Super Mario Brothers Karamazov: literature begins to take gaming seriously | Books
Early on in Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, one of the trio of lead characters gives a fictional interview to a very real video games publication. The troubled but passionate Samson Mazur tells the interviewer, “There is no more intimate act than play, even sex.” This is an explosive statement, but a perfect one in the context of a novel that treasures the act of play and holds it sacred. In some ways, this is a thesis statement for Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow itself: the novel opening its heart, and showing you what it is truly about.
Video games are seldom treated in literature as a site of emotion, but in Zevin’s work they are the very landscape that the full spectrum of relationships, grief, and love play out in. The world of video games is a surprisingly uncommon location for the modern commercial or literary novel, despite the fact that they have long since evolved from children’s toy or tech curio into a form of entertainment that is so mainstream as to be ordinary.
In Stephen Sexton’s award-winning poetry collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, the structure is a direct reflection of the narrative and physical journey through the Super Nintendo System classic, Super Mario World. Each piece in the work is named after, and directly in conversation with, a level in the game. The emotional core of the work is that it is an elegy for his mother: as we read the poems, we are at once situated in the strange, pixelated world of the game, on Yoshi’s Island, in Donut Plains: but crucially, we are also in Sexton’s childhood, in front of his television, in the landscape of his youth. The discussion of video game terms such as “infinite lives” becomes richer and deeper when we take that language and place it back into our own navigation of loss. This requires readers to allow a technical video game term to become poetic, to transfer meaning and to develop depth.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow also engages with this dissonance: in video games, death is simply part of play. When you die, you start again. As metaphors go, this very standard video game mechanism becomes deeply confronting.
Video games are much younger than books, and we are only at the beginning of what they might becomeWhen asked about what she thought of where video games and literature are in relation to each other as mediums, Zevin said, “video games are an incredibly young form – obviously, much younger than books, and we are only at the beginning of what they might become”.
She’s right: the relative newness of video games in comparison to the novel is what truly separates them, making their intersections all the more special, and rare. The earliest video games emerged in the 1950s, long before the black and white home consoles that brought Pong into living rooms in the 1970s. From that single compelling screen all the way up to the psychedelic, shallow touch of Candy Crush, or the rolling and emotive landscapes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or the delicate artistry and literary merit of Disco Elysium, video games have come an extraordiary distance both technologically and artistically in the 50 years since Pong. In contrast, the first Greek and Latin texts that could be considered prose novels come from the first century. Fifty years is a dot, a pixel, in comparison with the history of the book.
Arguably video games have far more in common with cinema, when it comes to their growth as an art form: around 50 years after the birth of the moving image in 1895, in 1941, audiences were met with Citizen Kane. As far back as 2017, the Hollywood Reporter noted that the video games industry was earning nearly three times as much as the film industry.
We now see video games intersecting with television and cinema more regularly, but still, literature and poetry are on the other side of a chasm. The writers who bridge this, such as Zevin and Sexton, are forging an important path. Ernest Cline’s popular but hugely divisive Ready Player One certainly did make inroads across this gap in 2011, but Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow takes a more humane and elegant path through video game culture than the quite literal and dated feel of Cline’s book. Tomorrow is a work about people who play games to survive, and who make games to live: it does not use the language of video games as set dressing. Rather, the world of video games and video game development is just the landscape in which life plays out. This work doesn’t punish you for not knowing who Solid Snake is, or never having played a farming simulator. Tomorrow is about love, above all things, and if you miss a reference, you won’t feel it.
Waterstones’ head of fiction, Bea Carvalho, notes Tomorrow’s approachability: “The history of gaming here is fascinating and the nostalgia is stunning: it will be an instant classic for any gaming fan, and will surely encourage many readers to dust off old consoles. But Zevin’s talent is such that prior fandom is by no means a prerequisite, as she uses the art form as a prism through which to understand the era’s political and technological landscape and to explore identity, grief, mental health, success and failure, among many other topics.”
By no means are Sexton, Zevin and Cline’s works the only books about video games, or the only works of art in which video games are central to the emotional arc. Alan Butler’s On Exactitude in Science, shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2017, presented Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi in a cinematic diptych with his own mirroring work: a frame-by-frame recreation of Reggio’s original shot inside the world of Grand Theft Auto 5. Further back still in 1979, long before Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch brought the interactive story to modern homes via Netflix, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s installation Lorna invited viewers to participate in an interactive narrative using a remote control, television and laser disc system to choose their way through a harrowing story about agoraphobia.
In nonfiction, Boss Fight Books have been publishing slim, considered volumes of personal essays and close studies of games since 2013, and are arguably en route to becoming a Rough Trade Books of the medium. Each Boss Fight Book focuses closely on a single video game, and the author’s perspective on it, as well as the history of the work, from Earthbound to Goldeneye, closely reading not only the game but often the life of the writer the game touched, too.
Video games have been flickering at the edges of other art forms for almost as long as they have existed, and watching them become the heart of novels such as Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is hopeful. Games are an intimate experience, as is the experience of reading literature and witnessing art – and this intimacy is what can connect them, and draw them closer together. Their pasts may be misaligned, but their tomorrow is full of promise.