In Praise Of... Tetris

On its 30th birthday, Sam Parker argues why he'd still take Tetris over GTA any day

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This year I’ve parachuted over mountaintops at sunrise, explored a tropical island after surviving a plane crash and blown helicopters to smithereens with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.

In 2014, such experiences are available to even the most casual gamer, those of us content to while away the odd hour with the Playstation (though susceptible to a mild depression if it goes on much longer than that).

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But having completed Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider and the rest, there is still one game that gets my heart beating and my palms sweating more than any other. One I find more immersive and captivating than any alternative reality with perfect graphics ever will. One that causes me to wobble off the tube with my head down and risk death on the edge of the tracks at least once a week.

A game made up of nothing but multi-coloured shapes falling into an empty box at increasing speeds. The greatest computer game of all time: Tetris.

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1984

This week, the puzzle game turns 30. I am 29. A genius called Alexey Pajitnov invented it when he was 28. But this isn’t nostalgia talking. Nostalgia for me is watching Aerith Gainsborough slump to her death on the end of Sephiroth’s sword, or executing Chun-Li’s spinning bird kick.

Tetris wasn’t a magical moment in anyone’s gaming life. It was too ahead of its time to belong to the console wars, and those who grew up in the golden age of arcades get misty-eyed at Pac-Man and Space Invaders instead.

The reason it rarely figures in any trips down memory lane is that Tetris has outlived them all. Since 1984 it’s been a constant, there on your Gameboy or mobile or iPad, as simple and timeless a joy as kicking a football or grabbing a fistful of sweets.

I played Tetris during endless boring drives as a child. I used it to soothe myself during unhappy magic mushrooms trips as a teenager. I relied on it to restore my sanity during endless study sessions at university, and now I use it to hide from people on public transport on the way to work. And so have millions - perhaps billions - of other people, in just about every country in the world.

 

Why is it so pleasurable? What is it about Tetris that feels satisfying every time, when the charm of all other games fade with age?

It is partly, I think, the chance to marvel at a perfect thing in an imperfect world. Tetris, like chess and the Rubik's cube (what is it with the Russians?) is a 100% pure challenge - by which I mean luck plays no part. No one rolls a dice in Tetris. No one runs out of ammo, or gets let down by a teammate, or pulls a muscle and has to stop. Surviving as those blocks fall is a test of your decision making, nerve and dexterity – nothing else.

Then there is the simple, innate human joy that comes with fitting things neatly together. Anyone who has ever watched a baby put a square block in a square hole time and time again will recognise why Tetris is so satisfying. Anyone with even mild OCD as an adult will appreciate why it is so cathartic.
 

2014

At the same exact time, it’s thrilling, a game of high tension and endless internal delights. Getting the right piece at exactly the right time. Building a dangerously high block, with one gap down the side, then getting a long piece (everyone’s favourite) and demolishing four rows in one go. The extremely rare moment when you clear the decks completely, and for a brief second can marvel at an empty screen.

Many who play Tetris regularly will know their personal high score. (A very modest 231,426, if you’re asking). But another beautiful thing about Tetris is that it’s not really about being better than anyone else. It’s about self-improvement, a quiet will to get better. It’s the closest video gaming has ever got to yoga or meditation, and it’s probably the closest it ever will.

So there it is. 30 years on, Tetris remains, in many ways, the pinnacle of gaming. Another 30 years - or a 100, or a 1000 - from now, I’ll happily bet people will still be humming its tune and playing a quick game as they board their spaceships. In a world defined by a cycle of newness and obsoletion, Tetris is immortal.

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MORE IN PRAISE OF:

The Selfie 
Russell Brand 
The Hangover 
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