The Satisfaction of Tetris
Tetris, perhaps more than another other game, is described as “perfect” by video game critics. One such voice is MatthewMatosis (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tnztj1UlkQs), who argues Tetris is a perfect game because it is both simple and irreducible. It has an easy to understand premise and its interlocking pieces all work together to create its fantastic experience, remove any piece and the tower falls apart. Though, to be honest, I’m a little ambivalent to Tetris’s perfection, because the word “perfect” does not describe how I feel when I play Tetris, the joyful satisfaction that comes through its dynamic and interesting play. Satisfaction is what this video is about, I’m going to try to explain every way I find Tetris to be gratifying, and through its falling blocks, show how games generate satisfying experiences.
First, lets define satisfaction. I’ll start by way of metaphor: satisfaction is eating a big meal and feeling full at the end of it, a sense of being complete, having all that you need. Hunger is a tension that is resolved when we eat. So satisfaction is, in many ways, the resolution of tension. When one is satisfied, they have experienced something leaving them pleased and content on the other side, but in order to be gratified in such a way, one must first have some tension or stress to be resolved. Tetris is innately satisfying because it is a game of constant stress and resolution that is never fully relieved until the player loses.
The first way that Tetris generates this satisfaction is through its constant decision making. For many, decisions are the defining feature of games, and perhaps no game illustrates this better than Tetris. From the moment the player starts up a round, they must make decisions on where to place the tetronimos given to them. Tetris has so many decisions it naturally attracts backseat gaming. My wife, who doesn’t consider herself even good at Tetris, will often try to tell me where to place pieces while I’m playing. It is easy to get sucked into the many possible outcomes Tetris generates. The falling blocks are a natural timer to these decisions, and each time a block is placed another decision looms. Thus, there is no natural rest for the Tetris player, no cutscenes to behold, no moment to let up. The clock keeps ticking, blocks keep dropping. The thing is, we LIKE making decisions, we like taking meaningful action, and every action in Tetris is meaningful. This is because the Tetris board is a changing chimera. Games are a often a collection of different states, and fundamentally every decision the player makes in Tetris changes the state of the game. Every decision is lasting, whether it adds to the pile or removes from it. You can’t take back any block once placed. We live much of our lives not having choices about things, which isn’t necessarily bad, but games are a space where choice and consequence reign supreme. Tetris is satisfying because we make hundreds, thousands, of choices over a single session, and each one feels like it matters, because it could have been different. We could have placed the block somewhere else, whether for better or worse. We grow satisfied playing Tetris because our decisions, and no one elses, satisfy the tension of the falling blocks, resolve the stress of the game by removing lines. We feel like our success was truly our own, because the decisions made were unique to us.
Tetris is a deeply rhythmic game, and rhythm, like decision making, is innately satisfying. Musical melodies are satisfying because they create tension in their notes and then resolve them in a beautiful way, rhythm is the way that we get from point A to point B. The rhythm of Tetris is simple, each time a block is placed on the board, a new block appears to be placed. Like a pretty melody, the board slowly grows larger and more discordant until a line is cleared, resolving some tension. But like every song, when one melody is resolved another picks up needing resolution. To play Tetris is to be engrossed in its satisfying rhythm, to anticipate the next note and plan ahead while also living in the moment of your current decision. A beautiful thing about Tetris’s rhythm is that its tempo is always speeding up. At the start of the game things meander, go quite slowly. There is some extra time to analyze the tension and resolve it, but as the player clears more lines, they have less and less time to think, only time to act. This increasing speed is a natural barrier for the player to overcome. Like a beautiful dance, they must keep their feet steady as they are tested by an ever increasing tempo. As the difficulty ramps up, the player is challenged, the tension grows, and resolution becomes sweeter and more gratifying, because it is harder to achieve. Satisfaction can be rooted in challenge, we feel it more acutely the more difficult the tension was to resolve.
Satisfaction is also deeply rooted in order. We tend to be most satisfied when we feel like things are in their right place. Tetris achieves this kind of satisfaction by simply asking player put things into the right place, put the world of the game into order. This order is not an abstraction, or just an idea linked to the game, it is physically manifested in the way the game presents its problems. We could describe the Tetris board as a messy room or a bunch of dirty dishes that need to be cleaned. Every time we place a tetronimo we are either resolving tension, organizing and putting the game in order, or we are creating tension, more disorder that our next decision will have to figure out. This balance, of order and chaos, is an axis on which the player finds satisfaction.
Finally, just like eating a big meal, Tetris is a game about fullness. I mean just look at the game! Nintendo clearly thought it looked like a stomach when they made Dr Mario Fullness is most obviously felt when the player completes a tetris, or clears four lines at the same time. In that moment, as the long block falls down and matches everything, the state of the game is full, it is complete, it is satisfied, and we are too. Even as the next block starts falling, I always feel a lingering sense of satisfaction at the lines just cleared, like I ate a big meal and feel sleepy on the other side of it. Even if the game has no time for your emotions, after a tetris one can’t help but feel satisfied with the move they just pulled off.
The first song I ever learned to play on piano was the iconic Tetris theme. (I am not good at the piano, never was) That melody is now lodged into my brain, every time I sit down at the keys my fingers have an urge to start playing to the familiar tune. That song never fully resolves, at least in the way that I learned how to play it, it just keeps going and going, a neverending juxtaposition of tension and resolution: just like Tetris. At the heart of Tetris thus, lies a paradox, how can a game so deeply satisfying not also have satisfaction’s most fundamental feature: a true resolution? But satisfaction is always a fleeting feeling. We are full today, hungry tomorrow. We resolve one tension only to find another waiting in the wings. Tetris displays satisfaction’s ephemeral nature, how it comes and goes before we know what to do with it, how tension is ever present in our daily life. Perhaps in Tetris, just like life, the only real resolution is death, the light at the end of the tunnel, the blocks stacked so high you cannot continue. Unceremonious, for sure, but at least in Tetris, a veneer of satisfaction still lays atop the game’s battlefield when the stack overflows. Satisfying us, at least for now.