Tetris imitates life. You build an even, supported structure out of the raw materials of daily existence, and react to the challenges that befall it. You clear away the detritus to begin anew. Nothing in life is certain, but your hope is at some point that missing piece – that lover, that raise, that child, that job – will appear and fall into place. You can do your best to prepare for it by getting a good job or by stacking up those five square blocks in an even column on one side of the screen, but you can’t always plan for what life throws at you. The longer you live, the faster things get, with days and blocks falling quicker as you go.
The long block (or ‘I’ piece) is a windfall. It’s the security blanket, the hoped-for stroke of good luck, or the successful first date. But it doesn’t mean automatic success. It requires that you’ve built an even arrangement of blocks ahead of time to maximise its effectiveness, and it must also lower the remaining structure enough to let you prepare for when the next one may come along. The long block is a complication as well, proving you’re not always ready when opportunity arises. It can exacerbate a complicated mess, forcing you to place a big obstruction on top of a garble of L- and Z-shaped blocks, pushing new blocks uncomfortably close to the top of the screen.
It is gaming’s most perfect and mercurial artefact. It’s the bane of your existence when you wait for it, but a saviour at the right moment. It’s a curse when positioned poorly, and a revelation when it clears a screen.
Alexey Pajitnov’s 28-year-old classic also uses the long block to teach you how to play by way of its comparative simplicity. The other six pieces in Tetris all create some type of obstruction. The T-, Z- and L-shaped pieces can be arranged on top of one another, but their right-angled pockets can’t accommodate the beefier square pieces comfortably. If a clearable line is arranged with those pieces, it can be swept away without the long block, but scraps will remain, and these dangling chunks will make further arrangements problematic at first. And if you do manage to build up an even structure that’s capable of earning maximum points, the only piece that can achieve the eponymous ‘Tetris’ – clearing four rows at once – is the rigid long block itself.
The utility of the long block is matched by an aesthetic pleasure as well. It’s nice to look at when compared to the irregular weirdness of the other pieces, especially in Tetris for Nintendo’s Game Boy, the version that cemented the game’s cultural ubiquity. All of the other pieces are segmented into individual patterned blocks. For example, four tiny black squares with white borders make up a single squat square block. One of the duo of L-shaped blocks is solid black, but even it is broken into four segments, the jutting single part at its base taking away the joy of symmetry. The long block, meanwhile, has an even grain for its surface, and its singularity is comforting. There’s a Rorschach test quality to it – it looks like sand, like skin, like a stucco wall, or like the finish on an old desk – and that’s relieving when compared to the mathematical abstraction of the other tetriminos.
It’s impossible to accurately say how many different versions of Tetris have been made over the past 30 years. How many Generation Y kids have made it their final project in computer class? How many high-school students have programmable calculators? How many bootleg iOS versions are there on jailbroken iPods? Yes, the long block’s come in many shades and colours over the years, but it’s telling that in the widely distributed colour versions its dual nature as both irritant and gift is reflected in the choice of shade. Microsoft’s Tetris, Vadim Gerasimov’s original DOS version, Atari’s arcade edition and the infamous Tengen-published Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game all portrayed the long block in red, which could be read as angry or passionate, depending on your state of mind when it shows up in a game. Versions of the game distributed by Pajitnov’s The Tetris Company use a light-blue long block, which is tranquil and calming.
What’s strange about the long block’s legacy in puzzle games beyond Tetris is that its purity isn’t replicated very often. Of the many variations on the basic premise of keeping a screen clear of clutter, most equip the player with a separate piece that acts as a violent solution. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo’s big gift is a glowing diamond that will clear away all the blocks of a single colour, Bejeweled has its Power Gems and Hypercubes, Puyo Puyo gives you Super Attacks, and Puzzle Bobble Universe has power-ups that will clear away certain selections of bubbles. In all of these cases, though, that strategic boost is based on something other than the regular tools. The long block stands apart, but it’s still just one of the regular pieces in Tetris.
Truth is, it’s not easy to replicate the kind of simple, direct excellence of Tetris or its long block. That’s why contenders, or even its own quickly forgotten sequels, have never managed to surpass it. Pajitnov’s creation is elegant and singular, lithe and versatile. Speaking with Web site Gamasutra on Tetris’s 25th anniversary, he said, “[The game] is very intense, you know? If you play on the high level – and that’s where you want to play usually. So, you play on the edge of your abilities, in terms of the speed and reaction, and everything.” Just like a life well lived.