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Sex, Tetris, and Charlie Chaplin: The Alexey Pajitnov interview

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We sit down with the inventor of Tetris

photo of Alexey Pajitnov smiling
Alexey Pajitnov
The Tetris Company

Alexey Pajitnov hands me a condom. It’s still in its shiny wrapper, and the wrapper is festooned with Tetris-related images.

I’m interviewing Pajitnov, the 63-year-old inventor of Tetris, in a fancy hotel lobby in the general vicinity of E3. He says the condom “is contraband,” and then he smiles. It’s obviously a joke, so I wait for the punchline.

Part of the reason for this interview is that Tetris is (a) celebrating its 35th anniversary, and (b) making inroads into the world of branded goods. A deal has been done for Tetris-branded sports shoes. I’m told Tetris-branded makeup is in the works.

In his heavy Russian accent, Pajitnov says the condom is a perfect brand partner for Tetris, and here’s the punchline: “It’s a really big reason for the attractiveness [of Tetris]. The big piece goes in, and you feel really great. Hahahaha.”

Well, OK, it’s not exactly comedy gold, but I find myself laughing nonetheless. Pajitnov’s younger associate quickly tells me that the joke is “off the record.” I smile while thinking, “Yeah, right.”

So Pajitnov and I start talking about Tetris. And because I’ve heard the tale of how he made Tetris while living and working in the Soviet Union, and I’m vaguely aware of all the labyrinthine business deals and lawsuits that followed, and the fairy-tale ending of the Nintendo deal in which the game was bundled with the Game Boy, and all that, I’m determined not to go down that route. Instead …

… I get into a disagreement with Pajitnov about Charlie Chaplin

It’s not a serious disagreement. I put it to Pajitnov that no single artist has generated more collective entertainment hours among the mass of humankind than himself. I mean, how long, dear reader, have you spent playing Tetris? And do you know many people who haven’t played it?

It’s just an idea I was toying with on the way to the interview, and I’m curious if it’s something he’s thought about.

He looks vaguely affronted. “I think Charles Chaplin provided the world with more hours of entertainment,” he says, adding that Chaplin’s body of work amounts to maybe 60 hours of film, and that in the heyday of silent movies, cinema goers would watch his pictures over and over again. It turns out Pajitnov is a huge Charlie Chaplin fan.

He reels off the names of some of his favorite movies, although it takes him a moment to translate the titles back to English from the Russian in which he knows them best.

I’d thought of Chaplin before I asked the question, as well as maybe Michael Jackson or some other pop star. I’m not saying Pajitnov’s Tetris is the right answer, but to bolster the argument, I make the point that Chaplin created his movies with teams of helpers, as do most big pop stars who operate with producers and backing musicians and such. Pajitnov made Tetris entirely on his own, without any help from corporations or underlings.

“Well, I did the game on my own,” he allows. “It was just something I made for fun and then I shared it with my friends and it was like a fire, on every single PC. But it wasn’t a product.

“In order to maintain the brand, to make it spread out there, thousands of people worked on it.”

He means the marketing and manufacturing of the game. I find this to be thin reasoning, but I let it pass, because I want to foist on him …

… My pet theory about Tetris and communism

… which I’ve been nurturing for years. Here’s the pitch: All creative works are influenced by the cultural milieu of their makers, by their upbringing, prejudices, politics, and so on. Tetris might seem like a completely apolitical work of abstractions, but isn’t it possible — and here is where I put the notion to Pajitnov — that this idea of very different individuals (i.e. shapes) fitting together to complete a harmonious whole is at the heart of a planned society, and is therefore an expression of the communist ideal?

(Look, I know it’s a stretch, but it’s mine.)

He shoots me down with pitiless logic.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard this concept,” he says. “First of all, it’s not just cooperative stuff that belongs to communism. In lots of circumstances people have to plan and work together and make something lovely out of the chaos. I don’t think that these ideas you have about communist stuff is right. Usually, [Soviet communists] focused on making sacrifices for the future.”

This is an excellent point and I am duly chastened. Pajitnov goes on to talk about what it is that makes Tetris so popular, and why it’s still generating hits with fantastic games like Tetris Effect and Tetris 99.

“In lots of games you go in and destroy things [mimics shooting action],” he says. “In Tetris you have an illusion that you’re building something, all the time. It’s constructive and positive and it makes you feel smart.

Tetris is something that makes people have a small smile. They remember the hours and hours that they played, when they should have been preparing for their college exams, or something. But they were very happy hours, so when they think about Tetris it makes them in a good mood.”

I ask, are you rich?

“Excuse me?” he responds.

“I mean, are you wealthy?” It’s a rude question, but there’s no real way to get around it. There’s a general sense, I believe, that Pajitnov did not yield as much of the financial benefits of Tetris’ success as perhaps he ought to, partly because the game “belonged” to his employer, the Soviet state.

Tetris outlasted the Soviet Union, and as a partner in The Tetris Company, he has owned a share of the property since the mid-1990s. Tetris is represented by an agent that sells rights to companies like Sega (Puyo Puyo Tetris), Nintendo (Tetris 99), and Electronic Arts (Tetris’ mobile rights).

“I don’t know what this means,” he replies. “I don’t read the American magazines that describe the lives of wealthy men. So I honestly don’t know. I own my house [in Seattle]. My family doesn’t need anything. I have my business and I stay in nice hotels.” He shrugs.

He later tells me that he also owns an apartment in Moscow, where he stays each spring. He believes that the deal he did with his employer, handing over rights to Tetris for the first 10 years of its existence, was “the right thing to do” because he had used their equipment to code the game. It was also, he says, “a very uncertain time in the Soviet Union.” In no way does he seem like a man who is dissatisfied with his lot in life.

And yet …

I can’t stop myself from going back to this question of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson and cumulative human history entertainment hours. I make the point that we are sitting in a large hotel bar, with maybe a hundred people around, and yet the only person who recognized him, when he entered the room, is me.

The idea that Chaplin or Jackson could wander into a hotel room during their lifetimes and be left alone is absurd. I’m interested in how he feels about bringing a thing like Tetris into the world, and yet being unrecognized, unfamous.

“I am kind of recognizable in Russia,” he says. “They try to raise up their heroes or their national … whatever .... so they arrange for lots of interviews on TV. So people recognize me in the professional world in Moscow. They come to shake hands and blah blah blah. That’s the only time I feel recognition.”

He says he can walk the aisles of E3 without being recognized. “The people I worked with over the years are probably out of the industry,” he laughs. “I am too old.”

So, Tetris pieces are really people

I share with him a notion that Tetris pieces (aka Tetrominoes) represent specific kinds of human personalities. I think of the long, straight one as an elegant person who is good in a crisis, but is a little vain. The square one is a bit of a bruiser, not too bright, but useful in the right situation. The S and Z shapes are needy, but have a high level of empathy. The T is a fun-loving party-beast who sometimes shows up at your house at inappropriate times.

I’m slightly surprised when he agrees with this notion.

“Every piece has a personality,” he says. “The square guy is very rude and stupid, because it doesn’t rotate. My favorite is the J piece because it can be used in many different ways. There was a time when I tried to write a story based on all the pieces, but it didn’t come to anything. But maybe in the future. Tetris is a never-ending story, so there will never be a moment when a new project isn’t happening somewhere.”

This reminds me to ask him about the Tetris movie that’s supposed to be in development. He says it’s “postponed” while unspecified financial matters are sorted out, but he hopes to have some news in the near future.

I ask him about his gaming habits. He says he’s working on a long-term project, a puzzle game, that’s as much a hobby as a professional endeavor. He also spends a lot of time playing puzzle games.

“I played Tetris 99. It’s a very nice game and I really enjoy it,” he says. “But I didn’t play it much. My son gave me the Nintendo [Switch] to play it, but then he grabbed it back from me, so I hope to get it soon again.” He laughs and then he beams and tells me he’s just become a grandfather.

We’re beginning to wrap up, so I return again to Charlie Chaplin, whose films are still watched and beloved, a century after they were made. I ask: Will people still be playing Tetris in a hundred years’ time?

“Yes,” he says. “I’m pretty sure they will. We will see so many changes in software and hardware, but the human brain will stay the same. Human nature doesn’t change. There are still lots of people who adore chess, which is a thousand-year-old game. It touches something in our pleasure center which we don’t really understand. There’s no answer why this happens, but it’s just the pleasure of something that takes up all your attention, even if it’s for a short period of time.”