Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown. First Second, 2016. 9781626723153. 256pp.
Sarah: The most compelling, addictive video game ever invented had a super weird, soap opera style story about how it got out to the rest of the world from the Soviet Union. This is that story.
Gene: Did you play Tetris?
S: Absolutely! Oh god yes. Hours and hours. Did you ever get the Tetris dreams?
G: I did. I was a casual video game kid. But I mostly avoided it for some reason — I don’t know why. Maybe it reminded me too much of Arkanoid? What’s it called? It’s Pong with the blocks on top.
S: Oh yeah yeah — Breakout!
G: Right. Arkanoid is a branded version of that. It had power ups.
Then I played Tetris for about two days, and I totally had the dreams. I was obsessed. I couldn’t really sleep. It invaded my head. So I just stopped cold turkey. I have never stopped playing a video game before or since that I liked that much. But my brain clearly liked it too much.
S: I got a keychain version of it. It’s so simple you can put it on anything.
G: I hear they have condoms with little LED screens and that you can play Tetris on them.
S: Yeah, very small items. The intro to the book talked about games and what they mean in our minds and what competition means and he’s just talking about that this game boils down to some essential aspect of something our brains want to do, some way to solve problems.
G: You’re fitting things together. It’s like shelving books.
S: Shelving sim! And it talked about some researchers who talked to waiters who always got everybody’s drink and food orders absolutely correct without even writing it down. They’d ask them later, so what was it I ordered? And they had no idea. They only kept it in their heads for as long as it takes to solve that problem and then it’s gone. And I was relieved to read that because that’s how my head works.
G: Mine too. I learned to do that with Unshelved comic strips. At one point I was writing three times the scripts that we ran, and my idea of what the reality was was based on my first drafts. I had to stop that and base reality on the edited versions, which often became very different. I learned to discard everything I’d done every week until Bill and I looked at it together and decided whether or not it was canon. I do the same thing now with Chris when we’re working on Library Comic.
S: I first experienced that when I was working at a movie theater, and I was going through huge rushes of soda-candy-popcorn, soda-candy-popcorn. Somebody would come back later and say this and that, do you remember me? And I’d be like I have no idea who you are and I don’t recognize your face. It’s gone.
G: Did you have the sense that you’d seen the person before?
S: No. Except for the time that the Seafair Clowns came in.
G: I find the Tetris story compelling. Made in the Soviet Union under communism, the creator makes it because he wants to, it trickles out through people who take the profits for the USSR.
S: They made this whole government department to help market and license Tetris because it was popular.
G: The details of the story have left my head. I couldn’t tell you…is the guy’s name Sergei?
S: The wrangling back and forth about who had what contract for what type of rights and whether or not it was legal for Nintendo’s Game Boy and all these different things, it reminded me of a Japanese manga series…
G: (a loud humming starts) Cue industrial vibrator outside.
S: They’re chipping up the fallen tree limbs from the storm.
G: Let’s scoot a little closer to the mic.
S: …anyway, it reminds me of this Japanese manga series that was biographies of corporations. I think only two of them were translated into English: one on 7-11 (Project X Challengers Seven Eleven) and another on Cup Noodle (Project X Nissin Cup Noodle). The Cup Noodle manga is really great — it’s written like an adventure with a heroic goal in mind. This book doesn’t have a heroic adventure tone but it does have the wrangling back and forth for this successful product.
G: I’m a huge fan of Box Brown. I really like his small press (Retrofit Comics), he’s a nice guy, and this is hilarious and deadpan. This is a little too deadpan for me, but maybe that’s because I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. I just can’t get anything out of the back and forth, no slam on him or his cartooning skills. His drawings are amazing, I like that it’s so yellow, but you loved it.
S: I really am interested in stories about how the Soviet Union interacted with the rest of the world. They just had this bloody-minded focus. We have this system and it’s going to work, no matter how difficult it is for us to interact with anyone outside it ever. And that was part of it.
G: But it’s not that. They were like Let’s see how much money we can make. We made $40,000 for the country! Woo!
S: But they were doing that while they had no idea how licensing worked. They had no idea how to control it once it was out of the bag. Before this the only things I knew about Tetris were that there was some problem with licensing and that one of its creators murdered his whole family. And I was glad that our hero wasn’t the murderer.
G: And it really elides over the murder.
S: It’s just one or two panels!
G: And it’s unclear what happened. There is one panel I loved so much, on page 243, and it’s where at the end, Alexei is at some conference in 2015, and he’s talking to Hank, who had one of the licenses, and there’s a great moment where Alexei is beneath a big screen with his face on it because he’s on camera. And in the 4th panel the word balloon, instead of pointing to Alexei’s face, points to his face on the screen because that’s where the audience’s attention has gone. Amazing panel! That’s the moment I love!
Reading this did make me go back and reread Andre the Giant by Box Brown (pulls out the book), one of my favorite books by him. Brown’s style works better there for me because it’s more about a person. He had a chance to build up Andre the Giant as being a sad, lovable, alcoholic, really nice dude. Brown’s understated deadpan style give it the pathos the story needs.
S: It’s better for that than for a sprawling corporate history.
G: The Norwegian cartoonist Jason has a deadpan style, too. And his stories are structured around that.
Look, here’s a bit where the school bus driver won’t let Andre on because he’s too big for the bus. So he gets a ride to school in a truck driven by?
S: I can’t remember who it was.
G: Samuel Beckett.