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Game designer Martin Hollis perfectly deconstructs Tetris

This Valentine’s Day, get yourself someone who talks about you the way legendary game designer Martin Hollis talks about Tetris.

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Tetris

This Valentine’s Day, get yourself someone who talks about you the way legendary game designer Martin Hollis talks about Tetris.

There’s plenty to be said for social media. It’s powerful. It’s immediate. Its range is unparalleled. But also, threading on Twitter – even with the increase to 280 characters – still has a habit of taking something great, and somehow making it a little less so.

Between the threading itself, or joining part way through, or replies interrupting the flow, or getting out of order – you can insert a generic “sum of its parts” analogy here.

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Meanwhile Martin Hollis, legendary industry figure behind classics Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 64 and Perfect Dark (among others), recently delivered what is possibly the most wonderful and poetic Tetris monologue on Twitter. It’s like a beautiful, polished gem of a review – a thesis in 400 words, the sort of review editors usually only dream of receiving – but threading on Twitter makes it harder work to read than it deserves.

So, with Martin’s permission, we’ve extracted his Tetris soliloquy from the swirling vortex of threaded Twitter entropy, and would like to present it to you, in all its glory:

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Tetris is good, not because of the core loop, which is boring. Get brick, place brick. If you think that is Tetris, you haved missed what Tetris is. Tetris is good because of the emergent things that arise from simple rules, and their dazzling aspect.

In the beginning, when you are naive, the meaning of the space where you are thinking of placing your brick seems clear. You want a good fit. You think locally.

As you build your skill you learn that nearby features are important. The higher your skill the more aware you become of more distant features. In the end, you need to take account of the entire board.

In the beginning, you gather heuristics like ‘try to keep the surface flat and without overhangs, and without holes’. These rules of thumbs are emergent.

As you learn more, you realize that every one of your heuristics is wrong, and in the right circumstances a hole can be built and destroyed in two moves, or in more, or in less, to your considerable advantage.

Ultimately, everything becomes dynamic, and the rules of best play turn out to be baroque. The complexity seems to me to be large compared to any other video game.

Lastly I should talk about narrative. Tetris is a pure game in that it has no elements thought of as narrative or as producing narrative. No characters, no sense of place.

Tetris produces narrative, or narrative emerges from the shape and flow of the surface, your hopes and needs, and the wax and wane of your doom.

You come to believe you are in control of your fate and that as the board stacks up, that is a monument to your mistakes.

A reversal feels like a release from a crushing end, or an angel’s redemption. You snatch a victory from death. You put a twist in your story.

These things are not in the rules of Tetris and they are not found in the mechanics. They were not put into the game. They materialize.

An aspiring designer learning their trade can try to emulate any game by any master. There is some sense in any choice. But if they hope to better Tetris I will bet against them.

I don’t say that Tetris is better than all other games put together. I do say that Tetris is a sparkling jewel in the firmament, brightest to the human eye. A Venus of video games.

Yes, I have fallen in love with Tetris.

Now go ahead and say “thank you” to Martin. Nobody ever needs to write another word on Tetris again, because that passage there? It’s sheer perfection.

In summary: video games are art, game designers are poets, and Tetris might be the best video game ever made.


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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. J.S. Brown

    8th February 2018 at 3:26 am

    Yeh, tetris is alright.

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