Experiencing Tetris Effect

In 1984, Alexei Pajitnov wrote Tetris for the Elektronika 60 computer. This was not a home computer by any stretch of the imagination; it was a Soviet interpretation of a DEC LSI-11, itself a shrunk-down version of the PDP-11. It had no display capabilities of its own, and this initial release of Tetris had to be played on a text-mode terminal that communicated with the computer. Pajitnov, working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was tasked with demonstrating the limits and capabilities of the equipment being developed. So, despite not being a gaming rig (lol), Pajitnov came up with a great proof-of-concept to show off this state-of-the-art machine. It quickly got ported to PC, and from here its story becomes fraught with capitalism and intellectual property battles. But the important takeaway is that these issues arose because of how incredibly popular the game was. It paved the way for decades of falling-block games, some better than others. It was so engrossing that its lingering effects on the thought patterns of hardcore players was noted and named the Tetris effect by popular media; this has since been generalized and studied as game transfer phenomena. And in 1989 it became the killer app for the Game Boy, ushering in an era of casual, handheld gaming.

In 1999, Bandai released one of my favorite handheld consoles, the Wonderswan. It was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who also famously designed the original Game Boy. Sadly, Yokoi didn’t live to see the release of the Wonderswan. The system launched alongside a falling-block game named in tribute to Yokoi, Gunpey. While I felt no need to describe the game of Tetris, I’m less confident that the majority of people reading this have played Gunpey. I call it a falling-block game, though the blocks technically push upward from the bottom. Blocks are either made of diagonal lines that go from one corner to the opposite, or vee shapes that start and end on corners from the same edge, bending at the midpoint of the opposite edge. Blocks are cleared by rearranging their positions on the playfield such that lines continuously extend from one side of the playfield to the other. If I’m not describing this well, I unfortunately don’t think it matters much. Gunpey, to me, exists as a nice tribute to Yokoi, and a demonstration of the potential that the Wonderswan’s portrait-mode capabilities have. As a game, it’s just slow and dull. It can be quite frustrating too; when new blocks come in, they’re sparse, and the playfield can become incredibly full with one column empty simply because the RNG hasn’t been kind. I show it off to friends as an introduction to the Wonderswan, and as a device to talk about Yokoi, but I’m never inclined to show it off as a game.

In 2004, Q Entertainment released Lumines: Puzzle Fusion for the PlayStation Portable. Its designer, Q’s founder Tetsuya Mizuguchi, was captivated early on by the effect music had on people, the ability of a DJ to push an entire crowd into collective movement. He saw the PSP as something new, simply because of one detail – its headphone jack1. In an interview in Issue 2 of A Profound Waste of Time, Mizuguchi states that he “wanted to make Rez meets Tetris” but couldn’t as Electronic Arts held the exclusive license at the time. “So I went away and made Lumines. [Laughs].” Lumines is often described as a rhythm game because of how tightly it integrates music. I avoided it for the longest time because of this, but it isn’t a rhythm game at all. It’s a falling-block game that fundamentally understands how players fall into what Mizuguchi refers to as a state of ‘flow’2, and it uses this knowledge to engage with the player on a very deep level. At its heart, Lumines is a game where you drop squares made of four blocks. Blocks are one of two colors, and when clusters of the same color form squares on the playfield, they clear. But from the very first entry in the series, Lumines: Puzzle Fusion, the experience was also colored by the driving, responsive techno soundtrack. It was colored by the game’s lack of linear level progression – they don’t just get faster and faster, but they play with your state of ‘flow’ by constantly changing the rate of play in both directions3. When I eventually grabbed Lumines Remastered on the Switch, it quickly became my favorite falling-block game.

In 2006, Mizuguchi oversaw a reimagining of the WonderSwan title Gunpey. Yet again working for the PSP4, Gunpey [2006] took what was kind of a dull slog of a falling-block game and it added a handful of quality-of-life updates that made it much more… playable. But on top of small gameplay tweaks, this release from Q Entertainment brought along much of the feeling of Lumines. Mizuguchi might not have had the Tetris license yet, but his company was able to invigorate another falling-block license, giving an incredibly fresh breath to a game that never really felt that great to begin with. It’s still a few leaps away from the S rank of my falling-block tier list, but it’s a very playable game and does a lot to solidify Gunpey as a tribute to such an important figure in video game history. Moreover, it shows the shape of things to come when Mizuguchi gets to overhaul an existing license.

In 2018, Mizuguchi’s most recent company, Enhance Games, released Tetris Effect. Finally, he was able to realize his dream from 2003 of Rez meets Tetris. By now, of course, Mizuguchi knew how to use music and pacing and trippy visuals to play with the player’s flow. It’s likely far more fair at this point to call it Lumines meets Tetris. The Tetris Company holds rather tight control over their licensing, and games made since 2001 largely have to adhere to something called the Guideline. The Guideline has changed over the years, but what hasn’t changed is a fundamental goal of standardizing the Tetris experience. Mizuguchi’s vision didn’t really include the Guideline. By default, pieces are all the same color, there’s only a single next piece shown, and if you play through the entire Journey mode, you’ll never hear Hydelic do a rendition of the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki”. Originally released as a VR title, it’s an incredibly immersive experience, enhanced by the fact that it breaks so many of the generally inalienable rules of the game. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, a decades-old vision of what Tetris could be.

Earlier this year, Tetris Effect was updated with a multiplayer mode, released as Tetris Effect: Connected. Earlier this month, Connected came to the Switch. My first experience with Tetris Effect was on a friend’s VR rig. I didn’t get to spend too much time with it, and I was left feeling quite confused. The experience was incredible, and the level of immersion was almost overwhelming at times. I played quite poorly, in part because of being overwhelmed but also largely due to the aforementioned Guideline omissions. In particular, I am used to pieces adhering to the Guideline colors. I rely on detecting the colors of Next and Held pieces in my periphery as a core gameplay mechanic. I felt quite lost without this visual cue; the fact that there was only one Next piece barely even factored in when that Next piece was, in practical terms, invisible to me.

Despite not entirely knowing how I felt about that experience, I bought it as soon as I woke up on the day it came to Switch. I’ve always been an Endless Tetris player rather than one who aims for the 150 line clear Marathon mode. Preferring this endurance experience, I was a bit taken aback that the standard mode – Journey – was a finite run. I played through it at normal difficulty and one-credit cleared it on my first run. I still wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. I started a run on Expert mode and botched it fairly early on. I poked around and found the Marathon mode, found out that there was an Endless mode. I also found options to play with Guideline colors, and expand the Next pieces to four. I went back to Journey mode on Expert. I was confused by the fact that drop speed would bounce around wildly instead of progressing in a linear fashion.

By the time I 1CC’ed Expert mode, I got it. The bouncing around of the timing was classic Mizuguchi, with lulls placed as a brief respite before hammering the player with 20G. Even more than Lumines, the game interacts with the player by manipulating their sense of flow. “Even more than Lumines” became a bit of a running theme. Even more than Lumines, the tetriminoes (in their default, uncolored state) and the background are inseparable pieces of one another. Even more than Lumines, gameplay is a narrative journey. Even more than Lumines the music goes beyond a flow state and makes emotional response an integral aspect of gameplay. It’s sappy as hell, but when the playfield is filling up toward the end of the run and Look Up starts playing, it’s incredibly empowering. Finishing the final three Zone modes of a 1CC and hearing Kate Brady5 sing “What could you be afraid of?” one last time makes me feel accomplished.

1CC’ing Tetris Effect in Expert Journey mode has quickly become my favorite Tetris experience. In some ways, I wish there was an Endless Journey mode – one of my most satisfying video game experiences is to spend hours in an Endless game of Lumines. But I understand the significance of calling this mode ‘Journey’. It has a structure, and that structure has an end. I switch between color modes regularly now; one mode helps me get better at Tetris while the other is a more immersive experience.

I marvel at Mizuguchi’s ability to develop things with the amount of foresight that he has. He seems to have grand, improbable ideas that he’s able to make play out decades later, when said ideas become probable. I wonder what Q Entertainment would’ve done in 2004 if they had access to the Tetris license. There’s an almost paradoxical timeline at play where Tetris Effect seems fully inspired by a game that wouldn’t exist had the game that Tetris Effect wanted to be fifteen years prior been allowed to exist. I hope Mizuguchi goes on to do more great things, but this game feels like such a triumph. A decades-long journey wrapped in a narrative disguised as a casual block game. It’s Tetris that makes you feel like you’ve just overcome something significant.

I have written about Tetris before, and I likely will again. I initially intended for this post to be even longer and more even more of a ramble. There are so many bits beyond the core game that are worth reviewing on their own. I may make this post yet, but it doesn’t really seem relevant to the feeling I wanted to convey here. I guess the TL;DR is that it’s very good. There are a lot of modes, and they are all very very good. But the real meat of the experience is in its Journey mode, and I doubt this interpretation of Tetris will ever be topped for me.

  1. Eurogamer 2015-02-08 ↩︎
  2. What Mizuguchi is describing is, I believe, a more immediate phenomenon than the Tetris effect. However, based on nothing but my own experiences with these games and how they affect my understanding of shapes and patterns, I don’t really believe you can have one without the other. ↩︎
  3. It’s actually more complicated than this. Much like Tetris, there isn’t just a single speed. There are, I believe, some additional timing matters, but the most obvious differentiation is that between the drop rate and the speed of the Timeline. The Timeline is what clears blocks, so a slow timeline combined with a fast drop rate can lead to an incredible buildup of blocks on the playfield. ↩︎
  4. Q Entertainment also released a version of this updated Gunpey for the Nintendo DS. It also clearly takes inspiration from Lumines and other Q titles, but it’s aimed at a younger market and doesn’t quite realize these inspirations in the same way as the PSP release. Around the same time, Bandai/Namco released a mobile port as well, but I don’t believe Q was involved with this one. ↩︎
  5. Brady records as Kathleen now. ↩︎