Riskgaming

“It subverts the structure even of other stories that are told about creation”

Description

In a quantified world, the act of creation remains mysterious. Where do ideas come from? How does an artist translate a concept or a feeling into the final work that we get to read or view? The interior drama of that mystery becomes ever more visible as the singular artist expands into a collaboration. How do relationships change the trajectory and originality of creativity?

Few novels have better distilled the essence of these questions than Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which chronicles the multi-decade collaboration between two video game designers as they mature from grade school into the limelight of a cutthroat industry on the cusp of popular success. Inventive, heartfelt, and sophisticated, the novel was a breakout hit and was selected as Amazon’s book of the year for 2022.

This week on “Securities”, host Danny Crichton joins up with novelist Eliot Peperand Lux’s own scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman to talk about the messages that the novel offers our own creative lives. We talk about the building of virtual worlds, the hero’s journey of creation, the uniqueness versus repetitiveness of producing art, whether video games are entering the literary zeitgeist, why the book garnered such popular success and finally, narratives of individuals versus groups.

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
Yeah. Well, I will say, last week I had to re-record the intro, and the second I hit the record button, they start drilling in the apartment above me. No joke, full-on, full-scale. I was like, "Can you give me 10 minutes? This is Brooklyn, everyone's recording a podcast."

Hello and welcome to Securities, a podcast and newsletter devoted to science, technology, finance, and the human condition. I'm your host, Danny Crichton. Today, we have two special guests, our own scientist and resident at Lux Capital, Sam Arbesman. Sam, welcome to the show.

Sam Arbesman:
Thank you so much.

Danny Crichton:
And author and writer, Eliot Peper, whose novels include Reap3r, Veil, the Analog Series, the Stock, was it? Cap table series, the original...

Eliot Peper:
Oh, Uncommon Stock.

Danny Crichton:
... trilogy.

Eliot Peper:
Oh, deep cut.

Danny Crichton:
Common Stock Trilogy.

Eliot Peper:
Yeah, the originals.

Danny Crichton:
Deep cut, deep cut. Eliot, welcome to the show.

Eliot Peper:
Thanks for having me. Fun to be here.

Danny Crichton:
So all three of us happen to have read the same novel, tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which is a story about basically two video game designers who met in, I believe middle school, high school, continue their relationship at Harvard, MIT through college, and then start a game studio. So we're seeing this sort of creative collaboration over two decades. And I found it to be a really, really special book because we don't often see creative collaborations kind of get fictionalized with all the kind of drama and interpersonal dynamics that actually come out in building work. I was curious your first impressions of reading this sort of science fiction novel.

Eliot Peper:
For me, one of the things that I love most about this book is how compelling it is, and I wasn't expecting that to be the case. When I read it, every chapter I wanted to immediately start the next one. And that kind of page-turner, back cover blurb that you'd normally see in a book is usually reserved for airport thrillers or mysteries or that kind of thing where they're using really tight plotting to create that sense of you, the reader wanting to know what happens next. In this novel, there aren't assassinations or mystery boxes or the explicit external plot elements that you would normally associate with a page-turner, but every single section makes you want to find out what happens next.

And the reason why I thought that was particularly interesting with a novel about game designers is that so much of making a great game is thinking about stakes, thinking about what are the chips on the table when you're playing poker? What does the player care about? What do they want? What is the ring you're seeking at the end of your quest or what have you, and how do you really make that feel real, make that feel compelling, and invite the player in? And I thought that Gabrielle really does that so effectively for readers.

And so it made me start to think about the parallels between novels as a form and games as a form, especially because when you write a novel about making games, in some ways you're also writing a novel about writing a novel. It's very self-reflective. And so that was one thing that immediately stuck out to me. I couldn't figure out why I wanted to keep reading so badly. And that was just fascinating and made me want to keep me reading more.

Sam Arbesman:
Yeah. And I really enjoyed it. And I have to admit, the reason I was pointed to it was actually Eliot, his recommendation. And it totally lived up to the recommendation. So that was amazing.

Yeah, for me, I mean, I guess there's kind of the craft of the book itself, but for me also a lot of the different themes just I found really interesting. Obviously, there's the theme of collaboration, but there's also a theme of creation, which in this case is building virtual worlds. I love this idea of how do we build rich, well-developed worlds with their own rules and everything like that. And that's essentially what games are. And they showed this very messy, human real process of building virtual worlds. And I just found that fascinating.

And there was also a lot there in terms of how people think about meaning and purpose. And because, obviously, the two main characters, they are just bound up in this, the creative act is so much of what they're obsessed with. But his viewpoint is much more around there doesn't need to be these titanic cosmic acts of creation. You can just have a much more humble meaning of helping catalyze or assist other people's acts of creation. And I found that really powerful as well.

So yeah. I think yeah, there's so much there about meaning, purpose, creation, collaboration. Yeah, it was great and just kept me reading as well.

Danny Crichton:
You saw this kind of intelligent range between the work that is really great, that is for the artists, that's for the other game designers, you're trying to impress people, you're pushing the craft forward, but then it's a commercial flop that no one really enjoyed and it doesn't really work. So you did this amazing art, but no one appreciates it.

And then in reverse, we saw examples where you have this mass commercial success, but as an artist you're sort of left unfulfilled because you didn't sort of get what you wanted out of it. And I thought that was a very good depiction because I think so often in a lot of fictionalized media around the creative process, it's this plot of reaching to the zenith and you're getting to the point where you have this big success after years of being ignored. And the reality is most careers kind of go up and down. You have a good piece, you miss one, it's too technical or something, gets out of whack, but it goes back up again. And so there's this connection of you just never know if this next one. You obviously you're always excited about the next thing, but it doesn't always hit as well as you would hope.

Eliot Peper:
Taking that a step further, one thing I loved about the structure of this novel is that it sort of subverts what the structure is, even of other stories that are told about creation. If you were telling the story of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, even the way I just framed it, I just framed the whole narrative. It would be like you'd start with the person who had the idea and was planning it out or whatever, and then follow how it got built, and then the finale would probably be the first person crossing the bridge or something like that.

And so the narrative structure is about the thing that was made. That defines the arc. And one of the beautiful things about this novel is that it goes really deep on the creative act. These two designers, they make multiple games over the course of this story. And so you get to see that making things is an infinite game. You don't just make something and you're done. You make something in service of the next thing you make together or the next thing you make separately or what have you. And being able to see the arc of these characters lives over the course of making and putting out games in different ways and making different mistakes with each one, I think is really powerful and unusual in stories about creativity.

Danny Crichton:
Both of you, we're all creators here, but in my world, I tend to be on this journalism, quick news. I'm on a repetitive cycle like a rat in prison in which every week comes another deadline and has to get done. Both of you actually get to enjoy longer-term projects. Sam, you're working on a new book. Eliot, you're revising a new novel. So you've worked on these sort of multi-year projects to get a creative work out into the world.

I'm curious, how did you emotionally connect with that? Because that was something, this idea of planning and then having all this drama, yeah you got drama for maybe 30 minutes in the newsroom and then a decision gets made, something gets published and it's out, and you move on to the next thing. How did you feel? Did it connect with you in that way? Was it authentic to your own experience?

Sam Arbesman:
I can't speak to the collaborative stuff as much. I mean, a lot of, I mean, well, I guess I'm certainly working with editors and other people like that. So there is a lot of collaborative, but it's not necessarily a co-authored book in quite the same way. I'm writing these books kind of on my own. That was a little bit different and I found that really powerful and insightful.

But certainly this idea of being on this long, multi-year quest essentially where you don't know what the outcome is going to be, is there going to be this wild mismatch between the original vision in your head and the thing that actually ends up in the world? There's a lot of that. That really resonated.

I think also this kind of the ups and downs of there's the process of making it independent of the actual thing. There's the process when you're working on it. And then as Eliot was saying, kind of this infinite game of you make something in order to continue making things. Once the thing that you're making is done, you're often already thinking about the next thing. But then you're kind of required to step backward and say, "Okay, now I have to actually publicize and promote the previous thing even though my headspace is entirely different. I'm now thinking about something completely different."

Danny Crichton:
Even going further on that, I mean because of the two game designers are going to collaborate together, but they don't receive equal credit, both for gender dynamic. One of them is male, one is female. And the male, particularly in the era, the first part of the book is in the 1990s, the media attention goes to him. So there's this tension around who should get credit. Do you go on tour both together? Do you go separately? Because obviously having it separate is a lot more efficient, but then the credit can be very divergent between the two people. And I thought that dynamic was particularly interesting because you're not just in a different headspace, there's also this but it's my work. And do people actually recognize that what I just made, particularly in a team collaboration, is actually mine and it is my idea?

Eliot Peper:
Yeah, I think that's very true. I mean, I've always found that I wish I could learn how to write a novel. But I'm now revising my...

Danny Crichton:
I think you've written what, nine? You're on nine or 10 I think at this point.

Eliot Peper:
11. Yeah.

Danny Crichton:
11.

Sam Arbesman:
Oh, wow.

Eliot Peper:
So yeah, I'm currently revising my 11th novel and I still don't know how to write a novel. It drives me crazy. Every novel I write, I have to figure out how to write that novel and...

Sam Arbesman:
Right. Again, because it's not a unified thing.

Eliot Peper:
... it's different. It's dense.

Sam Arbesman:
It's each one is different in its own way. Yeah.

Eliot Peper:
And each one is unique. And then inevitably when I'm writing a novel, I generalize all these lessons learned from it that I will be able to apply to the next project. Whether it's something as simple as, you know what? I need to make sure that I think I know the ending I'm aiming for before I start or something like that. Just take any individual idea of how you might approach an ambitious, large creative project. And then no matter what happens, the only thing I've found in practice is that any lesson I think I've learned along the way totally breaks, shatters on the altar of the subsequent novel.

What ends up happening is that because there's such long, multi-year timelines, inevitably your emotional life is on a much shorter timeline where basically as a writer you're going on a hero's journey. You always hit bottom somewhere in the project. You always think you've learned something from it even if you don't return change. But that aspect that you're actually on a journey that's parallel to the project itself or to the characters in it I think is quite profound and is very evident in this book.

And Sam, I totally agree with you. Whenever I have a book come out, by the time it's published and you're promoting it and you're talking about it on podcasts like this one, I'm already so emotionally involved in the next project. I've been asked questions about characters where I don't remember their name. I spent years working on this book.

Sam Arbesman:
So that's an interesting question of, so there's the massive ups and downs of the creative process and there's kind of the initial excitement and the trough of despair or whatever it is, all these different things. The way everyone else perceives that creation is in a much kind of more concerted kind of burst where it's like, okay, they'll read the novel or they'll read the book or they'll play a video game and it's going to be over a relatively short amount of time. How do you make sure that only the best aspects of one's creative emotions are in the actual consumption of those kinds of things?

Eliot Peper:
You only include the good bits. You cut the boring parts, basically. I mean, in some ways I do think that art is not life. Art, it includes life, but it's a spirit. You're distilling human experience into these nuggets. And that's part of what's so beautiful about it.

I want to hear what Danny thinks about this because sometimes I think that there's an interesting dynamic in the blogosphere where in some ways it's almost like early 20th century literature where you're like just bring me into your brain and just tell me everything you're thinking constantly and that's what the art is, right? It's like I'm putting my psychology on display in a very expansive, loose format, which is beautiful. I love reading that stuff and I love writing that stuff sometimes. But I also feel like when I write a novel, it's a very different endeavor where I'm trying to do almost the opposite, where I'm trying to take a lot of things that I've experienced and trying to condense them down into this very distilled piece that can create a powerful human experience that can move the reader.

And so you're actually trying to take all of those years of rollercoaster and trying to fit them together and get them smaller and smaller to where they're this super powerful package where, I don't know, it's the first time you eat a xiaolongbao, a soup dumpling, and you put it in your mouth and you don't know what's about to happen and you bite into it and there's this explosion of flavor. And that's art in a way. You've condensed so much into this thing. And so part of the beauty of a novel like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is that the author has condensed so much of what life means to her into this thing that we can read in a few hours, and that's actually part of the beauty of it.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I think my first experience with a xiaolongbao is biting into it and then immediately having this burst of extremely scalding, boiling hot soup of pork. And that's kind of like art is you try something new, you eat into it, and you're like, "My whole mouth is burned for the next two days and I can't taste."

No, I agree. I will say, and Eliot, you and I have talked about this before. I'm a huge fan of what I like to call the lapidary work, but I love these very tight, taught novels that are very aggressive on editing. And I think that comes from being a journalist. So you don't have your audience's attention very easily. You have to beat other news that's taking people's attention away. And so Hemingway, Albert Camus, people who were trained as journalists, George Orwell, tend to be my favorite authors because they have to go straight to the point. They have to get there really quickly. It's the telling detail. It's like you can have 30 pages about a tree in the backyard. And it's gorgeous, it's amazing what the English language can do, but I'm personally never going to write that. And so I don't feel the same connection in an art form as something like that.

Sam Arbesman:
This reminds me, I think Jerry Seinfeld when he's talking about why he doesn't want to hear other people's dreams. He's like, "If I wanted to hear someone else's dreams, if I wanted another long, boring story that has no point, I have my life. I don't need the story of your dreams."

Danny Crichton:
Well, my version of this is there's no bathrooms on Star Trek. I mean, they're telling details that are just missing from the science fiction universe because you don't want to know how all the things work all the time.

So Gabrielle has condensed 20 years, I think it's about 20 or so years of creative life into about 400 pages. And I'm curious, so looking at the numbers, it was the top book for Amazon in 2022. They named it their favorite book of the year on Amazon. Paramount bought the rights for several million bucks for the movie. Gabrielle was on Jimmy Fallon and is sort of on the lecture circuit, which I think we all know authors don't get a huge amount of bandwidth from late night comedy. And so pretty prestigious sign-up, so if you can get anyone to care about the written word on popular television these days.

Why is the book so successful? Why does it connect and has connected both with critics and with readers because it's kind of an esoteric subject? I mean, I think we've mentioned before, video games in particular is a design topic, not a well-trodden territory. This is sort of why, as far as I'm concerned, one of the first books on the fiction side has really covered video games and video game design. We've seen it with Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier over at Bloomberg, who's a video game reporter. So we've seen it on the non-fiction side for sure, but on the fiction side, we've not. Why is it so popular?

Eliot Peper:
It's always a challenge to have any true explanation of why any piece of art really sort of goes viral. I mean, we can map our theories onto it, but in some ways it's a bit of a Rorschach test. I have my version of it. With the benefit of hindsight, what do I think about this novel helped it accelerate into the culture is that a few minutes ago, Sam said that he read this novel because I recommended it in my newsletter. Because this is a book about making things and because she does such a good job at connecting with how that feels in sort of a novel that is a good story. It's not like a non-fiction book about creativity. It's a good story that you could read just for the story that also happens to have really thoughtful, in-depth insights into creative process.

And who are the people that the most popular novels start with? Usually, they start with a small group of fans that really connect with a story and they start telling friends about it. And that's true of any kind of creative product in our sort of cultural economy. But I think that it is particularly true of novels because frankly, there are a lot of them. And the streaming series that will be made of this book I'm sure will get a lot of big-budget promotion that even this novel didn't get when it first came out.

And so the original readers who connected with it, I think a lot of them felt what Sam described feeling. And what Danny, you and I also experienced reading this novel is that we make things. We make things on the internet, and we read this book and we're like, "We feel this. We dig, this is our, this is our, yes this." And so that's why we're talking about it this morning.

And I think that a lot of other people who basically make things on the internet felt that way and started the conversation about this novel. Those are the right people to have start a conversation if you wanted to expand into the larger culture. Because once people who are making a lot of things on the internet start talking about stuff, they're doing it in public. And once you start talking about a novel in public, other people wonder what the fuss is about. And then you get a major review and those circles start expanding. And then eventually you're on Jimmy Fallon.

I, Sam, just so you know, I discovered this novel through the newsletter of a fiction writer I know and love who lives in my neighborhood, Robin Sloan. It was like Robin read a copy of the book, he makes things on the internet, I paid attention to him, and you just see that ripple effect expand out into the culture.

Sam Arbesman:
I love that. I'm not sure I have, I certainly don't have a grand theory. I feel like Eliot has captured this much better than I could possibly imagine. The one that I would say, I agree, Elliot, yeah, video games and video game design, these are not niche things. There's obviously a very large market for it. At the same time though, the ability to take anything that seems to be a little bit different but make it compelling, once it's done well, it doesn't really matter what it is.

I mean, Moby Dick and whaling, I don't think there were that many people interested in the minutiae of whaling. That being said, the book did not do well while he was alive. Separate from that, it had a lot of more, I guess the idea is if you can take any industry or any kind of act or process and show both the details that make it distinct as well as the things that make it much more universal, it can speak to so many different people. But yes, certainly the idea of people doing creating on the internet, that is a super powerful idea. I love that.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I love the idea of just like, because I started in high school, there's just this creativity and this kind of burgeoning relationship early on of we're kind of nerdy and playing with things when we're young. And then we get into the professional world. And in this case, it's almost like a dream. For most folks, they are not creating as part of their daily lives. And so what if you just continued? Because I believe there is a little bit of a plot point of do we just go into normal life? There's a discussion about they're at MIT, Harvard, everyone goes into finance and consulting and business. And in their case, they're just like, "Well, no, we're just going to keep going."

And I personally found the book because Sam, you recommended it in the Securities newsletter. And I was like, "I at some point should read one of the recommended books." Although we recommend so many books, I'm not sure we can read them all.

Sam Arbesman:
Yeah.

Danny Crichton:
And then Eliot, you and I had dinner in Chez Panisse and you and your wife pushed very hard to read it. And the only other thing that has ever been pushed as hard in a dinner in the last couple years with me was with Josh here at Lux. His wife pushed Ted Lasso very, very aggressively on me. And I never did watch it. So that one did not work because you need, at least for me I need the double hit.

Eliot Peper:
Yeah.

Danny Crichton:
The one fan, I'm like, "Okay, everyone has their thing. But if you hear from two or three, I'm like, "Oh, the crowd clearly has determined that this book is the one."

I want to pivot the conversation to one other topic though, which is this idea of creative collaboration. So we talked a little bit about how we're all individual writers. I have certainly co-authored and co-hosted media over the years, but mostly write by myself. Same with you Sam and Elliot.

But the book is a creative duo or two and a half if you include the business partner. I thought this was a little bit different because when we look at most Western media, we have this sort of narrative structure. You mentioned the hero's journey earlier, Elliot, of the kind of heroic individual. This person who fights against the system or fights against science or the frontiers, they have these setbacks, they can't figure out stuff that goes on, and then they eventually kind of come through and out and they find their discovery and they're heroes and they're lauded for it.

I'm even thinking, having obviously not seen the film, but Chris Nolan's Oppenheimer's coming up here about the Manhattan Project, and I'm going to be curious because the Manhattan Project obviously one of the largest science groups of all time, thousands of people worked on it. But the movie's called Oppenheimer. And I think that it is very encapsulating of this mentality of, okay, even though this was a huge project with I think there were more Nobel Prize winners at the Manhattan Project than almost any other single lab in history, but this one person becomes identified with it. Do you think that this is a new trajectory for some media, that we're seeing more of this sort of team-oriented narrative fictions?

Eliot Peper:
I think you're absolutely right. There is a very classic story that follows one person as they grow, as they head off into the unknown and try to figure things out and grow. That's popular for a reason. In many areas, life is a single-player game. But life is also a multiplayer game. We make friends, marry, we raise families, we do things together all the time.

One thing I thought about while reading this novel, because I think it's such a beautiful depiction of creative collaboration, is just what it means to do things together. So what it means to build things together. So take an example. If you've ever gone on a group camping trip, you know how annoying it is. It's first of all, where are you going to go? Is it going to be this national park or that park? Now you have six friends and all of them have different work schedules. How do you even organize when to go? And then, oh shoot, you forgot that you have to have permits. And we haven't even gotten to are we going to share food or you going to bring your own food? It just keeps going forever. And then finally you get to the camping trip, and then you have to set up camp and you have to actually do dishes. There's a lot. It's mostly annoyance.

Danny Crichton:
This podcast is sponsored by Camping Trips USA.

Eliot Peper:
Right. Yeah. Yeah. I'm not sure that they're...

Danny Crichton:
I'm sold.

Eliot Peper:
They might revoke their sponsorship after hearing my description of it. But I think that all of the human, banal frustration of doing something with other people when it's late at night on that last night of your camping trip and you're lying and looking up at the stars and you have some deep connection and conversation with the friends lying there next to you, those are related. Doing hard things together is an amazing way to cultivate human connection.

And I think that that is what I found so beautiful about this novel is that, as we mentioned earlier in this conversation, the arc doesn't follow any of the individual games, the individual creative projects that happen in the story. What it follows is the forging of a friendship through building things together, building things that you love for people you care about, and that that is really special and really beautiful.

And so I know I'm not answering your question, Danny, because your question was about why is this story form not as popular in sort of mass media and as the hero's journey? I don't have a direct answer to that, but I do think that this is a beautiful story form and it's an important story form and I want to see more of it. I want to read more of it.

Danny Crichton:
It's a little bit like a bildungsroman for creatives, right? Because they're not growing up. They are growing up a little bit in the beginning, but it's mostly backstory. Important backstory, but backstory. But it is this how do you evolve as an artist? And you're starting from ground zero. You're just learning, you're tinkering, experimenting. You move up, you have mentors. Those mentors are helpful, at times hurtful, and you continue to mature. And I think that kind of natural evolution is probably much more in line with more Western norms anyway in the first place. So it's still aligns up even though it's a group sort of story.

Eliot Peper:
Well, yeah, but I think that, what you just said, the fact that it's a group, this is actually a bildungsroman about a creative group. It's sort of the idea of [inaudible 00:26:42] where it's about the opposite of at least what we assume the Oppenheimer movie will be, right? That things emerge in these unpredictable ways from these special groups of people. And in a certain sense, I think that this it's like a bildungsroman, but not about a person. It's about a bildungsroman about two and a half people. So it's actually about the relationship between, it's the network diagram of those people is the thing that is growing and maturing over the course of the novel rather than, I mean they are individually too, but the real arc is that group.

Danny Crichton:
We can go on Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow forever. This has been super great. Sam, Eliot, thank you so much for joining.

Sam Arbesman:
Thank you.

Eliot Peper:
Thanks for having us.

continue
listening