A lot of people have played Tetris. Millions, in fact. And many of them, myself included, have returned to the game periodically to find it just as addicting as it was when they first encountered it. The common experience, though, is that the game always gets the best of you, usually not too long after the difficulty ramps up a few notches. But what of those individuals who never put the game down at all? What about players whose mastery allows them to sail past levels that crush the average enthusiast?
Portland-based documentary filmmaker Adam Cornelius went searching for the story behind the game's most devoted, advanced players. His film Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters follows former Nintendo World Championship (NWC) finalist Robin Mihara as he organizes a tournament of master players (including NWC champion Thor Aackerlund).
Cornelius will be hosting a screening that doubles as the film's dvd release party this coming Friday night at the Hollywood Theatre. Leading up to that event, he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the film and its subjects.
NICK: What drew you to make a film about prodigious players of Tetris? And to further unpack that question: why now, almost 30 years after the game’s creation? What is it about the game and its players that brought you to explore the topic? And what’s your own explanation for the enduring appeal of Tetris so many years after its introduction?
ADAM: The simple answer is I had been trying to master Tetris myself. So I was watching YouTube videos of record games by the people who are now in the movie to try and learn from them. But I really didn’t see a documentary film there because the whole scene was just people recording their games and mailing them to Twin Galaxies to be posted on the Internet. There was no human interaction or filmable action, frankly. In spite of that, when Harry Hong finally maxed out the game, as a Tetris player myself, I was just blown away and really wanted to go down to LA and shoot an interview with him and make a little video of some kind. Once I put that video on the internet (called Max-Out!) the whole movie just came to me from that point on. I met Robin Mihara who had been interested in putting together a tournament and it was just a critical mass kinda thing that grew exponentially into what you see in the movie.
It is great that the game is old, because we have this group of people who’ve been playing the same simple video game for 20+ years, and since video games are relatively new, that’s unprecedented. So it warrants some reflection. In this case, especially for the guys who were in the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, a lot of hopes and dreams are wrapped up in this game. So there really is a history there that gives the movie some depth. When I started I hadn’t even heard of the 1990 NWC. So there’s another example of how things just unfolded before me and I had to put it all together and tell the story.
My explanation for the greatness of Tetris is it is elemental and almost feels like an ancient game. For people who play all the time, it takes on almost a talismanic property where people talk about the Tetris God and the game denying you the pieces you need at critical moments. So you keep going back, hoping to get some cooperation from the Gods and break your high score. The truth is the top players in the movie have genuinely mastered the game and have managed to mostly remove the luck element… in a way they have given the Tetris God the finger, which is what we all wish we could do.
NICK: Your previous film, People Who Do Noise, was about musicians participating in the Portland, Oregon noise scene. Does Ecstasy of Order fit into a larger fascination within your work for documenting individuals operating outside the trends of dominant pop culture? Or is there another explanation as to why you’ve focused in on these stories?
ADAM: Well, first off, in both cases it was something I was directly involved with. In 2005, I played guitar in a drone-metal/guitar feedback band, and we ended up playing a bunch of noise shows, something I hadn’t had much exposure to. I discovered I really liked noise music, and viewed it as a really legitimate art form. And I was just blown away that most people didn’t even know it existed! Like everyone’s heard of abstract visual art, but you bring up abstract sound and just get blank stares. Even people who listen to extreme music like death metal or punk can be outright hostile and amazingly close-minded towards noise. So its just my way of trying to, I don’t know, generate some relevance or spotlight it in some way. And yeah, within that extreme marginalization comes a deep camaraderie that I found really touching.
Tetris was the same way, in the sense that Harry’s max-out was front page news in my mind, like climbing Mount Everest, but in reality almost no one cared. So something compelled me to go to him and try to glorify his achievement. I mean, I actually hope the film becomes famous so that people will take competitive Tetris seriously and perhaps a more established league can form. That’s actually been one of my goals from the start, along with, of course, making a good movie.
Another bond the films have is they depict people who’ve developed an almost spiritual connection with technology. In the case of the noise musicians, they’re like these mediums who’ve awakened all this broken circuitry and are having a séance. With Tetris, you have the Tetris God and I do feel the game becomes a meditative exercise. That’s where the title comes from.
NICK: There still lingers in the public mind at large an assumption that video games are a medium not to be taken seriously. From the get-go, Ecstasy of Order argues that Tetris is a serious game based in strategy and timing, there’s even an attempt in your film to align the game’s complexity with that of chess. Did you feel that Tetris needed defending? And, if so, was it a matter of principle, a means of building a basic argument within your film or somewhere in between?
ADAM: Well Tetris is actually marketed and sold here in the States as the “Godfather of Casual Gaming” which is true. But I was still surprised that when I would bring up my film to people, they would often laugh and think I was joking. In my mind there’s no debating Tetris’s legitimacy as one of the great strategy games of all time. But people often don’t realize there is an elite level of play, and they don’t know what it entails. So I wasn’t defending it, more so just explaining it so that the audience could understand the challenge the game represented and hopefully enjoy the action of the tournament more during the film’s climactic scene. I’ve gotten enough positive feedback on that to think it basically worked.
One of the most common reactions to the film is that people really want to play Tetris, because now they understand how the game should be played! They want to see if they can build a wall, leave a well, and burn lines while waiting for a long bar, instead of just blandly clearing lines at slow speeds. Even my parents got a Nintendo after seeing the film and they are way better than they were when I was a kid.
NICK: For me, the most surprising and affecting moment of the film occurs when we finally get to meet Thor Aackerlund, the formerly teenaged Tetris champion of the early 90s. He’s been the elephant in the room for much of the picture, with the other players constantly spouting their theories about his skills, his undocumented claims of surviving the Tetris “kill screen,” and whether or not he’ll even show up for the competition. When the now adult Thor does make the scene, he comes off as quite modest and very candidly opens up about a past filled with personal tragedy, shifting any understanding we might have had about him as a “character” prior to that moment. Did this turn of events surprise you? Were there any other notable discoveries made during the course of production? And were there any moments that you ended up leaving on the cutting room floor that you now wish you had included in the film?
ADAM: Well, I try to let Thor’s appearance in the film speak for itself. I will say that the way it unfolds in the movie is directly what I experienced behind the camera. All I had to go on were these rumors and this growing suspicion that Thor was some kind of fraud or a recluse. We really weren’t sure if he was going to show up or not. So its all true. I feel very lucky that the film has a real story that unfolded organically during the shoot. I think that’s often what sets apart the really memorable documentaries, is when they actually capture a real story arc in the present tense rather than being forced to manufacture one or remain stuck in the past. But you really just have to feel lucky if it happens.
My biggest regret is that we did not do more to hunt down the other Nintendo World Champions who lost to Thor in 1990. Frankly from what I’ve heard through the grapevine, Thor is not the only finalist who went on to have a troubled life. But maybe he encapsulates that whole experience and its not needed.
NICK: The screening at the Hollywood on July 20th also functions as Ecstasy of Order’s dvd and soundtrack release party. Congrats on bringing the film to the home video market. Are you already planning your next project? And, if so, would you feel comfortable sharing a little about it?
ADAM: Thanks. It means a lot to me to have Portlanders come out and see the film and ask Robin and I some questions. I try to remind people that Robin Mihara was born in Portland and the film is about him as much as anyone, so it really is a Portland story.
I have many ideas. There is an event in Texas called the One-Armed Dove Hunt that I’m hoping to shoot. It will be new for me because I will be a complete outsider. I have never hunted, and I am not an amputee, so it will require a higher degree of empathy on my part. I would also like to do something about primitivism and living off the grid. But I am so busy with the Tetris stuff that its hard to move on. We are hosting the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo on September 29th and 30th, so keep an eye out for that if you want to see Ecstasy of Order stars duke it out in person!
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters screens at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, July 20th at 7:30pm. More info available here.
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