Playing To Lose
February 12, 2013 12:00 PM   Subscribe

How competitive Tetris winners approach an unwinnable game.
posted by Chrysostom (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I have to stay focused, as I’m refereeing the match at the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship as a volunteer.
It takes all of my concentration to monitor the action — and I’m not even playing.
What exactly is there to referee in a Tetris match? You wait for them to "top out" and then write down the score, yes? It's not like you have to be a linesman and call penalties.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:20 PM on February 12, 2013

I played a lot of "The New Tetris" on the N64 in college. It was great, and I'm glad I don't play it obsessively (anymore).
posted by Phredward at 12:27 PM on February 12, 2013

It's like looking mental illness in the face and wondering if these people could actually choose to be better.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:39 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What exactly is there to referee in a Tetris match?

Line infraction?
posted by yeti at 12:39 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I feel like you don't referee a Tetris match so much as chaperone it.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:43 PM on February 12, 2013

Tetris is for people too scared to play me at Dr. Mario.
posted by TheRedArmy at 12:44 PM on February 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

Hiya — I wrote an answer to this question in the Special Features for the article (linked at the end). From that answer:

The referees were there to observe technical glitches (rare but possible with old equipment), players pausing during play (grounds for disqualification — I didn't see this happen), or a few other rare conditions that could involve human judgment. The other job is writing down scores, as the NES console doesn't track them particularly well. The actual experience of watching the games is absurd; it's mentally taxing in a way that you can only understand if you watch some of the aforelinked YouTube videos of these high-level games. Then imagine you're watching two of them at once and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.


So, yeah — being a ref in this case did not involve the kind of ref action you'd see in boxing or other physical sports. The players were well-behaved (no cheating that I saw, no pausing, etc.). But it's a real tournament, and the players are serious. They're also using thrift store equipment that could die at any time, so I was keeping track of scores in realtime in case we lost a console, TV, etc. and I had to call whoever was ahead. Keeping track of the two scores is actually pretty hard.
posted by chrishiggins at 12:57 PM on February 12, 2013 [21 favorites]

How competitive Tetris winners

Given the rest of the premise here, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that they're competing to see who's worst at losing?
posted by Malor at 12:58 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, so he's obviously a pretty good observer and referee. It took him less than a half-hour to find the thread talking about his article, register a username, and answer the question asked of him in that thread.
posted by Curious Artificer at 1:03 PM on February 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

Given the rest of the premise here, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that they're competing to see who's worst at losing?

The answer is me. I am the worst at losing.
posted by ominous_paws at 1:15 PM on February 12, 2013

I saw The Ecstasy of Order, the documentary mentioned in the article, last year and can highly recommend it. It's currently free on Hulu (at least in the US).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm curious about the record for lines cleared. Is it sought via attempting to avoid clearing more than one line at a time, so as to avoid the bonus scores that would max you out faster? If I'm right, then 1000 lines is the theoretical max. Are the numbers of lines cleared used to break a tie in competition (either by clearing more or less for the win)?
posted by TreeRooster at 1:24 PM on February 12, 2013

Great questions. Honestly, I'm not a master of the game enough to give you the best strategy on how to maximize lines (I don't recall whether multi-line clears speed up the game faster than singles). But in the event of a tied score at CTWC, yes, lines would be used to break that tie. The likelihood of this actually occurring is pretty low, but maybe next year....

If you really want to get into the mega-details of Tetris strategy, check out the TetrisConcept forums and/or wiki. That site is amazing. Be sure to specify the variant you're talking about (NES Tetris, Tetris Grand Master, etc.) as there are lots of different rule sets out there.
posted by chrishiggins at 1:35 PM on February 12, 2013

Thanks, Chris. Watching someone else play any fast paced game can be more taxing than playing simply because you're not in control, but from the original article I was wondering why anyone but the players would have to pay close attention at all.

(Looping in a thriftstore VHS recorder to allow refs to "look at the tape" would be amusing)
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:35 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

To be honest, I was tempted to record the games on my phone in case my mind wandered. I had this paranoid scenario where I glanced away, something happened, and the fate of the Tetris world was all my distraction-prone head. In several cases I saw competitors' spouses were taping just in case the person happened to set a personal record. I figured I could refer to that video in case something went super wrong (FWIW, I don't recall Steil and Mullen taping theirs).
posted by chrishiggins at 1:39 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

After reading the article when I first saw it I started watching Tetris videos on Youtube. Right after I put one on, I switched to another window and started working on a piece of source code. Turns out the music and the *thud thud click click thud* of the pieces triggered my brain into 'you need to work really fast and intensely' hyperdrive mode and I caught myself pounding on the keys and noticed my heart was pounding.

Those years of conditioning is way more effective than any stimulant I've ever taken.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:40 PM on February 12, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'm not great at Tetris but I will destroy any of you at Tetris Attack.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:59 PM on February 12, 2013

I got ridiculously good at NES Tetris back in 1992 during a patch of unemployment. Still a great game (I dig out my original Gameboy for a session every few months) but for my block-dropping needs, it's all about Lumines.
posted by porn in the woods at 2:25 PM on February 12, 2013

Here's an example of someone scoring 999,999 points.
posted by patrick54 at 2:33 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem with Lumines is that it's too easy. A game of it basically lasts until I get tired or have to go to work. I mean it's fun, looks great, and the music is great, and all, but it needs to be harder. Maybe the 2p vs mode revives it, but the asymmetry of that felt weird to me, and I never played it that way much. I did like how on the PSP it synced the music up so it didn't sound terrible to play in the same room as your friend, unlike say, GBA Mario Kart.

It's not exactly a block dropping game, but Money Puzzle Exchanger on the Neo Geo is the best puzzle game of all time. I keep hoping to find it in an arcade so I can enter my initials, but nobody seems to have it - probably because the theme is so weird. I see Magical Drop now and again, which is similar but doesn't have nearly the potential for ridiculous chains that the MPE's change mechanism delivers. Plus attacks slide individual rows past each other which makes it impractical to set up anything complicated, making vs play more about speed and less about smart play.
posted by aubilenon at 2:36 PM on February 12, 2013

I still love you, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo!
posted by box at 2:38 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have some good memories about Puzzle Fighter, but I haven't played the real thing for so long. I played the clone that Yo Ho Ho Puzzle Pirates used for sword fighting back when it was in beta (ugh that game) but my most recent memory is playing a weird board game adaptation of it and being really disappointed.
posted by aubilenon at 2:45 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I never got good at Tetris, but I was a master at noticing how a million things looks like Tetris pieces.
posted by orme at 3:22 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tetris is one of those things I'm glad I sucked at because when I was in uni I saw many of the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, etc., etc. That goes double for Minesweeper.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:19 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Me: never played video games, really, except for Tetris and Galaga, which I played every night over coffee during a break from my six-hour jazz gig in Nagoya.

Missing from this article: anything about why people play the game. For me, it replicates my blissful days unloading trucks and stacking boxes in warehouses. That was before I got a job that involved using my mind.
posted by kozad at 4:58 PM on February 12, 2013

Whoa, it only takes 10 minutes to get to 999,999? Now *that's* crazy - I can see why people'd go for it. I always imagine records like these come out of some 6 hour marathon.

Question for chris or others: what's the main competitive tetris game? Is it NES? Because I own NES tetris, and it's not my favorite by any stretch. I've always thought the original gameboy tetris was the definitive version - do people play it competitively, or is there some reason NES is preferred?
posted by Buckt at 5:21 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey Buckt,

Great question. Some of this stuff is covered in the Special Features, which I've avoided linking before this lest I seem spammy. From that page:


Why is NES Tetris used in the Classic Tetris World Championship? Is it the canonical Tetris? In short, NES Tetris is really hard and reasonably cheap. There are many Tetris variants out there. The CTWC needed a familiar, hard game that was also cheap and readily available (and it helped to have that game on an NES console, which is capable of outputting simple RF video as well as RCA composite video...send one signal to a TV, the other to a projector!). NES consoles and NES Tetris cartridges are all over the place — so it was reasonably easy to put eight of them on a stage (this wouldn't be as easy with arcade game cabinets, for example). NES Tetris is only canonical in the sense that it's the focus of the CTWC and Ecstasy of Order. But it's just one of many Tetris implementations; competitive Tetris players typically play multiple versions.


In my interviews with players, NES Tetris comes up a lot for reasons like the above, mainly its horrendous difficulty. And there are a lot of people in their 30s (ish) now who grew up with this version. But there are also lots of those people who grew up with the Gameboy version, so that one seems like "the real Tetris" to them (I am in that Gameboy camp, even though I never owned one). Still others, of course, see some specific PC or Amiga version as the best/real one.

Because NES Tetris is the focus of the (relatively young) CTWC and it was part of the (relatively old) NWC (Nintendo World Championships), it is a biggie. But there's also Tetris Grand Master (this is the one you sometimes see on YouTube that has an "invisible mode" at the end), and it's a huge deal internationally. I gather that "The New Tetris" is also big, though I'm not sure why (perhaps, again, somebody's childhood game on N64). Lots of other variants come up, much like Tengen Tetris in the article, though many players love or hate specific versions. Trey Harrison (one of the Tetris masters not discussed in the article) is actually coding his own version of the game.

In general, Tetris masters play lots of versions because the mechanics are reasonably similar. The only tournament play I've seen is NES Tetris, though I believe others exist and I think Tetris Grand Master is a likely candidate. Oh yeah, and if you're interested in Tetris, Hard Drop and TetrisConcept are the places to be. I am quite certain people there could tell you whether there's a Gameboy Tetris competition. There are definitely Gameboy Tetris records, though Twin Galaxies is temporarily (?) defunct.
posted by chrishiggins at 5:41 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

What exactly is there to referee in a Tetris match?

The more complex the basis of a game, the more potential there is to cheat. There are myriad ways to cheat at video games: forged video evidence, Game Genies, hacked cartridges, artificial emulation slowdown, tool assistance. The fact that most of them are technically unavailable to 99% of players doesn't mean that there aren't people capable and willing to stoop to it.
posted by JHarris at 6:36 PM on February 12, 2013

Speaking as someone who's always been terrible at Tetris, the things I found really interesting about watching Mullen's top-out game:
1. He thinks pretty much only in terms of tetrises (the four-line-at-once bonuses). He spends long stretches of time actively avoiding making lines, even when that piles lines up on the screen, just so that when he does make a line, it'll be a four-fer.
2. Not everything has to slot neatly. When he's not going for a tetris anyway, he's perfectly ok with plunking in a piece that blocks off eight lines below it - because he knows exactly how to complete the "blocking" line to open that slot back up.
3. Even the masters sometimes make an "oh, fuck it, just drop the thing" move.
4. Holy shit how do they even hit the buttons that fast let alone think

The fact that that style of play - tetris or nothing, to the point of blocking yourself at times - blows my mind and never would have occurred to me perhaps indicates something about why I was never much good at the game...
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 7:20 PM on February 12, 2013

There's something so classically (stereotypically?) Russian about Tetris, like you don't ever win, you just put off losing for as long as possible.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:27 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

More accurately, that's classically arcade-like. Used to be almost all games were like that.

Actually before that, up until Space Invaders, arcade games were mostly played for a limited period of time or with some definite ending. They might offer an extension with good play, but the game definitely ends at some point. Instead of just surviving, the player tries to maximize his score within the limits.
posted by JHarris at 12:44 AM on February 13, 2013

It is the '90s, and there is time for... Klax.

posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:56 AM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've always loved that little message in Klax. Atari Games was good at little touches like that.

(I also liked the message they put on the title screen of Toobin'. "Starring BIF and JET: They Think They're Cool!" The high score screen is sometimes headed with the message: "They Know They're Cool".)
posted by JHarris at 4:56 AM on February 13, 2013

Wow, I didn't know Twin Galaxies had gone under. Someone else seems to have taken over. Does anyone know what happened? The Wikipedia page is mum on the issue.
posted by JHarris at 1:11 PM on February 15, 2013

Any time I play Tetris for an extended period of time, I get the Tetris Effect - particularly seeing the falling blocks as I'm falling asleep! I wonder what it's like for these players - are their lives just totally consumed by the game even when not playing?

FWIW, I once beat Tetris DS (not as hard as original Tetris, but still) and it felt like a major accomplishment! I was in almost a trance at those high levels, you're going so fast. (Trudges off to find DS...)
posted by radioamy at 1:14 PM on February 15, 2013

Tetris DS is looked down upon by serious Tetris players because most modes have the annoying "infinite drop" feature, where so long as you keep moving or rotating a piece that has fallen onto the bin it'll never "lock down," and so long as you can maneuver it around on top of the bin you have as much time as you need to get it into place. It takes most of the challenge out of the game.

New Tetris, mentioned above, is an interesting variant. Unlike many other games it's primarily Tetris, but it has a couple of weird features that affect scoring:Tetrises are very undervalued, being worth only one extra line, players instead get the bulk of their lines from making squares out of blocks and clearing those, and doing the some of those weird moves that have infested more recent versions of Tetris like "T-spins" can cause the board to crumble, immediately removing all gaps. It's interesting, but I can't see how anyone would prefer it as a standard implementation of canonical Tetris.
posted by JHarris at 1:44 PM on February 15, 2013

New Tetris is one of my favorite versions. But, I mean, I really like making squares.
posted by box at 3:08 PM on February 15, 2013

Does anyone want to get 8 Genesises together at an airport Holiday Inn conference room somewhere and get their ass handed to them at Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine?

Because I'm down.
posted by LiteOpera at 7:40 PM on February 20, 2013

I always played for the true Tetris or nothing. My parents called my strategy reckless and I Pwned them. I taught them a similar style for the shareware PC game "Wordtris" which involved stopping at nothing to spell SARDINE across the lower left corner of the screen before moving on to general play. I still live for the Tetris At All Costs strategy and am level 44 on facebook's decent "Tetris Battle." Grew up on Gameboy Tetris but played a million PC DOS clones as well as the original and the crazy variants along the way.
posted by lordaych at 7:29 PM on February 28, 2013

Tetris Battle is interesting because it divides players into Tetris fiends and combo fiends, the combo being a new score multiplying mechanism... And typically the old school Tetris All The Way strategy works best, with a few combos along the way to utilize the bombs and make room for more 4-line devastation.
posted by lordaych at 7:36 PM on February 28, 2013

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