As history’s most popular game turns 30, here’s why millions of us are still playing today
On Friday the 6th of June, Tetris reached level 30 in life. This got me thinking back to the little transparent purply-grey Game Boy I first played it on, all the way up until my more recent days at university, when my housemates and I would sit in our living room competing for the highest score on our iPhones (yep, those were wild days).
This is a game that feels like it has some kind of a mystical hold over those that play it, so that by the time you put it down and go to sleep even your dreams assemble through falling squares. Why though, in a world full of addictive apps and big-budget titles does Tetris still remain the game I always end up going back to?
Let’s start with its history. Rarely do great things have an easy ride to success, and this is certainly true of Tetris. Created by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov during the Cold War, it took ten years full of legal messiness for him to receive any rights or royalties for his efforts. In this time, various software companies also fought for rights to create their own versions of the game, with perhaps the most famous coming to light in 1989 when Tetris was released on the Game Boy. All of this has contributed to Tetris’ strong presence in the gaming world, with an impact that still ripples through modern day gaming.
When Pajitnov first got the idea for Tetris, he was apparently inspired by pentominoes, geometric figures that can be joined together with five equal square edges. During development, the real breakthrough came when he realised that by completing each line of blocks on the bottom of the screen, it would disappear and the game could move on perpetually. This proved to be the ultimate hook of Tetris (and don’t I know it).
More specifically though, Tetris’ addictiveness is thought to be down to something called the ‘Zeigarnik effect’, which suggests we remember things that are incomplete more than those that are completed. This theory works well with a game like Tetris, which is fuelled by the constant task of slotting together the blocks into layers. As we play, we are completing tasks while at the same time creating more to solve. It’s impossible to ever truly win Tetris, and although it sounds ridiculous to type, that futility is exactly why I can’t stop playing it.
The never-ending aspect that requires constant attention and repetitive motions puts me into this hypnotic trance where everything else around me and all of my other thoughts are blocked out. I guess this is what has also always made it especially attractive to play during train commutes and – not so helpfully – exam periods.
Oh, and what would Tetris be without that soundtrack? It’s not only a part of its nostalgic element now, but also very much a part of its overall identity and addictiveness (it’s just impossible not to get that tune stuck in your head). The theme tune was actually inspired by a Russian folk song called ‘Korobeiniki’, which also happens to be about a peddler and a girl who flirt by haggling over goods. No, I’m not seeing the connection either, but have you started humming it yet?
Whether old or young, into games or not, Tetris’ incredibly simplistic concept combined with the mobility of being able to play it on a handheld device made it attractive to a plethora of people. In this sense, there’s also a lot to be said for Tetris and the way it has inspired many of the most popular mobile apps we see to this day, with the Candy Crushers and Angry Birds of this world following a similar concept.
Nowadays Tetris is pretty much essential to any gaming platform, available on everything from the classic Gameboy and next-gen consoles to Facebook and the iPhone. Throughout every spectacular development in gaming, Tetris remains a constant, adapting itself to fit with the various requirements and perks of each device. This sustainability proves just how popular a game it is, even 30 years later.
So happy belated birthday, Tetris. Here’s to another 30 years of you driving us all totally nuts.
Images; Ubisoft, Tetris.com