Original ‘Tetris’ Creators Reveal the Game’s Wild Espionage Origin Story
Believe it or not, game development is not what most people would consider to be sexy. But anyone familiar with the story of Tetris knows there can be exceptions to the rule.
Originally depicted in the 2004 BBC documentary Tetris: From Russia with Love, and now dramatized in the Apple TV+ film Tetris (now streaming), it’s the kind of story that has it all: corporate espionage, personal betrayal, and an outcome that would change the world forever. No, really.
It’s the story of a Soviet-era Russian engineer, Alexey Pajitnov (played in the film by Nikita Efremov), who singled-handedly designed one of the world’s most addictive and influential video games while working for Elorg, the ministry of software under the USSR. Unable to turn a profit from the game while working for a state-owned organization, his luck would change upon meeting the other man responsible for Tetris’ phenomenal success: Dutch video game designer and entrepreneur Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton). Together, they’d form a partnership that would bring Tetris to the global masses and continues to this very day.
Releasing alongside not just other “how it was made” product biopics like BlackBerry or Air, but in the wake of the burgeoning video game movie revolution, the irony of Tetris is that it actually has more in common with Ben Affleck’s other directorial hit, Argo. And like that film, there’s some liberties taken to ratchet up the excitement, but it doesn’t take away from the preposterous reality that birthed a cultural phenomenon with over half a billion copies sold to date.
Rolling Stone sat down to speak with the real-life Henk and Alexey about the adaptation, the definitive versions of Tetris, and what they think of the video game landscape today.
Who first approached you about making your story into a feature film?
Henk: Oh gosh, it started with a BBC documentary called From Russia with Love. Somebody must have seen that and thought, “Hey, this could be an interesting story.” Because it was years afterward that I got contacted. And it’s like, you know, “Make a movie out of your story?” And it just sounded like, “Eh, come on.” But my daughter running [The Tetris] Company said, “It’d be fun, it’s good publicity for the game. You should do it.” And so I let her make those “important” decisions.
It helps to have kind of a sexy story. It’s not your run-of-the-mill game development story.
Henk: That’s right, it’s obviously otherwise. I don’t think most game development stories are movie-worthy.
In both the film and real life, there’s something of a yin and yang dynamic between the two of you. What was your first impression upon meeting?
Alexey: I was just invited on some routine meeting in Elorg, which was because some kind of strange adventurer kind of showed up in Moscow and wanted to talk about Tetris. It wasn’t the first precedent because there were some other strange people [that] kept coming and looking for some Tetris opportunities before. So, I went and I met this strange guy with the black mustache. You’ve seen the movie, you remember it.
But that was a very unusual meeting because it was the first time we met a professional there, a person who really belongs to the game industry, and [was] very competent and very good, and [who could] explain what was going on. And what was most important for me was that he was my colleague; he was a game designer. And there was no such profession in the Soviet Union.
And this strange guy with the mustache had pretty much invested everything in getting the rights to Tetris?
Henk: I was in such big trouble. It wasn’t my land; it was my in-laws’. I basically had used all of their land as collateral to make Nintendo cartridges. They’ve worked their entire lives making dumplings and bought all this property and it was all on the line. And they’re [ELORG] telling me that, “You don’t have those rights.” And I’m like, “Holy shit. If somebody else picks up those rights, they can just tell me no? And I can’t publish? And you know, that all becomes garbage. Which is, in fact, exactly what happened to Sega and Atari afterward because Nintendo told them both, “Sorry, you can’t publish that game.” And both Sega and Atari had to bury 300,000 cartridges each. And that’s a world of hurt, and that is not a world of hurt that I could have survived.
So, everything is on the line, financially. What about the real danger? How real was that feeling of danger or a threat to you?
Henk: So, I’ll tell my side of it. My side is that I didn’t really know. So, there was a bunch of ignorance involved. I didn’t know how much trouble I could get into. And you could say I was “courageous,” but I mean, I was ignorant. Ignorance is bliss on that level. I knew I was doing something wrong because my interpreter said, “No you can’t go in there,” and I said, “Why not?” “Because you’re on a tourist visa.” I stayed in a freaking tourist hotel, obviously everybody there was on a tourist visa. But I went in anyway, so I was breaking some law. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?
Alexey: As soon as we started to communicate on a more personal note, that was definitely breaking a law. But you know, that was a strange time for [the] Soviet Union, that it was on the verge of collapse. And you know, this new Perestroika and Glasnost comes up, and it gave me hope and it was a light at the end of the tunnel. I decided that we would go for it.
Maybe this is a producer’s issue, but how difficult was it to portray the likenesses of people from a company like Nintendo? You’ve got these scenes of executives at Nintendo screaming, “Fucking get me Tetris!”
Henk: You know, I think they did a pretty good job with [former chairman of Nintendo of America] Howard Lincoln. I mean, he did not spare the expletives. He definitely called the Atari guys “motherfuckers.”
What makes Tetris “the perfect game?”
Henk: Well, it doesn’t have any cultural artifacts that would make it from a certain time period or a certain culture. We made sure to keep it away. There was a company – Capcom – that added Mickey Mouse to it once upon a time. But Tetris doesn’t need Mickey Mouse. Tetris doesn’t need any character.
The characters from other games, they go up in popularity then they’re gone. I mean, where are Angry Birds today? They’re gone. So, the point is there’s no character involved in Tetris. It’s just geometry. And geometry is, starting with Euclidean geometry for Christ’s sake, thousands of years ago, and it’s still here with us. Those principles still work.
In the BBC documentary, Alexey said something to the effect of Tetris having “construction” at its core versus “destruction.” What does that mean?
Alexey: That’s a very truthful impression of every player. You kind of put the order into chaos of [the] falling blocks, and you are doing something really creative in the game, kind of building line by line rather than destroying anything.
Alexey: Before Tetris, it was 95/5, male-to-female in [the] industry. Tetris has exactly 50/50. That’s a very strong and serious sign.
Henk: My father who didn’t play any computer games, he would never get near that. He played Tetris. Are you kidding me? I’ve heard so many stories. “Well, my father played Tetris. I played Tetris. My kids play Tetris. Everybody plays Tetris.” So, no age and no gender. No culture.
Alexey: It’s a mystery. There are very many small [things] coming together into this game and creating this phenomenon. It was a very important social moment because, as you probably feel out of the movie, that was the time when people were just starting to be introduced to computers, and there was a very serious psychological barrier between people and computers. And Tetris really helped it a lot.
Henk: There’s something else that I feel about Tetris though that’s different from other games. Other games you can play, like Mario, a lot of those games you can go through the beginning parts and push the button in exactly the way you did the last time. And so, it’s a game you play by memory, where that’s the thing you jump up. It’s not random. You don’t have to make any decisions until you get to the point of the game that you haven’t played before. Tetris is always random. You’re always having to make these little micro decisions. And people can live their lives without making any decisions. They can wake up in the morning, have coffee, go to the office, work all day, and they haven’t made a single decision. They’re just going through life. Tetris gives you decision, decision, decision, and faster and faster. This has got to be a pleasure center. I think this is kind of a “wake your mind up” or put you into a “flow state” thing.
Alexey: No memorizing shit here.
Believe it or not, there are people who do not know what Tetris is. I saw one review…
Henk: He got roasted on social media!
Yeah, I’m not going to roast him! But if a person came to you and somehow had never even heard of Tetris, which version would you recommend to them?
Alexey: We are very different on this issue. I have my very certain answer. The original Tetris and the simple Tetris was created for the platform with keys. You need to have a very good user interface at your disposal. That’s why I strongly recommend any version on computer or laptop.
Henk: For the first-time player, I would choose some kind of console. You know, the game just plays better with buttons. On the keyboard, the keys that he’s used to, it’s your right hand [on] the numbers and the left hand is on the rotate. But on a joypad, it’s backward. So, when I first brought him a Nintendo, he turned the controller upside down and it was just so funny.
Alexey: But now there are very good versions, so Tetris Effect is probably one of them.
Henk: It’s amazing. Tetris 99 is amazing.
What’s your take on the current state of the games industry?
Alexey: I feel that the industry has [had] several global shifts during my career. And one of the very important shifts is the tendency to get much more casual games rather than [ones for] hardcore gamers. And that was very good. That was a very good movement. Unfortunately, it created the problem with payment in the industry. Now it’s all subscription, all this begging, and all this kind of crap with the advertisements during the game.
Like microtransactions and live service games.
Henk: It’s like movies. You think about a movie — if they interrupted you every five minutes during a movie with a commercial or with “give us some money,” it would just mess up the movie. And I think people have become too cheap. I’m one of them! I mean, it’s a cup of coffee for Christ’s sake. Like $4.99, you buy a latte. Pay the game designers or the people who make games that amount of money for a game and you get [what]? It’s not like ten minutes of pleasure, it’s hours and hours of pleasure. Why isn’t that worth the price of a cup of coffee? And the goofy thing is that the game companies have gotten so good at squeezing you for money during the game that they’re making more money than if you were to have just paid for the damned game. It’d have saved you a lot of money. But people don’t think about it that way.
What about things like AI?
Alexey: I put my hope on artificial intelligence in the industry. I have no idea in which role, but it will be there for sure.
Henk: A lot of people create virtual worlds. And then you go to this virtual world and it’s empty, there’s nothing going on. Now that we have artificial intelligence, we can have artificial people. So, the NPCs in the games will become indistinguishable from player characters. I think that is going to make the world as interesting as the real world. Then people never have to leave. They’ll be in the virtual world. They’ll have relationships with artificial people. You can meet Rachael, Blade Runner’s Rachael, and you can fall in love with an artificial intelligence. There’s absolutely nothing stopping people from going there.
Lastly, I want to ask you about Russia. The Iron Curtain fell, and the games industry has grown in modern-day Russia, but it’s had issues. What hope is there for future developers?
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Alexey: I don’t have too much hope for Russian developers. They are not in a good position so far.
Henk: My answer is that this too shall pass. If you’re a Russian game developer, develop on. There will be a point in time when all of this will be over and Russia will become part of the international community again.
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