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Tetris turns 30

How a tiny game from Russia conquered the world
Fri Jun 06 2014, 15:45

tetris-stackable-led-desk-lampHAPPY INTERNATIONAL TETRIS DAY, and yes, we're reliably informed that's a thing.

Thirty years ago today Alexey Pajitnov, a programmer behind the Iron Curtain, released a game that has become, in some ways, the story of recent Russian history and computing itself.

Versions of Tetris, which Pajitnov claims is a portmanteau of "Tetraomino", referring to the four block arrangements, and "Tennis", have appeared on everything from primitive Liquid Crystal pocket games to a new version for the latest XBox One and Playstation 4 (PS4) games consoles.

The fact that there is a demand to play a 30-year-old game with simple vector graphics is a testament to its sheer playability, that "X" factor that every programmer craves to find but so few ever do. In fact, in a time of great paranoia between East and West, some believed it to be a form of mind control because of discernible changes in the brainwave patterns of players.

Today, Tetris is actually used in therapy. The processes involved in the "Tetris brain" have been proven to reduce the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder - good advice if you've ever been shaken up by a late-night horror movie.

Inevitably, the Westernisation of Tetris raised eyebrows on both sides of the divide. Who were these crazy capitalists that wanted to take a glorious socialist game and exploit it? The KGB was suspicious and monitored events closely, even though, under the communist rules, it was the Russian government who owned and was marketing the rights to the game. Perestroika and Glasnost had arrived, but there was still strong suspicion.

They need not have worried, however, with the Westernised version of the game drawing on years of Russian culture, with its Russian credentials played up in the form of backgrounds depicting Cossack dancers, cosmonauts and Ladas - a clichéd, romanticised depiction of this mysterious country that was soon to join the rest of the world.

And then there was that music. Added by original licensees Spectrum Holobyte, it is based on the Russian folk song "Korobeiniki", but after its inclusion has become known to the rest of the world simply as "the Tetris music".

So popular was it that in 1992, a mysterious DJ called Doctor Spin released a dance version. Doctor Spin's true identity, however was not a Russian, nor a DJ, but king of musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber. Bizarre, but absolutely true.

Fast forward to today and Tetris and its many variants, derivatives and knockoffs belong to the world, and nowhere is that more evident than in a giant tribute included in the closing ceremony of this years paralympic games in Sochi featuring a cast of hundreds of human Tetris pieces. (watch it here from 33 minutes in).

Of course, for many Tetris is more than just a game. To some it's an allegory for the Russian empire as demonstrated in another musical tribute:

But to us, it's a metaphor for life. Just when what you really need is a long straight bit, along comes one of those crooked pieces that serves no real purpose but to completely interfere with your plans. And yet somehow you still want to keep playing. And playing. And playing... µ


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