcast buff or a hip-hop buff– but I keep up with the best stuff. I’m a generalist, a dilettante. I look at some end-of-the-year top ten lists, and then I listen to a few albums, watch a bunch of movies, and talk to my friends about TV shows and stand-up. I stay kind of current in these mediums.
Sometimes I wish I were one of those obsessive people that got really into one thing– that I was an aficionado of something: mystery novels, progressive rock from the 1970s, film noir, cabinetry, whatever. Something niche. Then my writing and podcasting would have a real purpose and audience, but I’m just not built like that. I’m all over the place.
In that same vein, I have a lot of hobbies: guitar and tennis and soccer and basketball and badminton and snowboarding and recording a podcast and writing a blog. And I watch some sports. And, when we can, my family likes to travel.
So video games have gone by the wayside.
I know this is silly, to feel regret over this. There are plenty of other things I don’t keep up with: modern dance, architecture, sculpture, fashion, interior design, advances in wind-surfing technology, and mumblecore. I don’t feel regret over those things. Perhaps it’s because I have no history with those things.
I also know that you can’t keep up with everything you’ve done in the past. I used to draw on a regular basis. I also used to play the banjo. I gave both those up– not consciously, both habits sort of faded away– but I don’t feel regret. There’s only so much time in the day.
I used to be an excellent golfer– and an excellent golf coach– but I don’t feel regret over giving that up. In fact, NOT playing golf gives me a great deal of pleasure. British cultural critic and humorist Geoff Dyer put this into context for me. I thought golf and video games were the same for me– I thought I thoroughly enjoyed NOT playing both of them.
Geoff Dyer explains this wonderful feeling of deliberately NOT being interested in something in his meditation on procrastination, Out of Sheer Rage. His agent invites him to the theater and he explains how he feels about going to the theater– which is coincidentally, exactly the same way I feel about going to the theater.
“I had not been to the Théâtre for twenty years and I had no intention of going again now. It was not even a question of liking or disliking the theatre. The important thing was the pleasure that came from not being interested in the theatre. I am interested in all sorts of things but it is lovely to not be interested in the theatre. Not being interested in the theatre means a whole area of life and culture means nothing to me: there are entire sections of listings magazines that I don’t need to consult, vast areas of conversation I don’t need to take part in, great wads of cash that I don’t need to consider parting with. It is bliss, not being interested in the theatre. Not being interested in the theatre provides me with more happiness than all the things I am interested in put together. There is a moral here. To be interested in something is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf.”Geoff Dyer
I thought my relationship with video games was the same as Dyer’s relationship with the theater. NOT playing video games was saving me time and money. I didn’t have to keep up with gaming systems and I didn’t have to read video game reviews. I didn’t have to buy the best game of the year, each and every year. I didn’t have to read interviews with game designers and articles on game engines and graphic cards.
I didn’t have to figure out how to balance video gaming with all my other hobbies. Not playing video games was as stress-free as it gets. I was suffering zero anxiety on behalf of video games.
But once again reading gave me a new perspective. Zevin’s novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow made me realize the importance of video games, especially for people who don’t enjoy using their physical bodies as much as I enjoy using mine.
And then I thought: how long is my body going to last, anyway? How long until it will be more fun to move my video avatar than it will be to move my sullied flesh?
There is certainly a stigma to playing video games– especially if your body does work. How could I rationalize sitting around playing a game on a screen while I can still play soccer and tennis in reality? I’m 53 years old. I only have so many snowboarding trips left in me (although it seems I can play pickleball until I’m an octogenarian).
Simon Parkin, in his book Death by Video Game, describes the stereotypical gamer. And he acknowledges that the stereotype is rooted in reality.
“Gamers have, throughout the first thirty-odd years of their emergence, been depicted as the contemporary nerd group, a mildly downtrodden crowd, shunned by the jocks and achievers. Gamers are the losers who spend their days in darkened bedrooms furiously tapping on controllers or keyboards in a solitary pursuit that sits close to masturbation in the mind . . .
The stereotype is powerful and, while it presents non-gamers with an image of the typical player, it also informs those who play games themselves . . . expectations become self-fulfilling: they play to type.”
When I was a kid, everyone played video games. Gameplay was fairly easy. Anyone could play some Atari or go to the arcade and play Pac-Man. Obviously, some people became masters (the documentary King of Kong documents this) but the general vibe was much more inclusive. Then games got better and harder, the gamer stereotype magnified, and I dropped out of the scene. This made it hard to break back in.
Simon Parkin’s book Death by Videogame does bring up the extent to which video games differ from other art forms. This is the caveat . . . and the reason the word “death” is in the title of the book. In Taiwan, a series of young men literally “played themselves to death” in internet cafes. These gamers played for days at a time, eventually dehydrating, and then undergoing strokes and cardiac arrest.
This is extreme behavior, of course, outlier behavior, but . . . video games are the only art form that can captivate and capture you for SO many hours at a time.
Parkin calls this loss of time “chronoslip” and while he argues that it can induce incredible empathy for the perspective that you are playing, it’s also a major danger and a major commitment.
I’m a high school teacher, and while my students who are dedicated gamers are often smart and interesting kids, they are also often behind on their school work and sleep-deprived.
But I don’t want to fall into the trap of vilifying new art forms.
It seems once you hit middle age, it’s easy enough to fall into this trap– and often seems absurd in hindsight. Comic books were actually put on trial in the United States in 1954. There’s so much good stuff written about the evolution of comic books, but you probably know the basic story. They have evolved from the much-disdained adventures of heroic folks in tight underwear to venerated graphic novels like Blankets, Watchmen, Saga, and Maus. I recently did a podcast and post on Kate Beaton’s new graphic novel, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, which tackles some very tough issues in a brilliant and sensitive manner.
In the 1850s, there were dire warnings about novels. Families were going to end up destitute because women were reading romance novels instead of cooking for their husbands. Now novels are venerated and celebrated, for their characterization, their ability to provoke empathy, for the possibility that they can truly put us in another person’s headspace.
Might the same soon be said for video games?
Scientific American advised people that if they wanted to get anything accomplished in their life, to avoid chess. Chess is only for the wealthy, who can afford to waste time and become addicted.
Oddly, the only computer game I play with any regularity is chess. I haven’t become addicted (in fact, I haven’t even become proficient).
Video games do seem to be slightly different from these pastimes because they can induce extreme “chronoslip.” No other art form– even if it is mildly addictive– offers the possibility that you can consume it for so many hours that you might have a stroke or heart attack. Most people, if they read for too long, fall asleep.
While the cardiac arrest scenario is unlikely and extreme, the sedentary nature of gaming and the time commitment both scare me.
But, unlike my teenage son, I’m probably old enough to regulate and navigate both of these.
It also seems you have to avoid playing games like World of Warcraft. I’ve read many tales of gamers that got so consumed with leveling up in WoWC that they spent all their time and energy on the game. They dropped out of reality. But while this is possible, it’s also possible to ruin your life with drugs and partying. It’s possible to ruin your life trying to be a professional athlete– you can be too obsessed with tennis or basketball or ice hockey. You can find cautionary stories about people destroying their lives doing just about anything.
So from a risk/reward basis, the question is: is it worth getting back into video games? What is the appeal? What is the reward that is different from other art forms?
The answer, I think, is empathy and perspective.
First of all, video games can put you into someone else’s shoes like no other art form. And not every game turns you into a first-person shooter. There are artistic, empathetic, creative games out there– and I missed them. Simon Parkin describes a few.
One is called Papers Please.
You play the role of an immigration officer at a migration checkpoint of a fictional Eastern Bloc country. You have to make moral choices about who you let in and who you deny entrance. It reminds me of a guy I knew named Nate who worked at the American Embassy in Syria. We called him Dr. No because he was pretty much instructed NOT to give native Syrians an American travel Visa– unless they were very wealthy– and he faced difficult ethical dilemmas like the ones depicted in this game every day. People needed asylum, they needed specific medical treatments, they needed to visit family.
There’s another called Cart Life. This game simulates the daily grind of an immigrant trying to make a living with a food cart. As a unionized state employee, this is a game I probably need to play.
So video games allow you to inhabit a role you might never even think about.
Zevin’s novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, explores the idea of video games as an escape from the role you normally play in your life. You can walk in someone else’s shoes– you can put on the shoes you WANT to wear. This is especially important for one of the main characters of the novel, Sam Masur, because he has trouble walking in general. His foot was destroyed in a horrific car accident, which also took his mother’s life. So for him, walking in someone else’s shoes is a great freedom because he has trouble walking in his own shoes.
The book centers around the complex and dynamic relationship between three people. Two of them use video games as an escape. Sam, a Jewish/Korean gamer with a bad foot, and Sadie Green, a brilliant, attractive, and wealthy computer geek who happens to be female. Sam escapes his broken body, and Sadie escapes being a female in a male-dominated profession– she’s something of a fish-out-of-water when she’s interacting with programmers in reality. But when she’s gaming, everything is equal.
The third character, Marx Watanabe, Sam’s rich and charismatic college roommate at MIT doesn’t need to escape his life through video games. He just enjoys them. Video games are an extension of how he sees life: as a game. Marx has been on the winning team all his life. He’s smart, he’s financially independent; he’s good looking; he’s charismatic; and– with women– he’s literally a player (although he’s so nice that they don’t despise him when he inevitably moves on) and he’s gifted in playing roles, especially Shakespearean roles. For Marx, video games are simply an extension of that mentality.
The story begins pre-Marx, when Sadie and Sam meet each other for the first time in the hospital.
Sadie, 11, is in the hospital because her sister, Alice, is being treated for cancer, while 12-year-old Sam is undergoing treatment for his mangled foot. Since arriving at the hospital, Sam hasn’t spoken a word to anyone– he’s traumatized . . . remember, his mother died in the car accident that destroyed his foot.
Sam breaks his selective mutism with Sadie because they start playing video games together in the recovery room. They become fast friends– playing Oregon Trail and Super Mario– and then playing the Donkey Kong arcade machine at Sam’s Korean grandparent’s pizza place– Dong and Bong’s.
Then their friendship suffers a serious misunderstanding (and we learn Sam can really carry a grudge). Sam learns that Sadie was receiving community service hours when she went to the hospital– she was first earning them for visiting her sister but then she kept coming and getting the sheet signed, though she was coming because she was friends with Sam. But, as a matter of routine and to annoy her sister, she racked up 609 community service hours. When Sam found out about this, he was appalled, and no explanation could mollify him. He felt like Sadie was simply using him to get hours for her bat mitzvah. So their friendship ended.
Until . . .
Sam spots Sadie at a subway station in Boston in 1996. Sam is a junior at Harvard while Sadie is a computer science major at MIT.
Sam spots Sadie across a crowded Boston subway station and yells, “SADIE MIRANDA GREEN! YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY!”
This is a reference to the game Oregon Trail. I vaguely remember playing this game at school, but the version I played was awful. Lots of text and menu choices. I think Sadie and Sam played a better version of this game– a slicker version with better graphics. Mainly, I remember that there were so many ways to die: snakebite, dysentery, typhoid, measles, broken legs, starvation, drowning, and– of course– dysentery.
Sadie gives Sam a disc with a game she designed in her class, and their friendship slowly heals.
Sam is impressed by Sadie’s game, which is called “Solution.” In the game, you are a factory worker trying to build munitions. The faster you work, the more points you get– but you can trade points for information. Gaining information will lower your score, but this information might avoid what happens if you perform optimally: the game congratulates you for being an efficient Nazi and helping the Third Reich achieve military dominance.
If you trade points for information, you learn to work slowly– as a conscientious objector– but not so slowly that you’re executed. Sam finds this brilliant, but one of Sadie’s classmates takes serious offense at being called a Nazi.
Sadie’s fictional game alludes to Brenda Romero’s actual board game “Train”– in which you try to solve a logistical problem about moving people on trains, but later learn that you are trying to figure out the optimal way to send people to a concentration camp.
The message of these games really opened my eyes to a different, much more involved way of learning about a theme. I can see why the girl in Sadie’s class was offended– it’s not great for your self-esteem to know you might have been a very efficient Nazi. But, realistically, if you were born in Germany and were NOT Jewish, then you probably would have helped with the cause. There were far more compliant citizens than there were Schindlers. Modern psychology keeps proving this over and over again: the situation is more important than character. The Stanford Prison Experiment. The Milgram Experiment. The Asch Experiment. The Good Samaritan Experiment. Broken Windows Policing, etcetera.
You think you wouldn’t have shocked those people, but Stanley Milgram’s results beg to differ. Just about EVERYONE shocked the stooge.
Kurt Vonnegut explains it best in his novel Mother Night:
“If I’d been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.”Kurt Vonnegut
Sadie and Sam eventually decide to drop out of school and design a video game together. Sam’s rich roommate Marx is willing to stake them and use his connections to help produce the game.
The game, Ichigo, is inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous painting The Great Wave at Kanagawa. Zevin glosses over most of the programming stuff, which annoyed me– but what can you do? There is this risk when writing a book about a duo of computer geniuses that you’re not quite smart enough to describe the technical abilities of your main characters. That’s fine. But I am still waiting for the great video game programming novel.
There is some discussion of aesthetics– the game features a storm and a genderless child lost at sea– and Sadie and Sam want the digital water to seem wet and the game to look like a watercolor painting– but the novel barely explains how this is done. There’s a line or two about “adaptive tile refresh.”
There is also some abstract discussion of the gaming engine– and how they need to borrow a gaming engine from Sadie’s teacher/boyfriend– and while I understand that a gaming engine controls the “physics” of the game: how objects move, fall, accelerate, jump, spin, etcetera– I wish that there was a little more detail about this.
I’m sure this is frustrating for actual game programmers– but do actual programmers have time to read novels? Or are they too busy coding and drinking soda and eating pizza?
Sadie does program so much that the blood vessels in her eyes burst, which is a nod to this culture, I suppose.
But still, it takes a team of people programming like this to make a serious video game.
Lewis Gordon’s fabulous article “Dead Space Only Gets Better With Age” hints at the size and scope of a video game team.
“As development rolled on, with Dead Space eventually getting the final green light from EA’s executives in May 2007, the team gradually expanded, growing from its core of 15 to approximately 80. At its peak, the team numbered over 100. Creative director Robbins remembers feeling an acute sense of anxiety during the latter stages of production. He balanced the game primarily on his own, doing so not by using data, but his own intuition, tweaking the health and ammo drops, in-game economy, suit and weapon upgrade systems, enemy health, and weapon damage. Recounting this process over a video call, Robbins describes it as one in which he was “flying by the seat of my pants.” This required him to play the campaign endlessly; no one knew the game better than him.”Lewis Gordon
And Dead Space is regarded as a smaller, more niche game, and it still required a gargantuan team and a level of incredible obsession and play-testing to make it work. Someone will eventually write THAT video game novel and it will be epic in scale.
Mainly though, Zevin has bigger fish to fry. She can’t get bogged down in the weeds of gaming engines and computer programming– and it would probably be wasted on me (and much of her audience) anyway.
For example, Zevin uses the Japanese aesthetic of Ichigo to explore cultural appropriation. While all art appropriates other art, and often art from other cultures, it’s so much more evident in a video game– which can be so literal and graphic.
Sam is half-Korean/half-Jewish, and he expresses how his displacement in a fictional interview on a real video game website called Kotaku:
The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people, with only white European references in it. A world where everyone is blind and deaf to any culture or experience that is not their own. I’m terrified of that world, and I don’t want to live in that world, and as a mixed-race person, I literally don’t exist in it. And as any mixed-race person will tell you—to be half of two things is to be whole of nothing.Gabrielle Zevin
I agree. Good faith appropriation is imperative to any art form– and without any kind of imagination and appropriation, the artist’s purview would be severely limited. Zevin is appropriating programmer culture; historical novelists are imagining the inner lives of people distant not only culturally but temporally; and video games are appropriating the tropes and cultures of all the more traditional art forms that have come before.
Reading this section made me realize that not only did I miss out on playing all these video games, but I missed out on all the reviews as well. I do enjoy reading smart reviews of art– and hearing the artist’s take on the thing they created.
Here’s another excerpt from Lewis Gordon’s “Dead Space” article. Ian Milham, the art director of the game, explains how they appropriated a classic sci-fi trope– the abandoned spooky space station– and turned this tired trope into a compelling piece of art.
“This is the game’s great achievement: that a schlocky third-person space shooter could become one of the most evocative, immersive mood pieces of the past 20 years. Dead Space has not diminished with age, but gotten better. “We tried to kill ’em with craft,” Milham says. “Every bit of cohesion and polish and the elements supporting each other we got in there so that this thing, which is largely familiar, still felt great. I’m a big believer that people can feel whether the people making something loved it,” he adds. “We all see people making homages to relatively known things. Look at Rian Johnson with Knives Out. He didn’t invent whodunnits; whodunnits have existed forever. But he loves whodunnits. We were in a similar zone where people can tell that we loved these types of games, we loved all the various elements we were bringing together, and we tried really hard to do a good job. I feel like in an age where things can feel cynical or market-driven, people can tell that Dead Space really wasn’t.”Lewis Gordon
So let’s appropriate stuff and make it better and better. Or appropriate stuff and change mediums. And if we’re going to change the medium to a game, then another question arises.
What makes a great game?
Sadie and Sam tackle this philosophical question throughout the novel. They do it in the realm of gaming but is certainly a question that applies to those of us who mainly exist in meat space, as well. Especially if you’re a fan of sports.
Why is women’s tennis more fun to watch than men’s tennis?
Is it the outfits? Is it the longer rallies? Is it the fact that the women’s serve isn’t as devastating?
Why isn’t this true for women’s basketball?
Sam and Sadie do NOT care about sports. It was actually worrisome to me that they never get any exercise.
As far as what makes a great video game, at the start of the novel, they were at the stage in their artistry where they both knew what they did NOT want. They did NOT want to make a shooter.
It was going to take the two of them, together, bouncing ideas off of one another, to figure out what they DID want to make.
In the end, the book is an ode to collaboration.
This is how Zevin describes the start of their artistic collaboration.
“There is a time for any fledgling artist where one’s taste exceeds one’s abilities. The only way to get through this is to make things anyway, and it is possible that, without Sam ( or someone like him) pushing her through this period, Sadie might not have become the game designer she became. She might not have become a designer at all.”
They weren’t quite sure what they wanted Ichigo to be. I think Zevin’s synopsis is an accurate account of the way artistic taste develops. First, you explore. Then you start to realize you like some things and dislike others. Then you figure out why this is so. But you often need that catalyst to help you on your journey. John Lennon needed Paul McCartney. Marx needed Engels. Kahneman needed Tversky. Watson needed Crick.
Did Paul Simon need Art Garfunkel? That’s a question for another time.
Sadie and Sam agree that Metal Gear Solid is one of their “foundational” video games. This is a stealth game, with a limited amount of shooting. It’s a game where it is strategically advantageous to avoid being seen. This works better than engaging in combat. I’m not sure if I’ve ever played a game like this– again, I think I missed out on all the really good video games. But I like this concept– that you can sneak and spy instead of fight.
Despite Sadie’s love of this game, she was annoyed by the fact that if you climb through the air vents, you can spy on NPC “Meryl fricking Silverburgh” in her underwear. And, of course, Meryl Silverburgh is some kind of impossibly slim-waited, buxom male fantasy.
Sadie says to her boyfriend Dov– who was her teacher– “I don’t want to play a game that’s a collection of some guy’s fetishes.”
Dov, who is a great teacher and game designer, is also kind of creepy and sketchy. He dates his students, though he has a wife and kids back in Israel. He engages in weird bondage and S+M with Sadie. So his reply to her is loaded with irony.
“You aren’t just a gamer when you play anymore. You’re a builder of worlds– your feelings are not as important as what the gamers are feeling. You must imagine them at all times. There is no artist more empathetic than a game designer.”
So– according to Dov– Sadie has to put herself into the shoes of a typical gamer, who is probably a male teenager. Thankfully, Sadie doesn’t take this advice, and she designs some games that don’t appeal to the typical gamer.
In Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin evocatively describes the ultimate example of empathizing with the young male perspective: Grand Theft Auto V. The possibilities of what you can do in Los Santos actually sound like a collection of archetypal male fantasies on steroids AND meth.
You can beat up hookers, eradicate cops, plan heists, ride the rails on a freight train, buy property, sell, hang with the homeless, swim with sharks, hire prostitutes, go hiking, search for bigfoot . . . yes, that’s correct– there are rumors that bigfoot is hiding in the forest on the edge of the city, although this has never been confirmed.
In GTA V, women are objects, and men full of machismo rule the city.
How far can the emotion of empathy go? How deep can you enter the twisted and violent male psyche?
How about a game where you act out the Columbine massacre, taking the role of either Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold?
I’m referring to Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
I missed this one too.
Apparently, the reaction to the game was quite negative. According to Wikipedia, It was deemed “exploitative” and a “monstrosity.”
Is this Columbine game any different than other art about school shootings? Tough question.
There’s the movie Elephant and Jodie Picoult’s novel 19 Minutes. Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine. The critics deemed these works “allowable” forms of art for this topic. Movies, novels, and documentaries.
So why not a video game?
It’s not like video games are causing men to be violent. Men have always been violent. Men were violent in medieval Europe, Vikings were violent in Northern Europe, ninja warriors were violent in Japan, Anasazi sucked the marrow from the bones of the vanquished in the American Southwest, and the Yanomami were ultra-violent in the Amazon.
So video games don’t cause this violence, they reflect it. But perhaps it is poor taste to actually BECOME the killer during gameplay– even though I feel like this perspective shift often happens in first-person novels. James Ellroy and Joyce Carol Oates have explored this perspective, and they are lauded authors. Maybe it’s the fact that you can play the game over and over, and kill these poor high school students and staff over and over? But you can rewatch a movie, you can reread a book. Maybe it’s the fact that YOU are pressing the buttons on the controller– but YOU are also reading the words on the page and incorporating this point of view into your psyche. Maybe it’s prejudice against video games. I don’t know.
There are certainly TV shows and movies that empathize and give us the perspective of the killer. Dexter and Monster come to mind.
So is the prejudice against video games unfounded?
Certainly, the first-person shooters that Sadie and Sam despise privilege a certain kind of player– and you don’t have to privilege that strategy.
There are different kinds of gamers, according to Richard Bartle, the co-designer of MUD1– the first multi-user dungeon. There are achievers and explorers and socializers and killers– and in a really big game, you need a healthy mix of all of these. But in a smaller game, you can privilege one type of player.
Not only does Zevin’s novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow examine how video games are designed and played, but it also examines how life itself might be a game– or life might be a game for some people. Or life might be game-like until it gets real
Sam’s mom was literally ON a game show called Press That Button! She was the Vanna White type model assistant, but she was “exotic” because she was Korean. She had to play an ugly game with the host Chip, who was always borderline sexually harassing her. She had to keep him at bay without losing her job.
For a brief moment, life was a game for Sam and his mom. They were driving around in LA, because there was always loads of driving to do– to school, to the studio where the game show was filmed, to Dong and Bong’s Pizza Place– where Sam would hang out with his grandparents and Sadie, playing Donkey Kong, while his mom worked on the show– and they were searching for one of the fabled “secret highways” that were rumored to connect disparate parts of LA.
They were trying to figure out a faster way between Koreatown and Studio City, and Sam’s mom was driving her new emerald green sports car– a splurge because she had landed the game show job– and they were enjoying this search for a secret connecting road, when Sam’s mom, Anna, almost hit an animal in the road. A dog or a coyote.
This scene then goes from Seinfeldian fun– the gold medal run to the airport– to something tragic.
Sam’s mom can’t figure out how to turn on the lights to the new car when the engine is off, another car comes around the bend and hits them, killing Sam’s mom and destroying Sam’s foot.
Suddenly, life is no longer a game for Sam.
Zevin loves to explore this contrast. For Sam’s rich friend Marx (and his cool hipster musician girlfriend) life is a game (for the time being).
Marx realizes that he needs to get Sam and Sadie to move their gaming company from Boston to California. Sam’s foot is getting worse and worse, it’s getting infected and ruining his life. He needs to get it amputated, and he needs a winter-free place like California to heal. Sadie also needs to get out of Boston, because her ex-teacher and current boyfriend Dov is drawing her into a fruitless, sketchy, and slightly violent relationship But Marx doesn’t know how to broach this subject, so he asks his cool girlfriend Zoe. She gives him a simple and strategic answer– I wish I could see the world this clearly.
“Marx, my love, you are so innocent. You don’t have to convince anyone. You tell Sadie that Sam needs to go to California– his foot is rotting; he needs to have the surgery and he won’t do it in Massachusetts. You tell Sam that Sadie needs to go– she needs to find a way to break with Dov. Those two are thick as thieves; they’ll do anything for each other.”
Marx: “You’re being very Lady Macbeth tonight. Are you saying these things because you want me to go to California with you?”
“Well yes, partially. But it’s also the absolute correct course of action,” Zoe said.Gabrielle Zevin
For most of the book, life IS a game for Marx. But it’s not a game for Sam and Sadie. Holden Caulfield explained this dichotomy long before Pong was even a sparkle in Nolan Bushnell’s brain.
Holden’s history teacher, Old Mr. Spencer, is advising Holden on how to perform better at school.
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
Holden humors Old Spencer but he knows that life is only a game for certain select people– and there are no guarantees that life will remain a game.
This is what Holden thinks (but doesn’t say to Old Spenser).
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right – I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.J.D. Salinger
The name of Marx, Sadie, and Sam’s gaming company is Unfair Games. Marx may be privileged but he’s not an idiot.
Zoe’s strategy works, and Sam and Sadie relocate back to LA. Sam gets his foot amputated but he has a rough recovery. He suffers from severe phantom limb pain. When he puts on his prosthetic, he feels like his (absent) foot is being crushed.
If you have any doubt that phantom limb pain isn’t real, read Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V. S. Ramachandran.
The elephant in the room for most of this book is whether Sadie and Sam will get together romantically. I won’t spoil things, but Zevin likes the fact that these two, while capable of artistic collaboration, might not be compatible as a couple.
Sam struggles with intimacy, perhaps because of his broken body, perhaps because of the loss of his mother, perhaps because that’s the kind of person he is. This is why video games are so important to Sam– they are when he escapes the limitations of his body and his emotions. When he inhabits a digital avatar, this is the only time he can feel joy.
Sam had four different sexual partners– three girls and a boy partners and “ he had never enjoyed sex with any of them.”
“He did not like the messiness of sex– its fluids, its sounds, its smells. He worried that hsi body could not be relied upon . . . Sam did not believe his body could feel anything except pain, and so he did not desire pleasure in the same way that other people seemed to. Sam was happiest when his body was feeling nothing. He was happiest when he did not have to think about his body– when he could forget that he had a body at all.”Gabrielle Zevin
Sadie, on the other hand, views sex as something different than romance. While friendship and romance and collaborations and relationships might be difficult and complex, to Sadie, sex is a little more like a video game.
“Sadie had often reflected that sex and video games had a great deal in common. There were certain objectives that needed to be met. There were certain rules that shouldn’t be broken. There was a correct combination of movements– button mashes, joystick pivots, keystrokes, commands– that made the whole thing work or not work. There was a pleasure in knowing you had played the game correctly and a release that came when you reached the next level. To be good at sex was to be good at the game of sex.”Gabrielle Zevin
Of course, there’s a Seinfeld episode about this (it’s a show about nothing, but it seems there’s a Seinfeld episode about everything). “The Fusilli Jerry.” David Puddy steals Jerry’s “move.” The “counterclockwise swirl.” Elaine doesn’t care about proprietary theft– she just enjoys “the move.” There’s romance and there’s sex. They are different.
While Zevin’s novel doesn’t get into the details of game programming and design, she does describe a number of games made by the company. Each one opens a different can of worms.
There is the multiplayer open-world sandbox-type game called Mapleworld that sounds a bit like Second Life. Sam– the mayor of Mapleworld– allows same-sex marriages in this game and there are some political ramifications to this choice. I like this plot development, but I’m not aware of all that much political fallout from video games. Perhaps there will be more of this in the future, as gaming becomes more ubiquitous.
When Sadie and Sam drift apart, Sadie creates a game on her own that is right up my alley. It’s called Master of Revels and it’s set in Elizabethan England. The goal is to solve Christopher Marlowe’s murder.
The game doesn’t sell many copies and Sam is annoyed that Sadie put so much time and energy into it; he says “people hate Shakespeare” but that’s not true. Lots of people LOVE Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. Sam’s rich roommate loves Shakespeare– and starred in Macbeth.
Are there many gamers who love Shakespeare? I don’t know, but this game was made for me.
That’s what I’ve been waiting for, I think. A game made for me. Now I’m starting to see that perhaps these games exist, I just was so out of the gaming scene that I never heard about them. But it’s like I need permission to start playing video games again, and this could happen in one of two ways:
The first way is that there could be a “platinum age” of gaming. That’s what happened with TV. TV got so good that if you were smart, you couldn’t NOT watch. Groundbreaking dramas such as The Wire and Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos and The Walking Dead and Mad Men. Wry and brilliant comedies like The Office and Parks and Rec and Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development and 30 Rock. TV got so good.
Maybe this phenomenon has already happened for video games and I missed it. I’m not sure. I am sure I exaggerated the influence and reach of platinum TV. Not EVERYBODY has watched these shows– I’m always astounded when I make a Breaking Bad reference and the person I’m talking to looks at me like “huh?” and then I tell them they’ve got to watch it– but they won’t. If they haven’t already seen it. Plenty of people ignored all these great shows and continued to watch shitty reality TV. Maybe the world is becoming more and more fragmented and the quality TV watchers and the gamers . . . never the twain shall meet. I have no fucking clue.
The second way I’d jump back into gaming is if some company makes a fairly inexpensive, high-quality, and lightweight VR headset, and then playing these VR games becomes an excellent, exciting, and optimal way to exercise. I think we’re getting closer to this– and maybe just in time. I fell hard playing basketball this weekend, I’m getting too old for this shit. I don’t want to wear one of those clunky Oculus rigs– I want something more like a pair of glasses. I suppose I would go to some warehouse to do this but I’d be happier if I could kickbox my way through some zombie-filled fortress in my living room.
I need permission to get back into gaming. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, and there’s a stigma. If some company can figure out how to give me– and all the other folks in my same boat– permission to start gaming again, I think they’ll make a fair bit of money. I’ve got disposable income. My kids will be through college soon. My wife and I will be empty nesters. She’ll probably sign up to do a lot of worthwhile civic and community activities, to help our town, to help those less fortunate than her. She’ll also do a bunch of gardening. I won’t be as altruistic. I’ll play pick-up basketball and tennis and soccer as long as I can and then switch exclusively to pickleball. But I’ll also have time to play video games if it seems like that’s a thing to do. If a majority of people my age are doing it and discussing it. That’s what happened with TV. I’m totally willing to jump on the bandwagon if it’s worth it.
Adrienne So wrote an article for Wired about Zevin’s novel. Perhaps because she’s a lot younger than me– a different generation– I don’t really agree with her take on adults and recreation and video gaming:
“As a semiprofessional hobbyist in the Gadget Lab, I speak from personal experience when I say that people can be really dismissive of recreation as you hit middle age. After 25, you start to seem a little weird or unserious if you’re still really into, say, roller-skating, Dungeons & Dragons, or seeing Phish live.
Real grownups have more pressing demands on their time. Maybe you should be reaching the C-level in your profession, or own a home and care deeply about your landscaping. There’s an unspoken implication that by the time you reach a certain age, the main thing you do for fun should be to sit around a table, drink alcohol, and compare mortgage rates with your friends, not practice killing robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow.”Adrienne So
Maybe because I’m a Gen Xer, things have seemed different to me. My friends all took our recreation VERY seriously– so much so that it often overtook our actual work. In our twenties, there was nothing more important than snowboarding and playing guitar. I’ve always found sports and games and hobbies far more important than adult life– so much so that I’ve designed my life that way and raised my kids that way. I’m a teacher and a soccer and tennis coach because I love having time for myself– such as in the summer– and I love taking recreation seriously. I’ve always been able to carve time out of my life for games and hobbies. That’s why I’m not rich. I’ve certainly quaffed some beers while comparing mortgage rates– I AM an adult– but I’ve done that far less than I’ve quaffed some beers and played cornhole, spike ball, MarioKart, darts, Bananagrams, or music. It’s honestly pretty damned rare that anyone I want to hang out with talks about mortgage rates. I have friends who play D&D, I still roller-blade, and plenty of my friends still perform live music (and go see live music) so I’m not sure who Adrienne So is hanging out with. Old souls in young bodies?
But despite all this time dedicated to recreation, I haven’t been compelled to play video games.
In the end, Zevin’s novel is not exactly about video game design. It’s about collaboration. It’s about working with another person– really hearing that person, synthesizing what they say, and advancing forward with those thoughts in mind. Truly dealing with the flesh and blood and motivations of another human.
There is some profound loss in the book– again, no spoilers, you should read it– but Sadie proposes an interesting theory about what happens when you lose a person close to you. The person’s avatar, which exists in your brain, slowly starts to degrade, to fade away. You have no more interactions with the person and so the avatar becomes more cartoonish. We mainly view people like this, through the lens of our own brain. The less interactions we have with the person, the more primitive our memory of them becomes– the more primitive the avatar of them becomes.
My wife was mad the other morning because she had a dream where I betrayed her. The dream contained the usual silliness– a strange cast of characters that would never be in the same room together, but yet we were all on vacation? A couple of the women I work with accused her of “tearing the pajamas” and I agreed with them. She couldn’t believe my cold-blooded betrayal.
I flipped this around on her. I said that I didn’t betray her, her avatar of me in her head betrayed her– so I should be mad at her because her version of me wasn’t loyal– when the actual version of me has always been loyal. She was at fault.
When you actually collaborate with someone on something artistic, you’re not just dealing with their avatar. You’re dealing with them– the whole package– and adjusting things on the fly, being flexible, compromising, the whole deal. Do you like this? Does this work?
There’s a real sweet spot to this process. It’s hard to collaborate with a total stranger because you don’t know them well enough. You’re learning about their aesthetics and taste and philosophy and values. It’s hard to collaborate with someone you know TOO well because you’re too comfortable with them. It’s hard to be critical (or if you are critical, it might be taken as offensive because this is your good friend criticizing you). Sam and Sadie do their best work in the sweet spot– once they know each other but before they have too much history.
This is why the Rolling Stones were a pretty good band, then the greatest rock band in the world, and now the greatest Rolling Stones cover band in the world. They’re so familiar with one another that they can’t make anything good. The legend of The Beatles exists because they broke up before they became too familiar with one another. And Weezer just keeps on trying and they keep on pumping out the same crap.
As a reader, I was hoping Sam and Sadie would get together romantically– and while I won’t spoil this, I will say that there’s a gaming component to their possible courtship. You’ll have to read the book to understand– but Zevin addresses that ultimate digital question: do relationships that form in the metaverse hold up in meat space?
At one point, when Sam asks Sadie why they never got together, Sadie answers:
I’ve been very lucky in my life as far as collaboration goes. In high school, I learned to play the guitar but I wasn’t as good as my friends. I couldn’t collaborate with them. But then in college, I made friends with a guy named Whitney, who was also inexperienced at making music– but basically had the same desire to make some musical stuff that I did, and we formed a “band” we called Random Idiots. Anyone was welcome to jam with us. We made a lot of music together. Some of it was decent. Much of it was quite funny. Some of it was very crass.
We just finished a collaboration recently– unfortunately, our cooperative efforts are getting grimmer these days– we wrote yet another song with lyrics commemorating the passing of another good friend. Depressing, but at least we are still alive, kicking, and still collaborating.
I lucked out once again when my wife and I taught in Syria (from 2000-2003 . . . before the country collapsed into turmoil). My Damascus Community School colleague Matt and I were both decent guitarists, we both liked the same kind of catchy post-punk music, and we learned fifty cover songs together– the titles were written on a scrap of paper to remind us what we knew. We performed at various locales around Damascus. Blink 182, Weezer, NOFX, John Prine, etc. A serendipitous miracle.
I also have had wonderful collaborators at the school where I teach. My friends Stacey and Cunningham and I made over one hundred episodes of a totally collaborative podcast together called The Test. I always write our annual scary story with Stacey– I don’t like writing fiction very much but if Stacey hands me a scary outline, I love fleshing it out. Our College Writing team of teachers pumps out one great synthesis lesson after another. This is one of the reasons I’l probably continue to teach once I reach retirement age– it’s fun to create things with the people in my department.
All these collaborative efforts were minor miracles. Two or three people getting along for no other reason than to produce a work of art. Whether it’s a video game, a film, a song, a lesson plan, a podcast, or a short story does not matter.
We appropriate content from everywhere when we make art, but collaborating makes this process more visceral and immediate. Ideas are forged in the crucible of collaborative consciousness, and they are better for it.