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A Puzzling Creative Challenge

No characters, no setting, no context—there’s not really a story to adapt from ‘Tetris,’ unless, of course, you add in the Cold War

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

There’s perhaps no popular video game less glamorous than Tetris. It is, as the entrepreneur Henk Rogers explains to his wary banker in the opening monologue of Apple TV+’s Tetris, simple math, consisting entirely of right angles. It’s devoid of characters. There’s no setting. There’s no context. But the game was, and is, beautiful. And it was “unbearably addictive,” as one reviewer wrote in 1988. So, of course, Tetris was profitable and eventually widespread.

Apple TV+’s movie, premiering on Friday, is a biographical drama about Henk’s surprisingly dangerous efforts to get the game published worldwide during the twilight of the Cold War. Director Jon S. Baird cites Argo as his main influence for Tetris, but the subject matter and some of the cutesy tech-wiz flourishes have led to most critics understandably comparing his movie to The Social Network and AMC’s heady computer-history drama, Halt and Catch Fire.

Like Halt’s Joe MacMillan, Henk (Taron Egerton) is a pitchman first and a programmer second; unlike Joe, Henk isn’t especially charismatic but rather singularly obsessed with this one video game he discovered at the Consumer Electronics Show. Henk’s business plan for Tetris is simple enough: buy the global distribution rights from the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), strike a deal with Nintendo to get the game published on a popular console, and make everyone rich. This is 1988, though, and Alexey is living rather dismally in Moscow at the bitter end of Soviet Communism. Furthermore, Henk and his allies at Nintendo must contend with a competing claim to the distribution rights for Tetris asserted by the corrupt game publisher Mirrorsoft, led by the infamous U.K. press baron Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his obnoxious son Kevin (Anthony Boyle).

Robert, we keep hearing, has a direct line to Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh), but more importantly, he’s got his Moscow-based business partner Robert Stein (Toby Jones) hoodwinking the foreign trade ministry and its computer electronics division, ELORG. Henk—portrayed as an ever-restless do-gooder—embarks on a one-man mission to negotiate an honest contract with the Soviets, expatriate Alexey while he’s at it, and at last share Tetris with the whole wide world.

Early on, Nintendo raises the stakes for these negotiations by showing Henk the company’s prototype for a first-of-its-kind handheld console, the Game Boy, and tentatively agreeing to Henk’s proposal to bundle the Game Boy with Tetris at launch rather than Nintendo’s own Super Mario Land. “If you want to sell a couple hundred thousand Game Boys to little kids, package it with Mario,” Henk tells Nintendo of America chairman Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles). “But if you want to sell millions of Game Boys to absolutely everyone, young and old, around the world, package it with Tetris.” This is the closest Tetris gets to giving a broader perspective on the culture and business of video games in the late ’80s, and even then, the big picture is spotty and incomplete. Tetris is, to this day, the bestselling video game of all time on all platforms, so in retrospect, it’s easy to recognize the wisdom in Henk’s pitch to Lincoln. But Tetris and Super Mario Land went on to become the second- and third-bestselling games, respectively, for the original Game Boy (below only the Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow set of games). Super Mario Land also played a huge part in popularizing Nintendo and the Game Boy in the West (though the game is now largely overshadowed by its sequel, Super Mario Land 2). Henk is a true believer in Tetris, but his plea to Nintendo to throw its own mascot under the bus isn’t as obviously persuasive as the company’s immediate capitulation to Henk suggests. Tetris takes a very narrow view of the cultural and commercial context for the game, and as a result, the viewer is perhaps left wondering what the stakes even are.

The movie is Tetris, but it might as well have been titled Henk. That’s not a knock, necessarily; Henk Rogers is an unlikely figure who played a strange and invaluable part in video game history. He’s not the sort of video game auteur who would normally earn such a distinction as a creative visionary. He’s not Neil Druckmann. He’s not Hideo Kojima. He’s Henk Rogers, the guy who saw the meaning of life and the GDP of Japan in a simple puzzle game programmed in a few lines of Pascal code. Henk’s obsession with Tetris in the first half hour or so is sufficiently vivid and engrossing, but then Tetris becomes a movie about too many things other than Tetris. As a Cold War drama, Tetris is a bit too tropey and cartoonish until the last 30 minutes or so, when Baird’s sudden onset of sentimentality about his Russian characters as victims of history hits too little, too late.

As a corporate intrigue film about high-stakes contract negotiations, Tetris is a bit too circular and counterproductive. It’s also a little convoluted, but basically, Henk believes he bought the rights to publish Tetris on arcades and consoles outside the USSR, but Mirrorsoft claims to have acquired the rights in an earlier contract negotiated with ELORG and Stein. While ELORG reviews the dispute, Robert Maxwell bribes a KGB officer to intimidate Henk, Alexey, and even the ELORG director, Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan), into capitulating to Mirrorsoft. But as wild as this sounds on paper, in Tetris, the dispute is too tedious to appreciate.

The setup is initially pretty funny: Nikolai places Henk and Kevin in different rooms on opposite ends of a stuffy government building and scurries back and forth between them, hoping the men don’t notice they’re both on-site negotiating with him and being played against each other in real time. This is Nikolai’s one and only tactic for the whole protracted negotiation though, and the substance of the dispute isn’t dynamic enough to keep his ping-ponging between Henk and Kevin feeling suspenseful or otherwise exciting for one of the movie’s two hours of run time.

From the start, Mirrorsoft’s claim to Tetris is fundamentally unsound: Stein is misleading Robert Maxwell, who is misleading Kevin, who is misleading Nikolai. The inevitable deterioration of this ruse isn’t particularly gratifying for two reasons. (1) Mirrorsoft publishing Tetris would obviously be bad for Henk, but the movie never effectively articulates why Mirrorsoft publishing Tetris would be bad for Tetris. (2) The Soviets don’t strictly care about the conflicting claims either way; they’re merely trying to negotiate a new contract with better terms for the Soviet Union. This is where Tetris instead becomes a Cold War dramedy about the immiseration and corruption of the Soviet Union, culminating in its dissolution under Gorbachev. The rights dispute over Tetris is reframed as a contest of post-Communist alternatives: Mirrorsoft’s crony capitalism and Nintendo’s benevolent consumerism. By the end of Tetris, as the dissolution of the Soviet Union begins in earnest, the other Russian characters—Nikolai at ELORG, saboteurs at the KGB, Stein at Andromeda Software—come to represent various manners of coping, practically and ideologically, with the regime’s imminent collapse. These characters’ resolutions are somewhat moving, though they’ve got little, if anything, to do with Tetris.

The latter half of Tetris also depicts the emergence of the reluctant partnership between Henk and Alexey. This, more than anything else in Tetris, underscores the shortcomings in Baird’s characterization of Henk Rogers. Alexey is skittish, and Henk is overwhelming. Alexey and his wife both take a dim view of Henk before having him over for dinner and succumbing to his death-defying optimism. From there, Henk, who is Dutch and lives in Japan, relentlessly pitches the American dream to Alexey and ultimately gets him out of the USSR on a hard-won flight to Silicon Valley. Alexey is obviously stifled and suffering in Moscow, but in Tetris, he rarely gets to speak and dream for himself, as Henk is always speaking and dreaming for him.

This is how Henk works in general. Henk woos Nintendo. Henk woos Alexey. Henk woos Nikolai. I’m sure he’d have wooed Gorbachev too, if only he’d had the chance to meet him. Henk has a way of talking over his own movie and obscuring, rather than illuminating, the transformational magic he’s got in his hands. Like I said earlier, Henk, as he’s portrayed in this movie, isn’t that good of a salesman. Tetris is just that good of a game.