Everyone knows Tetris – at least, everyone from my generation does. Most of us can remember around the year 1990 or so, when the original Gameboy was released bundled with that little grey Tetris cartridge. “From Russia with Fun!”, the box exclaimed, in pink text over a nice, 1980s-style blue triangle.
Tetris was actually designed many years before more players got a hold of it. Back in 1984, Alexey Pajitnov designed and programmed Tetris on an Elektronika 60 computer. It was soon ported to IBM PC, where it first became a big hit. It then became a colossal worldwide hit when Nintendo got a hold of it.
Years later, the series began to take a number of tragic turns. I believe that in the last decade, we’ve unwittingly killed off what was great about Pajitnov’s original brilliant design.
~ The Software and the Game
In videogames, we have a tendency to confuse “the game” and “the software”. The actual program that executes on your Nintendo Entertainment System is called Tetris, but it’s not the game of Tetris. A game is not a program. A game is a set of rules. You can run Tetris on all kinds of different devices, with different programs, and even different names (many clones serve to prove this point), and yet they’re all still the game of Tetris.
Once we have decoupled these, we can talk about the “game” of Tetris – the rules themselves, which is the focus of this article.
~ What Made Tetris Great
In my studies, I’ve found that a lot of people only paid a small amount of attention to the rules or the goal, and simply played as a sort of casual meditation. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think that some people may have been missing out on the real, competitive game of Tetris.
Tetris is a score-based game. The object of the game is to get the highest score possible before the well fills up (a common mistake that people make is to believe that the well filling up is the “game loss” condition, when in fact it’s actually just the “game end” condition).
The decisions in Tetris are, of course, all based around the question of where and how to lay your pieces (Tetronimoes). The strategy is essentially based around choosing between these two large strategic choices: “should I save up for a big payoff later, at the risk of ending the game?”, versus “should I cash in now to play it safe, but get fewer points?”. Of course, the game is deep and interesting enough so that with enough ingenuity, you can sort of do both.
And that’s the point: Tetris, like all great games, forces you to use ingenuity. Both of those two large strategic choices, on their own, are basically bad. One results in you ending the game early, and one results in you getting a low score after a longer game. Neither of these are desirable, so the player must do some kind of balancing act and somehow, somehow, achieve both. I’ve been playing Tetris for a little over 20 years, on and off, and I still find it incredibly interesting to pursue the mastery of the game.
~ Modern Tetris Screws it Up
Sadly, the generation of kids growing up today will probably never know what it was like to play the game of Tetris, because all that they’ll be able to find are horrible abominations of the original design. Here are the four main problems with modern versions.
- Problem #1: Next Box(es)
You probably recall that the game originally had a single “Next Piece” box which previewed which piece was coming next. This was a nice feature which allowed just enough strategy to exist with placing pieces. Without a next-box at all, the game would be significantly more random, as you could do no planning with your current piece to accommodate your next one.
Digital game developers seem to have this thing where they believe that “more” is equivalent to “better”, and so starting with The New Tetris (N64) we got introduced to a second and third next-box. Of course, that wasn’t the end of that. With each new iteration in the 2000s, we got more and more next boxes, until at this point there are now games that have as many as seven. Seven next boxes.
As I mentioned earlier, the big question in Tetris is whether or not to decide to cash in now, or save up for later. So let’s say I have a triple lined up, and my current piece is a line piece. I can use that to get a triple now (the safe move), or I can use it to help me set up a Tetris (four lines at once) for later (the high risk/reward move). In normal, 1-next-box Tetris, this decision is ambiguous and whether I go for it will depend on many factors. In 7-next-box Tetris, it is trivial. Save up if there’s a line somewhere in the next 7 pieces, and cash in if not. No decisions required.
- Problem #2: The “Hold” Box
2000s-era Tetris programs also started regularly including something called the “Hold Box”, which allowed players to place their current active piece into a special box. They could then later swap out a future piece for that saved piece whenever they liked.
We all know that situation where you get a few line pieces early on when you don’t need them, and then later suffer a line-piece drought. This is a great example of one of those situations where what the player wants while playing, and what the player really wants from a game design overall, might not be the same thing.
It’s natural to assume, “well, those times when I need a line and can’t find one are bad, so if I can store one for those times, then that makes the game better”. The problem is that Tetris is at its most interesting when you can’t find the piece you need. In those times when you can’t find the piece you need, those are the times when you have to come up with a creative solution. Think of it this way: if you always got the piece you needed, there would be no game. And that’s sort of the situation with modern Tetris.
- Problem #3: Infinite Spin
This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but it does defeat the purpose of having the game be real-time. You know how when you get a piece to the bottom of a well, there’s that second where you can still spin or slide the piece before it locks into place? Well, with Infinite Spin, a feature in almost every modern Tetris app, every time you spin the piece, that second-clock resets. This means you can spin the piece indefinitely, while you consider your options.
You may or may not consider this a problem. I’m in the former camp, but it’s not terribly significant either way. However, when combined with the rest of these problems, it helps to create a tensionless environment.
- Problem #4: The 7-Bag
This may be the biggest problem of all. As you know, the pieces that Tetris throws at you are randomly generated. This is what creates that sense of “pushing your luck” type ambiguity to the decisions a player has to make.
The 7 Bag changes it from an almost purely random generation to a much more predictable and controlled randomness. What it does is take all seven tetronimoes, and place them in a bag. Then, it pulls each out one at a time. This means that you can never go more than 14 pieces without getting another line piece after your last one (and usually it would be more like 7-10).
Consider the implications of the 7-Bag in combination with the 7 next boxes! You almost never don’t know what’s coming up; there is absolutely no ambiguity.
The 7-Bag is yet another situation where something a player might think he wants while playing – a more regular, less random stream of tetronimoes – yet actually makes for a less interesting and less ambiguous game.
So, when you add it all up, modern Tetris is really more like an execution contest than a “game”, in that the decisions it asks you to make are all pretty trivial, and instead it’s just a matter of doing them. Indeed, you can see that many competitive modern players play the game at incredible speeds
~ How Did This Happen?
While the loss of Tetris is significant, there is a much more significant lesson to be learned from this story. There’s a reason why Tetris was lost, and the reason is that we, collectively, didn’t have a respect and appreciation for what it was we had.
The answer is that we never really even knew what it was we had in the first place. Firstly, we simply do not have a reverence for the discipline of game design. Would a conductor who’s creating a new recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony feel comfortable changing some notes, or adding a flute solo here, or removing a section? People understand that Beethoven was a genius composer, and you don’t go screwing around with his brilliant work. People do not yet think of games in a similar way.
Eventually we will, but at the moment we don’t even have a good understanding of “game design” as being its own discipline in the first place. This is related to our inability to draw the line between “software” and “game”, often confusing programmers for designers and vice versa. Without understanding what game design is, we cannot give it the reverence it deserves.
The bigger question here is this: how do we know this won’t happen again? How does a game designer working now, slaving away on his or her masterpiece that they are hoping will be the next Tetris, know that their game won’t be horribly bastardized and ruined 10-20 years down the line? The answer, at the moment, is that they don’t.
If we can show game designers that we, as a culture, really appreciate their work, they will produce better games. Hopefully, if and when we get the next Tetris, we’ll know it when we see it. And this time, we’ll protect it the way that great works of art deserve to be protected.