Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Tetramino, Falling

Robert Buerkle | 28 Sep 2010 12:59
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And existentialists read Tetris as a grand metaphor for life and death. The player works and strives to stay alive, continually struggling to avoid the death that occurs once the blocks reach the top of the screen, yet as time goes by, staying alive only becomes more and more difficult, as the inevitability of death creeps closer and closer, since Tetris offers no win-condition. Playing Tetris, then, is merely a struggle to stave off death for as long as possible, where the point is not winning or losing, but rather the experience that precedes the end.

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Of course, none of these readings are the "correct" one, and designer Alexey Pajitnov likely did not intend any particular meaning to his most famous work, yet even those who do not annunciate their own metaphorical reading of Tetris still find that it speaks to them in some powerful way.

Many have had the experience of playing Tetris for hours on end, absorbed in the hypnotic task of maneuvering blocks into place over and over and over again and later wondering where those lost hours went. Even more telling is the phenomenon of "Tetris dreams," an occurrence with which many of us are likely familiar, and which has been reported by psychologists at Harvard Medical School who found that over 60 percent of those who play significant amounts of Tetris see floating tetraminoes while they sleep. Most striking was that this even occurred in players with severe amnesia who couldn't remember playing the game ("I see images that are turned on their side," said one participant. "I don't know where they are from. I wish I could remember, but they are like blocks"). Other studies have shown Tetris to be so deeply affecting as to help reduce post-traumatic stress disorder and increase brain efficiency, and even popular culture acknowledges the prevalence of waking Tetris moments, as we look at geometrical elements in the world around us and suddenly envision a Tetris landscape that we want to arrange in some orderly, grid-like manner.

Despite its mode of expression seeming incomparable to our traditional notions of art and media, Tetris undoubtedly means something to the people who play it. It is a powerful and deeply affecting work, one that seems timeless and transcendent in its ability to captivate audiences. More than 25 years after its Soviet debut, players still repeatedly come back to Tetris. At once simple and sophisticated, Tetris achieves those varied qualities that we associate with the finest works of art: tension, balance, rhythm, structure, sublimity. It absorbs its player wholly and speaks in a language and logic all its own, creating a fluid experience of assemblage and gravity. It replaces our world of chaos with perfect and simple order, then gradually descends back into turmoil. It creates left-brain rapture. It is enchanting.

Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris. Among the pantheon of great works produced by the 20th century, Tetris fits comfortably. Yet while we frequently hold the cinema as our aesthetic yardstick for evaluating videogames (Can games emulate the photorealism of the camera? Can they emotionally invest us in their fiction?), modern art better supplies the tools with which we can best appreciate Tetris.

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