2023 marks the release of “Tetris“, the long-awaited film from Apple TV+ and director Jon S. Baird, which tells the story of the creation of one of the world’s most popular video games, and the challenges of bringing it to a wider audience from behind the iron curtain. It’s a biographical story of strength, determination and immense faith in what you do, with the main focus on the copyright and release of the game to global markets.
The puzzle game “Tetris” first hit the American market in 1989 with the release of Nintendo’s new Game Boy handheld console, hence its close association with the company. However, only a few people know the real story behind this globally popular game.
“Tetris” first appeared in Moscow, at this time still former Soviet Union, in 1985.Its creator, computer systems engineer Alexey Pajitnov, was working at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre, now the Russian Academy of Sciences. His liking for puzzles and his strong fascination with the aesthetic and mathematical possibilities of geometric shapes inspired him to create a game of falling shapes, always made up of four squares, also known as tetronimoes.
Pajitnov’s game, although very simple but intriguing, quickly spread among his colleagues and friends, catching the eye of those around him working in the games industry. And so begins the almost two-hour story of how a game developer named Hank Rogers, simply mesmerised by this hypnotizing new game, risks everything to publish it, that is, to obtain international licensing rights, outside the Soviet Union. Not only does he have to look for partners, compete with one of the biggest video game licensing and publishing companies of the time, but he also has to go to Moscow and negotiate with the local bureaucrats and the KGB.
Director Jonas S. Baird, together with the rest of the cast and crew (one of whom is Lithuanian – Ieva Andrejevaite, who plays Alexey’s wife Nina), perfectly recreated the aesthetics of the 1980s and further enhanced it with the soundtrack, in which some of the most popular American songs of the time were rendered into Russian. The intense plot and the use of visual effects and jokes at certain points kept the audience glued to the screens and unable to take a breather until the end of the movie. Most importantly, “Tetris” not only tells the story of the origins and publication of the game itself, but also recalls the tensions between East and West during the Cold War, which is essentially what led to the competition for the rights to the game in the first place, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tape captures very well the essence of that period, when video games were just beginning to rise to the top of popularity and everyone was dreaming of changing the world in one way or another.
In the beginning, the director was attracted by the idea of making a movie about the fall of communism. When asked about this in an interview with Why Now’s Maria Lattila, he stated that “<…> the original script was called ‘Falling Blocks’, which I thought would be a very clever title for a movie about the fall of the USSR. When I read the scenario, I knew immediately that it was a story I could tell. It’s a true story, a political thriller, everything that I like in movies, and it was fun. It was a mere coincidence that it was also about a popular computer game. That’s why we changed the title to „Tetris“.
It can be said that this film is about dreamers with clear visions and endless determination to achieve their goals. It is also about community, friendship and mutual understanding of how common goals and ideas can unite people who at first sight may seem completely different, and help them leave their mark on the world.
Interview by Yuri Dud with the real creator of Tetris (English subtitled):