Tetris: the remarkable, weird story behind the game
With news of a Tetris movie finally hitting, we look back at the startling story behind the original game...
Somewhere in Moscow in 1984, 29-year-old computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov sat at his work station, deep within a building called the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Here, in front of his hulking computer, an Elektronika 60, Pajitnov was working on one of his latest programs. If you’d been one of his superiors, Pajitnov would have told you that he was examining its code for bugs. But in reality, he was addicted.
Had you taken a look over Pajitnov’s shoulder at what he was working on back then, it’s likely you wouldn’t have thought much of it in any case. Just a few characters juddering down a screen - the Elektronika being such a crude computer that it could only display text. But what the young programmer had in front of him was the early prototype for what he’d later call Tetris - a single word cobbled together from tetromino and tennis - a game which would soon sweep the entire world. It was simple, absorbing, and above all, utterly addictive.
"The program wasn't complicated," Pajitnov told the Guardian in 2009. "There was no scoring, no levels. But I started playing and I couldn't stop. That was it."
Over the next few years, Tetris's strange, addictive allure resulted in one of the weirdest stories in videogame history - a story which ropes in such unlikely 80s and 90s faces as Robert Maxwell, Mikhail Gorbachev and Andrew Lloyd Webber. As word of a film trilogy based on Tetris lands, join us as we look at some of the strange stories from the game's past...
Sharing and smuggling contributed to its initial popularity
With private business illegal in the Soviet Union, Pajitnov was nervous about what his superiors might do if he attempted to make Tetris into a commercial piece of software. Nevertheless, Pajitnov continued to develop Tetris with the help of a colleague, Dmitry Pavlovsky, and a 16-year-old computer programmer, Vadim Gerasimov. Gerasimov helped develop some of the ideas and rules present in the finished game, and equally importantly, he ported Tetris across from the bulky and obscure Elektronika 60 to the more commonly-owned PC. With the PC version able to support colour graphics, the true value of Tetris as a puzzle game became apparent. Pajitnov and Gerasimov began distributing the PC version of Tetris among friends in 1985, and it was through sharing that the game’s fame began to spread.
Tetris was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and into Hungary a short while later, and it was from here that Pajitnov’s game began to head across Europe. Like a virus, Tetris was spreading its addictive properties from computer to computer.
Robert Maxwell was vaguely connected to its appearance in the UK
Mirrorsoft was one of many computer software companies started up in the British computer boom of the 1980s. Its founder members were Jim Mackonochie and Robert Maxwell, the latter being the flamboyant publishing tycoon whose empire collapsed following his death in 1991. It was Mirrorsoft (and its American affiliate Spectrum HoloByte) who published the first commercial versions of Tetris in 1987 and 1988, with ports developed for such computers as the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64.
Mirrorsoft’s Tetris packaging and background graphics made much of the game’s Russian origins (one version even claimed that Tetris was banned in the USSR because of its addictive qualities). But Mirrorsoft’s right to publish Tetris were suspect at best: it had purchased the license to make the game from another British company, Andromeda, yet Andromeda - and its president Robert Stein - hadn’t reached a proper deal to publish Tetris, either from Pajitnov or the Soviet government.
Nevertheless, Tetris was an immediate hit, earning ecstatic reviews and selling in healthy quantities. The game’s fame was spreading, but as Tetris’s name became ever more valuable, the tussle over who should own the rights to it would soon intensify.
The story of its western licensing deal would make a great Cold War thriller
One of the key people to fall under Tetris’s spell was Henk Rogers, a Dutch videogame designer and publisher. He first saw Tetris at Las Vegas's Computer Electronics Show in January 1988, and he immediately recognised its huge potential. The problem was, so did several other influential industry figures across America, Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union.
Behind the iron curtain, a state-owned company called Elektronorgtechnica (or Elorg for short), had taken over the responsibility of selling the rights to Tetris overseas. Because Pajitnov and his colleagues had created Tetris while working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Tetris effectively belonged to the state, and by extension, Elorg.
It’s here that the rights issue surrounding Tetris became somewhat fraught. The UK company Andromeda was forced to negotiate a proper licensing deal with Elorg when the latter’s director, Alexander Alexinko, noticed that Andromeda was selling on rights that it didn’t actually own. Meanwhile, Spectrum HoloByte sub-licensed its rights to Henk Rogers’ company, Bulletproof Software, which planned to sell Tetris in Japan, without realising that Mirrorsoft had also sub-licensed the game to Atari, who planned to sell it not only in America, but also in Japan.
If all this sounds confusing, that’s because it was. Just to add to the intrigue, Henk Rogers had brokered a deal with Nintendo to create a version of Tetris for the company’s forthcoming handheld console, the Game Boy. But first, Rogers had to get the rights to a handheld version of Tetris from Elorg.
What happened next was like something from a videogame geek's pulp thriller. Rogers headed to Moscow to make a deal with Elorg face to face, without the correct permission from the Soviet government (he was travelling on a tourist visa rather than a business visa, which could have landed him in serious trouble). What Rogers didn’t know was that Robert Stein from Andromeda and Mirrorsoft’s Kevin Maxwell (son of Robert) had also flown to Moscow, both equally anxious to secure their own rights to Tetris.
Rogers was then subjected to a two-hour interview with a range of KGB personnel, lawyers and businessmen, over the thorny issue of Tetris' copyright. Ultimately, Rogers used his charm and won the console rights to Tetris - despite the best efforts of Robert Maxwell, who even made a direct appeal to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbochev in an attempt to change the deal. The huge legal tussle over the game would continue to rage - quite publically - for several years to come. (On a semi-related topic, the FBI would, years after Maxwell's death, suggest that the late tycoon may have been a Russian spy.)
Atari’s NES version is rare...
One of the biggest names in the battle for the rights to Tetris was Atari. It created an arcade version of Tetris in 1988, and through its publishing arm Tengen, released a port of the game for the Nintendo Entertainment System in May the following year. There was a problem for Atari, however: thanks to Henk Rogers' exclusivity deal with Elorg, Nintendo eventually won a court case which denied its rival the right to publish Tetris on its consoles. Atari, suffering a humiliating defeat, was forced to withdraw the remaining copies of NES Tetris from sale, and it’s thought that only around 100,000 copies of its version of the game still remain in the wild. Widely considered to be superior to Nintendo’s own version of Tetris, the Atari-Tengen game is now a sought-after collectors’ item.
...but not as vanishingly rare as the Sega Mega Drive version
Sega, having created its own version of Tetris for arcades in the late 80s, had also readied a port for its 16-bit console, the Sega Mega Drive. The storm surrounding Tetris prompted Sega to hurriedly scrap the game, however, and it’s estimated that only a handful of boxed copies of Sega Mega Drive Tetris still exist. In 2011, a copy of Mega Drive Tetris, signed by Pajitnov, went on sale on eBay for a horrifying $1m.
It changed the face of handheld gaming forever
The real winner in the Tetris ownership battle was, of course, Nintendo. Co-developed by Henk Rogers’ company Bullet Proof Software, the Game Boy edition of Tetris became the handheld’s true killer app. While it’s likely that the Game Boy would have been successful even without Tetris, it’s hard to imagine a game better suited to both the system’s monochrome screen - and what’s more, Tetris’ simple yet enthralling design made it perfect for short and intense play sessions. Bundled as a pack-in title with the Game Boy system in 1989, Tetris quickly became one of the biggest-selling and most ubiquitous games on Earth. Handheld gaming would never be quite the same again.
Andrew Lloyd Webber had a top 10 Tetris-related hit
Although not the only tune you can choose from in Game Boy Tetris, Hirokazu Tanka’s arrangement of the traditional folk song Korobeiniki is arguably the most recognisable. So recognisable, in fact, that it’s most widely referred to as The Tetris Song, and it’s this tune that was most commonly heard warbled out of the Game Boy’s tinny speakers in the late 80s and 90s. Ranking alongside the theme to Super Mario Bros as one of the most familiar tunes in gaming, the Tetris arrangement of Korobeiniki even became the subject of a hit record in the early 90s.
Musical theatre baron Andrew Lloyd Webber (famous for things like The Phantom Of The Opera and Cats) and record producer Nigel Wright, calling themselves Doctor Spin, released the a dance remix called Tetris in 1992. It reached number two in the UK charts.
Pajitnov, meanwhile, finds the use of traditional Russian music in his game a bit awkward. "It was very embarrassing for me," he told the Guardian. "When kids of the world hear these pieces of music, they start screaming: 'Tetris! Tetris!' That's not very good for Russian culture...
Tetris has its own syndrome named after it
Some players have said that playing Tetris for extended periods of time can lead to what’s been termed the Tetris Effect, or Tetris Syndrome: sufferers begin to see Tetris-like shapes in the world around them, and begin to imagine how they might clear these shapes by fitting them neatly together. Others dream about Tetris’s colourful falling blocks while they sleep.
These side-effects seem to be harmless, however, and some scientists have claimed that there may be several benefits from playing Tetris. These range from helping patients recover from post-traumatic stress, helping smokers give up their Marlboro Lights, to suggestions that Tetris strengthens a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. It’s also thought that Tetris can improve spatial awareness in those who play it regularly - which should mean that a generation of people who grew up with Tetris in the 80s and 90s should be really, really good at reverse-parking in supermarket car parks. Possibly.
A mathematician wrote a Tetris thesis
You might think that, because Tetris involves cancelling out completed rows of tetrominoes, a player of sufficient skill could theoretically keep on playing the game for all eternity. According to mathematician John Brzustowski, however, a lengthy enough game of Tetris will always end in defeat.
Brzustowski's Master of Science thesis, which he published in 1992, suggests that if the player will eventually receive too many of what he calls 'kinky' tetrominoes (the ones shaped like an S or a Z), he or she will be forced to leave gaps in the play area, eventually leading to a big Game Over. More recent revisions of Tetris have, however, changed the way the tetrominoes are randomly dished out, meaning that a player really could keep on playing forever - or at least until their boss calls, asking why they haven't turned up at work for the past week.
Tetris' addictive qualities are due to something called the Zeigarnik Effect
It's now 30 years since Pajitnov dreamed up Tetris, and it's still one of the most ubiquitous games in the world. Available for just about every system imaginable - from smart phones to the latest consoles - Tetris has been played, it's estimated, by at least a billion people worldwide.
So what is Tetris' secret? Why is it so infuriatingly addictive? According to Dr Tom Stafford, a psychologist from the University of Stafford, it's because it taps into something called the Zeigarnik Effect. In the 1930s, a Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that a waitress in a cafe had the ability to remember a dozen orders from her customers, but immediately forgot all that gathered information as soon as the orders were completed. Zeigarnik came to the conclusion that the human brain is hardwired to store up incomplete tasks, and then dispose of those memories once they're no longer useful.
"Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks," Stafford wrote in 2012. "Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch."
Almost by accident, Alexey Pajitnov created a game that naturally appeals to the problem-solving part of our brains, making it as addictive as popping bubble wrap. It's the reason we're still playing and thinking and dreaming about Tetris, 30 years on from its creation - and why we'll almost certainly still be playing it for many more decades to come.
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