In the new book The Tetris Effect , available September 6, veteran tech journalist Dan Ackerman presents the definitive say of one of the most fascinating narratives in videogame history: How the world's most popular, suffering, perfect videogame escaped the Iron curtain. While many fierce challengers fought tooth and nail to secure the rights, it ended up as the murderer app for Nintendo's Game Boy. In this exclusive excerpt, we learn how the game's inventor, Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, first conceived of the computer game that would change the world by playing with children's playthings .
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 Childrens World, the most famous doll store in Moscow.
When he searched the store shelves, something familiar capture his eye. It was a simple plastic define of pentomino puzzle pieces, and before he knew it, the set had induced its style into his hands and soon sat on his desk at the Russian Academy of Science. 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 notions 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 outcomes were primitive, but the basic notion for what would become Tetris started taking shape. The problem, Alexey knew, was that his hardware is near a decade out of date compared with what even amateur game programmers in the rest of the world had access to.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 answer was to create a stand-in for shapes utilizing the only paintbrush available, the alphanumeric keys on his computer keyboard. Each shape could be approximated utilizing punctuation keys, largely bracket shapes, in different combinations, carefully coded across multiple display lines. It wasnt fairly, 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 pentominoesthe player simply moved the tetrominoes around on the screen until they all fit. As an initial endeavor 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 required something else.
Computer puzzles were different. Paper, plastic, and timber puzzles could be played over an limitless sum of period, left to sit while the player believed over new moves and new strategies. But a computer screen and its cathode-ray tube create a more manipulative relationship with the player, beaming lighting at the viewers eyes and demanding reciprocal action. A puzzle played on personal computers had to be more of a game, and a game required the components 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 absence the addictive quality a good game required. This early construct 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 period 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 didnt require the entire computer screen? Just because the monitor was square didnt mean everything displayed on it needed to be.
This small innovation changed the feel of the game. Simply as he originally trimmed the shapes from five segments to four, Alexey constricted the playing field from nearly the entire screen to a narrow channel that started at the top and ran to the bottom in order to focus on attaining fast, accurate options. 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, all the regions underneath that was permanently out of reach.
Again, the game ended too quickly, leaving little reason to play it again. Alexey gazed at the showing, detesting to find dead, squandered space on his newly improved gameplay field. His brilliant answer would become the one single part 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 gap from left to right, that row simply fades in a whiff of virtual smoking, opening the downward track for the next set of pieces to fill. The aim 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 expended 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 games 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 speeches( it helps that the name absence a true Russian originthe prefix tetra is Greek in origin, and tennis arguably comes from thirteenth-century Old French ).
At the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre, Alexeys side project had not run 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 centre work ran undone. It was an experience virtually unknown in Russia, where few homegrown games had gone beyond their inventors, and most were probably as compelling as Alexeys 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 likely for the best, because this version of the game, the first one complete enough to truly be called Tetris , absence much of what we think of as Tetris today, beyond the shapes and basic rules.
On his green-and- black computer monitor, Alexeys 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 werent” rating, 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 1980 s versions will recollect( along with its plinky Russian folk tune soundtrack ). Those window dressing, together with the reversed Cyrillic R in the title, all came much subsequently and were exclusively for the intake of Western audiences looking for a savour 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 surely didnt 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 transcript of Alexey Pajitnovs 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 wasnt 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, Alexeys code for Tetris simply wouldnt 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 administrators for weeks. But for all its incipient popularity within the foyers of the RAS, Tetris seemed doomed to burn out once the handful of the persons with access to an Electronica 60 computer had tired of it. To build the leap from this closed ecosystem to the general population, Tetris required the same thing any virus required: a carrier.