Theory: ‘Tetris’ Is Actually About Turning 30
Tetris Ultimate is out now for Nintendo 3DS on Nintendo eShop.
Welcome to HuffPost Game Theory Review: alternative explanations for what’s really going on in the world’s biggest video games.
Tetris, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary, is one of the most-studied and speculated upon video games in history, precisely because it is also one of the most infuriating.
And the new Tetris Ultimate, out now for the Nintendo 3DS, does nothing to change that.
For while the game is ostensibly simple (rotate the falling tetrominoes, build lines, try to survive as the game gets faster) underneath lies a hideous complexity. Anyone who has ever played the game — and at this point surely that is everyone with access to a computer, phone or the side of a building –knows, playing Tetris is a devastating experience.
No surprise that scientists have taken an interest. Some have argued for decades about the theoretical possibility of an endless game, while others have conducted psychological research surrounding its impact on the human brain.
And yet that is not the whole story. For numerous theories also exist as to its true meaning – and whether or not it is in some way a conspiracy.
Some argue Tetris is a Communist plot to train our minds for participation in the ordered collective. Some say it is a rumination on the whims of God. Still others are writing a – real – Hollywood ‘Epic Sci-Fi Adventure Film’ about the game, presumably picturing it within the context of an abstract alien invasion.
In reality, the game is none of these things.
For I have a theory, and it is this: Tetris is actually a satirical narrative about life, death and… why you should not play Tetris.
Tetris is actually about turning 30.
In ‘Tetris’, everything begins pleasantly enough.
You are born, sparkling and clean, into a confusing but explicable world of columns and rows. Slowly, so slowly the first blocks begin to fall, and as they do you gurgle with enjoyment. First a line, then maybe an ‘L’ block. Happily they emerge, descending on a cloud of time. You play with their placement and toy with their rotating forms, gently urging them into position. Bliss.
For a while.
Gradually, though, you will notice the blocks fall a little faster. The heartbeat pulse of their descending pixels will become stronger and more pronounced. This won’t worry you, of course. Not you. It will energise you. You will place bricks in nice, even lines. You will be vigorous. And you will urge the speed to increase even further, pushing for it to grow as you grow, and to match your clear-eyed purpose.
But then, equally subtly, there will come a moment when the tension suddenly snaps.
Maybe a T block will overhang a two-block gap. Maybe you’ll misplace a J block and be forced to move your attention up a few pixels. And maybe you’ll overcome it, clearing the lines above and then solving your previous mistake.
The thought, however, is implanted. You are not perfect. In fact, you are ageing. And you can’t keep this up forever. The speed never decreases, it only ramps up, but your concentration and the construction of your history, your lines and your foundations, starts to crack. Gaps appear, and are left unsolved. Victories are still celebrated, but only in context of your more glorious past, and the clear tragedy approaching from the sky. Your points will rack up, you will grow wealthy, and other players may stop to watch and admire your flawed mastery. But you will know only one thing: the end is approaching.
It is the end that truly hurts. For as all Tetris players know, it is rarely met by valiant defiance – attempting to the very last to clear space and return to glory – but with knowing capitulation. You might still have three or four lines to go when you give up all hope, hold ‘down’ and power your way into your doom.
And that is that. The game is over. You are destroyed. And what is the sum total of your victory? Does anyone remember the lines you cleared? Can anyone even see them?
No. Nothing is left. Nothing, that is, but a record of your mistakes, and a number in a box, and the realisation spreading across your brow that you should have spent the last 15 minutes doing anything – anything – other than by playing Tetris. You could have seen the sunrise. You could have gone to the pub and chatted with an old friend.
But no, you did not, and now you are here. Alone in misery.
This is not to say that Tetris is an inevitably depressing experience. As in life, there are too many moments of tranquility, beauty and exhilaration in the average Tetris ‘sesh to deny that it does have intrinsic value. That it is addictive because it is fun, not just because it is maddening.
But the reality of Tetris – even when played with friends, online, or on the bus in Ubisoft’s pretty great new 3DS incarnation, which also features Team Play and six modes of gameplay – is that there is only one message at its heart.
It is not to join the Communists. It is not to worship God. It is not to study the human mind, to make a mint and work for Google or build and destroy for the sake of it.
The message of Tetris is only that yes, you too will get old. You will struggle. You will see dreams achieved and lost, and failures accumulate and destroy you.
Hug your loved ones, it says. Stay warm. Appeal to the sky. But know that approaching from the clouds comes nothing, ultimately, but an awkward succession of T, Z and L blocks, and you can’t stack them perfectly forever. They will fall, like tombstones, until you are on your knees.
And they will bury you.
Michael Rundle turns 30 on Wednesday.