On Tetris

May 27, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 5 3 min read

coverEvery few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me.  After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again.  When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth.  Tetris fever has struck.

Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2.  But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey.  Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be.  When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids.  But Tetris is different.  As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious.  It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary.

For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain.  Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness.  It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust.  Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller.  In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man.  Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state.  And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done.

Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection.  Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself.  My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block.  Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival.  Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously.  When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.

This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions.  I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip.  Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block.  That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound.  I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment.  And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear.

My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris.  Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward.  Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job.  Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys.  But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way.

It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is.  And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists.  Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it.  In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.”  That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface.  We supply the drama.  Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike.

[Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. “And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done.”

    Good God in heaven that’s greatness.

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