[gaming] The amazing absurdity of competetive Tetris

There's something... universal about Tetris. For a game made in 1984, it might just be the most universal game ever made. It's so embedded within the human psyche that everyone has some sort of idea of what it is. It's so deeply embedded that people who have never even touched a video game in their life know what the point of Tetris is the moment they see it and can vividly remember playing it. It's documented and known as the Tetris Effect.

Tetris from 1984, used under CC-BY-SA from Commons

I remember my first time playing Tetris. I was 9 years old and I had just received my last required vaccination shot. Because I was terrified of the needle and being in the building where they gave the shots, my parents gave me a cheap gameboy-esque knockoff device. It was a very simplistic device; it had a simple LED screen, A and B buttons, arrow keys and could play two games. Snake, which is a very different topic and... Tetris (it could also show the time but most devices could do that in 2009, even if there was no point to it).

Everyone has those moments. Even my grandma, who has openly stated an extreme dislike for almost every game known to man, mobile phones and anything to do with technology that isn't reading the news or playing patience loves Tetris. To her it's not Tetris. To her it's playing a falling blocks game based on a gameshow she used to watch.

Tetris is so delightfully simple. 5-tile shaped blocks, all connected, fall down at random intervals. Your task as the player is to fill out full width lines of the screen with these blocks. One of the buttons rotates the blocks as they fall down. Fill out a line, and you get points. That is, at least on a very basic level, the gameplay of Tetris. Frequently there is a button added to the game to make the blocks fall down quicker, but I would not say that is required to play the game.1

Tetris is, like most games made in the 80s and early 90s, a game very much rooted into achieving a high schore. There is no deep narrative to Tetris. It is just about falling blocks and getting a high score. However... for some reason the idea of competitive Tetris just seemed alien to me. I'm by no means unfamiliar with competetive games. Watching world records and speedruns of video games, both within intended ideas and in the realm of the unintended glitches, is something that I find very interesting, even if I lack the skill to do most of this stuff myself.2

But yet... it exists. I was first made aware of this thanks to a friend; I was a little bit disinterested about the recent Tetris Effect game. After all; Tetris has been remade so many times and there's already so many ports to PC, why would you want another version? And then she began going on about the rotation point of a block and suddenly I went from disinterested to completely mystified. If you can spend time analyzing the quality of a new game as simple as falling blocks, there's got to be more to it.

As it turns out, Tetris has a very active competetive scene and the quality of games is extensively documented on the Tetris Wiki. I have seen footage of it, and compared to other competetive tournament or gameplay footage, it's something else. If you think that announcers for fighting game competitions can be the invested type, the ones for Tetris seem almost on a whole other level. And that's... just kinda absurd. This is a game whose basic nature is so simple that anyone can understand it when they look at what's going on. Why would you need an announcer for that, I wondered?

To understand what I mean, I can look at someone playing Tetris professionally and I won't be left with a meandering stare as to what's going on. With other games, watching a speedrun or competetive play is like watching someone preform magic. Sure, I can preform some of the components here, but at some point people start doing such frame-perfect skips and moves that I'm just left in a certain awe. I still feel that awe with competetive Tetris, but unlike those games, that awe comes with an understanding. Tetris is so simple that even I fully understand every single one of it's mechanics, even if I don't know specifically how the randomizer isn't truly random or how the blocks should rotate counterclockwise or clockwise, that I can also get that understanding of just why the person playing it is so good at the game. I'm terrible at Tetris. I think my high score with the game is 27 lines before giving up. But even with that low level of personal skill, my knowledge of the game is at the point where I can follow that along.

It's a sensation I do encourage people to at least see and try out.

But at the same time... I can't deny that I find that absurdity, that understanding, something truly delightful. To me, that is probably one of the coolest things about being human. Tetris is a game whose basic understanding is so easy to grasp, so logical, it seems nearly alien to consider playing it competetively. Yet the fact that we can find investment, find joy, find tournaments being based just on the act of dropping blocks into lines, that is something truly amazing.3

As for me; I might actually try Tetris: Effect Connected. It's been a while since we had a good Tetris game. Tetris 100 didn't captivate me. Tetris from EA on mobile was for ages the only version I actually had access to and it's infamously terrible. I think it might be time to just have some fun with falling blocks. Don't think I'd do it competetively though.

That's all.

  1. Unfortunately here I do need to bring up that there is technically speaking a massive internal list of requirements to make a Tetris game that the owner of Tetris is notoriously awful about (in general the Tetris Company are wankers), but this is about the primal idea of Tetris, not it's design document.
  2. A quick shout-out to Summoning Salt whose analysis videos of speedruns and how Wold Records evolved over time are great. Check him out.
  3. One thing that even elevates it for me is that when you get down to it, Tetris is considered an "NP-complete" game. This means that, hypothetically speaking, Tetris can be solved by a computer to attain the maximum score possible for every combination. The fact we can derive joy from something that is technologically considered completely pointless is amazing.