The Shockingly Dramatic Origin Story of Tetris

A new thriller on Apple TV+ chronicles the turbulent origins of Tetris, the addictively simple puzzle video game that still captivates.

Tetris blocks

The classic puzzle game Tetris asks players to fit together falling geometric shapes composed of four squares (known as “tetrominoes”) to form horizontal lines. The completed lines disappear; the game ends when uncleared lines reach the top of the playing field. That simple premise has proven wildly popular. Since debuting in 1984, Tetris has sold nearly 500 million copies—the vast majority being mobile downloads—making it one of history’s best-selling video game franchises. Only Mario has outsold it.

But few people may be versed in the game’s dramatic origin story. That’s where Tetris, an Apple TV+ political thriller that debuted March 31, comes in, recounting the history behind the late-‘80s legal battle that propelled a clever concept into a global phenomenon. It stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, a Dutch game designer who discovered Tetris at a Las Vegas trade show and traveled to the Cold War–era Soviet Union to secure the game’s licensing rights for the nascent Nintendo Game Boy despite the fraught political climate. He soon meets Tetris’s inventor, Alexey Pajitnov, and Hungarian businessman Robert Stein, who tried to secure the game’s rights for his own company. 

What ensues is a high-stakes legal battle that director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink dramatize into a perilous two-hour saga of “treacherous KGB operatives, Machiavellian billionaires, blackmail, bribery,” and a car chase, observes The Guardian in a mixed review. All that to convey the protracted struggle of securing the license to an early video game may not seem like traditional thriller fodder, but Rogers and Pajitnov both praised the film’s accuracy. “That was emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually a very truthful movie,” the latter said on a panel after the film’s premiere at South by Southwest.

What’s also truthful is Tetris’s continued grip on culture, even four decades after Pajitnov coded it on a rudimentary Electronika 60 computer. Psychologists note that regular Tetris play can thicken the cerebral cortex to enhance one’s memory capacity and combat post-traumatic stress disorder. One might experience the “Tetris Effect” after devoting so much time to an activity that it begins to pattern thoughts and dreams—in Tetris’s case, blocks sliding perfectly into place. The word “Tetris” has even entered the lexicon as a verb—who hasn’t manically rearranged groceries in a tote bag to optimize space? 

“I didn’t make much money at first, but I was happy because my main priority was to see people enjoying my game,” Pajitnov once said. “Tetris came along early and had an important role in breaking down ordinary people’s inhibitions in front of computers, which were scary to non-professionals used to pen and paper. But the fact that something so simple and beautiful could appear on screen destroyed that barrier.” He isn’t done, either—he envisions Tetris soon entering the esports scene, integrating AI, and debuting a two-player version, but isn’t quite there yet. Not to worry—the original clearly still has staying power. 

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