Gaming and grieving with Shakespeare: Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel puts the ghostliness in gameplay

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle ZevinAs though paused on a classic arcade game title screen, the telescoping rainbow typeface on the cover of Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Knopf, July 2022) announces a novel largely about video games. And in all the obvious ways—plot points, references, even aesthetics—it is. Protagonists Sam and Sadie meet over a game of Super Mario Bros., spend their twenties coding around the clock for their scrappy start-up, and eventually become wildly successful game designers heading a company of their own. But as the title’s nod to Macbeth suggests, it’s also a book about Shakespeare, though in a slightly subtler register. And while the many recent reviews praising Zevin’s elegant fusion of video games and literature are certainly deserved, all this attention on gaming tends to overshadow the equally important way in which, as Hamlet astutely observes, “the play’s the thing.”

[Spoiler warning: This blog post does contain a significant spoiler about one of the characters.]

We meet eleven-year-old Sam just after the death of his mother, adjusting to life with his grandparents in Los Angeles after years living with just his mother in New York. Sadie and her sister Alice are likewise accustomed to life as a pair, but when Alice is diagnosed with cancer, their family morphs into a trio of parents and patient, with Sadie largely on the outside, wandering the wards as an ill-nourished afterthought. Each extracted from the duos that have hitherto defined them, Sam and Sadie forge a new partnership in the otherwise abandoned game room of the pediatric hospital. Surrounded by the dismal realities of chemotherapy, chronic pain, and the imminent and unpredictable specter of death, they find solace in the virtual worlds of video games, where death is never final, but merely an invitation to start over.

Years later, when the two reconnect in Boston (Sam is going to college at Harvard; Sadie at MIT), their relationship shifts from co-players to co-creators as they frenetically program their first game together. Their manic caffeine-and-coding energy is tempered by the eventual third member of their trio, Sam’s roommate Marx, whose level head for logistics and management earns him the title of “producer”—first in jest, then for real, as their game Ichigo quickly spirals into an international phenomenon.

From the moment they meet, Sam and Sadie’s relationship is all gaming, all the time. But Marx is a theater kid. Less than a month after they start living together, Marx conscripts Sam into helping him rehearse for his first college role: Banquo, in Macbeth. It’s not the lead, Marx concedes, but “it has its moments. I have a name! I get to die! I have a ghost!” (369). Rehearsing his death again and again in the common room of their dorm—falling, staggering, whispering, yelling—Marx clearly understands his friends’ enthusiasm for stepping into alternate avatars that can live and die a thousand times, then return fresh the next night.

Yet for all the similarity of stage and screen, the novel subtly suggests that theatrical revenants are not quite the same as re-spawned videogame characters. In games, the goal is to stay alive, to amass life-prolonging health points, to stockpile extra lives. If you die, the consolation is a brand-new life, all damages undone.

This vision of instant, total healing is particularly compelling to Sam, whose real-life recovery has been far more complicated. After the car accident that kills his mother and crushes his foot, Sam lives with chronic pain and limited mobility for decades, until his body can no longer tolerate any more surgical stop-gaps, and the sore and seeping appendage is finally amputated.

Sam craves the renewal of his videogame hero: “He wanted to die a million deaths like Ichigo, and no matter what damage was inflicted on his body during the day, he’d wake up tomorrow, new and whole. He wanted Ichigo’s life, a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and the evidence of having lived” (148). Sam can move onscreen in ways he never will in life; he can start fresh with no residual baggage. “You’re getting so good at killing ghosts,” his mother compliments him as she watches him play Pac-man, not long before she, herself, will die. In another game, Sam shoots his way through legions of zombies. If only his phantom limb pain could be blasted away too.

Marx is less interested in extra lives than extra deaths. After pouring such energy into practicing his murder, Marx is hopeful that he’ll be featured beyond his character’s death onstage, continuing as Banquo’s ghost. Alas, the director casts an empty chair.

Still, Marx rationalizes, he can succeed in being ghostly, even if he’s not actually onstage as the ghost: “if I’ve done the work in the scenes before I die, if I’ve made a real impression, they’ll feel me in the scenes I’m not in anyway” (382). If video games are the place for killing ghosts, the theater is the place for raising them.

Marx’s love for Macbeth may seem like a passing detail in a novel rich with literary reference—Sadie’s very first game is inspired by Emily Dickinson; T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes a cameo towards the end—but Shakespeare is unique in the way it helps Sam and Sadie cope with Marx’s untimely, violent death (alas, not on stage, this time, but IRL). Though Sam is initially skeptical of Sadie’s plans for a new game inspired by mysteries and mayhem in the Elizabethan theater, he eventually comes to see how she has used the game to morph Marx’s ghost into an avatar of Macbeth, the title role he longed to play all those years ago. The Scottish King may appear as a non-playable character to the average gamer, but in Sadie’s careful rendering, post-mortem Marx is playing him nonetheless.

Marx’s virtual reprise helps us see how, while Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy, Sadie’s veers towards romance—in the Shakespearean sense of the term: a genre where exile initiates transformation, estranged families reunite, and the dead are never quite as dead as we thought. And in retrospect, the signs were there all along. Sadie’s first major programming struggle lies in crafting the cataclysmic storm which opens Ichigo, sweeping the child hero out to sea. Like Prospero, Sadie works her magic, slowly building the layers that will convince the viewer a real—if artful—tempest has transpired. Much like the plot of a romance, only at the very end, when Ichigo is all grown up, does he find his way back to his family. (And, again as in a romance, they don’t recognize him at first, but discover his identity through a signature symbol like a birthmark, or a mole—or here, a totemic jersey). Though Sam and Sadie have alternate origin stories for the name of their company, Unfair Games, Marx believes he has named it after a favorite line from The Tempest (a twist on Miranda’s “Yes, for a score of kingdoms, you should wrangle, and I would call it fair play” [5.1.203-4]). Overlaying the rage-filled revenge tragedy of Macbeth with elements of The Tempest’s wish-fulfilling world underscores how, while games may reflect—even predict—the violence of the real world, they also enable essential modes of replay, resurrection, and redemption.

The world is full of present-day adaptations (and the newly trendy “non-adaptations”) that bring Shakespeare into the 21st century as a way to help us re-envision contemporary woes. But Zevin’s novel also manages to accomplish the rarer reverse: to show us a genuinely fresh take on Shakespeare by inviting us to look back at the 17th century through 21st century eyes. In Shakespeare’s final act, Macbeth delivers his “tomorrow” speech as the culmination of his despair, confronting the utter inconsequentiality of endlessly repeating routine. For Sam and Sadie, on the other hand, this immateriality and iterability is liberating. As Sadie re-uses the “tomorrow” speech to anchor a fresh new act for herself, and to give Marx a second life onscreen, she helps us see how ghosts may linger from the past, but may just as well embody and vitalize the virtual spaces of the future.