Emergent Tetris

Here’s a fun, 2-hour documentary on the 35+ year history of the NES version of Tetris and the community still surrounding it to this day:

Tetris is hardly a complicated game, and an early version like this one doesn’t have the bells and whistles, the built-in multiplayer aspects, or even sophisticated scoring systems that later iterations feature. The competition and longevity of this game have been purely about chasing its high score.

At first glance, it’s not even clear why this is a worthwhile goal; the game limits its high score counter to 999,999, and the gameplay is designed so that it becomes impossible to pass a certain stage in the game and even then, normal play would only accumulate to a fraction of that maximum-possible score. The initial optimizations were about reaching that maximum milestone and accomplishing it as quickly as possible.

In modern games, this “game within a game” is referred to as the meta. The prevailing strategies in a game shift over time, as players discover and refine and workshop their tactics, understanding the game just a little bit deeper in pursuit of any edge that can aid in their victory1. At the same time, game developers keep close eyes on their game’s meta, and issue patches to direct their games top-down, changing rules to encourage certain playstyles while discouraging other techniques. For most modern games, their meta is a juxtaposition of its complex gameplay, player discovery, and developer guidance.

For Classic Tetris, its meta has been about analyzing and breaking the game, beyond its initial programming and game design. A dedicated community formed around the game, and from it came all these unplanned, undefined, organic modifications to the rules defined in the code that lifted those bounds. It’s like Monopoly house rules: they layer on top of a solid foundation and add dynamism, which prolongs interest and lets the game evolve well beyond what its creators originally intended.

The simplicity of the game helped play a role in its continual analysis. The documentary spends a good amount of its runtime at the start talking through many of these technical details, its particular set of rules that initially defined the upper bounds possibility. But that minuscule amount of code also enabled fans to dump the ROM in its entirety, and decode everything from the color palette algorithm to probabilities of crashes due to memory read errors. At the same time, players experimented with ways to overcome the limitations of the NES hardware, the iconic grey controllers with 2 red buttons that were electronically and mechanically simple enough to accommodate different ways of holding and triggering its buttons and D-pad.

All these factors come together to give this game life far beyond what anybody could have expected when it was released in ’89. Yes, the graphics, controls, and gameplay have improved over the years—I’ve been playing Tetris 99 for the past 5 years myself—but the constraints placed on this particular version of the game, in conjunction with the inadvertent simple scoring system that has driven its meta strategies, have bred creativity more so than much more sophisticated games. It’s an impressive feat, and the documentary here does a great job of highlighting the journey2.

  1. Classic board games like Chess and Go are exemplary in demonstrating how a game’s meta evolves over centuries of play.

  2. Which is still going to this day, though their latest hurdle is a bug that makes the next milestone an absolute grind.

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