It’s All Connected
The beauty of Tetris Effect after a year of grief and sorrow
2018 was a bad year, right? On a global scale, of course, it was bleak. I don’t need to relitigate that: you know the names, the events, the general sense so many of us have felt that we’re destroying ourselves, and that it could be irreversible because the people who should be doing the most to fix all of this just flat out don’t want to.
Setting all that aside, 2018 was awful on a personal and professional level. As my work opportunities began to dry up and fade one by one, I found myself constantly worried about the future, in need of change that I’m still struggling to enact. I sometimes had trouble seeing the value in the things that I was doing. But that’s tip of the iceberg stuff.
In April, I lost my mother. It was sudden and unexpected, and I don’t want to say a lot about it here. At some point, I suppose, most people find themselves without parents anymore. But at 30, I didn’t feel ready. I felt unmoored, lost, alone. Shaken in a way I had not anticipated or expected.
In the wake of grief, the media you consume becomes tinged and changed. Your experiences and emotions unavoidably colour them. You read, see, and hear things differently, and a lot of works start to feel like they are specifically about your situation, especially if they directly deal with grief in some way. I saw Ari Aster’s phenomenal debut film Hereditary in June and thought ‘yes, this movie understands, grief isn’t a dramatic event that you overcome, it’s a horror experience’. Max Porter’s book Grief is the Thing with Feathers didn’t hit me quite as hard, but the notion of grief as a thing that settled in to stay for a while, that became a part of you and which would leave feathers behind even if it ever left, felt true enough.
These were works specifically about the realities of a situation I was experiencing, though — even if the grief at the heart of Hereditary is far, far more horrific than my own — so it’s no wonder that they pinged something inside me. This has often been the case for me — watching Magnolia after a heartbreak cemented it as one of my favourite movies of all time, for instance. But then, sometimes, a work will hit you unexpectedly, coming at everything you’re experiencing from an angle you did not foresee.
Which brings me to Tetris Effect.
Tetris Effect is a PS4-exclusive Tetris game from Enhance Games, a studio headed up by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Mizuguchi was the producer on Lumines, Rez, Child of Eden, and Meteos, along with several other games I’ve not played but really should. In 2012, Mizuguchi came to ACMI in Melbourne to talk about his career, and briefly played Child of Eden on Kinect in front of the assembled crowd. I don’t know if any experience of watching a developer play their own game has ever been more enlightening to me. In seeing Mizuguchi play his own game, I understood the gap between what he wanted to do and the limitations of traditional gameplay models; the way he played was by no means was the ‘best’ way to play the game, in that his expressive motions and coordinated rhythm landed him only four stars out of a possible five. But it was clearly the way he wanted the game to be played, high scores be damned. That has stuck with me ever since.
Tetris Effect, of course, is the product of some of the most well-known mechanics and rules in games. It’s sometimes described as a ‘perfect’ game, generally without much controversy. The word ‘perfect’ is often viewed as poisonous in criticism, but perfection is relative. Tetris is perfect in the sense that its rules and mechanics are all working together in harmony, and it’s able to achieve the very straightforward goals it sets for itself — it’s an entertaining, easily understood, increasingly challenging puzzle game. ‘Perfection’ becomes less achievable the more you elaborate. A Grand Theft Auto cannot be ‘perfect’ the way Tetris is, because it’s too big a thing for us to decide what does or doesn’t make it perfect. Meanwhile, a hanky might be perfect if it feels good and works well as a thing you blow your nose into. It’s all relative, but the ‘perfection’ of Tetris is really in its accessibility — it’s a game that can be understood immediately and enjoyed forever.
But if Tetris is perfect, how do you improve on it? Mechanically, you don’t — the only real ‘change’ that Tetris Effect introduces is the ‘Zone’, which pauses the action and lets you rack up lines and increase your score during the ‘Journey’ campaign mode without any of the lines you clear adding to your total. It’s for the overwhelmed and score chasers alike, but it doesn’t fundamentally change Tetris. You’re still rotating seven different four-piece blocks clockwise or counter-clockwise, forming lines to progress. And yet, Tetris Effect does improve on the fundamental perfection of Tetris, by finding new things for these mechanics and rules to express.
Let’s talk about the first level of Tetris Effect. It’s called ‘The Deep’, and it made me cry.
As you lay blocks down at the beginning of the level, a woman’s voice emits unintelligible sounds. The surrounding stage, taking up most of the screen, has the texture of a deep water. Bubbling noises can be heard. As blocks start to click into place and you clear lines, the beat kicks in. In the surrounding waters, manta-rays appear, made of what looks like star matter that bursts and dissipates along with your lines. Eventually they’re replaced by similarly starry dolphins as the beat changes and flows. It’s gorgeous.
And then, there’s the voice of singer Kate Brady, which cuts in midway through. There’s some confusion over what, exactly, the first line of her song is; I believe it’s “every passing day the wind blows stronger”. But the first time through, instead I heard “every passing day the wind makes me stronger”. Even knowing that’s probably not the line, that’s still what I hear.
As you near the end of that first level, getting close to the line limit you must hit to pass the level, she breaks into the song’s chorus:
I’m yours forever
There is no end in sight for us
Nothing could measure
The kind of strength inside of hearts
It’s all connected
We’re all together in this life
Don’t you forget it
We’re all connected in this love
And there, right there, is Tetris Effect’s thesis statement. I finished the level for the first time and had to pause for a moment to collect myself. Before playing, I’d thought that the incredible reviews the game was getting were perhaps a bit much, but four minutes was all it took. ‘I get it’, I thought. ‘I get it now. It’s all connected.’
Tetris Effect is a Tetris game, but it’s also a game about Tetris. It’s about the idea that Tetris is a universal experience, something that can be learned and understood so fast, which requires little enough explanation or description, that it can be shared by everyone. Tetris Effect’s campaign whips you through different locations and situations, all represented by changing aesthetics and music and tones and speeds, but the Tetris at the centre always remains the same. This is a game that centres on the concept of Tetris being a universal language.
More broadly, ‘play’ has been considered a universal experience, and an important part of society, for some time now (if this was an academic piece this is the spot where I’d talk about Huizinga for several paragraphs). In Australia, sport has often been presented as the great metaphor of multiculturalism — the idea that everyone can connect over cricket, or football, or whatever, no matter where they come from or what they believe. ‘Play’ is an important part of our lives and culture.
The same could be said of music, of course. There’s some argument over whether music really counts as a universal language, but the experience of enjoying music, at least, is largely considered universal. Tetris Effect’s aesthetic experience of visuals and music paired with the vibrations of the controller and the familiarity of Tetris’ core mechanics make for an experience that truly feels like it’s for everyone, even if, for me, it also felt oddly personal.
Tetris is not a perfect metaphor for universal accessibility and togetherness, of course, because there’s always a certain level of assumed ability; someone with severe vision impairment, or hearing loss, or with limited motor controls, is not going to get the same experience out of Tetris Effect, and a very basic level of digital literacy is assumed. But in that opening level, I had a moment of clarity: yes, things have been bad, and I have suffered, and the solitary experience of my suffering was hard.
But then there was this, an experience that truly felt like something to be shared, even as I played it alone. This beautiful song. This wonderful visual display. These mechanics, so engrained in my brain. These base human experiences, these pleasures, are the things that connect us all together. I earnestly believe that this is a game about the idea that if everyone could come together — if we could all be united by a truly universal experience, something like Tetris — we could solve the world’s problems.
Maybe, I thought, things will be alright. Maybe we really are all in this together, even if not everyone can see it.
Tetris Effect is named after the real-world phenomenon of continuing to see the outline of falling Tetris blocks when you close your eyes after playing the game for an extended period. It’s not just limited to Tetris, either — plenty of games stick with you in some way after you put them down, their mechanics and aesthetics mapping themselves onto the world in front of you as you move through it. More than anything, the term has always made me think of how when I pack a suitcase I get the original Game Boy Tetris music stuck in my head. The core ideas of Tetris — the pleasure of tidiness, of cleaning things away, of waiting and hoping for that one long piece that will solve everything — feel endlessly applicable to everyday life.
The, uh, effect of Tetris Effect, then, is that getting better at it — progressing through it, learning to deal with the faster speeds, marvelling at each beautiful new vista and cursing at every difficulty spike — has had a soothing effect on me. It felt like a way of facing and navigating the world, of embracing the fundamental experience of being alive and acknowledging the beauty of that. I felt how lucky I was to still be here.
Every passing day, the wind makes me stronger.
Tetris Effect’s Journey mode is beautiful the whole way through — challenging, gorgeous, clever and altogether wonderful, just by virtue of being a great version of Tetris — but it’s the first level and the last one, ‘Metamorphosis’, that really stuck with me. Tetris Effect prefers soundscapes to singing, but the few songs in the game are a real treat. The final track, ‘Always Been, But Never Dreamed’, once again makes sure to remind you that you’re not alone:
Come follow me
I’ll show you this side of the world
The places that you’ve never seen
Come follow me
Come follow me
I’ll show you the side of yourself
The person that you’ve always been
But never dreamed
What could you be afraid of
If I’m right here with you?
You know everything will change
Show me what you are made of
’Cause I’m always with you
Come on, we could leave today
The last level of Tetris Effect is, naturally enough, much more difficult than the first — for the last thirty or so lines lines, the blocks drop extremely fast — and yet there’s also something soothing and calming about the whole thing. The first time I beat it on normal difficulty, I felt myself slipping into the ‘zone’ without needing to use the appropriate mechanic. I saw the path forward for every block. I knew what I was building to. My basin was almost full, and I didn’t panic. If you keep rotating, you can control a block for much longer once it hits your top layer; I calmly guided each piece where it needed to be. What was there to be afraid of? I was here. Everyone was right here with me. I knew what I was doing. I was in tune with the game.
I won’t be so crude as to suggest that Tetris Effect ‘saved’ me, or anything like that. I was not a danger to myself before playing, and I had not forgotten that there was beauty and love in the world. It didn’t end world hunger. It didn’t cure me of my grief. But it made me feel like there was a way for everything — everything! — to be alright, and that we collectively have the power to save ourselves. That’s a lot to put on Tetris, I know. But we’re all together in this life. Don’t you forget it.