Tetris: How Little Falling Blocks Changed the World

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Tetris. It influenced generations of puzzle games, sold millions of copies on multiple systems, crossed traditional gender boundaries (many of which still exist in gaming today), and continues to be one of the most popular titles of any generation of anywhere in the world. By almost any definition, it is THE video game of the 20th century.

Many other games can make this claim. Fanboys will always have their favorite franchise and title; the Super Marios, Dragon Warriors, and Final Fantasies all have their defenders, based on sales and/or passions. Myst even somewhat supplanted Tetris in the public eye during the mid-90s, though its popularity quickly faded. Then, of course, there are the old men of the gaming industry (Pong, Asteroids, Pac-Man, et al) who each have valid claims founded not just on seniority but also innovation. These points could be argued ad nauseum, ad infinitum, and et cetera.

What sets Tetris out is its place in the context of history. Just as the Iron Curtain was beginning to fall, this Soviet mind-bender crossed the border and unified people from around the world. Invigorated middle classes throughout the world were embracing luxuries like never before, with video games as the perfect mix of Western indulgence and Eastern mastery. The mid-80s release of Tetris was the right game at the right time for the right people. Men and women, young and old, black and white… it’s hard to find a person in the States who hasn’t played the game (or who doesn’t automatically think of dropping tetrads at the tune of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). Can the same be said for Halo?

In this, the game’s simplicity was the key component. The whole game can be summed up in one sentence: drop certain pieces down at ever-increasing speeds, trying to make complete lines and get the highest score. Much like chess, the complexity and fun comes with repeat playing. Just how many lines can you make? How high can you push your score? What about your strategy: do you keep it simple on the early levels, or try for the big scores from the outset?

This easy-to-learn-yet-hard-to-master dynamic is what most development teams strive for, yet Tetris (from “tetramino” and “tennis”) came largely from one man–Alexey Pajitnov–who recognized how a simple puzzle can transfix almost anyone. Women flocked to the game, as did the elderly and those who had never played video games before. Nintendo’s later success with the DS and Wii can, in some part, be seen as an extension of Tetris’s affect on the non-gamer: tap the untapped market with broad appeal. It worked with the GameBoy (the success of which was largely founded on its version of Tetris), making it the best-selling console of all time. Why not with later consoles?

This success naturally meant copycats. Some (Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Columns) had some kind of quirk or charm to them that meant lasting appeal. Others (Yoshi’s Cookie, Blockout) tinkered with the design in some non-intuitive way, creating cartridges that are best left in the dustbins of our grandparents’ attics. What matters is that many of these games would spawn their own copycats, their own sequels, their own admirers and fans, all of which would eventually graduate to more unique forms of video game expression that make up the puzzle-gaming genre.

Tetris’s influence is still widespread. Even though many games on the casual gaming market have evolved past the game’s core mechanics, they still owe a great deal to that founding piece of Russian software. Trying to match colors on a chain before they reach a terminus? That’s by way of Bubble-Bobble, Snood, and dozens of other similar titles, all of which were based on Tetris. Color-coding? Columns. Stacking? Klax. While some hardcore gamers will sneer at the success of such “lowly” casual games, it’s hard to argue with their lure that has spread across all demographics, particularly those abandoned by traditional console gaming.

Most importantly, Tetris shows what a game can and should be. A game should have several levels of goals, ranging from the short- (make a line, don’t stack too high) to the long-term (make as many points as one can) to the abstract (how far can one push your mind and playing abilities). A game should have clear and clean controls so that anyone can pick up and play. Most importantly, a game should be FUN; it should have mechanics that draw people back, time and again, whether this is through gameplay or story (which is, admittedly, the greatest argument against Tetris as a piece of art; by its nature, it can’t contain a narrative).

How a game does this is up for grabs. It can be charming and simple, or last for hours with layer upon layer revealing itself. It doesn’t need to feature protagonists or a traditional storyline, but it can if so desired. Music plays an important part, but mechanics are even more important. If something as simple as Tetris can succeed, then complexities should be dealt with as they should be: as extensions of gameplay instead of aspirations for them. The game’s fun is paramount. Who cares about the physics engine if the thing is unplayable?

In the days of increasingly violent and bloody FPS’s, it’s nice to remember how adults can as readily understand a game that is easy enough for children to play. Tetris captured the attention of consumers in a way that hadn’t happened yet outside of Japan. Its core was built around a simple puzzle not unlike those that had come before, but the way it utilized its media–a near-limitless amount of levels, disappearing lines, abstract play–showed how a video game can be fun and mind-expanding in a fashion that couldn’t be possible in a real world setting.

This, then, is Tetris’s final and greatest contribution to art: the ability to transcend its own creation. Like the greatest pieces of literature, music, and cinema, Tetris is now a part of our cultural background, instantly recognizable and still appreciated years after its debut. Achieving a high score, it seems, may ultimately prove to be as compelling as a tragic hunt for a white whale.

2 thoughts on “Tetris: How Little Falling Blocks Changed the World

  1. Pingback: I told you not to leave the house… | pixelthèque

  2. Pingback: Munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music | pixelthèque

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