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Box Brown's Tetris: The Games People Play

Tetris-for-blog_coverPublished by SelfMadeHero in October, Tetris: The Games People Play, is Box Brown's follow-up to his biography of wrestling and Hollywood legend, Andre the Giant. In his new graphic novel, Brown marries a philosophical view of humanity’s relationship to games with the true story of the rise in popularity and subsequent legal wrangling of the '80s sensation Tetris. Although artistically snappy and warm, the creator only pulls off this marriage with debatable success. Regardless, the story of Tetris is full of humour, warmth and surprise, even if it falls slightly short of the book's loftier aims.

I confess, I’m not much of a gamer; I’ve never spent hours curing patients in Theme Hospital or worked my thumbs to the bone for that perfect combo on Street Fighter, heck, I’ve never even had a phone with Snake on it. So when I heard about a graphic novel about the creation of Tetris, I wasn’t particularly excited. Tetris? That annoying game from the 80s with the stupid blocks that never go where they’re supposed to? Why would I want to read about that?

TetrisThe actual birth of Tetris is dealt with in relatively few pages and it’ll no doubt vary from reader to reader how much of a crime or mercy that is. Created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1985, Tetris swiftly took the world by storm. But, after sending the game out into the world, Alexey himself was largely ignored. Brown too spends little time with the game's creator, only checking in occasionally for the bulk of the story. Being a (modern) historical work, this shouldn't be considered a criticism, however, as the story's lack of a central character is made up for with historical context and detail. The book stretches back to give a potted history of games up to the foundation of the Nintendo company and the creation of Tetris. Its worldwide diaspora and the ensuing contest for the game's legal rights make up the bulk of the action. There’s much more here than just the birth of a computer game: Tetris won and lost people fortunes, took part in Cold War politics and helped shape the multi-billion dollar computer game industry.

The games people play in this story, then, are more those of business, politics and confidence trickery. There isn’t much in the way of coding or design in this book, and the trade-off is that Brown devotes not a small amount of pages to legal and business negotiations. Not everyone’s cup of tea, admittedly, but Tetris’ story is full of surprising twists and turns. Those who know their gaming history may be well aware of this, of course, but the bumbling involvement of the Russian government (or USSR, I suppose), the surprising appearance of Bond-villain mogul, Robert Maxwell, and the farcical finale of the negotiations had me marvelling at how stranger-than-fiction the world can be at times.

A twisting tale of copyright negotiations may be considered difficult to render in a graphically interesting manner, but luckily for us, Box Brown understands pacing. His artwork, uncluttered throughout, cleverly fades into the background during the complex legal manoeuvring, letting the narrative do the heavy lifting. Clear, declamatory statements and characters drawn with identifiable short-hands help the reader keep track of the players. When you’re juggling several be-suited men from several different companies, keeping things clear and simple is definitely a virtue. Of help too are the large, clear panels and the simple black/white/yellow palette used throughout the book, which lends a sprightly warmth to every page.

On the flip side, scenes of Alexey Pajitnov quietly getting on with life in the computer lab or of families and friends enjoying games go at a much slower pace as Brown introduces more artistic flourish. This is most clearly demonstrated in the panel work and layouts of his pages. Most of the graphic novel is told using simple square panels, generally between three and five to a page. To add variety, half and full pages are deftly employed to explain larger concepts, like the way Alexey envisages the conversion of the flat 2D game pentominoes to a vertical format, for instance. Brown also transforms panels into documents like faxes or newspapers and physical objects like games cartridges or consoles. This creative panel use gives the eye and mind something to engage with, unlike Brown’s otherwise unpretentious artwork. Not only that, they add whimsy and fun to this graphic novel, stopping the book from getting bogged down in either its philosophy or history.

Mixing philosophy and history is the cause of Brown’s only major wobble with the tone of Tetris. A potted history of gaming as a social need is used in the opening acts, and the book returns to this idea as part of the conclusion. These pieces are linked to the main narrative through Alexey Pajitnov’s own ideas about games and what they mean to people, but the themes sit uncomfortably with the otherwise fact-based narrative. Certain lines feel clunky, or blur the margin between character and authorial voice. A minor complaint, maybe, but this forced inclusion of a grander philosophy intrudes into what is otherwise a genuinely fascinating tale, one which could have left its wider implications suggested rather than explained.

Despite the above, however, Tetris: The Games People Play succeeds in doing only what the best of documentary or biographical texts do; it takes a subject and tells the story in a way that will surprise, engage and educate even those with no prior interest in the subject (I count myself among them). In the same way Mad Men had me genuinely engaged with the outcome of an advertising pitch, Tetris had me turning pages as quickly as I could to discover more about a game I had never thought about, and only barely ever played. Proof that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, this is a definite recommendation for both those with only a cursory interest in gaming history and more avid enthusiasts alike. Box Brown blends fascinating modern history with warmth and a lightness of touch to bring out the best of what graphic novels and the documentary genre can offer one another.