a review of Tetris
a videogame developed by alexey pajitnov
and published by probably every software company ever
for any device with a screen
text by tim rogers
Tetris has been released in probably more versions than ice cream has ever had flavors. We are autistic, though not nearly autistic enough to list every version of Tetris that has ever been made. For the purpose of this review, we’re going to “imagine” a certain variety of Tetris. We put “imagine” in quotation marks, like that, because for all we know, this version actually does exist somewhere. Come to think of it, it would be terrible and presumptuous to think that it doesn’t.
Tetris is a game where you always lose. In Tetris, the closest you get to feeling like you’ve won anything at all is when you narrowly prevent yourself from losing. Tetris is a grim exercise in death education. It is an unchanging, unflinching, unfeeling opponent.
A greater percentage of the world’s population has played Tetris than has played any other game in the history of games. We can’t prove this. We can, however, feel it. Let’s put it into easy words: Tetris is the most popular game that has ever existed.
To this day, nearly twenty-five years after its invention, you’d be blind if you didn’t see at least one person every three days playing it on their cellular phone for most of the duration of a train or bus ride. In case you didn’t catch it, in the previous sentence we referred to Tetris as an “invention”, not a “game”.
You should probably see this BBC documentary about Tetris. It focuses mainly on the business side. It’s a wonderful story about how Tetris emerged from a computer laboratory in the Soviet Union and onto Nintendo-brand videogame consoles. You should really watch it. Also, someone should make a full-length, Oscar-winning-like motion picture about it.
Tetris is based on a type of puzzle called Pentomino. Pentomino is a puzzle in a box. You have twelve shapes made up of five squares each. Your goal is to assemble the provided shapes into a perfect rectangle, with no gaps. You can do this in several ways.
Tetris uses pieces made up of only four squares. There are seven shapes. Why did creator Alexy Pajitnov not steal Pentomino’s concept wholesale? We theorize it’s because Tetris was destined to be a fast-paced puzzle, and that seven shapes of four squares each encouraged familiarity more effectively than twelve shapes of five squares. The real answer probably has something to do with the limitations of the computer Pajitnov used to develop the game, though we’re going to stick with our explanation. Tetris is perfect as it is. Simple is better.
The available shapes in Tetris conveniently consist of every possible arrangement four squares can be placed in such that no one side of any square in the shape is not adjacent to another side of another square.
When you start the game, the shapes begin to fall from a hole in the top of the screen. Press one button to rotate the shapes clockwise; press the other button to rotate them counter-clockwise. Press the arrow keys or the directional pad on your controller to move the pieces left and right. Press down to speed a piece’s descent. Pressing “up” will not slow a piece down, though that doesn’t stop even veteran players from trying every once in a while.
A perfect Tetris joystick would only be pushable in the right, left, and down directions. Pressing it up and it would knock dully against plastic.
Pieces will fall from the top of the screen unrelentingly. You need to position them so that they nestle as close to one another as possible. You must not tolerate gaps. Keep your space clean.
As creator Alexy Pajitnov says in the above-linked BBC documentary:
“When you play Tetris, you have impression that you build something. That has a spirit of constructivity. You have the chaos coming as a random pieces, and your job is put them in order. ”
You need only to be playing Tetris for ten seconds on your very first try before you come to care weirdly deeply about putting these pieces into a perfect order. You need only see the horizontal limits of the screen — presented as pronounced, cold walls — before you know that order is both possible and necessary.
The strangest thing occurs when you line up a perfect unbroken horizontal line that reaches clean from one wall to the other: it disappears.
That is to say, as soon as you build one perfect thing, it’s immediately taken away from you. All that remains is the stuff you haven’t yet had the time to deal with. Says Pajitnov:
“What kind of get to your eyes all the time is your mistake, is your ugly holes. And that drives you to fix it, all the time.”
Pajitnov’s prototype only counted the total number of lines the player had cleared. It didn’t award points, it didn’t speed up, and it never ended until you were dead. The proto-game still had the power to enslave players. In fact, impending death might have been even more thrilling if the pieces never sped up. At any given moment toward the end of such a game of Tetris, regret of mistakes you had made minutes (or even hours) ago would spring to the tip of your preconscious mind. If death has all the time in the world, it needn’t hurry.
Even in Pajitnov’s prototype, it was possible to clear more than one line at a time. The game didn’t reward you for this in any way other than removing two (or three, or four) whole lines from you at once. Once you clear four lines at once for the first time — a feat players came to call “Tetris”, after the title of the game itself — your life, and the way you live it as a person who is playing this game, is changed. You start to think about what you can do so that every time you clear any lines at all, you’re clearing four lines.
However, clearing four lines is only possible with one specific type of piece — the 1×4. The pieces fall in as absolutely random an order as a computer can generate. Sometimes, you might have to wait a while. You might stack up a whole bunch of unwanted pieces on the left side of the playing field while you wait for that 1×4 to slot down on the right. Try and score three Tetrises in a row, and you might find yourself more than half-ruined. Then that 1×4 comes plummeting down, you rotate it so it’s pointing straight down, and maybe you press up on the controller, thinking that maybe this time it’ll slow the piece down and let you savor your picture-perfect insertion.
Every sophisticated, well-presented version of Tetris has rewarded the player more points for clearing more lines at any given time. It’s as though producers perceived a flaw in the design of the puzzle: they figured that, maybe, most players wouldn’t realize they could clear four lines without the game rewarding them more points for clearing three or two lines than for clearing one.
Clearing two lines, however, simply feels more satisfying than clearing one. Clearing three feels twice as satisfying as clearing two. Clearing four feels fantastic. We might not need points to tell us that.
Do we really want to encourage the player to behave recklessly, to hold out hope for Big Things instead of dealing with all the Small Things before them in turn? Waiting for a Tetris can get you killed. So many players have died waiting for a Tetris. Probably every other person who’s ever played Tetris has died waiting for a Tetris. We can’t help it.
The first Tetris of any given round of Tetris recalls the very first time you pulled off such a stunt. It’s only as the pseudo-psychological waste products of your play session stack up in ugly formations around your conquest sites that you start to get sick of the game, and the whole idea of it. Is it trying to teach you a lesson? If so, it’s a nearly different lesson every time you play it. When you’re playing Tetris, most of your mind is engaged in the practice of shifting blocks; the rest of it is thinking about more important things. Like real life.
You get sick of the experience, eventually. Do you give up? Of course not. Seldom is your entire brain devoted to giving up (maybe the phone is ringing, or your wife is waiting in the car outside). However, different parts of you begin to slip at different times. Sometimes, the first step toward death is breathing, and saying, “Okay. Let’s clear these lines one at a time.” There: you’ve abandoned your drive.
You can’t see where the lines go. You can’t see where the pieces are coming from.
Every once in a while, a point comes where you realize the game isn’t going to give up.
Shortly after — or maybe a long while afterward — you have lost the game.
All versions of Tetris with a pause function make every block on the playing field invisible when the game is paused.
If you’ve played it even once, Tetris is everywhere. Have you ever looked out the window of a bus or a train, and imagined you were running and jumping across rooftops or over fence posts like Super Mario? Tetris is even more transparent than that. You won’t even know when you’re thinking about it.
Be honest: have you ever finished Super Mario Bros.? A lot of people haven’t. A lot of people only know there’s a princess to save because people have told them there’s a princess to save. Or maybe they’ve finished one world and been told the princess is in another castle. Or maybe they’ve seen someone else rescue the princess. Droves of people love Super Mario Bros. without ever having completed it on their own.
Tetris was developed at about the same time as Super Mario Bros. At that time, games were mostly about shooting or some other form of killing. Super Mario ends his fair share of cartoon lives, though that’s not to say that Super Mario Bros. was a violence-centric game. Super Mario Bros. was a game about looking for a princess. Tetris is said to be non-violent, stoic, contemplative, though there’s certainly a breed of violence in not even promising the player a princess. It’s cold and scary.
Mention Super Mario Bros. to an adult human and they might tell you how much they loved the game, years ago. Sit them in your living room, load up the game on the Virtual Console, and give them a Nintendo Wii controller. They might suck pretty bad at the game. Chances are, they’re weren’t ever any good at it.
If you’ve never seen the end of the game, it can be said that the game doesn’t have an ending. People can love Super Mario Bros. without knowing that it ends.
People love Tetris, knowing that it never ends. It is the first “casual game”. More people have played it than have played The Sims. Anyone can play it, and everyone does. Unlike other “casual” games, Tetris also enjoys terrifyingly virtuosic high-level play.
When Nintendo put Tetris on the Gameboy, every fat nine-year-old needed it because Nintendo Power said you could see Mario and Luigi if you got 100 lines on normal mode. How crawly. This is where it began: tape some characters onto a beautiful, pure concept, and then blame its success on the “production know-how”.
Years beyond the release of Tetris, people continue to make games just like it. We have Puzzle Bobble, which shoehorns happy little dinosaur characters into the game as cartoon representations of our psychic condition. The psychic clutter descends from the top instead of rises from the bottom. Instead of controlling pieces as they fall, we’re aiming pieces skyward. It’s still the same stuff. Only now, the game is telling us how, why, and that we care. It’s like, if you walk down a cute little streetlamp-lined shopping street in Tokyo, if you snap out of lovely conversation with your significant other, you might realize that loudspeakers mounted up high above the street are blaring classical music that would be tasteful, say, indoors, and definitely at a lower volume. What’s with the Mood Gestapo, all of a sudden? Real life isn’t a movie or a TV drama — that’s why they call it “real life”. Games have largely done the same thing, in many different ways, and it’s not a good thing. By putting worried looks on cartoon dinosaurs’ faces as death stomps down from above, the games cause us to think less about ourselves.
What captivated the greater portion of the human race when it came to Tetris was the fact that simply playing it, staring down death between those cold walls, maybe (definitely) dropping pieces in time to the bouncy Russian-like music if you were playing it on Gameboy, was an experience in learning something about yourself. As you made mistakes and faced them, session and session again, you grew more and more intimate with some kind of emerging pseudo-consciousness. Riding a train, relaxing on a cruise ship, waiting for an airplane to take off, or killing time in the den, Tetris can remind us of where we are, and what vehicle we may be riding or about to ride. It’s the closest the average human will get to feeling the way Garry Kasparov felt when declined a rematch against Deep Blue.
It’s a pretty excellent feeling, for what it’s worth. And it certainly deserves a place on our list of the best games of all-time.