Feb. 21, 2021

Tetris Doesn't Need an Introduction (Introduction)

Tetris doesn't need an introduction. {-- Here it is. It speeds up. --} The game was discovered by Alexey Pajitnov and developed for the Elektronica 60 computer in 1984. Since then the license to produce Tetris games has slowly diffused through the triple-A world and now you can probably play it on every device you own. A lot of people say that Tetris is a perfect game, and I think they're probably right. But just stating that as an obvious fact, or pointing out the game's lack of extraneous elements ignores the real mechanical and textural differences in the many versions of Tetris. I think that's kind of a shame, because there are a lot of great and distinct Tetris games out there. In this series of three short essays I'm going to try to uncover a deeper truth about Tetris's perfection.

God Hates Tetris (Tetris DS)

In 2008, I moved all the way across Canada in a month-long, zigzagging drive through the country. I had a Nintendo DS Lite, a pile of games, and as many snacks as my family saw fit to give me. I'm sure I had played Tetris before that drive. Maybe even Tetris DS. Some games that are linked to a time in our lives, and for me Tetris will always summon up the summer of 2008. Within the first week I had beaten the game's 99-line marathon mode and unlocked endless marathon.

From there, at least once per day, I played endless mode until the line counter maxed out at nine-hundred ninety-nine. My Tetris skills are shaped like Tetris DS, and its 20 NES-themed screens will be spinning forever in the corners of my memory. The other modes are great too, but Tetris is defined most of all by its ubiquitous marathon mode, where the game ends after some number of lines are cleared or never ends at all.

Tetris DS has a mechanic that you might not notice at first, called infinity {== show the Next Tetris and Tetris DS split screen ==}. It was probably part of the secret Tetris guideline at some point, since it has shown up in a few games. Most modern Tetris games have a feature called lock delay; once a piece hits the stack {== use some sort of highlighting motion graphic to highlight the stack ==} you can continue to move it for a little while before it locks in place. In Tetris DS, spinning a piece resets this delay. {== show infinite spins for a little bit ==}

This has some pretty serious ramifications. Once you're good enough to play at the game's highest speeds, the only way to fail is by misplacing pieces. If your DS had a turbo button, you could even take breaks without losing. This is in contrast to older versions of Tetris, which are very frictional. NES Tetris, which is a pretty popular competitive game, locks pieces as soon as they hit the stack. Because of this, it eventually reaches a point where humans can no longer play fast enough to get pieces to the sides of the screen.

Although Tetris DS is obviously flawed, it is still a fun version of Tetris. Failure is always inevitable in Tetris, so the broken spin mechanic just prolongs the game, albeit by a long long time. Writers at the Hard Drop wiki went as far as to call its endgame 'insultingly easy,' and critics have noted that infinite spin is a game breaking feature, but it does still require you to play at high speed for a long time.

However, if we could play arbitrarily fast Tetris DS would cease to even be a game. A tool-assisted speedrun of Tetris DS is like watching a God's data entry job, or a robot using the paint bucket tool for 45 minutes. For a perfect player, Tetris is a preordained death march toward some arbitrary score or line count. There is no possible way to lose. There isn't even any challenge. The cold, robot hands build a perfectly shaped tower and then knock it down, over and over.

When a human plays Tetris, they are aspiring toward this endless, perfect, repetition. We want the game to keep going. We want that perfect tower with a one-block space on the right side, or the nicely arranged line of potential T-Spins. But if anyone ever managed to play Tetris perfectly—and perfectly consistently— the game would immediately lose its appeal. Tetris is fun because we have to keep pace with it, and because there is always a chance that a bad piece will show up, or we'll make a mistake. A human Tetris player is Sisyphus, who happily, endlessly repeats his absurd task. A Tetris God is a gambler in Hell.

The experience of enjoying Tetris is a uniquely human one; the board is completely abstract and the only theme the pieces fit is the number of squares they are made from. These are not things that dogs understand. Like all games, it was realized with a programming language, an abstraction from the machine language which controls electricity in precisely engineered pieces of silicon and metal that were discovered to have useful properties over the course of thousands of years of human history. Like all games, it is a ridiculous, beautiful, miraculous creation. When I play games that I feel are important, things like that start to cross my mind. Tetris is an unassuming game, especially for casual players. It's engaging and fun, but extremely simple. There is something monumentally important beneath its surface, so deeply true that it's difficult to even articulate. I will, inevitably, fail to get it across, but maybe these 4000 words can imitate that feeling that Tetris conveys. {== fade to black ==}

Tetris is Not a Concept (TGM)

In North America, Nintendo Tetris is king. The Game Boy version was bundled with the system, and it sold 35 million copies {== source at telegraph article ==}. The Tetris company, which quote-unquote protects the Tetris brand, based their guidelines on the Western versions of the game. In Japan, the canonical version is Sega's 1988 arcade game. {== title screen, game start ==} Unlike Game Boy Tetris, Sega Tetris has a lock delay... and a very interesting theme. {== fade up music, show big lizard transition, cut to a zoomed in version of lizard face in time with the music ==}

There's a serious difference in design between Sega and Nintendo Tetris—not just the piece colours. Competitive NES Tetris players eventually reach a kill screen after which it's nearly impossible to make lines. Sega Tetris doesn't have this limit; if a player is good enough, they can play forever. Once Sega Tetris had been mastered, a whole culture sprung up around it. People challenged themselves by tracing out the shape of a greater than sign with the holes in their stack, and there are probably hundreds of lost or obscure fan games from that time. Of course, people were able to max out the score and line counters. This is sort of a flaw, especially for arcade owners that don't want people sitting on the machine for 45 minutes. Fixing a game like Tetris DS is pretty easy; just fix the lock delay. But rather than being obviously broken, Sega Tetris was just a little bit too easy. Instead, it poses a question: If we give players the proper tools, how difficult can the game get?

“Tetris: The Grand Master is definitively not a casual game... Like any sport or martial art, in order to be good at it, you must play and train regularly, pushing your limit a little bit further each time." PetitPrince, tetris.wiki

Ichiro Mihara's 1998 game Tetris: The Grand Master is a more sophisticated version of Sega Tetris. In the Sega game, being able to play forever feels like an accident; you're not meant to max out the score. TGM knows what it and its players are capable of. It ends at level 999 and assigns a grade based on your score. In Sega Tetris, you can only rotate pieces clockwise, and they collide with the ceiling. In TGM, pieces can be rotated in either direction and you can buffer a rotation before the next piece comes out. These changes open the game up quite a bit, but also allows TGM to go much faster.

TGM is also a huge aesthetic upgrade. Each piece plays its own distinct sound before it spawns, and this no doubt becomes part of each player's muscle memory. The sounds that play when a piece touches the stack, moves, or locks are chunky and satisfying. My hundred-percent legally obtained version of the game has broken music, but the click of pieces moving and locking makes its own distinctive rhythm.

While the bizarre backdrops and sci-fi frame of Sega Tetris have an ironic appeal, TGM's graphic design is simple and confident. The abstract, techno-biological backgrounds harmonize with the soundtrack, and the game board rests in a brushed aluminum frame. The field is always easy to read; the stack is outlined in white and locked pieces have a darker colour than the active one. Each mechanic that TGM introduces or changes is well thought out. Even the randomizer that picks your next piece has been revamped; it's biased against giving pieces that have come out recently. By giving the player more tools, Arika were able to speed the game all the way up to 20G, where each piece drops instantly. At high speeds, you need to shape your stack like a pyramid so pieces can be slid down either side. Eight years later, Tetris DS replicated implemented 20G in a much-diminished form.

Since it has an ending, TGM stresses beating the game as quickly as possible while getting the Grand Master grade, and as such TGM is considered a speed game—meaning people compete for fast times. This differs from NES Tetris, where players usually compete for high scores.

TGM is a straightforward improvement on Sega Tetris, but it sketches out a philosophy of Tetris that's very different from the Nintendo style. To get the game's maximum GM grade, you have to reach Grade 1 in 4:15 {== show first 9 grade icons on screen ==}, then Grade S4 in seven and a half minutes {== show other 9 grade icons ==}, and finally pass level 999 with 126,000 points in under thirteen and a half minutes {== gm icon ==}.

Nintendo Tetris is a game of survival—you only have to keep up to win. In contrast, to get the GM grade you have to play way faster than the game forces you to, and you need to stack pieces cleanly. It forces players to develop speed and consistency on their own—you tell the game how fast you want to go, and if you work hard enough to meet the game's standards, maybe you can become a Grand Master. Survival is only the first step.

I have been playing TGM for at least an hour a day since I began work on this video. I even bought a fight stick for it. For a Tetris DS baby like me, TGM is ridiculously hard. I couldn't even get my head around spinning pieces clockwise at first. Over the course of these weeks I have come to understand that mastering Tetris entails a complete, bone-deep trust in yourself and your controller; panicking and mashing buttons just ends the game sooner.

Because the player has to push the speed and difficulty on their own, you end up building Tetris skill like a craft or martial art. It is a game of methodical practice and slow improvement that sees you occasionally challenging a new grade. It's not enough to just make it to the end; you have to actually master the game, and the challenge matches your toolkit perfectly. A nice bonus to forcing people to play fast on their own is that new players aren't kicked off the machine until the later levels; the game starts slow and even gives you a ghost piece for the first hundred levels.

The Grand Master 2: The Absolute was released in 2000, and an enhanced version called The Absolute Plus was released a few months later. TAP adds a whole bunch of modes, a mechanic called sonic drop, and a more difficult grading system.

You're judged with a hidden points system that awards a grade every 100 points. You lose points over time, so speed is important. After you reach 20G at level 500, the game starts to shorten all of the various delays—the pause when you clear a line, the pause between piece drops, and the lock delay all get shorter. It's impossible to beat the game fast enough without sonic drop, which drops a piece instantly without locking it.

Again, the mechanics and the challenge harmonize perfectly. By making the grading requirements more obscure, TAP doubles down on TGM1's philosophy. It's not about looking for the right score, but training and improving yourself. Playing the Grand Master games feels like climbing a mountain—there's a definite goal and what seems like an impossible climb to get there. Reaching it requires you to memorize and develop different skills and techniques into muscle memory. I would imagine that a lot of skilled players think they can probably play blindfolded. Here's what happens if you make it to level 1000 fast enough.

The Grand Master 3: Terror-Instinct takes TGM as far as it can go. It develops Mihara's version of Tetris into a game that, at the highest level, pushes the limits of human ability. It adds a piece hold function, and you can now see the next three pieces. Of course, this comes with the customary step up in difficulty.

Terror Instinct is the reason I wanted to make this video. It is the Mount Everest of my tired mountain climbing metaphor, except more people have climbed Mount Everest than have beaten TGM 3. The scoring has been expanded to 33 different grades, and your grade is hidden until the end. Your only feedback is given in the form of cryptic messages, either “COOL!!" or “REGRET" appearing after each section. They also show up at other seemingly random times, so there are no guarantees.

TI adds an element of restraint as well; to get a section COOL, a player has to beat each section two seconds faster than their last. A great player has to hold themselves back for the first few hundred levels, or risk missing the time requirements. This is another way in which TGM departs from the traditional Tetris formula.

Not only is TI more difficult than its predecessors, but it manages to remove the element of luck. The game has an account system, which awards your account with a grade after your first Master mode playthrough. As you improve, you'll start getting promotional exams—these play the same as a normal Master mode game, but give you the chance to increase the grade on your account.

To be eligible for the Grand Master grade, you have to play at the highest, Master M level in the last four out of seven games, and then do it once more in the promotional exam. In TAP, you just have to clear the invisible credits, but in TI you have to boost your grade with invisible Tetrises. It took the first American Grand Master, KevinDDR, ten years [https://tetris.com/article/135/becoming-a-tetris-grand-master-interview-with-kevin-birrell].

Nineteen people hold the Grand Master grade {== probably more than that ==}. To complete Terror Instinct is to contemplate the mysteries of its grade system, study its immaculately designed rotation mechanics and physics, and put in years of devoted, difficult practice. TGM3 is a game that demands we become a theologist, a scientist, and a martial artist.

If TGM1 was an initial sketch, TGM3 represents a work of art so massive and detailed that it's almost hard to comprehend. It's a version of Tetris that preserves the game's universal appeal while also transcending it toward a greater, perfecter game. While it still has the skeleton of guideline Tetris, the Grand Master series has its own distinct challenges and metagame that are developed over the course of the series. The deliberate pairing of new mechanics with new challenges shows a deep understanding of what is possible in Tetris, and each game's grading system pushes the player away from quantitative score and towards a more profound Knowing. By making scoring convoluted and hidden, Mihara transformed Tetris into a test of will, self-knowledge, and craft.

TAP and TI both have interesting artistic flourishes that appear in their extra modes. TAP includes a doubles mode, and TI's nearly impossible Shirase mode provides master players a whole bunch of interesting challenges.

{== show “premonition" from agdq, then cut through some interesting Shirase sections ==}

What I'm trying to say is that Tetris isn't just a concept; it exists as a whole set of possible games. Some of these games aren't perfect; the ceiling collision in Sega Tetris is confounding, and there's no good reason the pieces can't spin both ways. Tetris DS is broken as soon as you get good at it. If Tetris is a perfectly designed game in the abstract, then the Grand Master games are profoundly perfect—they not only implement Tetris in an unflawed way, but they match the level of difficulty and player freedom perfectly. They are the Hotline Miami of Tetris games.

Tetris is for Everyone (Pico-8)

I decided to discuss the Grand Master series because I think they're pretty cool games, but there are practically endless variations on Tetris. NES Tetris is a frictional survival game that's often about making the best of a bad situation. Tetris 99, also developed by Arika, is a lot better than Fortnite. Tetris Effect is probably the best guideline Tetris game ever made—it's a solid implementation with great visuals and a ton of extra modes. There's even Giant Tetris, which is giant. There is probably a Tetris game that you like, even if you haven't played it yet. There are a bunch of awesome, infinitely adjustable fan games as well: Heboris, Texmaster, and Lockjaw among them. Infinite gravity was actually introduced in the Japanese fan game TETRIS SEMIPRO-68k, which inspired Ichiro Mihara to make TGM.

I alluded to this in my intro, but Tetris is a game that was more discovered than it was invented. The developer Alexey Pajitnov was never able to make any real improvements to Tetris on his own, and his other games Hatris and “"Faces Tris 3"" feel like jokes in the face of the monumental achievement of Tetris. There's no going back to the pre-Tetris world. But Knight Moves and Dwice are just middling puzzle games. {== Knight Moves for a while ==}

To really make Tetris better, designers like Mihara had to understand and build upon its unrefined perfection. While the early, self-unaware Tetris games are perfect because they descend from that perfect, conceptual Tetris, the later games have been able to tweak and develop that perfection in different directions.

TGM puts the onus on the player to master the game for themselves, and push themselves toward Grand Master. Tetris DS is about casual, easy fun. Tetris Effect is mainly an emotional experience, which pairs the gameplay with sounds and visuals that point toward the universality of Tetris. These are all valid and interesting directions to take the game in, and I've been surprised over and over by the number of ways that Tetris can be made.

{== show SNES Tetris from start menu. When game starts, VO: ==} As far as we know, Tetris is a game that could only have been made by humans. Animals don't understand it, and they definitely don't like it. But more than that: when a human sees a tetromino falling, they know in their bones that they need to make a clean stack. By following through on this desire, we discover that we can convert our stacking skills into a value. The goal then becomes obvious. In the span of around four blocks, Tetris has completely unfolded for us. You can like or dislike Tetris, but it's universally understood.

{==zoom in on the TGM3 flier statue, slowly zoom out revealing the game's title at the end of this paragraph ==}

People are special because we can take the raw materials of the world and make the objects of our imaginations real. By shaping reality in this way, others come to know us, and we come to know ourselves. Our free will, our societies, and our games all unfold from this ability. The initial, simple impulse to shape the world has produced all of history, and it's the same impulse that makes Tetris human. It is a game about labour.

The technology of Tetris—the piece preview, the hold function, lock delay—has developed in a way that lets us play more quickly and efficiently. The Grand Master series understands this perfectly, and is able to couple the level of difficulty to the player's level of efficiency. In the same way, production technology has allowed factories to make the computers that run Tetris quickly and cheaply. Unlike real life, Tetris hints at a utopia where this technology doesn't lead to us losing our jobs to robot arms, but makes our work more meaningful, and more satisfying.

It's also healthy to play Tetris. It boosts cognitive ability, helps kids with lazy eyes, and is an effective treatment for PTSD.

Those are some of the reasons I have strong feelings about the Tetris company, who have trademarked every aspect of a game that ought to be the common property of humanity. Since the 90s the Tetris Company has been trying to get free Tetris clones taken down, and it forces its restrictive guidelines on all official titles. They're obviously not doing this to protect the sanctity of the most played game in the universe, but to stop freeware developers and players from getting a piece of the pie. Alexey Pajitnov has said several times—in nicer terms than this—that he hates free software, and his and Henk Rogers' awful company definitely follows that philosophy. [https://news.slashdot.org/story/08/02/26/1859249/tetris-creator-claims-foss-destroys-the-market]

[http://www.pineight.com/lj/ possible visual here] Lockjaw is a Tetris fan game released in 2006. It eventually became a pretty standard adjustable clone, but it was made to satirize the restrictive and casual guidelines that led to Tetris DS. Ridin' Spinners mode was never implemented, but it mocked the player for trying to abuse lock delay the way they can in Tetris DS. It was an expression of the same love and desire to improve the game that led Sega Tetris fans to make Semipro-68k, and the Grand Master. The developer of Lockjaw removed the game from his site in solidarity with the developer of Mino, a Tetris clone that was removed from circulation after the Tetris Company sued its developer.

But Tetris is unstoppable. It pops up as a million first attempts at game development and a thousand super-adjustable clones of TGM and countless hours spent practicing or competing on Tetr.io. Its spirit is in one of my favourite versions, this Pico-8 clone that feels like the best of TGM and Guideline Tetris combined. Fast, fluid, and simple, with pleasant sounds and all of the modern features. Whether Henk Rogers wants it or not, improvements are made to Tetris by fans and triple-A's alike, and the game's history is a collective one. The Pico-8 version feels like the perfect balance for casual play; it uses the improvements of the Grand Master series with a more relaxed speed curve and western-style piece rotation. You should check it out. I want to thank the Tetris Concept community for the wealth of data they've collected on Tetris, and PetitPrince for his fantastic writing about the Grand Master. I used his analysis and guides for TGM pretty extensively for this video, and I barely even scratched the surface.