If you’re looking for a story that perfectly captures the founding of the video game business, you could do a lot worse than Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown.
This likable graphic novel covers the story of Tetris’ development and its rise to global phenomenon. But it also tells the tale of a fast-growing business that, in the rush for profits, was all too ready to trample its best talents underfoot.
The short-version goes as follows: Modest Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov creates a masterpiece video game that charms the world, but is then bilked by rapacious, squabbling businessmen and by criminally self-serving Soviet apparatchiks.
The unique particulars of Pajitnov’s extraordinary game feed into so many intriguing narrative threads that it’s difficult to imagine a more wide-ranging and enlightening video game origin story, one that so perfectly captures the perplexing game industry of the mid-1980s.
Box’s story comes out at roughly the same time as Dan Ackerman’s The Tetris Effect, which also tells the story of the game’s many business shenanigans in a more detailed text-form, for those who really want to get into the subject.
Pajitnov is a wonderfully appealing leading man, a quiet boffin who spends his time thinking about the human experience. Back in the ’80s, he works at the Moscow Academy of Science, but in his spare time, he makes a game based on manipulating falling shapes. It’s based on a wooden block game he’s always loved.
Partly, the project is an experiment into the human brain, how it processes task-management and how it welcomes activities that, really and truly, are somewhat mundane, like organizing patterns.
Brown’s story begins with Pajitnov’s ruminations, and then flies off to the Lascaux cave paintings and ancient Egypt in an attempt to understand the fundamental importance of games to human development. This dovetails nicely with a familiar but welcome retelling of a 19th century Japanese card-maker called Fusajiro Yamauchi and his founding of a company called “Leave Luck to Heaven,” or “Nintendo.”
Back to Pajitnov. Despite a lack of resources, he makes Tetris and distributes it freely to friends, to play on IBM compatible PCs. The game finds its way to a trade fair in Hungary where it’s played by a British businessman called Robert Stein, looking to make a quick buck. This encounter ushers in an extraordinary series of events involving game industry chancers, media moguls, a U.S district court judge, Soviet politicians and warring game companies.
Long story short, Stein makes a haphazard deal with Pajitnov’s employer, giving him certain international rights to Tetris, which are then sold on. But the deal is vague and loose, mostly due to Soviet red tape.
Once Tetris becomes a global multi-million dollar phenomenon, bigger interests become involved, including clueless execs from a dying media conglomerate in Britain as well as sharp-teethed execs from Sega and Nintendo.
Sega has a partial, dodgy claim to Tetris, while Nintendo wants a cast iron grip on the game to launch its handheld Game Boy. Meanwhile, various Soviet operatives seek to make political hay from the mess, confusing the situation still further. Eventually, it all gets sorted out in a California law court.
Brown lays out this complex and baffling series of events by drawing on the personalities, flaws and desires of the figures involved. This exec scuffling makes up the central section of the book, which might sound like a huge turn off, but is delivered as a series of combative human encounters.
The bottom line is that the game industry in 1985 needed a game that could show the world that video games were for everyone. Tetris was that game. No-one at the time would have guessed that such a thing would emerge from Soviet Union. When it did, the game industry was almost entirely unprepared.
Most of the people who had any power in the 1980s games business were, frankly, chancers, looking to make a fast buck, generally clueless about the goods they were handling. This is the story of their undoing.
Nintendo would emerge from the chaos as a global leader, because its executives held fast to both an enlightened view of the power of creative ideas, and to a savagely possessive strain of enterprise. Nintendo’s determined campaign to secure Tetris tells us everything we need to know about how this brilliant and aggressive company operates.
But it’s also the story of how an artist makes something extraordinary which then takes on a life of its own.
If Pajitnov had created Tetris in San Francisco or Paris or Tokyo in the mid-1980s, it’s likely that he would have been somewhat cheated out of his fair due by games publishers offering meager royalties to unsophisticated creators. That was the way the game industry treated creatives back then.
The journey to fairness is still ongoing as game-makers constantly seek ways to monetize their own skills outside the confines of publisher deals and salaries, usually by going independent.
Pajitnov came from a country that eschewed the principles of capitalism and was ill-suited for fast dealings with game industry sharp shooters. The game’s creator earned almost nothing from his work. This gave the world a stark narrative about the broken relationship between creative genius, sweeping popularity and business interests.
Tetris: The Games People Play will be available on Oct. 11 for $19.99. It’s a highly enjoyable history of a single game in the 1980s, that also serves as a parable for all brilliant creative endeavors at all times.