As a fledgling 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-up of the 8-bit teaching tools of the so-called Oregon Trail Generation. In the book, the game is called EmilyBlaster and enjoins players to recreate the starkish, rhyming prose of Emily Dickinson by shooting at moving words from a fixed point, Missile Command-style.
Zevin’s novel concerns the not-quite-romance of two friends “often in love, but never lovers” who partner in video game design, and in support of the book’s release, Knopf has designed and launched a working version of EmilyBlaster that real-life users can play from the comfort of their real-life computers.
“I liked the slight subversiveness of making a game where the object was to shoot poetry, and I thought that Emily Dickinson’s compact verse style and memorable phrasings would make for perfect targets,” Zevin told Literary Hub. Each level offers a verse as a prompt and leaves the player to attempt to reconstruct it in the game field from memory. Dickinson’s poem ‘That Love Is All There Is,” for example, is featured in the first level of EmilyBlaster, and it also provides the epigraph for the novel.
Successfully stringing along the short bits of prose requires short-term memory and hand-eye coordination — and even with adequate amounts of both, the game is challenging. Words whoosh unpredictably like autumn leaves, with the occasional interloper that plays no part in the original text, and getting the full stanza intact is almost impossible. However, the mistakes produced are satisfying on their own, converting Dickinson’s tidy verses into Gertrude Stein-esque word loops and random thoughts about worms and trucks.
“When I played the game for the first time, it was somewhat mind-blowing,” said Zevin. “It felt very close to what I had described in the book, and it brought me back to the fun of early computer games.”
All in all, EmilyBlaster sits in the warm center of a Venn diagram overlapping ’90s nostalgia, literary luster, and genius marketing tactics. Practice makes perfect, but even failure allows one to dwell, as did its namesake, in possibility.