Tetris is a great example of how simple ideas often inspire the best video games. In my recent conversation with Alexey Pajitnov, he recounted how a simple wooden puzzle game inspired him to create Tetris.
Pajitnov was working at the computer center of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1984 when the thought came to him that Pentominoes would make a great computer game. Pentominoes are a mathematical puzzle in which players need to place 12 different shapes made of 5 units each into a rectangle. Inspired, Pajitnov programmed the game on an Electronica 60, the Soviet equivalent of a DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) PDP-11. He made the shapes out of brackets because the system had few graphics capabilities. Pajitnov quickly realized that adding gravity to the game made it more exciting—as the pieces fell, they had to be moved or rotated to fit together on the bottom of the screen.
He encountered a problem, though. Solving a Pentomino puzzle was hard enough without time constraints, and when the pieces cascaded down the screen, the game’s difficulty skyrocketed. To alleviate some of the pressure, Pajitnov decided to reduce the size of the pieces from 5 units each to 4 units, thereby decreasing the total number of unique shapes from 12 to 7. Now it was much easier! Searching for a name, he reasoned that since pente was the Greek word for five and he now had 4 units per shape, he should name it after the Greek word for four, tetra. Tetris was born.
Tetris spread throughout the Eastern Bloc and onto PCs. But it was too good a game to stay bottled up behind the Iron Curtain. A number of entrepreneurs made arrangements to bring it to the West, and it achieved worldwide fame when Henk Rogers worked with Nintendo to secure the handheld rights for the 1989 debut of GameBoy. Tetris quickly became one of the most beloved games of all time and ultimately built the market for puzzle and casual games. It remains highly popular today, especially on mobile phones. NCHEG’s collection includes dozens of copies of Tetris on many platforms, from an arcade version to copies on key chains to numerous handhelds. We also have Pentominoes as a reminder of the source of the original idea.
Tetris’s success demonstrates that the best video games don’t just mimic previous video games—they draw inspiration from other sources. In his superb book, The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell urges game designers seeking ideas to “stop looking at your game, and stop looking at games like it. Instead, look everywhere else.” That’s great advice. A quarter century after its creation, Tetris is proof positive that the best sources for innovative games are the play and life experiences that most move and fascinate us.