Tetris [1984]

What can you say about Tetris [1984]?


Marek Biliński – Po Drugiej Stronie Świata [1984]

I know it’s different for everyone, but me, I think in full sentences. Even simple things, like hunger or pain or sensing temperature, are mediated through concrete and often surprisingly verbose language. It’s not that I can’t imagine sounds and images, they’re just not the primary conduit of my everyday thought. My interior monologue is constantly running — makes it hard to sleep.

I have found nothing in my life that completely shuts this down… except Tetris. Tetris annihilates my consciousness. I become as if pre-verbal, entirely reliant on visuals and muscle twitches. (Not to overstate the case: this does not occur every single time I play Tetris.) I would not call this “immersion”, nor “flow,” because I don’t think that’s accurate to what’s going on, in Tetris or really any other game. I am engaged, I am in the zone. Perhaps this is what it is like to be proficient at playing a musical instrument.

Tetris is as automatic as reading. Actually, scanning a Tetris board is reading. It would not be inaccurate, even, to call the act of playing Tetris writing. You have to understand the grammar of constructing an acceptable Tetris sentence, and the spellchecker demands you form a complete line. Maybe this is how it can supplant the usual grammatical sentences of my mind, synthetic substitution. The (in)famous Tetris Effect seems to me to be basically analogous to how you can’t not read if you see a legible text in the world — no, better yet a stoplight, an electronic symbol so familiar through repetition that it bypasses consciousness and interpretation, one that compels your mind to move your muscles to manipulate a tool to steer an object through prescribed boundaries. There is something fairly sinister about such an effect… its power to bypass our conscious minds, to induce us to act according to its rules, perhaps even to reprogram our brains in ways we are not so aware of, to make you see it vertiginous when you close your eyes. A ripe canvas for paranoiac horror — but no more or less so than literacy itself, with its tradition of fnords and Necronomicons and propaganda.

Paranoiac horror in action.

Tetris is notable in this blog’s walk through the gaming canon in being a video game that is not just abstract and one that could truly, truly only exist as a video game (like Qix [1981],) but disembodied. “God Games” like Empire [1981] already existed, but even God is a type of player-character, and the cursor is the pawn, the persistent avatar through which the player can insert their will into the gamespace. In Tetris, there’s no player character and no constancy. Instead, your allegiance and your control leaps from pawn to pawn. It’s all about spatial relationships. Inert corpses of your prior selves pile up below, the weight of history, a testament mainly to your own failure — you are your only enemy in Tetris. (Unless, of course, you play competitively, which has never seemed to me to be “real Tetris.”) You are as a gravedigger, but plunging through corpses instead of dirt. Maybe instead of being disembodied, it is rather that you have too many bodies.

I’ve seen Tetris called “a perfect game.” That’s a big word, “perfect.” To me, it seems fairly common-sensical that something that’s truly perfect can not be better. From there, it follows that something that’s truly perfect can not be changed without making it either worse or into something much different. We could bring rubrics into it (there can be many “perfect games” in bowling, all different but all having all pins fall,) but you probably already see where I’m going with this: Tetris isn’t perfect, it is instead enormously pliable. Original Tetris has Hard Drop, but some implementations don’t. Original Tetris doesn’t have colored pieces or a hold or an up-next queue extending beyond 1 piece, most implementations do. There are many different implementations of tetromino randomization that are hotly contested. Gameboy Tetris, a highly significant and possibly the very-most-popular implementation of Tetris, has a narrower playing field.

Tetris can be compared to Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], not in any of its formal aspects as an artwork, but rather in its creation, its mutation, and in its impact. They were both games made and released originally on closed academic networks of mainframe computers, making Tetris, for us, a real throwback and the last of its kind. In just the 9 years between Tetris and CCA, though, the video game industry had come to… well, really exist as an industry. This industry, lest we forget, was founded on putting toll booths on that which was once free and held in common. Blatant banditry with fences erected behind oneself is how markets are born, and with the invention of the personal computer, this liberalizing process finally captured the computer game field, making purchase and property the all-pervasive mode of production and consumption for all video games. Under glasnost, not even the Soviet Union was off-limits for such marketeering. What’s next, China?

If you look into the fascinating and complicated and drawn-out process of bringing Tetris out of Russia, though, it becomes apparent that the video game industry actually got palpably less effective at commercializing mainframe games. This is no mere atrophy of unused skillsets, but a philosophical realignment. See, Bill Gates would bellyache about intellectual property, and then turn around, slap his company name on something he didn’t make and didn’t even pay or sign for, and put DRM on it. That’s how you do it! The next generation of computer profiteers, though, actually believed in the legal and moral sanctity of intellectual property, like complete rubes. Nobody had the ruthlessness to just outright steal Tetris when they totally could have gotten away with it. Not even Robert Stein, who was a consummate flim-flam man, even selling the rights to Tetris before he had secured them legally. The story of how the rights to Tetris got out to the rest of the world is long and complicated, and Jimmy Maher’s narrative of it is one of his crowning achievements — go read it for the contortions. Ultimately it ends up straightforward enough: A judge upholds Nintendo’s right to have a monopoly so long as that monopoly isn’t causing any harm, in part it seems because Atari was suing from a position where they were multiple blatantly illegal acts deep into their own Tetris scheme, which sets the legal precedent for all the walled-garden tech which Epic V. Apple is challenging as we speak. The Tetris Company was created in the 90s as a holding company that exists to enrich the original creator, Alexey Pajitnov, and to aggressively police Tetris, ensuring a measure of standardization and also bringing the full brunt of legal prosecution down on anyone making and releasing unsanctioned Tetris, say as Baby’s First Program. It’s the classic Intellectual Property (or more accurately, Author’s Monopoly) trap, where an artist has to aggressively squeeze other artists or starve unrecognized. It’s one a Communist can diagnose as a flawed dichotomy plenty easily, but it’s a hard sell considering Pajitnov’s experience of actually-existing-Communism, where the trap was the same but with no option to prosper.

Despite all this copyright jockeying, I think there remains a common sense that Tetris is humanity’s endowment. The term “intellectual property” is especially ridiculous when cast against Tetris’ famously memetic nature, its ability to invade and rewire your mind and give it faint compulsions. The term seems to propose that your intellect is somebody else’s property, subject to their officially-approved imagination and liable to be clawed back at any time.

2 thoughts on “Tetris [1984]

  1. Sadly the platform it worked best on (PSP) is gone, but Lumines is a very strong contender for “non-inferior Tetris-like game” (IMO Puyo Puyo/etc. really don’t click in the same way). You should definitely give it a try if you can.

    All of the music and visual stuff is superfluous, and with each sequel they would fix something broken (score capped at 6-digits/killscreen after looping twice) but then add a new totally broken thing (framerate-wrecking FMV; touch-enabled special abilities), but for me it has that exact sort of weird brain-rewiring that Tetris had: initially it seems incomprehensible and impossible to survive, but eventually you figure out higher-level patterns/sequences and then you start to see forms in what was noise.

    Liked by 1 person

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