Tetris: The Games People Play
Writer/artist: Box Brown
First Second; $19.99
In this follow-up to his winning 2014 biography, Andre The Giant: Life and Legend, cartoonist Box Brown tackles another great subject, and another one that everyone knows of, but relatively few actually know the story of: Tetris, the surprisingly simple, surprisingly addictive video game.
While there is an element of biography to this nonfiction graphic “novel,” with Tetris’ creator Alexye Pajitnov necessarily being an ongoing focus of the narrative, Brown chronicles the game itself as a phenomenon, and because of the time and circumstances of its creation—Soviet scientist Pajitnov created the game in his spare time to amuse himself and his friends in 1984—that makes the story one about so much more than just a game.
It’s also a story of game-playing as an essential human pursuit, of the birth of the video game industry, of corporate and legal intrigue, of Soviet and U.S. relations, of intellectual property rights, of the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the USSR, and of the ascendancy of video game medium. Its characters range from low-level bureaucrats to to scientists to some of the visionary designers at Nintendo to the flamboyant media tycoon Robert Maxwell.
That’s a lot of stuff for a book about a game in which the player makes rows out of falling shapes.
Brown’s own stripped-down, diagram-simple black-and-white artwork is well-suited to a tale of a 1980s videogame, and he shows perhaps admirable restraint in not doing anything overly cutesy with the format, like using four-block Tetris pieces-inspired panel grids or anything.
That said, it might have been nice if some of the stressful, addictive urgency of Tetris the game translated to Tetris, the book. While there are certainly thrilling aspects and surprises—particularly for anyone in a generation that was born too late to know what becomes of Maxwell, for example, or where the video game industry came from, or which companies got which versions of Tetris and how they exploited them—the story lacks a sense of propulsion.
Part of this comes from Brown’s own wandering into the philosophical aspects of the act of gaming, something he’ll loop back to later in the book as a way of explaining why exactly Tetris was and is so satisfying a game and why it is so appealing to play, but as interesting as that section is, it’s also somewhat distracting from the greater narrative. The book may have benefited from more passages like that, or fewer, but as published, the balance feels somewhat off.
The sprawling cast further contributes to the occasionally meandering feel of the book, but then, that’s a difficult-to-overcome side effect of what is essentially the biography of a video game rather than a biography of a person. There are many people involved, and some do have satisfying narrative arcs, while others mostly just disappear.
The story of Tetris is a compelling one—and, unfortunately, some of the Cold War dynamics at play here may seem newly relevant given current events—and Brown is an increasingly compelling cartoonist. Who can blame a reader for liking Brown’s Tetris book then, but also wishing one could like it still more?