Review – Tetris: The Games People Play (SelfMadeHero)

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Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Writer/Artist: Box Brown
Release Date: 11th October, 2016

We’ve all played Tetris, right?  As videogame juggernauts go, few properties can rival the commercial dominance or the sheer addictive obsession of the iconic block-busting franchise.  But have you ever wondered how the game first came about?  Well… probably not, but that’s okay, because I’m here to inform you that the story of Tetris – from its humble beginnings as a programming side-project for Russian Alexey Pajitnov to its global domination in the early 1980s – is definitely one worth telling.

Honesty, for what is ostensibly two hundred and fifty-odd pages of contract disputes about an incredibly addictive video game, I envisaged this book being a far tougher sell than it actually is.   Sure, Box Brown’s abilities as a writer and artist are unquestioned, as previously displayed in his stunning Andre The Giant: Life and Legend, but even I couldn’t have predicted how utterly gripping he makes the Tetris story feel.   From its impact on popular culture as part of the Cold War to the frenzied and frequently underhanded bidding war that its creation prompted from game developers like Nintendo Atari and SEGA, this is a truly fascinating story, and Brown keeps things flowing smoothly throughout, even during sections that could potentially become dry, boring affairs.

There’s an interesting part of the story that details how the game causes the player’s pre-frontal cortex to be stimulated constantly, creating a tension in the brain that remains until the task is completed, at which point any relevant information, now deemed unnecessary, is discarded.   It’s perhaps a little meta, but that’s exactly what happened while I was reading this book.  I was completely and utterly absorbed by the story, the corporate to-ing and fro-ing and the intriguing twists and turns, but the moment I put it down and started writing this review, I struggled to recall the specific names of the participants or the exact nature of the contract-based shenanigans.  Thankfully however, those really aren’t the important things here, because much like the titular game, this is a book which is a lot more about how the different parts move and interact with one another than it is about the parts themselves.

The artwork is wonderful in its simplicity – something of a recurring theme in this book – and Brown’s choice to only use the colour yellow takes us back to the nostalgic hours spent playing on our Gameboys as that impossibly catchy tune burrows into our subconscious.  You can hear it now, can’t you?  There’s nothing particularly detailed or particularly quote-unquote “epic” here,  but Brown’s layouts and his quietly expressive characters really help the story to evolve naturally.  There’s also a lot of humour at play here, even during the more serious scenes, and Brown himself seems acutely aware of the absurdity of the situation – a worldwide, backstabbing, multi-million dollar bidding war about an incredibly basic game about lining little up blocks (or “tetraminos” to you).

If you have even a passing interest in video games, history or the twists and turns of high-level corporate business, your experience reading this book will undoubtedly be enhanced. However, even if your knowledge of Tetris is all but non-existent, the strong narrative and wonderfully intriguing real-life characters will keep the pages turning here from beginning to end.  Highest of recommendations for this one, folks.  Now, I think it’s about time to dust off the ol’ Gameboy and see if I can beat my high score…

Rating: 4.5/5.

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ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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