In the new book The Tetris Effect, available September 6, veteran tech journalist Dan Ackerman presents the definitive telling of one of the most fascinating stories in videogame history: How the world’s most popular, enduring, perfect videogame escaped the Iron Curtain. While many fierce rivals fought tooth and nail to secure the rights, it ended up as the killer app for Nintendo’s Game Boy. In this exclusive excerpt, we learn how the game’s creator, Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, first conceived of the computer game that would change the world by playing with children’s toys.
Consumed by the idea of re-creating game experiences on his Electronica 60 and the other machines he worked on at the academy, Alexey found inspiration in the sprawling aisles of Children’s World, the most famous toy store in Moscow.
When he searched the store shelves, something familiar caught his eye. It was a simple plastic set of pentomino puzzle pieces, and before he knew it, the set had made its way into his hands and soon sat on his desk at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He spent hours fitting the pieces together, trying to bridge the connection between these simple geometric designs and the programmatic, predictable computer platforms he worked on. He knew there must be a way to translate these ideas from the squares on his desk to the computer screen, even without access to the high-end (for the time) graphics powerhouses used to power Pac-Man and other arcade-style games.
The first results were primitive, but the basic idea for what would become Tetris started taking shape. The problem, Alexey knew, was that his hardware was close to a decade out of date compared with what even amateur game programmers in the rest of the world had access to. Re-creating the effect of a pentomino puzzle required some visual sizzle, and the Electronica 60 had no ability to draw even primitive computer graphics.
His initial imperfect solution was to create a stand-in for shapes using the only paintbrush available, the alphanumeric keys on his computer keyboard. Each shape could be approximated using punctuation keys, mostly bracket shapes, in different combinations, carefully coded across multiple display lines. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
In this early version, crafted in six days and ambitiously named “Genetic Engineering,” the five-segment pentomino shapes were cut down to a more manageable four segments, which could be formed into seven basic shapes he called tetrominoes. His first version was a faithful re-creation of pentominoes–the player simply moved the tetrominoes around on the screen until they all fit. As an initial attempt at a spatial manipulation puzzle game, it was a breakthrough, but even Alexey could tell after a few playthroughs that it was deathly dull. It needed something else.
Computer puzzles were different. Paper, plastic, and wood puzzles could be played over an unlimited amount of time, left to sit while the player thought over new moves and new strategies. But a computer screen and its cathode-ray tube create a more manipulative relationship with the player, beaming light at the viewer’s eyes and demanding reciprocal action. A puzzle played on a computer had to be more of a game, and a game required the elements of timing, danger, and a constant push toward action.
For a professional programmer like Alexey, the actual mechanics of creating the game were easy, but the idea of simply dropping these shapes into a square box lacked the addictive quality a good game needed. This early build simply measured how many shapes you could fit into a box and it took only a few minutes to work out the best solution. Once you did, there was little motivation to play again.
Alexey continued to work on his programming assignments, taking time here and there over the next several weeks to pare his new game to its most basic elements. A strictly enforced design minimalism led to a breakthrough idea. What if you didn’t need the entire computer screen? Just because the monitor was square didn’t mean everything displayed on it needed to be.
This small innovation changed the feel of the game. Just as he originally trimmed the shapes from five segments to four, Alexey narrowed the playing area from nearly the entire screen to a narrow channel that started at the top and ran to the bottom in order to focus on making fast, accurate choices. But there was still a problem with the game. Once all the spaces along a horizontal row in the new narrow playing field were filled, any area underneath that was permanently out of reach.
Again, the game ended too quickly, leaving little reason to play it again. Alexey stared at the display, hating to see dead, wasted space on his newly improved gameplay field. His brilliant solution would become the one single element of Tetris that has remained constant throughout hundreds of sequels, variations, and knockoffs in the more than thirty years since.
When a horizontal is filled with tetromino segments, leaving no gaps from left to right, that row simply vanishes in a puff of virtual smoke, opening the downward path for the next set of pieces to fill. The goal becomes not only fitting shapes together and packing them onto the screen but also causing as many lines to disappear as possible.
Whereas Alexey had once spent countless late hours at the RAS computer center working on academic projects or testing new computer hardware, often risking missing the last train in the early hours of the morning, he now spent similar hours working on, tweaking, and playing his new game. Even during the day, he occasionally pretended to be working on a software debugging project while playing round after round of his own game, unable to keep his fingers off the keyboard.
This new invention called the tetromino was at the game’s heart, and the constant back-and- forth battle between the falling blocks and the player reminded Alexey of tennis, so he called the game Tetris. In Russian, Tetris is ??????, and tennis is ??????, making this a conjunction that works across multiple languages (it helps that the name lacks a true Russian origin–the prefix tetra is Greek in origin, and tennis arguably comes from thirteenth-century Old French).
At the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre, Alexey’s side project had not gone unnoticed. Other students and researchers would gather around the screen to watch or try their hands at the game, patiently waiting for a turn, even while their actual computer center work went undone. It was an experience virtually unknown in Russia, where few homegrown games had gone beyond their creators, and most were probably as compelling as Alexey’s early aimless prototype.
Aside from a handful of Pac-Man fanatics, access to American or Japanese game machines was rare, so there was little to compare Tetris with. That was probably for the best, because this version of the game, the first one complete enough to truly be called Tetris, lacked much of what we think of as Tetris today, beyond the shapes and basic rules.
On his green-and- black computer monitor, Alexey’s primordial Tetris game lacked music, or in fact any sound at all, with its shapes falling silently, as if in a vacuum. At first there was no score, although the idea that clearing a row of segments by forming a complete horizontal line stood out as an obvious way to count points. There were no separate levels, much less a way to graduate from one level to another. In later years, the “level ninety-nine” problem, where the popular NES version game could go no further, would be one Tetris experts would struggle with, giving rise to a small but dedicated community of professional Tetris players trading new records for highest score and highest level reached.
Nor was the game, in this early stage, decorated with the simple block illustrations of Russian architectural icons that players of any of the classic 1980s versions will remember (along with its plinky Russian folk tune soundtrack). Those window dressings, along with the reversed Cyrillic R in the title, all came much later and were exclusively for the consumption of Western audiences looking for a taste of exotic computer technology from behind the Iron Curtain. For Alexey and his colleagues, this was already a Russian game, crafted by a Russian programmer on Russian computer hardware and played, so far exclusively, in a Russian computer research institute. They certainly didn’t need a picture of the Kremlin to remind them of that.
Even with the approval of his peers, Tetris looked as if it would be like any number of reasonably interesting computer projects created by and for a small audience of experts: amusing for a few days or weeks, and then forgotten as the collective moved on to something new. After all, there were no commercially available online networks on which to share the game, and few people in Russia, even in Moscow, had access to personal computers.
Even if you were lucky enough to be one of a handful of Muscovites with access to a personal computer at work or at home, and you had somehow managed to get a hand on a copy of Alexey Pajitnov’s code for Tetris, it would likely have done you no good. The Electronica 60 was a rare machine, even at the RAS, and the original 27-kilobyte file was written to work on that specific computer. It wasn’t compatible with the IBM PC machines that were starting to become the de facto standard for computing, both in Russia and in the West. Those systems were built on MS-DOS, an operating system at the start of a tangled evolutionary path to the Windows PCs of today. In the beginning, Alexey’s code for Tetris simply wouldn’t run on the computers most Russian programmers and technology enthusiasts had access to.
Despite this, word about the game spread within the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre like a virus, intriguing researchers and annoying managers for weeks. But for all its incipient popularity within the halls of the RAS, Tetris seemed doomed to burn out once the handful of people with access to an Electronica 60 computer had tired of it. To make the leap from this closed ecosystem to the general population, Tetris needed the same thing any virus needed: a carrier.