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I don't remember exactly how old I was when I played my first game of Tetris. I know it was on the family PC, and we got our first PC when I was six; I think I played Mixed-Up Mother Goose and The Black Cauldron and possibly even King's Quest first, that Tetris was actually a regression from Sierra's narrative adventures into the simplistic world of the arcade. A consultation with Wikipedia reveals, however, that the first American PC version of Tetris, an unlicensed rip-off of Alexey Pajitnov's 1985 original, was released in 1986, only a year before MUMG came out. So maybe I'm mixing it up. Maybe I just didn't have the fine motor control to play Tetris when we first had it. I'm fairly certain that the game was originally installed for the adult members of the family, and that it predated Aquanoid, our beloved version of the arcade classic Break Out.

My mother mentioned, on a recent visit, that she stopped playing Tetris when she started seeing "tetrominoes"[2] every time she closed her eyes. It's funny; Tetris (multiplayer competition versions aside) might well be the ultimate in the "antisocial gaming" that I described in a recent column, but this particular experience is one that I think most people who played computer games in the late 80s or early 90s must share, like having watched the same cartoons or spent fond afternoons pretending to be the same superhero. Ask any of your co-workers or classmates of an appropriate age if they've ever had just one single dream about falling colored blocks and surely it will clear the way for at least a couple minutes' worth of reminiscence, however little else you may have in common. At nine years old or whatever I was, of course, it didn't strike me as a "warning sign." I kept playing Tetris until I lost interest, which come to think of it might have been in junior high when the other kids introduced me to Castle Wolfenstein, which was followed by MUDs and, years later, my current engagement with the MMOG City of Heroes.

Recently, however, Tetris came back into my life. I got a new cell phone, a Razr v3m[3], and in the midst of my downloading frenzy, which centered mainly on ringtones, it occurred to me that I should really get a game with which to pass the time while waiting for the bus. As most people realize, retro arcade games tend to translate well into the cell phone format. They're not overcomplicated; the controls, especially, are simple, and generally the graphics are minimalist. The class of games to which Tetris and Break Out belong is one that does not rely on new content, per se, as one progresses through levels—it's all about speed and the increase thereof. As my father once commented after we'd obtained a pack of various third-tier arcade-style games, also Russian in origin, it seemed as if the national spirit (or at least as much of it as was expressed by computer programmers) centered around the increasing difficulty of mundane tasks that would eventually crush you to death. A bit nihilistic, perhaps, but it's easy to condense for the small screen.

It's not a perfect formula—as I discovered on my last phone, an Audiovox, Ms. Pac-Man doesn't really work on the cell phone, because the screen is just too small. You can barely see the damn ghosts. My first American cell phone, one of those old school Nokia plastic bricks, came loaded with Snake, which was a great game for the cell phone—the screen was small, but so was the snake, and again speed came into play. By the time the thing got long enough to fill up the display, it was moving so fast that it wasn't an issue for long. Death loomed. Despite never really having played it as a child, I took to it immediately. I understood its principles, and it was a good game for waiting for the bus.

My new Razr came loaded with two game trials:[4] Pac-Man by Namco, and Tetris by Jamdat Mobile. Given my previous experience of Ms. Pac-Man, I went with Tetris, and I was immediately extremely satisfied that I'd paid $7.99 for the full unlimited version rather than limited myself to a $2.99 month's subscription. The small screen isn't a deal-breaker for Tetris—the simple controls, the brightly colored blocks; it all comes together to create a solid, no frills experience that pushes my nostalgic buttons expertly. My big complaint, actually, is that the game "previews" the next four pieces and gives you no option to turn that preview off, as if you are some kind of Tetris n00b in need of hand-holding. I suppose there is the possibility that all those 14-year-olds downloading ringtones of "Because I Got High" might need the guidance.

Just as big a problem is the lack of a real "pause." Sure, you can pause the game if, for instance, you suddenly have to shove your way onto the train, but once you close the phone, it's over. "Casual games" like Tetris are typically praised for being activities that could be performed for five or ten minutes at a time, regardless of how many people blow multiple-hour chunks of their lives on them multiple times. It must also be considered that, like any skill, Tetris-playing improves with practice, which takes time, and the skilled Tetris player needs more than ten minutes to play a single game. The number of times I spend more than ten minutes waiting for a single bus, however, will (hopefully) be fairly low. It's irksome to look at my Razr's Tetris high-score board and see so few entries, because I had the time to actually finish so few games. Not that I'm likely to stop playing, and it does serve its secondary purpose well—no one can fault you for failing to interact with them when you have Tetris in hand. One guy on the subway platform a couple of weeks ago, who looked likely to attempt to start up some kind of conversation, just sort of nodded resignedly at me and said, "Tetris, huh?" before wandering off in search of someone more accessible. He knew there's no point in disturbing an addict.

At the same time that I got the new phone, I happened upon a copy of the CD-ROM Tetris Worlds on the $9.99 rack at Staples. I was disappointed to discover that it actually rang up as $9.99 and not $4.97 like its neighbor, Hello Kitty Cutie World[5], but I wasn't sorry when I got it home. Tetris Worlds, produced in 2001 by Blue Planet Software, is exactly the kind of game that a software company in 2001 must have assumed would rock the sad 2D worlds of junior high nerds everywhere. The "worlds" mode, which features various fantastic 3D graphic backdrops like volcanoes and jungles and the heights of the stratosphere, also has a sultry female voice-over that verges on the pornographic, except she mostly just whispers inexplicable instructions like "Cascade!" and "Activate the atom blocks!" I like her, but I don't feel like we're really communicating, you know? The "arcade mode" has no voice-over, but the tech-y-looking background revolves slowly like a science fiction dance club and the background music is still kicky and electronic. It's Tetris as brought to you by the makers of Hackers and Serial Experiments Lain.

The different "worlds" do actually feature variations on standard Tetris gameplay; the ice world with the "atom blocks," whatever the hell those are exactly, starts you out with a scattering of random blocks on the bottom of the screen just to make things interesting—I remember a similar option on the version we had when I was a kid—and has some kind of complicated method of touching "atom blocks" to each other until suddenly everything on the screen vaporizes—yeah, I'm still a little fuzzy on this, although it's very exciting when it mysteriously and wonderfully happens, sort of like five thousand years ago when the sun came back after the winter solstice, I expect, except with a techno soundtrack. The water world features "gravity" such that individual blocks drop when space opens up beneath them. They all boast the same invisible siren for the voice-over, which strikes me as a little cheap. If you're going to build a fantastic Tetris Worlds concept around stunning natural backgrounds, ice and forest and fire, you ought to flesh that out with a variety of nymphs, sylphs, and undines.

It'd be nice if the voice gave you some useful information, too, although one can imagine how that might get old if it wasn't limited to some kind of tutorial mode. Which this game has, in the arcade mode—or claims to, anyway. I'm not sure how an endless stream of what my sisters and I used to refer to as "chocolate bar" pieces (the straight-line tetrominoes—in the version we had, the blocks were brown with a yellow outline) actually teaches you much about Tetris, and my sister, who also visited recently, actually gave up on the game entirely when she tried to play it while I was out and couldn't figure out how to get it out of perpetual chocolate-bar mode.

In general, the navigation menus are a little hard to figure out, although once you do, the game allows you to turn off both upcoming piece previews and "shadowing," the feature where the screen shows an outline of where any given tetrominoe will land if you drop it from its current position. Jamdat's version for the Razr forces "shadowing" on you along with that ridiculous four-piece preview. You can't adjust the controls for gameplay within Tetris Worlds itself; you actually have to exit and select another option off the CD's main menu to do that (and you have to have the CD in to play, too—ah, 2001 piracy protection). And finally, your character/account/high score holder self is represented by a ridiculous gelatinous cube with exaggerated facial features. It's a little too retro Isn't the Future Awesome for my taste.

Still, it's not bad, although I have to predict that Jamdat's inferior product will see a lot more use from me simply by virtue of being on my phone. The fact of the matter is, I know that I will play Tetris for three hours at a time if given half the chance, and neither my productivity nor my back can take it. For $10 and $8 respectively, though, I'd say they were both worth it. Sometimes I feel like City of Heroes; sometimes I feel like fitting blocks together until I see them in my sleep.

Related Reading

Sudnow, David. 1983. Pilgrim in the Microworld. New York: Warner Books. This ethnomethodologist's account of early video game obsession is about Break Out, not Tetris, but should be of interest to anyone who likes arcade games (lots of you) or the weird spin-off of sociology known as ethnomethodology (I'm guessing not so many).


[1] Yeah, okay; I wish.

[2] No, I didn't know that word either until I read the Wikipedia entry.

[3] Yes, of course it's pink.

[4] Naturally, since it turned out that people really like cell phone games and want to play them, there is no longer any such thing as a free full version of any of them.

[5] Possibly more on this at a later date. I'm waiting to hear back from my reviewer, who is four and really likes pink.

E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo

E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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