This is a tolerable work of fiction that relies heavily on nostalgia. This is a story about normal people having normal people problems. It is basically inoffensive, occasionally touching, a little inspiring, but mostly bland. Like a PG Disney version of reality, it penetrates the surface of life but doesn’t get very deep.
In spite of these weaknesses, there is some decent character development here. Zevin has created a strong dynamic between the main characters. They make bad decisions in a manner that is utterly believable. They mature and change realistically, and their evolving relationship drives the narrative. It could be said that Zevin has done as good a job writing Time as she has writing these people. The rest of the cast is a bit thin, but we spend most of our time with the two main characters.
The book’s timeline is wrapped around video game culture from the early days of PC games. This “gaming” aesthetic is, frankly, weak. Zevin uses terminology and makes references and then compulsively explains it all like some sort of Dummies’ Guide to Gaming. This prevents this from being a book of gaming culture and becomes a book about gaming culture. In truth, it mostly just pushes nostalgia buttons with assorted cultural references. Now, this isn’t entirely unforgivable because the heart of this story is people and relationships and life; it could have been told about people in most any creative or collaborative profession.
However Zevin doesn’t allow room for that thought as gaming references are crammed in at every opportunity. This comes across as more than a little forced. The repetitious talk of video game characters being able to die and retry is perhaps a useful metaphor, but when the characters themselves (book characters not game characters) discuss it they do not really sound like gamers. Anyone immersed in a culture uses its distinctive vocabulary: shorthand, vernacular, slang. Gamers are no exception and have their own cryptic language. Rather than lean in and use some of this authentic vintage gamer slang, Zevin has run everyone’s dialogue through a translator to make it comprehensible to non-gamers.
This lack of commitment leaves the gaming identity of this book feeling half-baked. As another example, there is a lengthy scene in the book that takes place within an online game. It has the feeling of being video-game shaped without feeling at all like a real game. The player’s conversations with other players and npcs are almost entirely unbelievable. The dialog requires both the most technically sophisticated AI chatbots and the most hardcore community of fanatic role-players. For as much as this book grounds itself in the real history and culture of video games, it misses the mark in some key places.
And of course, I must mention the elephant in the room. This is a book about a female game developer with barely a mention of how misogynistic the industry is. This is a serious omission. With all the crises and struggles that are included, it is hard to understand why this one barely gets a mention. This is an issue that, unlike most aspects of gaming culture, has reached the mainstream media on multiple occasions.
And finally, any book is instantly discredited when it uses the game of Go in its story and incorrectly describes the white stones playing first. That’s a simple failure of research. and it reflects the shallow feeling this book has throughout. It gets close to a lot of interesting places, it even dips its foot in, but it leaves one feeling more than a little unsatisfied. Your mileage may vary, and there might be more to recommend this book if you aren’t a gamer, but it had little to say to me.