Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Book Review: Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

In high school, I went to a summer program called Governor's School, at the University of Tennessee at Martin. There is nothing to do in Martin, Tennessee. I brought $100 for 4 weeks. I spent $20 of it on Tetris. I got very good at Tetris very fast, so I didn't have to spend a whole lot on the game, luckily. Lately my husband keeps trying to get me to try different video games with him, but I don't like most of them. Yes, when I was a preteen, I could spend all day playing Atari, but I just can't do that anymore. Except with Tetris.

I think it's the puzzle aspect of it. And I've always been very good at physical relationships--like those tests where you are presented with a variety of shapes and have to figure out which ones you could fold into a cube. I don't know why, but my brain does work that way. I'm good at packing when we move, at figuring out at a glance really close to how many books fit on a shelf, that sort of thing. And so this game that's all about shapes, shifting them into 4 aspects to get them to fit, and planning several steps down the road, really works with my mental strengths.

This is a fascinating graphic novel history of the invention and development of Tetris. Unlike other computer or programming origin stories, this one doesn't involve any Ivy League dropouts in a garage. The inventor lived in Soviet Russia and worked as a programmer. This is a game he came up with just for friends and colleagues that he thought would be fun. Thus ended his thought on the game. His co-worker suggested that it was salable and that he should contact the proper Soviet authorities about selling it. He wouldn't ever get a dime, but since he just wanted to spread the fun, that was fine with him.

So the Soviets dive into this project and reach out to various Western companies, floundering around in a very foreign project, of selling something fun for profit. And since they'd never done anything like this before and refused to ask for help, they did screw up. They thought they only sold tabletop computer rights to one guy, and he thought he had all rights. And he sold off the rights for the stand-up console games, for cartridge games, and handheld games. Rights he didn't have.

Anyway, I will skip over the legal and contractual details. Eventually it was wildly successful. And the Soviet Union fell. And the founders were able to move to California and work in American programming and gaming, although never with anywhere near the success of Tetris. At the end there's a very shocking event with one founder (the guy who said you should sell it, not the programmer.) The graphic format lent itself better than I would have thought to this story. I wasn't sure if a story about a computer game could be interesting in any format, but it especially doesn't seem like a particularly graphic story. But Mr. Brown is just brilliant at this and it works really well. I'd recommend this most highly to any junior high or high school boys who are getting less interested in books and more interested in games. Like most graphic novels, it can be read in just a couple of hours, and hopefully can span those interests and bring some kids back to books. For the rest of us, it's just a really interesting history, told in a novel way.

This book is published by First Second, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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