The elevation of video games to free speech and art has been a slow, fascinating process that I’ve avidly watched over most of my life. These days, between games like Firewatch and That Dragon, Cancer, it’s become more or less a given that a game is supposed to say something and we are supposed to feel something, whereas in the past, a game was simply something you beat. It was a challenge, and whatever other experiences you drew from it were flavoring.
That said, gaming as an artistic medium is different from all other mediums in one very important way. You watch a movie, you listen to music, you read a book, but you play a game. A game is something that you do, and the artistic experience that you have with a game is going to depend on what you can and can’t do, or what you will and won’t do. Very few works of art make you become a part of them, and none on the scale of the gaming industry.
It means that games have to be judged differently from the way other works are, and one of the ways they have to be judged is how well the act of playing the game matches the story the game is trying to tell. Some games do this phenomenally well, like Portal 2 and Limbo and the previously mentioned Firewatch. Some games do this really badly, like Bioshock Infinite and the latest Tomb Raider. Ian Danskin calls this gamefeel: what the specific act of participating in the game does to you emotionally. Portal 2 is a game about intelligence, science gone mad, identity and sadism that has good gamefeel because you traverse it by outsmarting the environment with its own weapon. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game about a young woman damaged by surviving a brutal encounter and coming to terms with it as she pursues her archaeology that has bad gamefeel because she comes to terms with it by murdering a ton of people.
All this is in modern context, though, because technical advances have allowed games to tell more elaborate stories, at least in a visual sense. For me, though, the most perfect example of a game as art and cultural expression is the classic Tetris. It still weirdly resonates and colors the world today in startlingly deep ways, though you sort of have to know the history behind the game to understand it since the puzzler has no in-game narrative.
Tetris was developed in 1984 by Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov, who was working on artificial intelligence at the Soviet Academy of Sciences by programming computers to play simple games. His game exploded in popularity in Russia. The game soon made its way out of the country in a mass of pirated copies and improper licensing agreements, leaving in murky territory the matter of who actually had the right to make the game available on various systems. Pajitnov, fearing the response from Soviet officials if he published the game himself, lent the rights to the government for ten years, and it was the government that would spend the next decade negotiating on his behalf. Despite that and the game’s enormous success, Pajitnov himself would not start receiving royalties from his game until he immigrated to the United States and formed The Tetris Group.
This matters a lot because of what Tetris is. The game’s graphics are all beautiful, if simplistic, representations of Russian architecture. The famous theme song is a rendition of a folk tune called “Korobeiniki.” It is the perfect symbol of Russia’s technological advancement, with traditional forms of art like architecture and music transported to be represented by pixels and sound cards on a device trying to be taught to think for itself. Then, across this setting start falling these industrial shapes that a player has to scramble to form into a wall. Every part must come together perfectly in order maintain the game, but once you achieve those perfect lines, they disappear, and more come falling faster. Literally nothing can better express Soviet culture than playing a round of Tetris. From a pro-Soviet standpoint, it represents the endless struggle of the working class and the wonders they can build, while from the outside it symbolizes their inevitable march towards collapse.
On top of all this is a creator denied the fruits of creation and greedy capitalist nations rushing to monetize this hot new thing from Russia. It was like propaganda come to life. Kids in America were sitting at home glued to their GameBoys, funneling money directly back to the Soviet Union via Nintendo as the Cold War continued into its final years. In a way, Tetris would continue to be a game about how Russian and America continued their relationship.
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Shortly after the official end of the Cold War, Russia would join us in our first Iraq war. During that war, one American soldier brought along his GameBoy, and he had it on him when bombs started dropping around him. The GameBoy survived the bombing, and still works to this day. It is on display in the Nintendo World Store in New York City, where its title screen is — you guessed it — Tetris. Now we’re dealing with the fallout of another Iraq war, with a Russian president pressing his interests in the region. You build, it disappears. You build, it disappears and it only gets harder.
Tetris has also been to space, and what could possibly better symbolize the best parts of the technological relationship between our countries? Aleksandr A. Serebrov took a GameBoy and a copy of Tetris with him when he stayed in the MIR Space Station for 196 days, playing the game as he looked down on the world below. Not long after that, we built the ISS, and now Americans rely entirely on the Russians for access after the loss of our shuttle program. You build, it disappears and it only gets harder.
I doubt Pajitnov ever thought his simple puzzle game would endure and remain a distinct work of art that highlights the beauty of his homeland and the strange relationship it has with the country that eventually became his second home. To play a game of Tetris is to experience the history of Russia, both the good and the bad, in a manner only video games are capable of. In terms of wedding gamefeel to more artistic elements, no game has ever come close to what Tetris was and is still capable of.