Saturday, July 4, 2009

Celebrating 25 years of Tetris

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in the Mumbai edition of Financial Express.

Twenty-five years is a long time by any standards, but it's an era when you're talking about video games. In an industry that routinely refers to three year old games as obsolete, it's nothing short of amazing that one game continues to be played extensively a quarter of a century after it was first released. That's right folks, Tetris turned twenty five on the 6th of June this year. And, just like its famous falling blocks, shows no signs of slowing down.

Today, Tetris is more than just a videogame, it's a meme. It's been played on every possible gaming device. It's been projected on to buildings. It's been performed live by human actors. A man was arrested and sent to prison for refusing to stop playing it on his mobile phone when on a flight. The L-shaped block (a tetromino, for the technically demanding among you) once won first place in an online poll for 'best video game character' – beating contenders like Mario, Solid Snake and Duke Nukem. Tetris, on all platforms, has sold 125 million copies to date. That's more than the entire population of Germany.

So what's all the fuss about? The durability of Tetris is testimony to Alexey Pajitnov's elegant, timeless design. Seven differently shaped blocks, called tetrominoes, drop down from the top of your screen, with gradually increasing speed. Rotate and shift them to form complete rows, and the rows disappear. If the screen fills up, you lose. This simple and addictive formula has kept Tetris on the top of the charts, year after year, even as videogames have reached a level of sophistication and complexity that Pajitnov wouldn't have even dreamed of in 1984.

To understand the significance of Tetris' staying power, just consider the status of many of its famous contemoparies. Classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug and Defender are played today only by hardcore fanboys and retro-gaming hobbyists. Tetris, on the other hand, became the top selling iPhone application during the first quarter of its release. Tetris isn't retro. It's contemp – two and a half decades after it made its appearance. The Madonna of videogames.

Videogames have come a long way since 1984. They've moved from being the preserve of the PC-Geeks to being the cynosure of everyday homes, with consoles like the Wii, PS3 and XBOX gaining a huge mainstream following. They've leapt out from video arcades into your living room and into your pocket. The videogame industry is no longer an oddity – it's an international behemoth that is beginning to rival Hollywood in terms of revenue.

Today's games are also a far cry from the simple 'shoot everything that moves' or 'run away from the bad guys' gameplay that was dominant when Tetris was born. In last year's amazing 'Spore', you started off as a single unicellular life-form that would, based on choices the player makes, evolve into a land creature, become a tribe, conquer the entire planet, and then set out to explore space. The Grand Theft Auto series lets you explore every nook and cranny of a huge, living city, as you take control of its organized crime in an experience that is the closest thing to starring in your own action movie. Massively Multiplayer Online Games like World of Warcraft and its ilk open up a whole new world where gamers live out alternate lives as dwarven warriors or elven wizards in search of adventure and treasure, in a world populated by millions of other gamers all over the world.

Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's upcoming Project Natal up the technology ante a notch further – using motion sensitive controls that change the way games are played. The Project Natal demonstration at this year's E3 blew visitors away when it showed how the gamer's physical gestures are motion captured and replicated exactly within the game in real time. Kick, and your character kicks. Duck, and your character ducks. It's all very futuristic and sci-fi, and terribly exciting to gamers worldwide. The Nintendo DS and iPhone, with their touch screen capabilities, are also opening up new ways to play games. Already, Nintendo DS games allow you to call out to characters in-game by shouting out their names, and to blow out candles by physically blowing into the built-in mic.

With emerging technologies like BrainGate (which allows computers to be controlled by thought commands) and AmbX (in addition to audio, AmbX offers feedback, heat, wind and lighting simulation to heighten the ambient gaming experience), the future of gaming looks like it's going to be a truly wild ride.

And, in all this evolutionary hype, it's reassuring that a simple, addictive game like Tetris continues to be among the most played games in the world. It reminds us that, deep down, beyond the graphics wizardry, artificial intelligence and incredible realism, videogames are really only about one simple thing – being fun to play.

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