Tetris: A Parallel Timeline

The world hates Russia. We also collectively love the underdog: a charismatic and authentic protagonist. Director Jon S. Baird capitalized on this expertly in the Apple TV movie Tetris, a movie that was timed perfectly, as wars between video game rights and Russians rage on fervently. The movie follows Henk Rogers, the caricature of the American businessman — irreverent and unrelenting, with an all or nothing schtick that is realistically bad business — as he tries to gain the rights for Tetris, for Gameboy and Nintendo, two of the most quintessential consoles of the late 20th century gaming scene, from the Russian developer ELORG and the omnipresent Soviet Russia. The parallels between the film’s storyline and the world today are truly uncanny, and that makes the superbly casted, directed, and set movie that much better. 

Much of the movie follows Henk as he tries to get handheld rights for Tetris, while at the time, handheld was not yet a common thing. For a golden age of handhelds, Nintendo, Sega, Gameboy, Atari, and DS, to name a few, made a stake in the gaming industry, but consoles could have significantly better frame rates and memory, and exclusive games that were backed by massive studios that could afford greater mechanics and graphics. Now only the Nintendo Switch dominates the handheld market, and the lesser-known Valve Steam Deck released in 2022, which is the only handheld console that is compatible with PlayStation games, and the higher frame rates. But now Sony is reportedly developing a handheld, a development that, like the Gameboy, would completely shift the video game market. Sony is considerably the only developer that could achieve bringing handhelds back into the gaming mainstream, and the effects of such a development would mark a paramount shift in video game history. 

The political climate that becomes the movie’s symbolic antagonist is the Soviet Union, the empire that Vladimir Putin has made it his life’s purpose to restore.

The political climate that becomes the movie’s symbolic antagonist is the Soviet Union, the empire that Vladimir Putin has made it his life’s purpose to restore. Henk has to combat the spy games that have been a part of the American film canon since the USSR was established, including double agents, men in black, and criminal intimidation. The fight between democracy and communism that comes into fruition in the form of a game deal is a large part of the movie’s appeal, to a modern age of viewers who experience a disdain of current Russia similar to that of the hostility towards the USSR during the Cold War. As viewers watch Henk go head-to-head with  KGB leaders, the feeling of freedom fighting courses through their veins, vehemently hating the USSR and Russia and idling Henk and his capitalistic character. A fundamental discrepancy between now and then, though, is the suggestion that the Russian game to become popular worldwide. Today, a game like Tetris, would be an implausible success, not because of the KGB, but because of the economic warfare that the US and other major powers are engaged in with Russia, that calls for a boycott of all Russian goods and content. With games like Mundfish’s Atomic Heart being highly scrutinized for Russian relations, being a Moscow-based study, and having a narrative that is heavily based in the USSR, the differences between tensions now and then are accentuated. On a larger scale communist-tied applications like TikTok are quite literally brought to trial and debated among American politicians who can only seem to agree on one thing since the rise of communism in the early 20th century, a disdain for communists. Although technically, TikTok has access to the same information as companies like Facebook, because of its ties with the Chinese Communist Party, the country is seriously considering banning or limiting the app, something very regulatory for a capitalist society, but as the saying goes, if you can’t beat em’ join em’. If Tetris was being sold now, there is a good chance that it would either be boycotted, or banned in democratic societies. 

But the coincidences don’t stop there. The fight for the PC, video game, arcade, and handheld rights are the main conflict the movie follows. Mirrorsoft and the foppish sleazy Kevin Maxwell, and the comically short and short-sighted Robert Stein, fight with Henk and ELORG for Tetris rights, that seem to be in a permanent ambiguous state for much of the movie. Right now, one of the biggest fights for a video game studio and the rights to its games ensues as Sony and Microsoft stand trial in front of the Federal Trade Commission. Back in the era of the movie, studios were not nearly as terminally bloated as they are now, with too many cooks in the kitchen, making games that are fragmented and costly. Microsoft also happens to be fighting this deal on behalf of getting the rights for Call of Duty to the Nintendo Switch, similar to how Henk fights for the rights of Tetris for Nintendo. Except Henk is an authentic, boy-wonder businessman, and Microsoft is one of the richest companies on the planet that is more comparable to Maxwell and Mirrosoft in the movie. What Microsoft is trying to do is equally evil and pompous as Maxwell, in essence trying to purchase their way to success by buying an already successful franchise, instead of supporting their own studios that have been lacking any innovative content for years. 

Tetris is a brilliantly crafted movie on its own, but the climate in which it is released makes the narrative even more fascinating. We find ourselves in the middle of a similar movie, with communist tension, company malpractice, and a burgeoning future for handheld consoles, and who will be the Henks, the Gameboys, and Mirrosoft of the situation will be entertaining in a way perhaps not as cinematic as the movie but equally as interesting and influential to the future of the gaming industry.