As a rookie game designer in the 1990s, fictional college student Sadie Green, co-protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (2022), creates a funny send-off of the 8-bit educational tools of the so-called Oregon Trail Generation. In the book, the game is called EmilyBlaster and enjoins players to recreate the austere, rhyming prose of Emily Dickinson by shooting moving words from a fixed point, Missile Command-style.
Zevin’s novel is about the not-quite-love romance of two “often in love, but never in love” friends who come together to design video games, and in support of the book’s release, Knopf designed and launched a working version of EmilyBlaster that real users can play from the comfort of their real computers.
“I liked the slight subversity of creating a game where the object was to spin poetry, and I thought Emily Dickinson’s compact verse style and memorable lines would make perfect targets,” Zevin said. literary center. Each level offers a verse as a prompt and lets the player attempt to reconstruct it in the playing field from memory. Dickinson’s poem “That Love Is All There Is”, for example, is presented on the first level of EmilyBlasterand it also provides the novel’s epigraph.
Successfully stringing together the short bits of prose requires short-term memory and hand-eye coordination — and even with adequate amounts of both, the game is challenging. The words blow unpredictably like autumn leaves, with the occasional intruder playing no part in the original text, and it’s nearly impossible to get the full stanza intact. However, the errors produced are satisfying on their own, converting Dickinson’s tidy verse into Gertrude Stein-esque word loops and haphazard thoughts about worms and trucks.
“When I first played the game, it was somewhat mind-blowing,” Zevin said. “It was very close to what I had described in the book, and it brought me back to the fun of early computer games.”
In all, EmilyBlaster sits at the warm center of a Venn diagram straddling ’90s nostalgia, literary luster and genius marketing tactics. Practice makes perfect, but even failure allows one to linger, as its namesake did, in possibility.