Tetris Speaks a Universal Language
The new movie shows how the classic game transcends geopolitical barriers.
For a game with no storyline, Tetris makes a solid movie.
Of course, the new Apple TV+ film isn’t adapting the classic video game, which would have been a foolish, pointless exercise that might have looked something like this:
With all due respect to Captain N: The Game Master, I’d have no interest in watching a storyline based in a blocky Tetris world. (Fun fact about Captain N: The villainous Mother Brain is voiced by none other than Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, who also voiced the carnivorous plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors and was apparently on the verge of being typecast as a female non-humanoid villain.)
Instead of offering an ill-advised adaptation, Apple’s Tetris shows the real-world battle over the rights to Tetris … which also sounds like something that shouldn’t work as a movie.
But it does work.
No doubt, the movie edits and embellishes details for entertainment value, and I’d be curious to read a straightforward nonfiction account. Even taking it with a grain of salt, the elements of an interesting story are there:
An ambitious underdog who puts everything on the line in the pursuit of a dream
Soviet officials who are trying to hold onto their fading power for however long they have left
Corrupt businessmen who fancy themselves above the law
A talented programmer with a genius idea
An oppressive government that threatens to smother that idea
And a burgeoning friendship that transcends geopolitical barriers
Plus, we can always count on Cold War paranoia to enhance tension.
If this were pure fiction, the movie would be a mildly entertaining and somewhat far-fetched diversion. But a movie is always more interesting when it’s “based on a true story.” It’s right there in the promo image above: “The story you couldn’t make up.” Once we have some assurance that something like this actually happened, we can relax our suspension of disbelief, to a point.
Add in the fact that it’s “based on a true story” about a game that so many people love, and it’s all the more fascinating. Any embellishments aside, Tetris the movie shows how fortunate we are that the game managed to escape the iron grip of the Soviet Union—and that a few people risked so much to make that happen.
The film also serves as a love letter to Tetris itself, and it got me thinking about what a remarkable achievement Alexey Pajitnov’s video game truly is.
It’s an interactive puzzle with seven types of pieces, and each fresh game introduces new problems to solve on the fly. It engages the brain in a different way than the typical side-scrolling game.
In the Super Mario Bros. games, for example, you learn through trial and error as the obstacles always reset to their same starting point. That’s still plenty fun, and I devoted countless hours to such Nintendo games 30+ years ago. In Tetris, however, you never know what the game will throw at you. The pieces will be piling up, and you’ll be waiting for that thin line to come down so you can eliminate four rows in a great big flash—but you’ve also got to be ready to pivot to a back-up plan in case that line doesn’t arrive for a while. Good times.
A few years ago, I learned that there’s even a Classic Tetris World Championship.
It never occurred to me that that was a thing, and yet I wasn’t surprised. It’s sort of like the video game equivalent of a chess tournament.
Look at the sportsmanship of these players:
No matter what language you speak or what country you live in, you can enjoy Tetris. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re 6, 16, 36, or 60, or whether you’re playing in 1989 or 2023. Tetris remains fun across time, geography, and demographics.
The game shows us that for all our cultural or generational differences, perhaps we have more in common than we realize. That’s its true magic, and that should be the goal of any pop culture—bringing people together with timeless fun.
On the subject of putting pieces in the correct place, my non-Substack website has received a long-overdue overhaul. Check it out here.
Lastly, here’s history without the embellishments, as we take a brief look at a very long and thorough book:
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