Box Brown's Tetris Pieces Together the Story Behind the Game

Not only is Box Brown the award winning cartoonist behind books like “Andre the Giant,” about the wrestling legend, the webcomic “Bellen!” and the Xeric Award winning “Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing,” he’s also the publisher of the beloved Retrofit Comics which has recently released work by Leela Corman, Eleanor Davis and MariNaomi.

His label's latest book, which debuted at New York Comic Con and is on sale now, is also his latest graphic novel project. “Tetris” is a recounting of the story behind the popular, addictive video game. It's a complicated story, one that's both entwined with the history of Nintendo and a meditation of what games are and why they’re important to us. Tetris became such a global success because it taps into the brain, and over the course of his graphic novel, Brown explores what that means and what it says about us.

CBR: Were you a big Tetris player?

Box Brown: Most definitely. I played Tetris incessantly but I think that’s average. I played just as much as anyone else–a lot.

Video games are huge right now, but Tetris is that rare game that everybody knows and everybody has played.

There’s no story to it. Story can be alienating to different people. Maybe you don’t identify with the character or something about the story rubs you the wrong way. Tetris doesn’t have any of that. It’s this pure playing experience. It’s not even about having good graphics. It can be as small or as big as you can imagine and it doesn’t really change much.

Where did the book start for you?

I saw a BBC documentary about the making of Tetris. As a kid, I remember that there was two versions of Tetris for Nintendo, and two separate cartridges. I remember hearing rumors that one was illegal or the not real version. It was this black cartridge unlike the gray cartridges for every other Nintendo game. The other thing that was compelling that they used to sell the game when we were kids was that it escaped from behind the Red Curtain. It’s this really simple game that kind of took over the world.

It first came out in communist Russia, and then it came out here at a really interesting time. After learning about it, people didn’t know how to sell this game. There was nothing like it before. Some American companies passed on it. At the time, Nintendo and other video games were a toy for boys so if the game didn’t speak specifically to that demographic, they didn’t really know what to do with it.

For people who don’t know, who created Tetris?

Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"

Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov who lived in Russia and worked as a scientist. He created Tetris in his spare time as a pure art project. Never at any point while he was creating Tetris was he thinking about how he could sell it. For people who live in the US or anywhere in this capitalist society, people do art for passion, but the first thing people ask is, are you selling it? Are you making money? How are you making a living doing this? Tetris wasn’t created like this. And yet we see in this story what can happen to a piece of artwork that once it gets into the hands of capitalism and how it changes everything.

It’s fascinating because he created this as shareware and it was originally a text-based game.

They were originally building it on a computer that didn’t have graphics, so they used text characters. Like, two parentheses next to each other, for blocks. That’s where he developed the dynamics of the game. It was amazing to me that he built it using text pieces. It’s very DIY. It’s interesting to me that he didn’t have a profit motive behind it. He was all about creating something for the love of creating it. Not to downplay people that are doing it for that are living in a capitalist society -- that’s what we are, that’s who we are -- but when you take that element away, art still persists.

Besides just the history of Tetris, you also discuss the nature and history of games and play. Why was this key for you?

When I approach any subject, I try to go back to the beginning. I started to think about what motivates us to play games, and where do games come from? You do this research, and you see that people played games as soon as people could start being together, if you consider a foot race or wrestling a game, because it’s this manifestation of competition. Once you start thinking about games as an artform, you can go back and it has this shared history with art. I think of all games as an artform. I think there’s self-expression, there’s people interacting with the game, and it creates an experience of play. There are people that craft that and figure out what makes a game good and how to emphasize that and how to create that. That’s an artform right there.

Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"

I look at things that are artforms and not really considered art. There’s still an argument back and forth about whether video games are even art. There would be a time when you would be hard pressed for anyone to agree with you that pro wrestling is an artform. I think of comics in a similar way. I think it’s, of course, an artform. When I think about Tetris and about video games, these are things that are huge in our society and they should receive at least the same kind of respect that something that’s considered high art does. I think video games are just as good a way to express yourself and experience life as any other artform.

You also talk about the history of Nintendo and how it changed since the 19th Century, which is really the story of how games and gaming have changed and evolved over that time.

It really was the bridge between these ancient games like board games to video games. They started as a card company. They made playing cards, which makes sense if you think about it. Then they got into other types of gaming like toys and since the Nintendo Entertainment System came out it’s just been exponential growth.

I was also fascinated to learn about “The Tetris Effect,” which I have experienced many times, but I didn’t know it was an actual medical diagnosis.

I remember it happening to me when I was a kid. When you play so much Tetris that you start to hallucinate Tetris. You start to see it over your eyeballs. I remember trying to go to bed after playing Tetris all day on my gameboy and still seeing Tetris blocks falling and trying to manipulate them as I was falling asleep. It’s a common thing. You get so wrapped up in this game where you’re trying to rearrange these shapes as fast as you can that it gets stuck in your brain.

I loved that, at one point, this becomes an insanely convoluted business story.

Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"

That has something to do with the fact that there were people trying to make this business deal with a citizen of communist Russia. Not only did he not understand how to negotiate a contract or make money from it or anything like that, but it’s illegal! He could have been jailed or worse for illegal business practices. At the time, Russia develops a company called Elorg to take care of this business. What happens is Alexey kind of negotiates a contract with a guy named Robert Stein. In Alexey’s mind, he never made anything official, and in Stein’s mind, he has all the rights to Tetris. So he starts making Tetris. Then they did a renegotiation once Nintendo wanted the rights to it. At that time, there was all these demarkations around what a computer was. Nintendo is not technically a computer, it’s a toy, so there are different rights for that. So Nintendo, represented by Henk Rogers, Mirrorsoft and then Robert Stein’s company Andromeda Software all wanted Tetris, and all of them had different motivations for it. This guy who worked for Elorg had to negotiate with all of these guys on the same day! And they were surprised by it, because Hank Rogers just showed up. He didn’t have an appointment.

It was hard to keep track of who all the different characters were, who they were working for and what their motivations were. And the stakes were high. Belikov, who was negotiating for Russia -- if he screwed up, Belikov could have been held criminally liable for that. Gorbachev is aware of this video game situation. It’s funny, because it ends up getting negotiated through the American court system. [Laughs] Russia decided that whatever they say, that’s the deal.

And not to give anything away, but the story has a mostly happy ending.

Mostly happy. Alexey, who didn’t make any of this money when Tetris was a big hit, ended up being able to move to the US. He was a computer scientist in Russia, and he was able to get a job -- of course, because he created Tetris -- creating games, which was his true calling in life. Then, in 1996, they got the rights to Tetris back.

Besides writing and drawing your own books, you’re the man behind Retrofit Comics. Do you want to talk about some of the new books that are just out or about to come out?

We just put out three great books for SPX -- “Our Mother” by Luke Howard, “Libby’s Dad” by Eleanor Davis, and “I Thought You Hated Me” by MariNaomi. We didn’t plan on "Libby’s Dad" and “Our Mother” being a parent-themed pair of books, it just happened that way. They’re really amazing stories. “Our Mother” is Luke Howard’s look at his own mother’s mental illness issues, and “Libby’s Dad” is a complex story by Eleanor Davis about a girls’ sleepover that really captures what it means to be a teenager, I think.

Then we have “Lovers in the Garden,” which is this crime narrative by Anya Davidson, which is amazing. It’s a comic about the 70s and it’s pulpy and cool. That will debut at Comic Arts Brooklyn in early November.

Do you have plans for your next book? Are you looking for another business story?

[Laughs] I don’t know. The business part for me was fascinating but it was more about exploring video games as an artform. I work in the documentary medium so it could be anything.

Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"
Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"
Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"
Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"
Art from Box Brown's "Tetris"
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