It’s hard to imagine a world without Tetris. Since its initial creation in 1984, the game has achieved a sort of pop culture ubiquity rare among video games. Tetris feels like more than just the most popular video game ever created; it has become as iconic and well known as chess or Scrabble. Like those games, Tetris’s simplicity makes it easy to pick up, yet it takes patience to truly master. Of course, the game didn’t arrive out of thin air 30 years ago, it was created by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, and in this new book, cartoonist Box Brown shows that the journey Tetris took from Moscow to your smartphone is just as entertaining and engaging as the game itself.
Like his previous biographical comic Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Brown takes a unique approach to the story of Tetris. While his book about Andre the Giant used the wrestling legend’s life to explore the intersection of truth and fiction in art, Brown starts Tetris: The Games People Play by asking a seemingly simple question: where do games come from? Drawing connections between early cave paintings depicting competition and early gambling games, Brown argues that games are not merely frivolous distractions. Rather, games actively engage the players’ analytic reasoning and strategic thinking skills, training them to make complex choices quickly. Of course, they are also fun, which is even more important because they develop these thinking skills without the player even noticing. Games are an essential part of human development and culture. They are also, as Brown points out, an art form.
Even the earliest games were created by someone with an idea, and the skill needed to give it shape. Art is the human method of expressing information, and games are ways of expressing concepts like chance, luck, skill, and fate. The connection between the spark of artistic inspiration and final creation forms the narrative thread of Tetris as Brown returns to these moments throughout the book, from Alexey Pajitnov’s initial idea for the game, to toy inventor Gunpei Yokoi’s vision of handheld gaming devices, and finally the idea of selling the game to the world. The ideas behind each of these moments seem, in retrospect, obvious, but as the book shows, they can only arise through the creative vision of an artist. In a sense, Tetris is just as much about the nature of artistic creation as it is about a video game. It’s a book about the sparks that give inspiration and the drive that fuels creation.
The mysterious process of artistic inspiration is, understandably, hard to express, let alone visualize. However, Brown’s skill as a cartoonist allows him to show the possible thought processes of the story’s various artists. He illustrates the thoughts running through the characters’ heads happening all at once, suggesting the ineffable way ideas arise in the mind. Similarly, his use of geometric shapes and grid-like page layouts mimic the 8-bit look of the game, giving the impression that the game of Tetris is just as inspiring to Brown as an artist as the works of other cartoonists. Even the coloring, which only uses yellow and black ink, suggests the monochromatic Gameboy version of the game. Much like Tetris itself, the simplistic art style here belies a much more complex and nuanced process. Just as games can stimulate players’ thinking in unnoticeable ways, Brown is able to explore different ideas and convey complex information in a clear, concise way, which makes the book both informative and emotionally engaging. Additionally, this skilled storytelling becomes necessary as the story shifts to another sort of “game” people play: the lengthy legal battles over the rights to Tetris.
If making the creative process visually interesting is difficult, turning legal briefings and business meetings into a compelling story seems almost impossible. Yet, Brown’s cartooning makes the byzantine rules about distribution rights dramatic and exciting. In addition to his keen storytelling ability, which balances an increasing number of characters and contracts, Brown again uses his visual style to express tedious details in inventive ways. For example, Brown illustrates the Soviet bureaucrats overseeing the negotiations as looming shadows, implying the way they used intimidation as a bargaining tactic. Cartooning choices like that help underscore the seriousness and scope of the litigation over Tetris far more effectively than complex exposition could. Even passages that describe the mechanics of video game manufacturing and the battles between Nintendo and Atari over intellectual property rights have a narrative and visual clarity that prevents these moments from weighing down the story. These moments demonstrate Brown’s skill as a both a cartoonist and storyteller as he explores both big ideas about human expression and chronicles the history of video games with equal aplomb and visual style.
The story of Tetris, essentially, is about the intersection of art and commerce, and Brown’s telling highlights the complicated relationship between the two; the romantic ideal of artistic creation meets the capitalistic means of distribution. While the legal battle over Tetris, of course complicated by the ideological and political differences between the United States and Soviet Russia, make up most of the book, it is clear that Brown sees Alexey Pajitnov as the story’s hero. Pajitnov’s desire to create a new version of Pentominoes, the wooden block puzzle game he loved as a child, is at the heart of Tetris. As the cast of characters grows to include early video game designers dreaming of new technology to savvy (and sometimes not) businessmen looking to make a buck, the creator of Tetris embodies the spirit of the story.
Since comic books, like video games, are as much a commercial enterprise as a creative medium, it’s easy to see how Brown might feel a sort of kinship with Pajitnov. The creator of Tetris, who did eventually receive the formal (and financial) recognition for his work, saw his simple game become a cultural sensation, beloved by millions who are inspired by Tetris the way he was by Pentominoes. This continuity of creation proves Pajitnov’s notion that games are a metaphor of thoughts, expressions of human consciousness. Brown’s telling of Tetris’s journey is, in its own way, a continuation of the story, inspired by the very events it chronicles. As an example of Brown’s storytelling mastery, Tetris manages to be as equally entertaining, challenging, and fun as the game with which it shares a name.