Tetris is simple and addictive. It’s not complex and there are no silly game rules. It’s not about vanquishing your opponent or killing them, it’s about being fussy and cleaning up. A persnickety person’s alternative to a deep-throated blowjob accompanied by a fine micro-brewed beer, Tetris is about imposing order in a world of chaos. The creation of bored programmer, Alexey Pajitnov, during his down time while working at the Moscow Academy of Sciences in 1987, he began developing the falling shape puzzler because his favorite football team, Moscow Torpedo, “were too embarrassing to watch on television,” according to Grass Eye.
Calling it a cult obsession would be a bit hyperbolic, but it does seem to burrow its way into your brain as a relentless compulsion to fit variously shaped tetriminos into a bucket. Yet your task is Sissyphean*—you stack them as high was you can, but the tetriminos are different shapes and they keep slipping and falling while you keep building—and the torture never stops. Atypically, anyone who hates archaic conventions or fixed game rules loves it. Persnickitiness wins every time because Tetris is about tidying up messes.
Indeed, the simplicity, cognitive effects, and almost religious popularity of the game have served to make it one of the most researched and analyzed in academia. Thousands of gamers have Tetris addiction stories. In 2009 research published in the journal Biomed Central showed ways in which playing Tetris could strengthen neural networks in the brain, improving memory. Researchers at Oxford University discovered Tetris could help reduce flashbacks in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. In my case it was dreams, endless, cinematically detailed scenarios full of falling blocks.
Now here’s the real story, featuring greed, greed, intellectual property tights… oh, and more greed! As the original was developed by Pajitnov on an ancient Electronica 60 computer, rights to the concept have been repeatedly swapped, fought over, and pretty much brazenly stolen. Just reading the game’s publishing history leaves you shaking your head. The best bet, if you’re interested, is going to Netflix and finding the documentary Tetris: From Russia With Love (2004). And weird changes along the way, like Super Tetris (1989), featuring a “smart bomb.” Tetris Worlds (2001) added a storyline as well as ‘hold’ and spin’ mechanics brought in a story mode, and introduced “hold” and “easy spin” mechanics. Having created a fun Tetris Blitz, which added a clock for the player to compete against, Electronic Arts turned off tens of thousands of possible patrons by attempting to use the Tetris brand-name as a part of an exclusive subscription club. There was the Nintendo 64 title, Tetris 64, the short-lived classic, Tetris With Card Captor Sakura, by longtime Street Fighter developer Arika, who also produced Tetris: The Grand Master series.
Not to mention the ingenious ‘tributes,’ a/k/a knockoffs like Jay Geertsen’s Columns, which was later licensed by Sega for various platforms including the Game Gear, the manufacturer’s rival to Game Boy. Better though was the glorious Kawaii Puyo Puyo series, originally from Japanese studio Compile.
Finally, Ubisoft is doing the right thing. They have announced that they are working with the Tetris Company – the real organization co-founded by Pajitnov — which actually owns the true copyright. They will now produce new versions for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. What it will actually be like we can only guess. The coolest thing about Tetris is that, like a Beatles song, it eviscerates barriers of language and culture, perfection in interactive entertainment. Pajitnov located the trigger wire that fired up the homegrown central human cognition chip that speaks its way out Babel Tower of language holding us all back. And perhaps, via Cloud. or whatever comes next in social media, we’ll all be lined up, around the world, ready to play Tetris against someone from Vladivostok or Ecuador. The sky is not the limit.
*Sissyphus was a king punished for chronic deceitfulness by the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.