Brenda Romero's "Train" is a board game about complicity during the Holocaust. (Photo/John McKinnon)
Brenda Romero's "Train" is a board game about complicity during the Holocaust. (Photo/John McKinnon)

A bestselling novel, a Holocaust-themed game, and accusations of ‘uncredited work’

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In the bestselling 2022 novel “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” a 19-year-old Jewish MIT student creates a provocative computer game for a seminar in the mid-1990s. It’s called “Solution.” In the game, players assemble “widgets” in a factory, and they can forfeit points in exchange for information about the task they are performing. The more information they request, the lower their score will be but the quicker they will learn the truth: that the factory produces machine parts for the Nazis as they carry out the Final Solution, the genocide of European Jewry.

“Everyone loses,” the student, Sadie, tells her professor, an Israeli game developer who sticks up for her when a fellow Jewish classmate accuses her of violating the university’s rules against hate speech. “The game’s about being complicit.” The professor calls it a work of genius.

“Solution” is one of several fictional games that characters create and play in the world of the novel, which follows Sadie and a childhood friend, Sam, with whom she co-founds a game company. The book also references a number of real games, including “The Oregon Trail,” “Donkey Kong” and “Doom.”

One that goes unmentioned is a Holocaust-themed board game resembling “Solution” called “Train.”

In a March 22 Twitter thread, the creator of “Train,” Brenda Romero, expressed outrage over what she called her “uncredited work” appearing in the novel by Gabrielle Zevin. “Solution,” she contended, has the same theme and “gameplay patterns” as “Train,” yet Zevin does not include it in the book’s acknowledgments, where she lists other games and their designers.

“It may seem like a small thing to be bothered about, but to me, it’s not,” Romero, a trailblazing game creator and the founder of a UC Santa Cruz master’s program in game design, tweeted. “Train is likely the best game I’ll ever make. It matters to me. I spent a lot of time researching it, talking with the community it represents and making something I felt was worthy. Nothing was taken for granted. To have a game lifted without attribution — a game about the Holocaust, for goodness sakes — is just unacceptable.”

In “Train,” which Romero introduced in 2009 at a game conference in New York City but never sold, players roll a die and advance trains carrying yellow pawns down tracks. The rules of the game are intentionally vague, and the destination of the trains — concentration camps — is not immediately obvious to most first-time players, despite the fact that a World War II-era typewriter with a “SS” key is part of the game setup. Romero, like Sadie in “Tomorrow,” has described her game as being about complicity.

Romero wrote on Twitter that she was speaking out now, more than eight months after the publication of “Tomorrow,” because she saw people who attended the Game Developers Conference this month in San Francisco discussing the novel online.

Romero’s complaint raises questions about the nature of creative inspiration and the politics of acknowledgments in works of fiction. It also brings a real and potentially offensive game about the Holocaust — and one that was created by a non-Jew — into the spotlight. “Train” has never received substantive coverage in the Jewish press.

Playing "Train" at the Game Developers Conference in 2013 (Photo/John Romero)
Playing “Train” at the 2013 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco (Photo/John Romero)

In a Zoom interview with J. on Friday from her home in Galway, Ireland, Romero, 56, spoke at length about the origins of “Train.” She choked up while talking about the research she conducted for it, which included consulting a rabbi and visiting Auschwitz.

“I put everything I had into making ‘Train,’ and there are people out there who think that this was her great work and her great idea,” she said of Zevin. “This is what I’ll be remembered for, and I feel like it got taken away.”

She added that she found it ironic that one of the themes of “Tomorrow” is how women struggle to get credit for their work.

On March 3, a lawyer representing Romero Games, the company she runs with her husband, legendary video game creator John Romero (“Commander Keen,” “Wolfenstein 3D,” “Doom”), sent a letter to Zevin’s publishing house alerting them to the similarities between the games and requesting that Brenda Romero receive the credit she deserves.

At the very least, Romero told J., she is seeking acknowledgment in the paperback edition of the book. She encouraged those who wish to support her to donate to the Anti-Defamation League, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or any organization “that is working against antisemitism, which could use, I’m sure, all the help in the world right now.”

“Tomorrow” was published in July 2022 to ecstatic reviews and a warm reception from readers; the novel currently has more than 134,000 five-star reviews on Goodreads and won the readers’ choice award for best fiction of 2022. “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon chose the novel for his book club, and it has spent 25 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Paramount Pictures reportedly paid $2 million to secure the rights for a film version.

In a review for the Jewish Book Council, author Sonia Taitz called the novel “a fas­ci­nat­ing fic­tion­al hybrid: a view into the intri­cate art and craft of video-game design, a poignant bil­dungsro­man, and a love sto­ry.”

Gabrielle Zevin (Photo/Hans Canosa)
Gabrielle Zevin (Photo/Hans Canosa)

Zevin, 45, lives in Los Angeles and told the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of her undergraduate alma mater, that she is half Jewish and half Korean. She is currently on tour promoting “Tomorrow” — she is scheduled to do a reading and signing at a bookstore in La Jolla on Tuesday — and is unavailable for an interview, according to Todd Doughty, the senior vice president of publicity and communications for Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

But in a statement sent to J., Doughty wrote that Zevin already acknowledged in an August interview with Wired that “Train” was “one point of inspiration among many” for her novel. In that interview, Zevin said “Solution” was “a take on ‘Train’” but noted that “‘Solution’ has mechanics that are particular to video games.”

In his statement, Doughty continued, “The entire world, characters and themes of ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ are solely Zevin’s fictional creation and the only games listed in the author’s acknowledgements are video games. Again, ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ is a novel and not an academic or nonfiction text containing indexes, notes, or works cited. Knopf stands behind Gabrielle Zevin and her work.”

Romero called the implication that “Train” was omitted from the acknowledgments because it is not a video game illogical. “I don’t see how the medium matters,” she told J. (In addition to video games, Zevin cites several books in the acknowledgements.) She also took exception to Doughty’s description of “Train” in his statement as an “undistributed board game,” which she interpreted as an attempt to portray it as obscure.

“I don’t need to sell it to make it worthy of credit,” she said. “And I deliberately, very early on, refused to duplicate ‘Train,’ I refused to sell ‘Train,’ because I felt and still feel that it is abhorrent to profit from the Holocaust.”

Brenda Romero
Brenda Romero

Instead of selling the game, she has presented it at game conferences, spoken about it in a 2012 TEDx talk, and loaned it to museums. Hundreds of people have played the game and thousands have seen it in museums, she said. She receives inquiries from museums “a few times a year” about showing the game.

“Train” has generated polarized responses over the years while also garnering awards for Romero. “There was everything from ‘This is amazing’ to ‘You should stop making games, you need to be punched in the face,’ and really [nothing] in between,” she said. “I really thought that I was going to lose my career.”

In 2013, a writer for VentureBeat, a tech news website, called it “the kind of game that pushes the boundaries of what you would consider to be an entertainment experience.”

Romero said she never intended it to be entertainment. “I don’t think the Holocaust should be turned into something that’s entertaining,” she said. “‘Train’ is asking the question, ‘Why didn’t anybody do anything?’ and it’s doing that in an interactive way.”

Although the word “game” often implies a degree of levity, Romero said not all games have to provide uplifting experiences. For example, she called 2016’s “That Dragon, Cancer,” in which players raise a child who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, “one of the best video games ever created.”

Like ‘Schindler’s List,’ these games are very depressing and very emotional, but also very meaningful and very important.

Asked why she, as a non-Jew, felt compelled to create a game based on the Holocaust, she replied that she envisioned “Train” as part of a series of six games that would raise awareness about horrific events in history.

“I knew that if I was going to make this series and I didn’t cover the Holocaust, it would have been a failure,” she said. “There was no point in doing it.” (To date Romero has completed three of the games — the other two deal with American slavery and Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland — and is still working on the final three. None of the games have been or will be released commercially, she said.)

During the interview, Romero said the rabbi she consulted while working on “Train” gave the game his blessing and called it “a work of Torah.” “I grew up Catholic, and so that moment for me … was a profound moment,” she said. “And I felt incredibly grateful.”

That rabbi, Arnold Belzer of Savannah, Georgia, told J. in a brief phone interview on Friday that he was “loose” with giving out blessings and did not recall the details of “Train.” Nevertheless, he said he remembered that he warned Romero about the pitfalls of using the Holocaust as source material for a game. “I warned her that it’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” he said. “One has to be extremely careful, and she was extraordinarily careful.”

There are a handful of board and video games set during the Holocaust, according to Ian Schreiber, a Jewish game creator and co-author with Romero of a book on game design. They include “Escape from Colditz,” a 1973 board game in which players act as concentration camp prisoners and guards, and the “Wolfenstein” first-person shooter video games.

“Like ‘Schindler’s List,’ these games are not particularly entertaining, they are not uplifting at all, they are very depressing and very emotional, but also very meaningful and very important,” said Schreiber, who tested an early version of “Train.”

About the controversy surrounding “Tomorrow,” he said, “In any creative endeavor, you have to ask where do you cross the line between doing a creative riff or remix on an existing thing and making it yours, versus blatantly ripping something off, and that line can be blurry.” He added that for Zevin to “admit that [‘Train’] was an inspiration in [the Wired] interview when essentially forced to is probably not going far enough, especially when so many other creators’ work was credited in the book.”

In recent days, other game creators have publicly expressed solidarity with Romero. “Train is such a masterpiece, and always a central discussion point in my classes, and this is just wrong,” tweeted Federico Fasce, who teaches game design at Goldsmiths, University of London. “I hope things can be set straight.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.