The true story behind the classic video game

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Tetris. (AppleTV+)

If you grew up in the early 90s, chances are you lost several hours of your life glued to a Game Boy playing Tetris. However, the real story behind this addictive video game classic is so poignant and unexpected that it has to be seen to be believed.

Thankfully, that will soon be a viable proposition. World premiering on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 31, Tetris stars Rocket Man’s Taron Egerton as the man responsible for bringing this deceptively simple block game from the depths of crumbling Cold War-era Russia to the rest of the world, the all risking everything in the process.

Directed by Stan & Ollie director Jon S. Baird and produced by X Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, audiences should expect something similar in tone to David Fincher’s The Social Network, but filled with unlikely enough emotion to help him stand comfortably next to any action-packed spy thriller.

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With an added dose of comedy, plenty of intrigue, and some nifty 16-bit animated sequences to help tell its story, Tetris looks set to become one of the most unexpected gaming origin stories in years.

Is the Tetris movie based on a true story?

Alexey Pajitnov ( right) - Soviet computer engineer and programmer, developer of one of the most popular computer games in history - Tetris.  Moscow, Soviet Union, September 3, 1989 (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

Alexey Pajitnov (right): computer engineer and programmer, developer of Tetris in 1989. (Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

While it takes some creative liberties to streamline a complex series of real-life events, the Tetris movie is actually mostly based on a true story.

Contrary to how ubiquitous Tetris eventually became, it was actually invented by accident by a Russian software engineer with a passion for puzzles. In the late 1970s, Alexey Pajitnov worked for the Soviet Academy of Sciences and invented the game that would eventually transition to Tetris while trying to replicate a childhood favorite pentomino puzzle on early computer software.

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His new concept simplified his childhood pastime slightly, replacing its twelve shapes with seven tetrominoes and making completed lines disappear to avoid clutter and increase tense gameplay.

Combining the term “tetrominoes” with his favorite sport, tennis, Pajitnov coined a name for his new game, Tetris, and soon everyone in his office was hooked.

Alexey Pajitnov ( right) - Soviet computer engineer and programmer, developer of one of the most popular computer games in history - Tetris.  Moscow, Soviet Union, September 3, 1989 (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

Soviet computer engineer and programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1989. (Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)

Before long, Pajitnov wanted to export entertainment for others to enjoy, but faced a number of obstacles.

First, he had no idea about business, and even if he did, the Soviet Union had strict import and export rules, with government employees forbidding them to sell their creations.

Enlisting the help of a colleague, he eventually got the game circulated outside of Russia and soon found its way to Robert Stein, a salesman for London-based technology company Andromeda Software.

Sensing its potential, Stein quickly contacted Pajitnov to obtain the necessary license to sell it in other territories and faxed the necessary details. Pajitnov did not know that by signing this fax the documents could be considered a legal document in the Western world.

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Believing he had his license, Stein began buying Tetris around and soon sold the European rights to Mirrorsoft and the American rights to a company called Spectrum HoloByte. However, America was where the real money was and after a design review, Stein set his sights on this lucrative market.

While its connections to Russia were an obvious issue during the height of the Cold War, the game’s Soviet aesthetic was actually used as a selling point, with traditional Russian music and iconography kept on board.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY BAPTISTE BECQUART Russian creator of the video game Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, holds the Digital Greenhouse trophy on April 9, 2015 during the inauguration of 17,000 square meters of office space entirely dedicated to digital creation in the northern French city of Valenciennes.  PHOTO AFP / FRANCOIS LO PRESTI (Photo credit should go to FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty Images)

Alexey Pajitnov in 2015. (AFP via Getty Images)

Soon the game was made available on a number of American platforms but without any clear reference to its creator. Instead, he simply cited that Tetris was “made in the United States of America, designed overseas.”

However, Stein’s fax-based license was flimsy and technically, had sold the rights to a game he didn’t actually own. Knowing that he had to go back to Pajitnov to get the official license, he returned to Russia and started a lengthy negotiation process.

Meanwhile, Pajitnov was unaware that his creation was actually already on sale in various markets, but upon discovering this fact, he surprisingly agreed, saying, “the fact that so many people like my game is quite for me”.

With that, Tetris was officially available in the US on popular consoles like the Amiga, Atari, and Commodore 64, but it had yet to reach Nintendo, which is where Baird’s Tetris movie picks up.

What happens in the movie Tetris?

Taron Egerton and Nikita Efremov in the Apple TV+ movie Tetris.

Taron Egerton and Nikita Efremov in Tetris. (AppleTV+)

In Tetris, Egerton plays Henk Rogers, a video game developer and up-and-coming businessman who spies on the potential in Pajitnov’s video game while trying and failing to derail his own game concept at a convention in Japan.

With its simple premise involving various falling shapes made of small cubes that need to be positioned and aligned correctly in order for them to disappear – all while a countdown timer adds extra pressure to your mission – Rogers calculates all the ingredients needed to make it a quick success world.

There is only one problem. While Stein sold the rights to a myriad of different markets, a handful of companies believed they solely owned his license.

Meanwhile, Elorg, the game’s original Russian-based owner, remained unaware of most of these deals and, as such, received no financial remuneration for any of their successes.

But Rogers had a plan. After befriending Nintendo bigwig Hiroshi Yamauchi, he believed Tetris would be the perfect co-launch product for their new handheld gaming device, the Game Boy, and after negotiations with Stein collided with a brick wall, was forced to consider the situation. his own hands to secure a solid new license for the game.

BOSTON - JUNE 30: The cover of the Nintendo Game Boy game,

The cover of the Nintendo Game Boy game, Tetris. (Getty Images)

To do so, he traveled beyond the Iron Curtain and entered into negotiations with various political and business figures in Soviet Russia to try to untangle the complex rights issues and pave the way for a future with Nintendo.

However, with the Soviet Union close to collapse and tensions at an all-time high, he soon finds himself in a tangle of lost-in-translation legal messes and dangerous KGB shadows.

Also, having endangered his family home to fund his research, the race is on to defeat the system, avoid danger, and emerge victorious before everything closes in around him.

Along the way, he met the game’s inventor Pajitnov (here played by Nikita Yefremov) who helped solidify his position. With the founder’s name still largely absent from Tetris releases, Rogers makes it his mission to help secure Pajitnov the recognition he deserves.

What happened to Tetris founder Alexey Pajitnov?

Nikita Efremov in Tetris.  (AppleTV+)

Nikita Efremov as Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Apple TV+).

By granting Nintendo the rights to Tetris, Rogers in turn helped Pajitnov gain recognition and critical acclaim from Western eyes.

Welcomed by the tech and software community in America, the creator of Tetris was regularly invited to speak at electronic conventions and shows, and in 1996 he was returned all rights to Tetris.

Soon after, Pajitnov and Rogers started their own company to oversee the future of Tetris, and to this day that organization is responsible for managing all of its future editions and regularly purging imitators from the app store.

When is the Tetris movie coming out?

Thankfully, viewers won’t have to wait long to explore the gripping true story behind Nintendo’s classic blocky game, with the film debuting on Apple TV+ on March 31.

Tetris will be available everywhere on Apple TV+ starting Friday, March 31, 2023. Watch the trailer below.

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