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Tetris: The Games People Play review

Tetris: the Games People Play is the story of the well-known video game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov, but it’s much more than just that. It’s also a tale of corporate greed, theft, humor, and the darker side of humanity. That sounds like a lot, sure, but somehow Box Brown, the graphic novel’s creator, has crammed all of this — along with that twisting history of the game — into a simply but wonderfully illustrated book that never feels cluttered or dragging.

This book is not a fun read, unless you are an uber-nerd for Tetris, and it’s not a light read either. In fact, if you do what I did and read it in chunks you might have to go back several pages to remember what happened last. You might find yourself questioning why so much history of the game is needed, but then you realize that it has had so much of an impact on the world that a college course could be taught on it. (Heck, there already is one! A quick Google search showed me several.) Still, it’s a very, very interesting read that you’ll think about in your sleep.

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The story begins with an ordinary-looking Alexey Pajitnov coming up with the idea for Tetris is 1984. What follows is the long line of events that made Tetris a household name; backroom deals, shady (literally) figures, and corporate-level schemes. As you read more and more about the machines that are turned on when corporations get a taste of the Next Big Thing, you find yourself falling in love with the magic at the core of the story, which is one designer’s simple, but brilliant, designs and love of puzzles.

For me, the actual fun came from looking into the real-life stories and situations that the book brings to our attention. As the book goes along, it points to key locations, events, videos, and other items that, with a quick Google search, suck you back into the story even more. It happened so much that I wondered how the author knew when to stop with content…. Tetris has spread far, and continues to effect events today. Somehow, Box Brown keeps it all together (even if it requires the occasional re-read of a page or two.)

For example, I looked up a video tape of Alexey and his new friend Henk Rogers’ first meeting in Moscow. There they are, just like the book showed, making history and saying “Play Tetris!” in a Russian accent that could have been coming from an ’80s comedian.

The books also gives great, but smaller, histories of names we know so well, like Nintendo and Atari. I had no idea Nintendo’s creator, Fusjiro Yamauhchi, was an artist who started off painting cards for gaming! Sure enough, a quick search later and I knew even more about the man. (I had no idea Nintendo was that old!)

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Later the book tempted me to look into the grisly murder/suicide that Tetris co-creator Vladimir Pokhilko committed in 1998. He killed his 12-year-old son and wife, and then himself. The book doesn’t get into the details as much as I initially thought I would have liked. Now, as I watched a few videos and read about the crime, I am glad Box Brown did not dedicate more time to the horrible events, as it would have taken away from the story at the core of the book. Still, the mention made me pause to look into the murders, which was something I was doing so much at that point that I felt really immersed into the story; more than I normally feel with other historical graphic novels.

The book’s art style is basic but very pretty. I like the fact that the two-color scheme does not get in the way of the text and does not make viewing the art uncomfortable. Each section starts off with portraits of the key players in the chapter, so you get to know a lot of people that you can later Google and compare to the book. Box Brown’s portraits are not spot on but distinct enough that you can tell one character from another.

If anything, the art style could be described as consistent or steady, which is what you need when you are telling a real-life story, especially one that can be compared to so many real life videos. At no point did the art change even the slightest, something that happens when artists tackle long-term projects that are created over a long time. Box Brown’s art is not his strong point; his storytelling is the real talent.

Would I recommend this book to non-gamers? Yes, very much. And, despite its sometimes adult themes, it would be great in a classroom. The history lessons the book hands out are easily digested when combined with trips to other sources. This makes the book more appealing, and allows the content to almost perfectly achieve its goal, which is to show us that games are so much a part of our culture that some games, like Tetris, have made culture.

You can pick up a copy in many places, so just Google it!

Beau