Challenge Accepted: Taking a deeper look at Tetris

This is generally what I use as a litmus test for feeling satisfaction in a game.

Are there better feelings in games?

Tetris is, in every way, one of the simplest games ever devised.  It’s also one of the most successful, perhaps the most ubiquitous game ever created.  Everyone understands Tetris as a game concept more or less from the womb, and subsequent years have seen endless numbers of ports, adaptations, variants, and so forth.  All based off of the very simple, straightforward, and almost trivial challenge – stack lines of blocks, don’t let the lines reach the top.

The simplicity of the game belies the fact that there’s actually a wealth and depth of challenge available in the game.  It finds new ways to challenge you, perpetually, so that even though you’ve doubtlessly played the game for ages, every single game becomes a new challenge and something to be anticipated and enjoyed.  It engages you on almost every level, and the result is a game that’s fascinating to both play and understand on a deeper level.

I had a version on my calculator in high school, even.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the game’s universal appeal that it can be played on pretty much anything with a graphical display and a little space.

The obvious and straightforward challenge of Tetris is in the realm of thought – you have to figure out how to put all of the pieces together in such a way that the stack doesn’t overflow.  In and of itself, this isn’t an overwhelming challenge, although it requires you to constantly be thinking about the layout of your pieces.  What makes it more engaging is that the challenge extends to reflexes as well – as you clear more lines, the game levels up, the blocks falling faster and faster and giving you less and less time to rotate them.  While in the early stages the speed drop is a vital way of making your setup fit together, in later stages the piece is already plummeting so quickly that you can only desperately move and react.

But reaction alone won’t save you – your thought and memory challenges come into play as well.  The “Next” window is a vital tool in planning out your current move and your next move, figuring out which piece has just landed and which one is coming next before you figure out which of several spots should host this piece.  Later games have picked this as one of the few major areas in which the game can be altered, extending the “Next” window to cover the next several pieces that will fall, but in the later stages of the game you’re unlikely to have enough time to really think that far ahead.

Most Tetris editions are defined partly by the speed at which the blocks fall and how quickly that speed ramps up, along with a few minor changes to the underlying system.  How long can you spin a block before it starts dropping?  How many spins can you make once the block touches the ground?  Can you spin with the block up against the wall?  How fast are the fast drops?

But the core of the game has remained almost entirely unchanged, with the only functionality that’s been introduced which was not there in earlier versions being the addition of a Hold feature.  This is one of those features that’s kind of controversial, because it does, in fact, change the nature of the game.  The Hold allows you to swap out a drop, first for an empty space, then for whatever you had in the hold spot.  It allows you to move the S or Z blocks off to one side when you can’t fit them in, and as a result it means that the game is no longer solely determined by your ability to react, evaluate, and place.

Yet, arguably, this change makes the game deeper than it was before.  Adding the Hold functionality introduces a new level of consideration to the game, an extra element to keep track of.  The fact remains that even the most reviled of shapes in the block library do have situations where they fit perfectly into missing spots, and often can do so while you swap in more universally potent shapes like the straight line or one of the L-shaped blocks.  You have to remember what’s in there as well as what your layout looks like when you trigger a hold, adding an element of strategic planning to the procedure.

It hurts players, but really, we do it to ourselves.

The ability to tempt fate doesn’t hurt matters.

So why is the game such a perfect challenge?  Several reasons, starting with the game’s simple lack of physics.

At a glance, the fact that blocks do not fall properly in Tetris is kind of absurd, a primitive limitation.  The game seems like it would make so much more sense if blocks could fall down to a lower level as you cleared lines, not hovering above the lines and creating tiny holes.  And it would, undeniably, be easier.  But it would take away one of the central aspects of the game.  You can always recover from a mistake in Tetris, always find a way to whittle down the lines between you and the bottom… but doing so makes things harder.

Every line you clear brings you that much closer to leveling up, making blocks go faster, and giving you less space to work with.  On the original NES, one of the game modes centered around starting play with several “garbage” lines on the bottom, and while you could clear them away you would be dealing with a much faster speed once you got to the bottom.  That introduced an entirely new challenge, that even perfect play would make your motions that much more constrained.

Screwing up a placement is what will eventually cause you to lose a given game of Tetris.  You’ll slip slightly and a piece will land in the wrong spot, and you won’t have enough time to wrestle the blocks into the right configuration to clear it away before the speed simply becomes too great.  Before you’re desperately mashing left and right to try and stave off the collapse as long as possible.  Making a placement mistake have a lengthening impact, making each mistake eat up a portion of the real estate on the screen irrevocably?  That keeps you playing, because a mistake won’t destroy you, but it has aftershocks.

This, then, is the core of why Tetris is so perfect as a challenge.  Everything always feels managed, even your mistakes seemingly something you could have fixed if you were a little faster or more on-point.  You walk away from each round not feeling like you were screwed, because the wrong shape at the wrong time will hurt, but it can always be recovered.  You can patch things back together.  A loss is your fault, your own misstep.  It’s an elegantly designed challenge that asks you to think not simply about what’s on screen, but what comes next and how you can clear things in the least number of moves.

Next time around, I want to take an idea from here and run with it, talking about endlessly increasing challenges compared to those with fixed states.  After that, I want to take a look at another specific game, this time another example I frequently use: Super Mario Bros.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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