Tetris Effect is a game that seems so obvious, even simple, if you describe it one sentence: Tetris, set to music, inside of virtual reality.
But the mind-expanding experience is so much more than that, and it took so much longer to make than possibly any other take on Tetris in history.
Tetris Effect, by Enhance Games — creators of Rez Infinite and Lumines Remastered — turns the puzzle game into a full-brain experience by adding musical cues and psychedelic visuals, and sticking it all in a fully immersive (yet totally optional) virtual reality package. Each stage in the game is wrapped around an original song, which all vary in tone, tempo and arrangement. Each move you make, from rotating tetrominoes to making hard drops, has a different musical cue depending on the stage, which create a symphony of sound when you get into a rhythm.
All of Tetris’ classic mechanics are there, with one big addition: the Zone meter. Filling this meter allows you to enter “the zone” with the press of a button, which will stop time and let you drop pieces without any pressure. It can be used to take a breather, but each line you clear in the zone moves into one massive stack, meaning you could end up clearing many more lines than a traditional four-block high Tetris.
This simple game concept is deeply enhanced by the graphical touches. On some stages, every column in the matrix will light up individually when you drop in a piece. On another, orange firework bursts explode on the sides of the playing field. Sometimes it is dizzying and distracting, but it also made me fully engaged on my game.
I played Tetris Effect for 15 minutes, clearing four stages that ran the gamut from manic to calming, and left feeling much more relaxed than almost any other E3 demo in recent memory. There have been plenty of iterations of this iconic puzzle game, but it’s rare to find one that feels unique.
And it took took nearly 15 years to actually happen, because while Tetris has been iterated on dozens of times by multiple game publishers, it is an incredibly guarded license.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Tetris Effect’s producer, who’s also was responsible for creating Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden, told Polygon in an E3 interview that he had been interested in creating a Tetris game set to music since the early 2000s, around the release of the PlayStation Portable. Because EA held the license to publish Tetris games at the time, Mizuguchi worked on creating Lumines instead.
The Tetris license is held by the Tetris company, made up by creator Alexy Pajitnov and Henk Rogers, who helped extricate the game from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Rogers is more active in the game’s license management, which he does out of his home in Hawaii. (He also runs an organization developing “non-carbon, clean energy sources,” and would maybe like to build a moon base someday.)
“After Lumines, me and Henk Rogers had a long, long conversation about what the future of Tetris looked like, and so he wanted to enhance the zone experience,” Mizuguchi said. “We had the technique and the process finalized. We started production, maybe six years ago?”
Tetris Effect started production as a PC game. When virtual reality started gaining traction, the team took interest in the technology as a way to enhance the hypnotic experience they were creating. It helped that Mizuguchi’s Enhance studio also successfully brought musical rail shooter Rez Infinite to VR.
Mark MacDonald, Enhance’s vice president of production and business development, said the game relies heavily on the 3D effects from virtual reality, and the fact it forces players to wear headphones, so they’ll experience the game’s soundtrack — created by the same musicians that worked on Rez Infinite and Child of Eden — in all its glory.
“A lot of people when they hear that you can play a Tetris game in VR, they’re like, ‘Are you going to be grabbing blocks and moving things around everywhere?’” MacDonald said. “For us, that’s not really what it’s about, it’s about the Tetris experience, which anyone can play, whether they are a lapsed player, a pro or someone totally new to it. It’s meant to be a welcoming, relaxing experience.”
Tetris Effect will be out later this year for PlayStation 4 (yes, you can play without the headset) and PlayStation VR.