Tetris: The Games People Play

Tetris: The Games People Play By Box Brown.
By Box Brown

Box Brown has made a career uncovering the stories behind pop culture objects of a very specific milieu, namely early 80s Americana. He’s authored biographies about two infamous celebrities: pro wrestler AndrĂ© the Giant, and comedian Andy Kaufman. With last year’s Tetris: The Games People Play, Brown instead tackled a video gaming classic. The resulting graphic novel reveals that his approach to biography works just as well for talking about nonhuman subjects. After all, Tetris didn’t just emerge from the void like one of its signature puzzle pieces. Someone had to invent it, and others had to fall for its charms. Some people might be aware that the game was the brainchild of computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, when he was still working at the Academy of Science in Moscow. Even fewer will know what measures were taken to export the game to the Western world during the final stages of the Cold War. Brown’s examination of the complex business machinations behind Tetris’ international success is very accessible because he keeps the attention centered on the personalities involved, and not on the technologies that made it possible.

Before getting into the story of Tetris, Brown lays out his thesis for the comic. His short examination of the history (and prehistory) of games leads him to conclude that they are an artistic enterprise, the creative fusion of the competitive spirit and the child’s act of playing. Games nurture analytical skills and model human behavior by connecting with the audience’s desire for diversion, whether it be the ancient board game of Senet, the 19th century Japanese card game Hanafuda, or the video game consoles manufactured by Nintendo and Atari during the early 1980s. Every games’ popularity is a reflection of their respective society. With Tetris, Alexey’s own contribution to history was to combine the pleasures of classic puzzle games with real-time problem solving made possible by video games into an endlessly iterating loop.

Alexey himself isn’t one of Brown’s more enigmatic protagonists. He’s portrayed as a Steve Wozniak type of figure who created Tetris in 1984, during his free time in order to give expression to his ideas and entertain his friends. He showed no interest in profiting from his creation. The game would soon become a viral hit in Moscow, shared through floppy discs. A version of Tetris would make its way to Hungary, where it would be discovered by Robert Stein of U.K.-based Andromeda Software.

Tetris: The Games People Play By Box Brown.

From here, the story becomes a lot more complicated as Alexey gradually loses control of his own creation. Various American and Japanese companies would vie for the distribution rights to Tetris, and at some point had to negotiate directly with the Russian government agency named Elorg. Like many tales from the nascent personal computing and video gaming industry, many of the parties involved were stumbling over a mess of patent, copyright, and trademark issues. Tetris would be ported to virtually every popular computing platform even when the legality of its distribution was still far from settled. This confusing state of affairs would eventually culminate in a huge 1993 legal battle between Nintendo and Atari.

If Brown were appealing just to the gaming crowd, he’d get lost comparing the varieties of Tetris being produced during this time, and judging each on their technical merits. That would make for an unwieldy comic. Thankfully, he’s more interested in the various business personalities fighting for a piece of the game. His chapter breaks are structured around their involvement, each character being helpfully introduced with a formal portrait and accompanying caption, isolated on the page by inky black. His blocky cartoon style is even more minimalist than in Andre the Giant, all the better to facilitate his understated, third person narrative voice. The only thing keeping the art from becoming completely flat is Brown’s choice of vibrant yellow to add volume to his black and white forms. But Brown is first and foremost, a storyteller. The comic still proves to a page turner despite the large cast of characters and numerous plot twists.

With everything said, Brown’s sympathies lie ultimately with the humble Alexey. He sees him as a master of his craft. Alexey wanted more than anything for the world to know his beloved game. As he explained during a 2015 appearance: “If I made a big fuss about the money, they would immediately have crushed my efforts. They would have crushed Tetris. Tetris would have been left without a champion to stick up for it and guide it. We would not be here today.”

Tetris: The Games People Play By Box Brown.