Human Tetris

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Tetris was simply a part of your life. It was wallpaper for nerds. The Russian game showed up on every gaming platform—PC, Nintendo, GameBoy, cheapo LCD toys, primitive versions of what would become the Blackberry (hello, Apple Newton!) Because of the uncomplicated graphics and MIDI score (a halfway decent programmer could create it herself using Turbo Pascal or BASIC in an hour), Tetris could be created for and played on the least sophisticated system. Those four blocks—dropping down in odd and unexpected combinations, hurtling down at ever-faster speeds, with that crude pseudo-Russian folk score—mesmerized millions. The concept was fantastically simple—keep eliminating rows of solid blocks, until you can’t do it anymore—and utterly addictive, despite the fact that you could never “beat” the game. At some point, you’d no longer be able to stave off death. Those rows would continue to rise to the top of the board, unstoppable, until it overflowed and the game ended.

In fact, it’s a weird phenomenon to love. The better the player was, the harder the game became—you were penalized, not rewarded, for being good at Tetris. The challenge, and measure of your ability, was in lasting as long as possible, and getting as many points as possible, all the while knowing that you would eventually, irrevocably fail. You could see precisely one move ahead of you. You encountered randomized variations of the same four basic blocks, shifting and rotating these blocks into ad-hoc structures. In the process, you were forced to make snap judgments about the structural integrity of what you were building, all the while knowing that the architecture you constructed was doomed to failure, either by your conscious elimination of rows (the foundation) or by top-heaviness of incomplete rows clunked haphazardly on top of one other. There’s no way out of this. Like life itself, Tetris moves inexorably towards death. That the game caught on amongst millions of us, at the end of the Cold War (i.e., potential nuclear annihilation of the species), says volumes about humanity’s anxieties about itself.

It was the first video game that combined both the formal simplicity (the rules are easy) and the symbolic complexity (the implications and strategies are difficult) of a game like chess or go. You understood the mechanics instantly, without guidance, no matter what language you spoke. In 1990, and reprinted in Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences, Lawrence Weschler showed the implications:

Tetris was designed by a Soviet programmer named Alexey Pazhitnov and is the first Soviet computer game to enter the United States market. It’s not hard to guess where Mr. Pazhitnov came up with his idea. This past week marked the fifth year of Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure as the head of the Soviet Union, and in retrospect his entire term might be likened to an epic game of Tetris. The shapes—the challenges—keep floating down: Chernobyl, arms-control deadlocks, failed grain harvests, the Armenian earthquake, the Afghan evacuation, general economic prostration, striking workers in Gdansk’s harbor, Lithuanian separatists, Georgian separatists, hard-line Communists to one side and radical democrats to the other, Russian nationalists, striking Siberian miners, Armenians and Azerbaijanis at each other’s throats, East Germans pouring across the West German border, throngs in Wenceslas Square, riots in Timisoara, election reversals in Nicaragua, uprisings in Tadzhikistan. And, like a Tetris wizard, Gorbachev keeps trying to master them all: to manipulate and rotate them (having the Latvians attempt to negotiate a ceasefire between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians, for example, or exploiting the sudden windfall afforded by the fact that the Soviets no longer have to subsidize Managua by using it to ward off some other short-term calamity)—to clear this row and then the next, never letting the pile get too near the ceiling.

Due to this combo of simplicity and depth, Tetris (again, like chess or go or a deck of playing cards) could serve as a metaphor for any number of things—life, war, politics. Its bare-bones nature meant that we filled in the necessary emotional and intellectual details.

And now, to further connect the game’s connection to human foibles, filmmaker Guillaume Reymond has created a stop-motion version of Tetris using people as the building blocks and the human voice as the only soundtrack. The “blocks” gesture and converse even after they’re placed, emphasizes that Tetris is a stand-in for human behavior. It’s as suspenseful and as engrossing as the game it recreates.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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