Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

One of my favourite video games is Elsinore (2019). It is the game of Hamlet as experienced by Ophelia. Except Ophelia is mixed race. And she is killed. And every time she is killed, she wakes up at the start of the story with another chance to play her last days over again until she does it right and she lives and no one else that she loves dies.

Elsinore resolves one of the largest problems that is inherent in almost every player-driven narrative video game, which is this: on the first play through of a game, a player cannot understand the ramifications of the choices they have just made.

But, that’s like life, I suppose.

We start our life’s journey with only one heart. Then you have dysentery and you die. There are no quarters that allow you to play again if you are violently pushed off course by a hurtling object. You do not want to be an NPC in someone else’s first person shooter experience.

I keep reading reviewers and hearing readers describe Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow as a book about video games. But it’s not.

And this is how I know. In the notes section at the end of book, the author Gabrielle Zevin tells us this herself. She states, “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a novel about work”.

The book’s official blurb expands on this statement. It describes the novel as one in which “two friends–often in love, but never lovers–come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality”.

And on that note, I should warn you dear reader that, like Macbeth, there is tragedy in this book. There is violence and there is trauma and there is grief. Work is offered as a salve to these pains.

Also. two of the main characters of this novel are mixed race. So is the author of the novel and the author of the text you are currently reading.

Now, far be it for me to tell the author what her book is about. But I can describe to you the book that I just finished reading. And to me, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is not about video games or work. It is about stories.

The best review that I’ve read of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is How to Design a Beautiful, Cruel Universe by Tom Bissel in The New York Times, but I don’t recommend you read it until after you’ve read the novel because he names some of the painful events in the book that I have only vaguely gestured to here.

Bissel took notice of the same thing that I did. He saw the work that Sadie and Sam engage in, as depicted in this novel, as not a realistic or recognizable form of the creation of video games.

There’s very little depiction of how central play-testing and quality assurance are to game design, or of nuking core design conceits because of cost overruns or talent underruns. For the most part, Sam and Sadie’s games tend to work out the way they imagine they will, yet one of the most critically acclaimed titles I ever worked on, “What Remains of Edith Finch,” a game about a cursed family whose members all perish in freak accidents, began its life as a scuba simulator, of all things.

What Sadie and Sam do in the novel – through the guise of video game design – is create stories with and for each other. Unable to replay their past, as both the main characters grow older they re-interpret their shared history to play out their future with each other. Unwilling (or unable) to allow Sadie to leave his life, Sam uses the work of game design to try to keep her creating shared stories with him.

A relationship is just another form of world-building.

As film-maker Céline Sciamma has put it,

“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” It’s a knock-out line. “A relationship is about inventing your own language,” says Sciamma. “You’ve got the jokes, you’ve got the songs, you have this anecdote that’s going to make you laugh three years later. It’s this language that you build. That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.”

But Sam and Sadie are not lovers. They are creative partners at work. And in the Note that ends the novel, Zevin tells us that the book is equally about love as it is about work. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow explores how those engaged in creative work can occupy a space between friends and lovers. In the telling of this tale, video games become a stage where these characters perform their private lives for both a public and for each other.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, spoken by Macbeth

From McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory

The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.

Theodor Adorno

At the base of contemporary cynicism is fact that men and women learn by experiencing rules rather than ‘facts’

Paolo Virno [[014]]

Ever get the feeling you are playing some vast and useless game to which you don’t know the goal, and can’t remember the rules? Ever get the fierce desire to quit, to resign, to forfeit, only to discover there’s no umpire, no referee, no regulator, to whom to announce your capitulation? Ever get the vague dread that while you have no choice but to play the game, you can’t win it, can’t even know the score, or who keeps it? Ever suspect that you don’t even know who your real opponent might be? Ever get mad over the obvious fact that the dice are loaded, the deck stacked, the table rigged, and the fix — in? Welcome to gamespace. It’s everywhere, this atopian arena, this speculation sport. No pain no gain. No guts no glory. Give it your best shot. There’s no second place. Winner take all. Here’s a heads up: In gamespace, even if you know the deal, are a player, have got game, you will notice, all the same, that the game has got you. Welcome to the thunderdome. Welcome to the terrordome. Welcome to the greatest game of all. Welcome to the playoffs, the big league, the masters, the only game in town. You are a gamer whether you like it or not, now that we all live in a gamespace that is everywhere and nowhere. As Microsoft says: Where do you want to go today? You can go anywhere you want in gamespace but never leave it.

001 – Mackenzie Wark

“Play” was once a great slogan of liberation. Richard Neville: “The new beautiful freaks will teach us all how to play again (and they’ll suffer society’s penalty).” Play was once the battering ram to break down the Chinese walls of alienated work, of divided labor. Only look at what has become of play. Play is no longer a counter to work. Play becomes work; work becomes play. Play outside of work found itself captured by the rise of the digital game, which responds to the boredome of the player with endless rounds of repetition, level after level of difference as more of the same. Play no longer functions as a foil to critical theory. The utopian dream of liberating play from the game, of a pure play beyond the game, merely opened the way for the extension of gamespace into every aspect of everyday life. While the counter-culture wanted worlds of play outside the game, the military entertainment complex countered in turn by expanding the game to the whole world, containing play forever within it.

016 – Mackenzie Wark

All games are digital. Without exception. They all come down to a strict decision: out or in, offside or onside, goal or no goal. Anything else is just ‘play’. Game studies scholar Jesper Juul: “The affinity between computers and games is one of the ironies of human history.” But not at all surprising. From the start, games were a proto-computer — machines assembled out of human motion, inanimate materials and the occasional dubious call by the referee — to make a decision, a yes or a no. Sisyphus — founder of the Ismithian games — is condemned to a useless labor which is at the same time useless play, in that it cannot bring about a decision. The rock he rolls never crosses a line. It rolls right past the notional top of the mountain, and overshoots the bottom of its own momentum. But in Katamari Damacy, things are different. Rather than the rolling of the ball being entirely useless, now it is entirely purposeful. Time, like space, no longer harbors indifference. Brenda Laurel:”…even the smallest fragments of your idle time have been colonized…”.

079 – Mackenzie Wark

Minds on fire: how role-immersion games transform college

Lest academic readers slam this book (or iPad) down in fury, I hasten to acknowledge that the case against bad play is formidably strong. I agree with much of it. In fact, Chapter 2 (“Subversive Play: The Bane of Higher Education”) contents that for the past two centuries higher learning has suffered precisely because American students have been fully immersed in bad play — the boozy debates and theatricals of the early literary societies, the hazings and initiations of fraternities, the football craze, beer pong and binge drinking, and a host of competitive, role-playing online worlds, among other obsessions. But this book also contends (Chapter 3: “Creating An Academic Subversive Play World”) that the motivational power of bad play — of “subversive play”, as I have termed it — can energize students and help them flourish — in college and in life …

… The rationalist merits of higher education are well known, intoned by college presidents and commencement speakers, reiterated in institutional mission statements, and endorsed by most professors — including me. There’s no need to restate them here. This book instead advances what might be called the anti-rationalist perspective. The central argument is not that higher education is all wrong, but that it’s only half-right. Our predominant pedagogical system — rational, hierarchical, individualistic, and well-ordered — often ignores aspects of the self relating to emotion, mischievous subversion, social engagement, and creative disorder.

— “Debate at Dawn”, “Minds on fire: how role-immersion games transform college“, Mark C. Carnes

The Bricoleur and The Engineer

The Savage Mind: bricoleur and engineer

Lévi-Strauss developed the comparison of the Bricoleur and Engineer in The Savage Mind. “Bricoleur” has its origin in the old French verb bricoler, which originally referred to extraneous movements in ball games, billiards, hunting, shooting and riding, but which today means do-it-yourself building or repairing things with the tools and materials on hand, puttering or tinkering as it were. In comparison to the true craftsman, whom Lévi-Strauss calls the Engineer, the Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting preexisting things together in new ways, adapting his project to a finite stock of materials and tools. The Engineer deals with projects in their entirety, conceiving and procuring all the necessary materials and tools to suit his project. The Bricoleur approximates “the savage mind” and the Engineer approximates the scientific mind. Lévi-Strauss says that the universe of the Bricoleur is closed, and he often is forced to make do with whatever is at hand, whereas the universe of the Engineer is open in that he is able to create new tools and materials. But both live within a restrictive reality, and so the Engineer is forced to consider the preexisting set of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, in a similar way to the Bricoleur.

The Game Layer

But even when games find their way into a traditional school setting, they’re hardly an automatic solution. When the stakes are too high, the games becomes a crushing competition that’s fun for spectators but a chore for most students. Think of your typical spelling bee, with its public humiliation and permadeath “one-mistake-you’re-out” rule. When the stakes are too low — well, actually the stake can’t get too low, and perhaps this is the point.

Schools have long relied on games — they call them sports, clubs and band competitions — to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these are often all that keep kids there long enough to graduate. But schools have rarely used academic competition to reach more than a few top students even through research suggests that kids who aren’t at the top would benefit the most from it. As far back as 1959, sociologist James Coleman was urging schools to use competition as a way to change students’ attitudes about academics. At the time, he was head of the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Social Relations (later renamed the Department of Sociology). He’d just spent two years studying nine Midwestern high schools and found that more than 40 percent of boys wanted to remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student.” This despite the fact, Coleman observed, that school is “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”

In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs Coleman discovered one key similarity: kids were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. “Adults often forget how ‘person-oriented’ children are,” he wrote. “They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live.” The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he said, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teen’s attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” They were protecting themselves from extra work by ostracizing high achievers.

It was, Coleman suggested, a rational response to a system whose rewards sat on a bell curve. Schools had created a kind of free market in which every student was competing against every other student for relative rank. Grades, he found, were almost completely relative — when one student achieved more, it “not only raises his position, but in effect lowers the position of others. The result, even in the best suburban schools, was intense social pressure to minimize, not maximize studying.

But these same students didn’t think twice about honoring athletes. Coleman theorized that because most athletic events pit school against school, star athletes’ achievements bring prestige to the entire school, which benefits everyone. A student spending her lunch hour studying “is regarded as someone a little odd, or different,” he wrote. But the basketball player who shoots baskets at lunch “is watched with interest and admiration, not with derision.” So Coleman proposed that schools replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education.

Greg. Toppo. 2015. The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Trade.


The Comedy of Survival

Perhaps the major difference between pastoral and picaresque lies in the application each makes of human intelligence. The pastoral intellect uses the rational capacity of the mind to criticize the inadequacies of present experience and its imaginative talents to create alternatives to the present. It is characterized by abstract ideas — truth, justice, goodness, love — intended to lead toward a fulfillment of human potential at some future time. The picaresque intellect instead concentrates upon the study of immediate reality, and its imagination upon the creation of strategies for survival. Picaresque liberty is not escape from misfortune, but confidence in one’s ability to persist in spite of it.

Modern cities, like ancient Rome, are messy, expensive, chaotic, and dangerous. Those who flee them in search of rural peace and quiet are following a pastoral way that Western culture has endorsed since Virgil. The pastoral tradition also makes it plain that this quest is likely to fail, for the seeker of peach and simplicity is likely to carry inner conflict and anger, and these will govern his or her life more than the rural environment will. Escape into fantasies is not a workable solution to urban and existential ills.

What the picaresque tradition in dignity and respectability, it makes up for in clear-eyed practicality. In the picaresque eye, cities and wild places are all full of both danger and opportunity, and wherever one finds oneself is the place where life must be lived as well as possible. Picaresque life is infinite play, with no hope of winning much, but endless enthusiasm for keeping the play alive.

Joseph W. Meeker, “The Pastoral and the Picaresque”, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.


Play Anything (non-pumpkin spiced edition)

The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That boundary results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make games fun.

What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris – as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.

Ian Bogost, Preface: Life is not a game, Play Anything

Emily Short’s review of Aviary Attorney (Sketchy Logic)

The moral choices we make in the game project backward as well as forward. Aviary Attorney is an inconsistent-reality game. Jayjay Falcon’s background is a mystery in every playthrough, but the truth ultimately revealed changes depending on what you decide to have him do. I know some players find that kind of thing extremely irritating, wanting all branches of a game to work together to reveal the same backstory from different angles. I did not find it bothersome myself, especially because Jayjay’s projected backstory is dependent on a choice he makes at a critical moment: essentially the player is deciding what kind of person he is, and thus perhaps what kind of person he used to be.

Aviary Attorney (Sketchy Logic)