‘Tetris’ Creator Alexey Pajitnov & Henk Rogers on What the Movie Gets Right

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In 1984, a computer programmer in Moscow, Alexey Pajitnov, created what would soon become one of the world’s most iconic puzzle games. A working relationship with Henk Rogers, head of a software company at the time, would see this simply genius game skyrocket to the masses in a licensing agreement with Nintendo. Almost four decades later, the two would serve as executive producers for Jon S. Baird’s feature film, starring Taron Egerton, aptly-titled Tetris, which tells the incredible and unbelievable story of how they retrieved the rights to this game from the Soviet Union. Before the world premiere, Pajitnov, who is portrayed in the movie by Nikita Efremov, and Rogers (Egerton) sat down to chat with Crumpe’s Steve Weintraub.

Crumpe VIDEO OF THE DAYSCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT

During their conversation, they tell us how Tetris, now available to stream on Apple TV+, was a moving and touching experience to see on the big screen and how impressive it was to see a year and a half of their lives condensed to what Rogers called a “thriller on steroids.” They tell us their favorite way to play Tetris, what levels they’ve reached, and Pajitnov reveals which of his games he’s “really proud of.” The duo tease plans for the game’s upcoming 40th anniversary, share how the videogame development industry has changed since it’s infancy in the ‘80s, and how things they did then are “unthinkable” today, and touch on the psychology of why Tetris’ legacy has lasted decades.

You can find out more in the player above, or read the full conversation below. For even more on the film, check out Ross Bonaime’s review that promises this wild biopic “…proves that truth is stranger than fiction.”

Crumpe: I just want to say it’s a real thrill to talk to you guys. Obviously, like the rest of the planet, I love Tetris. I thought this movie was so well done, and I’m really happy to talk to you guys. I guess my first question’s going to be the most important. I am curious for the two you, what level can you actually get to on the Gameboy in Tetris?

ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Oh, okay. You don’t have any Tetris items behind you.

Image via Apple TV+

They told me I couldn’t do that.

PAJITNOV: [Laughs] Ah, I see. So, I saw the rocket launch once in the Gameboy version.

HENK ROGERS: You mean the shuttle? The shuttle is the last–

PAJITNOV: The shuttle, yeah. I did it once. Yeah, that’s my level with the Gameboy.

ROGERS: I can pretty much get the shuttle to come out whenever I want.

I cannot. Tetris has been released on every console, mobile, every format. Do you guys actually have a favorite version that you like to play, whether it be on the Nintendo or in the arcade?

PAJITNOV: My personal preference is always the computer. I like those buttons because I did play a lot while I developed the game and debugged it, and the first five years of my life with the game [were] related to computers. So, my preferably kind of interface is computers. I like every computer version. What about you?

ROGERS: Yeah, you know, I like the Gameboy version, it’s sort of the classic Tetris – it became the classic Tetris. When people look back on the history of Tetris they think that’s the first Tetris, but actually, there was a bunch of them before. So, Gameboy is good.

It’s not often that I get to work on a game myself, and there was a certain point where I was licensing Tetris to other companies, and we wanted to create an example of, “This is Tetris. Beat that.” And so, we created a version called Tetris Zone, but it wasn’t released because it was just an internal product. It was just to show the other licensees, and so I got to have lots of my ideas– I think that’s when we did T-Spin for the first time.

PAJITNOV: Yeah, but that’s kind of individual, long-term play. As far as game experience is concerned, I’m really excited about Tetris 99. It’s an absolutely great experience for, kind of, the sentimental factor, you know?

ROGERS: I think the most creative version of Tetris – you know, he’s talking about gameplay, which is, of course, important, but there’s Tetris Effect, the Tetris Effect, which is made by a multimedia genius. That’s a VR Tetris. I don’t know where it’s been released, it must be released everywhere.

PAJITNOV: Yeah, I played it on the computer.

ROGERS: On PlayStation, no? Originally PlayStation.

PAJITNOV: It is PlayStation, as well, but I do remember my experience is on the computer. Anyway.

Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers with Nikita Efremov as Aleksei Pajitnov in Tetris
Image via Apple TV+

Alexey, you have created a number of other games besides Tetris. I’m curious, if someone has not played any of the other things you’ve created, what’re the one or two other games you think they should check out?

PAJITNOV: Well, I’m not sure it’s available now, but the game I’m really proud of is Pandora’s Box. It’s a big title I came out [with] back while I worked at Microsoft. I tried to bring the puzzle spirit into the world, and I kind of – in my mind – I invented a new type of puzzle, the visual puzzles, which I really emphasize in this title, and it was a pretty good title.

I’m almost ahead of time, unfortunately. All of my titles are a little bit more original than [they] should be at the time, so I [didn’t] see a very big response while I came up with the game. I see my game being ripped off five, six, seven years after my first release. That’s what’s happening for most of my career [laughs].

So, Pandora’s Box is important item. Hexic is a pretty good game, not the best realization, but the game itself has a big meaning inside it. It’s kind of my vision on Bejeweled mechanics, I’ll put it this way.

I definitely want to jump into the movie. I can’t imagine what it was like for the two of you watching this on the screen for the first time. So I want to know what it was like sitting in that theater and taking it in?

ROGERS: Well, for me, I remember I cried several times during the movie, and I don’t cry easily, but I was moved, you know? There was the bit where my wife comes home with my daughter, and she has to sing? Oh my gosh, that was so touching. Yeah, how can you not cry during that scene?

But, I was blown away by the movie. It’s a movie! It’s not a documentary, it’s a movie. It’s a story, and you want to call it a thriller on steroids, whatever you want to call it, it’s a movie. It’s a real movie.

PAJITNOV: Yes, and I feel very proud of my game, you know? This is a movie about Tetris, and the fact that they take the most important of the business life of my game is so touching for me. So, finally, finally, the very small kind of stuff, which takes a couple moments of your time, and now it’s on the screen, it’s the big culture. That makes me proud.

Nikita Efremov and Taron Egerton in Tetris
Image via Apple TV+

What do you think audiences, when they see the movie, will think is Hollywood, make-believe magic, but actually really happened?

ROGERS: You know, I guess [there are] not many people who have had a movie made about their life while they’re still alive. So, yes there were things that happened in the movie that, you know, they took artistic license, but there are things that they couldn’t fit into the movie that would’ve been the equivalent. So, what they did is take a year and a half of my life, squeeze it into two hours, and get the point across. And, I think they did that wonderfully.

Well, one of the things I don’t think people are going to realize is, the Robert Maxwell situation of it all. I had no idea how involved he was in all of this, and I was just shocked. One of the things I was so surprised by is, ELORG only licensed the game for 10 years. I’m just curious, how did you pull this off? I’m sure that more companies were asking, “We want more than 10 years.”

ROGERS: Yeah, so in the business, nobody has a spreadsheet that lasts more than 10 years. Nobody thinks that far into the future. So, when we’re sitting in that – Nintendo was in the room, I was in the room, Alexey was in the room — and we’re all negotiating, and they’re going to have a big fight with Atari, Atari games. They needed right of title going back to the author, and they created this documentation going all the way back to Alexey, and they made it for a period of 10 years. Because nobody thought it was going to be an issue after 10 years! You know, they thought it would be gone by then. Nobody had that understanding that it would last longer, or even be growing after that. So, yeah, we were pretty lucky in that.

So, in ‘95 the rights reverted. I had a big battle with ELORG for about a year, and we finally settled and made the Tetris Company.

tetris-movie

Yeah, it is true, though, that, generally speaking, it’s very, very, very few games that are still being played 10 years after. You have to be something special.

ROGERS: Yes.

PAJITNOV: And I’m wondering why? I mean, the game is very software product, but it’s still very psychological stuff. The software and hardware change, but our brand remains the same, and what brings you lots of pleasure keeps bringing it to you and other human beings. So, that’s why I never expect Tetris to be gone because it’s a really good game, you know? Why you don’t come back to it…?

It’s still a big mystery for me why several really great games are gone already. I mean, they will come back, I’m pretty sure.

Listen, I don’t have an answer except to say that when I was preparing to talk to the two of you, I went to the Tetris website and they have the game on the homepage. I then started playing, and the next thing you know, I’m sitting there for 20 minutes playing the game. But actually, I believe next year is the 40th anniversary of the game, and I wanted to know if you guys are planning anything special.

PAJITNOV: Well, we’ll work on the brand really hard, and probably we will have the good version, the updated version coming out on several platforms.

ROGERS: Yeah, my daughter Maya is in charge of running things now, and I’m sure she’s cooking really hard. You know, I’ve sort of backed off the business end of it. She’s smarter than I am, so she knows what she’s doing, and I’m sure she’s got something really great happening next year.

Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers in Tetris
Image via Apple TV+

Henk, you are known for being able to talk your way in and out of situations. I’m curious, what’s a situation that you talked your way in or out of that you still can’t believe you did it?

ROGERS: Oh my goodness, well, the movie is that. What’s the other situation, oh my God? My first meeting with [Hiroshi] Yamauchi. I went to Nintendo after my wife read an article that Yamauchi plays Go, and I talked myself into becoming a publisher in, like, half an hour. It’s, uh… wow.

Back then, though – I believe this must have been the ‘80s – it must have been a completely different world in the videogame industry versus what it is now. It was the infancy of the whole market.

ROGERS: Yeah, when you think about the history, I started my first company by writing a role-playing game by myself, did all the graphics, did all the story, did all the programming, did all the marketing, did all the sales. I mean, I pretty much did everything, and you could do that back then. Today, it’s like, to do that same kind of thing, a team of a hundred people, if not more. It’s just unthinkable.

But yeah, looking back on it, it was a very exciting time. It was new territory for everybody that was in that business.

Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers in Tetris
Image via Apple TV+

Alexey, it was a while before you got a first royalty check. I just want to know, what was it like when you finally got paid for creating this game, and what was the present that you bought yourself when you could finally afford it?

PAJITNOV: Well, you know, I could barely remember those shifts to payments because what Tetris brought to me at that time is, kind of, recognition. And I had lots of other titles at the time, so I started receiving my payments for my other titles, and Tetris payments kind of embedded in all of this. So, Tetris made me happy and successful by glory at the first step, and the funds at the second step.

ROGERS: What was the first thing you bought, like, “Now I have enough, money is coming in, I can buy something!”? He doesn’t really buy a lot of stuff. Clothes, no, I had to twist his arm to buy clothes.

PAJITNOV: Yeah, yeah. I do remember that it was a very successful year, and I tried to finally buy myself a watch. I decided that I wouldn’t even look at the price, I will take the item I really love. Believe it or not, I bought a $100 watch [laughs]. So, I’m not a very good spender, I will put it this way.

Tetris is available to stream on Apple TV+. Check out our interview with Egerton below.

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