Photo courtesy of Adam Cornelius.
Written by: Margaret Jacobi
Here is a premise for one of the most popular video games ever: a player provided with seven different tile shapes that fall one by one at varying speeds seeks to fit them together in order to build walls that disappear when solid lines are made, in the aim of scoring high points. Sounds easy, right?
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, a new documentary making its rounds on the film festival circuit, proves there is infinitely more to the seemingly simplistic game.
In presenting the history and strategy behind Tetris, as well as the loyal devotees intensely vying for the title of “Tetris Champion of the World,” the entertaining film provides a comprehensive portrayal the addictive game and its players.
“Tetris is different every single time you play it, with new challenges,” says Robin Mihara, Tetris expert and co-producer of the film, “Your mistakes affect everything; your good moves affect everything. Basically we only use 5% of our brain or something. When you’re in those high level detectors [while playing Tetris] your brain just tunes in. That’s reason for the movie’s title, the ecstasy of order. Because, when things are happening perfectly and you’re not even thinking anymore, at least for me, I feel like I’m at home. The rest of the world is chaotic and there I’m finally in tune or in sync with the universe. “
This sentiment, shared by all of the film’s quirky characters, shines throughout the movie as you watch them play. The almost Zen-like focus of the players, fluidity in tune with the game, exemplifies years of devotion.
Rather than setting up a straight-forward narrative presenting the hero and villain, Ecstasy of Order dedicates significant amounts of time to developing all nine of the main competitors’ spiritual reverence and dedication to the game, as well as Mihara’s journey (both as a player and an organizer) in the competitive gaming realm.
Two separate dreams aligned in 2009 when Director Adam Cornelius and Mihara, first met at a Retro Gaming Expo in Portland, Oregon and eventually made the decision to team up to create the first national Tetris competition in Los Angeles, California along with the film.
“It was just this amazing coincidence that Robin and I were parallel in trying to do the same project,” says Cornelius, “but for me it was about making a movie and for him it was about having a tournament. The stars definitely aligned for us and that led to what eventually became the movie.”
Cornelius had been interested in making a movie about Tetris since 2003 when he first discovered the website Twin Galaxies, which tracks user-submitted video game world records. Having felt he missed his chance when other similar films, King of Kong, Chasing Ghosts, and High Score came out in around 2006, he gave up on the idea, but began to rekindle his affection for the brick building game in an attempt to post his own high score. Eventually in 2009, Harry Hong, one of the players featured in the film, reached an unprecedented milestone in Tetris history, by “maxing out the game” and reaching a score of 999,999. Cornelius decided to make a short film about Hong.
“He was sure Harry Hong was the best in the world,” said Mihara of Cornelius, “and I told him [when we met] that there were two guys that were probably better, they just haven’t recorded their scores like Harry has. Then I said it’s really hard to say who the best in the world is; why don’t we find out? So we did.”
The 2010 Tetris Championship brought together the best champions from both the Twin Galaxies board and competitions of the past (namely, the 1990 Nintendo World Championships.) Players that were previously only familiar with each other’s names and reputations met for the very first time to contend in the incredibly competitive tournament. It was a great success, followed by a 2011 Championship last October. Apparently the turn out for the most recent competition was not quite as substantial, but Mihara and Cornelius hope the film will draw more attention to the event and Tetris itself.
Riddled with fun facts about Tetris, the film chronicles the history of the game from its 1984 conception by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov to worldwide sales in 1989 on the Game Boy, along with its larger cultural impact. Tetris has even been the inspiration behind a condition called “the Tetris effect” as well as scientific reports that suggest playing Tetris can improve brain efficiency.
The strategies surrounding different versions of the game and the lore of two nearly impossible accomplishments (maxing out and reaching level 30), suggest the complex logic involved. The scope of possibility within the game makes it impossible for the player to rely solely on experience; the player must have both foresight and active engagement in the game for success.
According to Cornelius, while novice players tend to blame the outcome of the game on an idea of “The Tetris Gods,” and what pieces they bestow, committed players really have to overcome chance to create a logical puzzle despite capricious odds.
“What’s so interesting about the best players is, to get as good as they are, they have to completely break down the notion that it’s up to luck, they have to defy luck and figure out a way to deal with any possible situation to make it work for them,” says Cornelius, “Your average players will just curse the bad pieces. That’s the really enormity of the accomplishment, to completely defy bad luck… There’s a reason that there’s only a couple of people that have ever done the max out because it’s not something your just roll up your sleeves and do, it’s something you devote a lifetime to.”
The film, which tied for the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature upon its Oct. 20 premier at the Austin Film Festival, has now had successful response in 10 different film festivals. According to Cornelius, plans are in the works for a wider release by August.