The story of this world-famous video game is unbelievable in such a lot of fascinating ways and has so many unbelievable ways of being fascinating that you’ll want to be all ears even if you are too young or too old to remember just how cool was it to play Tetris for hours on a Game Boy when the Twin Towers were still standing but the Berlin Wall had just fallen.
This true tale begins in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. At the time, the future Tetris creator Alexey Leonidovich Pajitnov was employed at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, working in the pioneering fields of speech recognition and artificial intelligence.
One day, during his free time, he came up with a highly-addictive creation called Тетрис, inspired by his favourite childhood puzzle game featuring pentominoes. It was the 6th of June 1984, and World Tetris Day is still celebrated every year on the 6th of June.
Modern Tetris versions display differently-coloured geometric pieces called tetrominoes that descend onto the playing field and can be moved until the completed lines disappear and grant the player points, but because the Electronika 60 computer Alexey used at the time had no graphical interface, he programmed the game using just spaces and brackets; as a result, the early version of Tetris had no colour and no sound. Still, his colleagues went crazy for it: they started playing Tetris all day long at work instead of doing their jobs, and when the game reached other institutes in Moscow it was ultimately banned to restore employee productivity. After adapting its creation to the IBM Personal Computer and incorporating colour and a scoreboard, Alexey wanted to publish it, but he had no business knowledge or contacts, and the Academy management wasn’t exactly pleased with all that buzz and publicity. As if it wasn’t enough, there also was a state monopoly around the import and export operations of copyrighted works in the URSS.
So, Alexey offered to transfer the rights to the Academy for ten years in exchange for executives’ help to release and distribute the game; Tetris was first published in 1986 by a Hungarian gaming company and started circulating as floppy disks. The clumsy and unclear third-party licensing agreements that followed in the next years culminated in a super complicated international dispute full of misunderstandings, issues and lawsuits over the appropriation of Tetris rights for different devices which resulted in a bitter legal battle involving a staggering number of gaming companies’ owners worldwide.
The one who won was the visionary and cosmopolite Dutch video game leader Henk Rogers, then head of a Japanese software business and currently president of The Tetris Company who became a lifelong friend of Alexey afterwards; he fought like a tiger to acquire Tetris rights for Nintendo to launch the legendary Game Boy in 1989.
The rest is history.
More than 30 years later, the Tetris odyssey has been turned into a movie. The highly-anticipated Apple Original Films thriller directed by Jon S. Baird tells the detailed story of how Tetris made its way out of the Soviet Union to grow into one of the most popular games of all time, distributed in millions of copies through the Game Boy and in loads of other game consoles and personal computers later on.
The film starts in 1988 when the aforementioned Henk Rogers – played by Welsh performer Taron Egerton – discovered Tetris at a trade show in the United States and risked everything by travelling to the URSS during Cold War, dangerously uninvited. He then teamed up and eventually made friends with Alexey – portrayed by Russian actor Nikita Efremov – to bring the addictive hi-tech innovation to the masses.
The film Tetris premiered globally on Apple TV+ in March 2023 and is produced, among others, by Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov in person who are still good mates. In 1996, when the rights finally reverted to Alexey, the two joined forces to form The Tetris Company which exclusively licenses Tetris rights all around the world.
As we pack this introduction up to roll into our exclusive interview with Alexey Pajitnov about Tetris, technology, life in the URSS and much more, it is worth mentioning that this article should actually be titled “Interview with Aleksej Pažitnov” instead of “Interview with Alexey Pajitnov”, as the first appears to be the most accurate Latin transcription of the Russian alphabet – but hey, who knows for sure?
Do a quick search and you’ll also find the likes of Alekseï Pajitnov, Aleksiej Pażytnow, Aleksei Pàjitnov, Alexej Pažitnov, Alexei Paschitnow, Aleksej Pazjitnov, Alekszej Pazsitnov – as if any continental language had its own personal opinion about how the Russians should be called.
In truth, Алексе́й Па́житнов is how it technically is, but this won’t give you any search results in English because of the Cyrillic script.
In these times of apparent easily offended societies, it is interesting indeed to notice that not only is the West not even satisfied to cancel people, cultures and books in your face, but it also has no issues whatsoever to deliberately translate names and surnames from other languages without even trying to standardise the process, as if people were already too busy asking other people to confirm their pronouns to respect them enough to also care about how actual names are meant to be spelled and pronounced.
So, because googling “Aleksej Pažitnov interview” will give you only 266 search results versus “Alexey Pajitnov interview” which has more than 29,600 Google entries- and websites must consider these things to keep existing, we are going to let them win this time.
If the story of Tetris teaches us anything, it’s that you must lose a battle to win a war.
Sir, what an honour to speak to you. How do I pronounce your name, to start with? Is Aleksej, Alexey, Alekseï, Alexei, Aleksiej, Alexej or Alekszej?
Thank you! Alexey is good. Everyone pronounces it differently. In Russian that’s Алексе́й.
So, Алексе́й, how does it feel to have a film made about your life?
Ha ha, it is strange when I hear the Russian pronunciation in English! As for the movie, frankly, that was a little bit weird, I never expected that to happen before they started to work on the script, and the way me and Henk [Rogers] both participated in writing the script was that we spent a lot of time trying to base it more on reality rather than a Hollywood kind of action stuff. We did a good job, we didn’t make an accurate biography or an accurate recreation of what actually happened, but that was close enough and very right, emotionally.
How much of the movie is actually true? Is it true that you lost your job and were evicted from your apartment?
Well, emotionally and spiritually wise, yes, it’s very right, then there was a certain exaggeration in certain things, of course. You know, Hollywood needs these car chases kind of stuff, otherwise, nobody would come to the theatre! But spiritually and more importantly, emotionally, the movie is very right. Henk really came and announced and called to really fight, there was a serious competition about the rights of Tetris, and there was a lot of pressure for us to give up, but we finally won and the game was published on Game Boy and distributed in millions of copies.
What do you think of the current state of the video game industry and technology in general?
Technology is amazing, absolutely amazing, I would have never expected that much. At the time I created the game I was working at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union, and my main job was speech recognition and artificial intelligence. And now I see the real-working artificial intelligence – and I am a specialist, I understand these things, but I would never have come close to even imagining the state of things that we have achieved now, in this respect. So, basically, that was the only thing missing in computer games at that moment, and the video game industry has now become really powerful; the games are really embedded in mainstream culture, which is very pleasing. Unfortunately, I was already old enough not to be an active participant in all this, so that’s my only complain! So, first, I expect the next breakthrough in the gaming industry to be connected to some kind of massive game with lots of players – and secondly, I’m expecting artificial intelligence to be involved in gaming, and that would be a complete paradise for myself as I’m still playing!
Do you still play Tetris?
Well, not very often. Sometimes. But I try lots of puzzle games, that’s a very important part of my day to play something.
You were working in artificial intelligence at the very beginning of it, so how do today’s ethical dilemma and implications of artificial intelligence – like it being used for mass surveillance, as well as people potentially losing their jobs due to A.I. – make you feel? What did you expect to happen 40 years ago?
I expected artificial intelligence to open very new and broad horizons for people’s activity; there are lots of things that we need to handle but we have limited opportunities for attention and application or whatever – and artificial intelligence will be really helpful with that. My point of view is that that was going to happen but it’s a big deal – it’s really a big deal, and no big deal comes to your life without side effects. So maybe people will have an issue with it, I expected that but that’s the broad way of humanity, you can’t escape that, we just have to go ahead and face all the good and bad stuff as well. You can’t imagine how many attacks we have survived against video games that allegedly led to violence in young people… all rubbish! I mean, for normal kids and normal young people, to even see violence in the games never inspired them to follow the example – on the contrary, gaming kind of gets violence away from them in a relatively innocent way. Yes, there were some issues in people who were already on the edge of the abnormality spectrum – they may have issues with that, but the movie and the TV industry and everybody else could inspire them to act this way, so gaming is no exception in this respect.
How do you feel when you see children playing Tetris?
That is very pleasant for me. I have been observing kids for almost 40 years already, and the most impressive thing happened a long time ago; it was the first Tetris competition in Japan, and they invited me along. During the competition, one of those small Japanese boys came to me with his Game Boy and the Tetris cartridge and asked me to autograph it, and when I autographed it, he took some super glue and glued the cartridge into his Game Boy! I was really impressed, there were loads of other games around for the Game Boy, and to see such a preference for Tetris really melted my heart!
What do you think of the several scientific theories and disputes inspired by Tetris?
I agree with some observations, but there are others that don’t seem to be very truthful. But Tetris is in the mainstream culture already and I can’t do anything about it! You know, in Russia the word Tetris is now written without the capital letter, it has just become a regular word in the language!
Do the colours of the different tetrominoes vary for a reason, or is it just random?
Do you want a long or a short answer?
A long one, please.
The original game was designed for a device that had no sound and no colours, so the original game didn’t even have textures, not to mention colours. Later on, the game was published on all the core computers of the time: Commodore, Amiga, Atari… you name it, and in every version, there was a different set of colours, so it all started like a complete zoo! A while later, when we were building the brand, we tried to standardise the colours and we did a good job. The colours have been standardised for about 15 years now, and we tried to keep it like that for people to have a very strong association between the tetrominoes and the colours, no matter which version they play. Was it a long enough answer?
No – how did you decide which colour goes with each tetromino?
I don’t remember – when we started to standardise, I think we would look at the versions that were available the most during that time and looked at the most popular colour distribution… one answer for all!
The question “Would it be possible to play Tetris forever?” was first considered in a thesis in 1992, and the conclusion was that it’s impossible to play Tetris infinitely. Is that true? Is it really impossible to finish Tetris?
There are different versions of the game – my favourite version is the unlimited game that never ends. Playing Tetris for me is like a zen activity: I think about myself, I meditate a little bit while I am playing and I just enjoy myself. So the game which ends doesn’t come across as unlimited, and Tetris seems to be unlimited.
Why did you move to the United States in 1991? Communism was over, so was there a specific reason for you to move to America? Couldn’t you start your company in Russia or elsewhere?
It’s that me and my business partner at the time with whom I worked on lots of different games got an invitation to join the company Henk Rogers had founded in America. He needed our help, so we tried to go and work in America. My friend kind of convinced me by saying that we were mostly producing our games for an American and Western audience, so we needed to get to know these people, how they lived, what they did, whatever – so it would be good for us to be there and absorb and see everything. So we went on a 3-year contract to work in the United States, but I came here in January 1991, and in August 1991 my country ceased to exist [the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt, also known as the August Coup, took place on 19–22 August 1991], then the Soviet Union was dissipated, that’s why I decided to remain in the United States and, all of a sudden, I found myself buying a house. So it was not my intention to emigrate, I came just for work, but what happened afterwards kind of pushed me to this side – so I am now American.
Did you experience culture shock when you first landed?
Frankly, I was so busy working that I didn’t have time to think about this sort of stuff. America was and remains the perfect country for workaholics like I used to be: everything here is to support your desire to work endlessly: when you get to the office and it’s open 24/7 you can come and work at any time, any holiday, any hour – it’s up to you. If you have no time to eat, there are lots of fast takeaways and convenient food delivery, so you don’t need to spend time on any other thing. So, if you come here to work, then you’ve come to paradise… if you are more lazy or more philosophical, then I don’t know, maybe Europe is better but I don’t know, I’ve never lived there!
How do you feel now? Do you feel more Russian, more American or a mixture of both?
Well, I mean, you can probably hear my thick Russian accent, can you?
I love it.
I’m basically trying to save it, I like it when everybody recognises me on the phone immediately! Ninety per cent of what I read is still in Russian, I keep up with the culture, the literature and everything. It came as a real shock to read what happened a year ago, [the armed conflict between NATO and Russia in Ukraine started in February 2022 although the foundation of it was laid in 2014] that was a very strong and critical point for me to then come back and start rethinking about the things you’re asking me about: so how much do I want to be affiliated with this stuff in the future? Besides that, my general feeling when I am asked this question is to answer that I feel like a world citizen.
These days, something that had never occurred on such a global scale and fast pace in the 21st century is happening: Russian culture, literature, poetry and art are being cancelled everywhere in the Western world. In 2022, Meta allowed hate speech against the Russians on Facebook, and there are reports of Russ being systematically discriminated against, harassed and offended in many countries and in many ways. As a citizen of Russia, how do you feel about it?
I find it very natural. I’m not worrying about Russian culture and poetry and music because it’s great and is going nowhere, it will come back later, so it’s not a very forward-thinking kind of behaviour to just deny it. It will come back, at some point, because everything that’s good in culture is coming back anyway, it’s what we observe, so I don’t worry about this stuff too much. I’m much more worried about what this crazy regime is doing, and my heart is very much with Ukraine during this time.
Do you think the brains of the people that went through Communism are somewhat wired differently compared to those who only have known Capitalism?
I don’t like to think in such an abstraction about Soviet people, I don’t believe in this mentality, people are all different, and there are so many different positions and points of view. So, yes, the Soviet paradigm was very strong, and all the people of my age and my generation have been impacted by it. I grew up in and during the Soviet Union and, despite belonging to it, I consider myself a dissident as my father was and most of my friends were. I am still feeling the impact of this stuff on myself, though. For example, when I see a lot of people I still see them organised vertically and I am always wondering who is the boss; this vision that people are always structured as a pyramid comes to me from that time.
At the end of the film, your character says that the fall of the Berlin Wall is “both good and bad news”. What were you thinking at that precise moment in 1989 and what do you think about it all after over 30 years?
I was absolutely pro-Perestroika, that was Perestroika time and we were really full of hopes, but at that time I didn’t have too much time to think, I remember being mostly in my professional duties because that was a very important time for me to grow up as a professional, I was invited to start and to be involved in a lot of projects. So, I was part of Perestroika but I was still mostly working on my games.
What’s coming next for you? What are the plans for the future?
In 2019 we released a wonderful version for Nintendo called Tetris99 for lots of players – up to 99! The game lasts a few minutes and then just one of the players wins! An absolutely great game! And then the Tetris movie is of course a big deal, we hope that it will trigger interest in my games again for the new generations to come. Tetris is a tricky and very challenging game, and modern players are often too lazy to play such a game. So I hope the movie will inspire a new generation to at least try a little bit! We are trying to control the brand and do whatever we possibly can to promote Tetris. I really hope the movie will be appreciated abroad.
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