Whether you’re into video games or not, Tetris is probably a game you’ve dabbled in, perhaps even been addicted to, before. It’s a game of very simple mechanics, but one that’s had a rich but complicated history. In his 2016 graphic novel published by First Second Books/SelfMadeHero (depending on where you are in the world) Box Brown puts all the blocks together and the result is an interesting read.
As the title suggests, this graphic novel is all about the history of Tetris from its creation all the way through the messy juggling of rights and beyond. Along the way, we meet the different people involved in Tetris’ history, which Brown makes sure to introduce as they appear. He does this by first creating a simple portrait page, with a name and title and then giving the right amount of exposition along the way. It’s an effective way to keep track of everyone and their role in the story.
TETRIS: The Games People Play is not simply a retelling of the history of Tetris, but also explores human’s need for play and the role it has. Brown does this by going through evidence of play throughout history and the scientific and psychological theory behind it. All of this is presented in a way that is simple enough for those who are not scientifically minded to understand.
Through this framing Brown is also able to dedicate some of the book, perhaps a little too much for me, to the history of Nintendo up until the point of Tetris’ release. It’s not that it’s not interesting, because it is, but perhaps goes on too much of a tangent for to long. If you want to know more about it then you won’t find this to much of an issue.
Just like the simplicity of Tetris itself, Box Brown employs a visual aesthetic which is simple to digest. Depending on on the subject matter, Brown implements loose line work in order to make his world feel lived in and organic. This is juxtaposed by rigid lines in the Russian settings, which reflects the coldness of the Soviet Union. Often his characters faces are some basic lines and dots, but with the line work methodology he has been able to create expressive characters while not getting bogged down in too much detail.
Brown also implements a very basic colour palette of black, white and yellow. With it he able to effectively light scenes and give depth to the page. The inclusion of the yellow is a nice touch and works as a good utility colour. It give good contrast to the other two colours, but also bursts from the page.
While many of the pages consist of conventional panels that fill up to page when together, similar to that of completing a line in Tetris, Brown also finds plenty of opportunities to experiment with the layout. One example of this, beyond the one pictured above, is where the corner of one panel met another diagonally and formed two hands to create a handshake, representing the deal which was being made on the page. These are nice touches to the book and show that Brown is consciously looking for new ways to visually and contextually tell stories.
In conclusion, TETRIS: The Games People Play is an interesting read whether you’re a pop-culture history buff or want a story that delves into human psychology. While Tetris’ history is a bit of a tangled mess, Box Brown is able to present it in a straightforward manner, while also giving us some theory on why we play. Brown’s use of line work, in conjunction with a limited colour selection, is visually appealing and uses it in different manners to illustrate what is happening. This also comes with a welcoming amount of experimentation which is easy on the eye and a joy to read.