I’ve done a lot of things in video games. I’ve beaten mutated giants to death with my (virtual) bare hands, jumped city buses off ramps onto freeways, and smashed Italian plumbers into floating bricks for coinage. But while some of these games have been challenging and immersive, none more so than the falling colored shapes of Tetris. It is, in my opinion, the greatest video game of all time.
I should make clear, of course, that I am speaking purely of this as a video game, as in a game played electronically. I am not holding it up as the medium’s own Citizen Kane or Paradise Lost, but rather as our chess. It’s not intended to forge a magical nostalgic memory, but to be an everlasting constant that can, and has, been played by billions the world over (such a constant in fact it’s been stupidly optioned as a sci-fi movie trilogy).
But why has it lasted? Why does it feel satisfying whenever it’s played? Part of it, I think, comes from its pure challenge. Like chess, luck is not an element; there is no sudden piece with special powers that eliminates all the yellow blocks, for example. There is no dice roll in Tetris. No one runs out of ammo, or gets let down by an online teammate. Surviving as those blocks fall is a test of your decision making, nerve, and dexterity – nothing less and nothing more.
Tetris is, in this way, a perfect thing in an imperfect world. It’s no wonder that it came from the mind of a young Soviet computer programmer, Alexey Pajitnov, trapped in some grim Moscow computer science college during the declining 1980s. As all the high-minded ideals of the USSR began to thaw into a rump economic slurry, the citizens of the country were dragged into a grim gutter. It’s also no wonder that the game so quickly became a thing of obsession for children in the 1990s, as Nintendo packaged this colourful block stacker with its original runaway hit: the GameBoy. Tetris naturally feeds into that childlike catharsis of fitting things neatly in place, a square block in a square hole.
Pajitnov consciously or unconsciously was able to wed that feeling with an addictive, tense, and thrilling game. Getting the right piece at exactly the right time, and perhaps knocking out four rows at once, holds that special kind of small, yet fulfilling, joy obtainable by little else. But what may be best of all about Tetris? While many people may record their own scores, it’s never about outdoing anyone but yourself. This quest for self-improvement, a quiet will to get better, is probably the closest a video game has ever come to yoga or meditation, and it’s probably the closest it ever will.
After over 30 years, Tetris is going strong and it’s hard to see how it won’t for 30 to 30 000 years more. Like chess or the Rubik’s cube, it’s addictive, frustrating, poetic, and therapeutic. In essence, an immortal metaphor for life.