Pain, Strength, and Growing Up
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I have only ever cried about two video games in my entire life.
The first was when I was eleven years old. I had mowed lawns and pulled weeds and cleared junk out of seventeen neighbors’ yards over the course of three months in the heat of a Georgia summer in 1989, to earn enough money to buy my first ever Nintendo Entertainment System. It came with the Duck Hunt / Super Mario Brothers combo cartridge, two controllers, and a light zapper. My father made a bargain with me: if I earned half the money, he’d pay the other half. I did my part, he did his part, and when the clerk at Toys R’ Us pulled that glorious black and red and star-speckled box from the cage behind the counter and handed it to me, I cried. I was a poor kid. We had nothing growing up, aside from whatever few Star Wars or He-Man or Transformers toys my mom could afford on her single mother salary at birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes, we had less than nothing and had to have assistance for food and a place to live, so to have the game system every kid in my new school had and couldn’t stop talking about was more than just video entertainment. It was arriving. It was belonging. In short,
IT. WAS. EVERYTHING.
We got home and I rushed to set it up. We plugged in the cables and turned it on and the menu screen appeared with Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt and my little eleven year old heart leapt out of my chest and I shed a tear of joy (so technically, the first time I cried about a video game was actually crying about the menu screen for two different games, but for the purposes of making the point I want to make, we’re just going to call it one instance and leave it at that. I hope that’s cool.) For the final glorious week before school started that year, I sat on the edge of my bed from wake until sleep playing Super Mario Brothers, and occasionally playing Duck Hunt with my sister (since we could pass the zapper back and forth).
I didn’t get any other games until that Christmas, which were The Legend of Zelda and Tetris. All I wanted was Zelda. It’s the only thing I put on my list. It’s the only thing I talked about for months. To get it was amazing, but I didn’t cry. Nor did I cry when I got an additional game, which was Tetris. In fact, I didn’t even pop Tetris in on Christmas Day. It was a few days later, after needing a break from Zelda, that I popped it in.
I liked it fine at the time. In that moment, during that week between Christmas and New Years, I thought it was a fun distraction when I wasn’t trying to defeat Gannondorf and rescue Princess Zelda. The music played and the blocks fell and being 11 years old, my patience in trying to persist past the increasing speed at which these insufferable blocks would pile up and end my game was so low as to be non-existent. I would make it to about level six and die like clockwork. It was overwhelming and I didn’t care enough to work past it, because there were princesses to rescue.
When I beat Zelda almost a month later, I was so depleted I couldn’t imagine starting back over. Super Mario Brothers had grown a bit stale, and I wasn’t ready to cycle back to it yet. And something about not being able to get very far in the only remaining video game in my library bugged me.
Now, I like to think I’ve always been a very stubborn, heads-down, push-through-it kinda guy, but that’s not true. I don’t think any eleven year old is. That’s a learned trait, and one that my father instilled in me as I grew up with him through sports, hard work, discipline, and the occasional reminder when I would get in trouble (usually the legal kind) that God is to be feared, and near as I was concerned, he might as well be God. So, memories being what they are, I think in shades of stubbornness and determination and will. But the truth is, I was a terrible mix of bored and annoyed. Tetris was not something I cared much about, but needing a game to play before the proliferation of cheap video game rental places, I turned to Tetris. The weekend of my birthday in 1990, I decided I was going to try to get past speed level 6 of Tetris.
I cannot tell you specifically what it was that happened, but something certainly happened. It wasn’t magical. There wasn’t an emotional response. It was fun, yes, but also something else. A challenge, maybe? But I didn’t feel challenged per se — I felt motivated. I felt encouraged. There was always something about the next level that felt just enough out of reach to be uncomfortable, but not so far that I couldn’t stretch to reach it. And when I did, I always felt good. I would play it after school and as a “warm up” before other games. When the Super Nintendo came out, there wasn’t really a Tetris for it, so when I eventually got one, I kept my NES nearby so I could play Tetris. I got a GameBoy in a trade from a kid at school for some porn magazines and cigarettes (the immigrants who owned the Texaco station at the entrance of our neighborhood were quite liberal with my friends and I, and kept us in wares to peddle… Until we eventually got ratted out of course). I played Tetris on that thing whenever I could. When I eventually got my first computer, one of the first games I installed was Tetris.
As the 90’s passed into the new millennium, Tetris began taking on these weird forms. People thought they could improve it. I thought Tetris Sphere was kinda cool, but by and large, literally any version of Tetris that wasn’t just playing Tetris was meh.
And then, it was announced that Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of Lumines and Fez was working on a VR version of what could be considered the most consistent video game presence in my life, Tetris. My interest was piqued. Lumines was an AMAZING experience of combining puzzle gaming with music and visuals to create something greater than the sum of its parts, and Fez was the first puzzle game besides Tetris that I felt stuck to the “simple and addictive” formula in the same way that Tetris had. But, of course, neither is Tetris. Tetris is Tetris. All other puzzle games are “fun” or “cool” or “challenging” but Tetris? Tetris is so much more than those things combined. It’s special.
And that is why I am writing this this morning. Last night, I fired up Tetris Effect after months of eager anticipation. And I was overwhelmed with emotion.
The menu screen is beautiful and transcendent right off the bat. The experience asks you to start in a mode called “Journey” and the very first level features these whales and sea creatures floating about, comprised of small lit dots on a black background. Etherial music whispers at you as you begin the game. Each move adds a small “note” that sounds like someone humming — it’s not obnoxious in the slightest. In fact, it feels as if you’re a part of the composition as you create another voice in the ensemble. As you clear blocks, the music picks up. After a few rows, the bass line pops in, but not jarringly — very much on measure, as if it was written in the sheet music. And then, after you’re nice and absorbed into the experience, the vocals start.
“Every passing day, the winds blowing stronger…”
You’re tempted to think “Why does a Tetris game have lyrics??” But you actively tell yourself you don’t need to worry about it. It feels right.
“They light the way to keep the reminder…”
The screen is gently pulsing, but not in a way thats distracting. It’s additive. It’s multiplicative. The blocks falling, the backgrounds and effects, the music, the rhythm…
Then, a brilliant flash of soft warm light and gentle rainbow effects glow and the singer enters the refrain:
I’m yours forever There is no end in sight for us, Nothing could pressure The kind of strength inside our hearts It’s all connected We’re all together in this life Don’t you forget it We’re all connected in this…
…And for the second time in my life, I cried about a video game.
Throughout my 30 years as a video game enthusiast, there have been plenty very emotional reactions to moments: Sephirtoth killing Aeris. John Marston being gunned down in Blackwater. Every single loss in a Tekken match. But there’s emotional responses, and then there’s emotional responses, and Tetris Effect brought about a tremendous emotional response. I can’t explain it. It’s tempting to connect it with my personal connection to Tetris, and of course that plays a part, but that’s not the whole of it. There is something about THIS version of this game… THIS experience…
It’s a masterwork. Plain and simple.
There’s a lot more I want to say about this game. The history of how Alexey Pajitnov, creator of Tetris while a state-sponsored programmer for the former Soviet Union’s ELORG branch, made exactly zero dollars and zero cents on his creation until nearly thirty years after it was created… How the name Tetris Effect is actually the term neurologists came up with after years of research to describe the effect playing Tetris had on the minds of Alzheimer’s patients, people with brain damage, and PTSD victims… How the NES version of Tetris is still the gold standard for tournament play almost thirty years after its release (despite being the 20th documented version of the game), and how a teenager new to Tetris unseated a decade-long titleholder… But all that is out there. I encourage you to read up on it and learn all you can about this marvel of our modern age. It’s a game made by a guy who just wanted to make a fun game, with absolutely NO financial expectation or incentive, and how forty years after its creation it has gone on to legendary status as not only the best selling game of all time, but as a tool for people with emotional and physical damage to their minds to cope with and even move past trauma… It’s a testament to what happens when you make something for the art, and not for the commerce. By honestly and openly pouring yourself into a creation without any expectation of outcome, just to do it… You never know where it will take you.
I wish very deeply I was capable of that. There are times I can transcend the idea of reaction or response or commerce and just write something, and I’m always happiest with things I make in that state. But I’m also very keenly aware of myself and I know that, due to my past, where I grew up, and my own personality that I’m likely never to enter a permanent state of detachment from commercialism or validation or other mind traps.
…Except when I play Tetris. And that’s why I wanted to share this this morning. For the first time in a very, very long time, I cried about a video game because the experience itself was so moving, and so powerful, and so deeply connected, I literally felt detached from our current times and all the strife therein. I stared at the “community” screen with the little fishy avatars swimming around a massive Earth you can soar around and look at and I felt genuinely connected to every single player who got Tetris Effect on launch day and were swimming around the Earth with me. And I was stone sober at the time, in case it needs mentioning.
I’m moved by this experience. I don’t do video game reviews, and I don’t count this as one. This is not a star-rating or number-rating or click-driven piece. This is me telling you that you owe it to yourself to experience Tetris Effect. I don’t own a VR headset, but I plan to get one now just to see how this experience is in its fully realized form, and I’m sure I’ll be wiping dry the interior of the goggles as I sob uncontrollably from the sheer magnitude of the beauty.
And somewhere in that, I find hope. If I can find this experience — disconnected from violence, or achievement hunting, or bragging rights — as meditative and healing in such difficult times, maybe someone else can too. And I would be selfish to keep it to myself.
If you’re sold, great. Go get it. If you’re skeptical or just curious, please do me a favor and watch this trailer. If you don’t feel anything, fine. It’s not for you. But I will tell you that this trailer alone made me tear up the first time I saw it, and now that I’ve played it myself, it is enough to get me weepy all by itself:
Maybe it doesn’t affect you like it does me, and that’s ok. It doesn’t have to. It really isn’t supposed to. But I will say that I find peace in the idea that there’s this thing — call it a game, call it media, call it a piece of art — that a man made just to make it, with zero expectation of outcome, that has gone on to reach and affect so many people so positively. I find it heartening that the world over, you can fire up Tetris and it’s immediately understood within seconds despite language barriers, political leanings, personal history, or borders. It’s not just a game to me. It’s not just a piece of art. It’s a binding agent. It brings us together in so many ways, some visible and some unseen. And I also find it interesting that the more corporations tried to play with the formula, the worse they made it. It’s only when Tetsuya Mizuguchi, a master of combining audio, visuals, and input, got a hold of it that we have a version that enhances and builds on what Tetris really is, because he left the game itself alone. He merely incorporated what is already a pure and full experience into a greater experience.
The first song of the first level really brings it home for me. We ARE all connected in this life. And when we focus on that aspect, what makes us all unique is what makes us all special. Our differences are no longer party lines or political leaning or differences in opinions, but lenses through which each of us see the world — THE SAME WORLD — that we all inhabit together.
I hope you’ll play Tetris Effect. I hope you have a similar experience, of course. But even if you don’t — even if the hippy dippy “love each other” bell doesn’t ring in your mind, I hope at the very least it can bring you some calm and peace in these weird and trying times. At the very least, it can’t hurt.
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