Tuesday, October 11, 2016

TETRIS by Box Brown

What is black and white and yellow all over? Why, it's this new biography of the popular video game, TETRIS. (Do not adjust your screen - the cover image to the right isn't crooked; the cover itself depicts everything at a slant.)

I have to confess that I found parts of this biography to be a bit bewildering.

At first, despite the book being titled TETRIS, I assumed it would be the biography of the guy who created it. And the book starts out with him - a guy named Alexey Pajitnov, and his friend Vladimir Pokhilko. Alexey conceived of the game as part of his thinking about the importance of games, not just as diversions but as tools that help the brain solve problems and hone skills.

No sooner does the book go there, than it jumps back by thousands of years to the idea of the beginning of games following through the history of games to the development of the Nintendo Corporation. So I wondered whether this book was more about Nintendo.

But no. The title is truth in advertising, and this book is actually a biography of the TETRIS game itself. Its creator Alexey is mentioned, but we don't get a detailed biography of his life, and little mention of his family. We learn a bit more about the story arc of several key individuals (besides Alexey), but people are only important in this story so far as they relate to the game (in most cases).

The book follows TETRIS from its conception to its creation to its distribution and later sales and licensing. Some information about parallel developments in gaming, such as the creation of the Gameboy by Nintendo, is included in the book, but again - it's all there for how it relates to TETRIS.

The one part of the book that became a bit difficult to follow clearly had to do with the sales of various licensing and use rights to several corporations, including Atari and Nintendo as well as other less well-known companies. It also includes mention of ongoing legal disputes between Atari and Nintendo. As a former lawyer, I could follow what was going on (after re-reading parts and focusing intently); I'm not so certain a casual reader will "get" those points. That may not matter in understanding what happens with TETRIS, but it is a wee bit off-putting.

Even with that criticism, I found this biography of a product to be fascinating. It pulls in some information about the Soviet Union (still in existence at the start of TETRIS), and provides a bit of insight into what life there was like. It traces the history of Nintendo as well as of TETRIS. It explains the reasons that video games can be so absorbing. And always, it celebrates the success of TETRIS.

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