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In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, two video game designers chase love IRL

(Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post illustration)

If you haven’t jumped over a barrel since “Donkey Kong,” you may be reluctant to read Gabrielle Zevin’s immersive new novel about video game designers. But don’t worry, you don’t have to wear a VR headset to experience “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.” It’s not a novelization of “Tron” or a homage to “Ready Player One.” You’re welcome on this journey whether the Oregon Trail makes you think of Francis Parkman’s memoir or your brother’s Commodore 64.

I feel confident making such a promise because “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” is actually a novel about friendship — particularly that rare, miraculous friend who may drift away for long stretches of time but always rises again with the vigor of Sonic the Hedgehog.

PRESS PLAY: The story begins at the end of the 20th century as Americans fret about Y2K and squint expectantly at MagicEye posters. Two college students — Sam Mazer (Harvard) and Sadie Green (MIT) — bump into each other in Cambridge. They haven’t seen each other since they were kids in the hospital. Back in that previous life, Sam was recovering from a grievous car accident that crushed his foot, and Sadie was visiting her sister being treated for cancer. With loads of time on their hands, the two preteens bonded over Super Mario Bros., but then they fell out over a painful misunderstanding. (Even Sadie’s computer-program apology written in 15 lines of BASIC code wasn’t enough to gain Sam’s forgiveness.)

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Over the intervening years, Sadie’s interest in gaming has grown more intense, and by the time she gets to MIT, she’s one of the few women in the field — a position that becomes an increasingly interesting theme in “Tomorrow.” Before long, Sadie attracts the attention of a lecherous professor who’s like “the American boy wonders who’d programmed and designed Commander Keen and Doom.” He admires Sadie’s prototype for an extremely problematic game called “Solution” about a Nazi widget factory. Her program is designed so that the more knowledge players gain, the fewer widgets they can produce, while the more they turn a blind eye, the more successful they become. “Everyone loses,” Sadie explains. “The game’s about being complicit.”

Such moral complexity is a hallmark of “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” which takes its title from Shakespeare, not Nintendo. But even while alluding to that anguished soliloquy about the brevity and meaninglessness of life, Zevin has her hand on the joystick. In a moment, she flips Macbeth’s lament into a countervailing celebration of the endless possibilities of rebirth and renewal, the chance to play again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. “What, after all,” Zevin asks, “is a video game’s subtextual preoccupation if not the erasure of mortality?”

The novel’s first demonstration of that possibility is Sadie’s chance to revive her ruined friendship with Sam now that they’re both college students. Over a copy of Richard Powers’s novel “Galatea 2.2,” the two estranged teens finally make up. “Promise me you’ll always forgive me, and I promise I’ll always forgive you,” Sadie says. And with an aura of prophecy, Sam says, “I see a future where we make fantastic games together.”

The tone here is decidedly romantic. “The way he saw it, he would be proposing to Sadie,” Zevin writes. “He would be getting down on one knee and saying, ‘Will you work with me?’” But this is not really a workplace romance; it’s a novel about the romance of work. Although Sam and Sadie love each other, they are never simultaneously in love with each other. And that’s clearly the point: Zevin is interested in portraying a creative partnership as intense as a marriage and as fraught as a marriage, but restricted to the conference room instead of a bedroom. And after all, what’s more extraordinary IRL? “Lovers are common,” Sadie realizes. “But true collaborators in this life are rare.”

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In the story that develops, Sam and Sadie become legendary founders of a company called Unfair Games, and questions about the fairness or unfairness of who gets the credit, who bears the responsibility and who makes the final decisions continue to churn off-screen as their many fans keep clamoring for more, more, more. Sam and Sadie’s history and their long working relationship provide Zevin with lots of room to explore the knotty issues that arise. “For Sam, greatness meant popular. For Sadie, art.” But add to that other differences, such as Sam’s status as an Asian American, the effects of his physical disability or a hundred other permutations, and you’ve got an endlessly fascinating MMORPG.

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Zevin provides alluring descriptions of the products that Unfair Games creates, and she includes just enough technical detail to make us feel as if we may understand what a graphics engine does, but she rarely exploits the gaming structure much in this conventionally told novel. That stylistic and formal restraint makes a pair of pivotal chapters stand out even more dramatically. Fairly late in the book, for instance, there’s a live-action scene written in the second person, present tense that’s a tour de force. Echoing the structure of a shooter game, this chapter is also improbably among the novel’s most affecting sections, a moving demonstration of the blended power of fiction and gaming.

In her acknowledgments, Zevin describes herself as “a lifelong gamer.” That level of experience could very well have produced a story of hermetically sealed nostalgia impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t still own a copy of “Space Invaders.” But instead, she’s written a novel that draws any curious reader into the pioneering days of a vast entertainment industry too often scorned by bookworms. And with the depth and sensitivity of a fine fiction writer, she argues for the abiding appeal of the flickering screen. “No matter how bad the world gets, there will always be players,” Zevin writes. “Maybe it was the willingness to play that kept one from despair.”

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

By Gabrielle Zevin

Knopf. 416 pp. $28

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