INTERVIEW: The Man Who Changed Everything
Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris, believes in the mysticism of games. Here, he reveals all about those 27 kilobytes of code that changed the world.
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Nottingham, England, on a dreary and deserted Sunday morning: it seems a strange time and place to be meeting one of the most revered figures in game design history. But the café is snug, and Alexey Pajitnov, with his clipped beard, neat trainers and buttoned-up polo shirt, seems more like a favorite physics teacher than a genius, or a star.
Pajitnov is in Nottingham to appear at the GameCity festival, and to promote nothing in particular. Later in the day he’ll attend a screening of Tetris: From Russia With Love, the 2004 BBC documentary focusing on his creation of the universally popular puzzle game while at the academic Moscow Computer Centre, and the tortuous wrangling over it between communist Russia and the corporate west. He’ll sit through it all, reminding himself of events, chuckling to see his friends on the screen, and wincing at his adorably thick Russian accent (seemingly undiluted by more than a decade living in Seattle).
He’ll happily discuss Tetris at length over two question-and-answer sessions, poring over the details of 1,600 lines of code – 27 kilobytes, once compiled – that he wrote 22 years ago. And he’ll do it all with humor, clarity, and a mixture of modesty and very matter-of-fact pride. Pajitnov may present himself as a normal nerd who stumbled on a great idea by accident, but he’s no more likely to play down its brilliance than he is to claim he has repeated it, or ever will.
However, his unassuming profile belies a wealth of experience. Pajitnov has now spent the best part of two decades consulting on and designing puzzle games, including countless re-imaginings of Tetris, and at least one other bona fide classic – the mesmerizing Hexic, created for the casual gaming division of sometime paymaster Microsoft. He’s played every puzzle game you can mention (as well as lots of Catan and World Of WarCraft). There can be no better brains to pick on this most taken-for-granted of game genres.
What drew you to start programming puzzles on computers?
Well, I just liked to do it! The Computer Centre was one of the small number of open organizations [in the USSR] which dealt with computers. Other organizations from abroad often sent us new hardware to try. We had lots of different, very strange machines and microprocessors. One of my jobs was to kind of test this stuff – see what it was about, how we could use it. The best way to deal with a new computer is to try to write a small program and see how it works. A game was a very good example. And puzzles are some of the easiest things to program.
Did you have a natural interest in puzzles yourself?
Oh, yes. From my schoolboy years I was always doing all kinds of riddles and puzzles – that’s why I chose the career of a computer scientist.
Why do you think people enjoy puzzles?
Well, not everybody likes them. Usually it’s sharp-minded people who like to be challenged all the time. In old puzzles, it was even a kind of mystic thing… In the 17th or 18th centuries, the puzzle was associated with a walk to a secret door, a mystery. I think that this mystic element really is there, because when you solve the puzzle it looks so easy, so obvious, and you can’t understand why you didn’t see it immediately. It means you were charmed.
How do you think puzzles change when you put them on computers?
Computers improve every intellectual activity. You have unlimited features to add, to change. You can turn puzzles into games. According to public opinion, puzzles are dull and take too long to solve, but computers really increase the speed and dynamize them. They become faster, maybe not as deep as a puzzle on paper or with pieces, but certainly more colorful, dynamic and fun.