Ecstasy of Order documents the making of a Tetris master

By Ozzie Mejia, Aug 21, 2012 9:45am PDT

Tetris first made its debut in 1984 as the brainchild of Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov. American audiences grew to know Tetris as a launch title for the original Game Boy in 1989. It proved to be a game that defined the phrase "easy to learn, difficult to master." Its stranglehold on gamers, both casual and hardcore, has only grown stronger, releasing on nearly every platform known to man. This week sees the release of a documentary called "Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters," which follows the lives of a special breed of Tetris player.

"It's a feature-length documentary that follows multiple world-record-holding Tetris Masters as they prepare for the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championships," explained "Ecstasy of Order" director Adam Cornelius. "On the surface, it's a competition documentary, a genre that has become popular in the last decade."

Cornelius undertook this project, partly because of his own love for Tetris. He first picked up the NES version of the game in 1989, saying it was the only one that his parents would play. He eventually put the game down, but Cornelius said he couldn't deny that the game had a sense of timelessness to it. "As a kid, I was a little too impatient and wanted to move on to the next Zelda," he added. "As an adult, I started playing every day and realized that the game really is an endless challenge, in that there's not just one effective strategy you can memorize. You really encounter new situations all the time and keep surprising yourself even after 10 years of playing."

In an effort to learn new techniques, Cornelius took to YouTube to observe record-setting efforts and learn new strategies. He eventually found out about Harry Hong, the first person to officially "max-out" the NES version of Tetris, and taped a video with him. That was the first step in chronicling the Tetris phenomenon. The next step came at the 2009 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, where he first met Robin Mihara, a tournament organizer and original 1990 Nintendo World Championship competitor. After getting better acquainted, Cornelius learned that Mihara had been in contact with Hong and the other Tetris masters that Cornelius had been in contact with. That led to the two collaborating on "Ecstasy of Order."

Cornelius began following would-be Tetris Masters in earnest to chronicle their journey to the CTWC. A major aspect of the film proves to be the various personalities that Cornelius encounters over the course of filming.

"I was really struck by the diversity of personalities and backgrounds," said Cornelius. "I think people's first concept of a Tetris master is some kind of obsessive neat freak, or a standard-issue computer nerd. That really wasn't the case. As the title indicates, there's kind of a Zen element, so you really need to have a laid-back side to be the best. Most of the players had a sense of humor and were willing to joke about their journey with the game one moment, while seriously contemplating it the next. There's no black-and-white in the film. The one common ground is the obsession, but everyone has their own way of reconciling with it."

Following a number of Tetris masters meant that Cornelius saw new moves and strategies. "I learned some moves I had never thought of," he explained. "The truth is, there are still levels of thought in Tetris that I am just now even fathoming, that are really impossible to portray without making a lengthy tutorial video or writing a book. There's gambling and odds to consider. Each move creates a different terrain and some terrains accommodate more different pieces than others. There's so much to think about, you could literally stop a game of Tetris at certain points and discuss piece placement for 30 minutes. But in the game, you only have one second to decide."

Not only did Cornelius learn new tricks, but even Mihara, a Tetris expert in his own right, was seeing moves he had never seen before. Cornelius cites an example of Tetris master Jonas Neubauer impressing both him and Mihara with a longbar spin they didn't know was possible. These spontaneous reactions are something Cornelius hopes will help audiences understand the uniqueness of these players.

The eSports movement has taken on a life of its own in 2012, with players striving to compete in tournaments for games like Street Fighter 4, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike: Source. Cornelius notes that games like Tetris have admittedly languished against these genres, but hopes "Ecstasy of Order" will renew some interest.

"I think most people here in the States think of Tetris on a hula-hoop level, like this iconic time-waster," Cornelius added. "It is great for that, but I hope this movie will create more interest in elite Tetris playing, maybe like what Pumping Iron did for body-building. We're having the 2012 tournament at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, so we hope the combo of the movie and continued tournaments will bring it to the next level."

While "Ecstasy of Order" is likely to attract some newfound attention to Tetris, I asked if there was truly a way to determine the single-best Tetris player in the world. Cornelius notes that it's a difficult question to answer, partly because of the many different versions of the game that have been released since its original incarnation.

"Many Tetris versions are marathons in that they plateau at a sustainable difficulty level and you have to play for hours and hours to break the record," Cornelius added, "while the record games on NES, which is the version depicted in the film, take only about 10 minutes. There are very few players who excel at both modern and classic versions. In fact, they are so different, they're almost two different games."

One common factor shared between all versions of Tetris is the tension that tournaments create. "Everyone is blown away by how emotional the tournament is and how you're on the edge of your seat," said Cornelius. "There was a pretty rowdy crowd and it was quite a spectacle. Im not sure people realize how fun Tetris can be to watch."

Those interested in following the journeys of a group of Tetris masters can download "Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters" on iTunes, Amazon, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and YouTube Premium.

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