The question of what makes a “hard” game is one of the most interesting in all of game design. A game that’s hard but fair is one of the greatest sights to see in gaming. But what’s the model for this balance? There is one game to rule them all. A game that is rewarding, complex, heart-poundingly difficult, and unwinnable, but at the same time fair.
Yes, you heard me.
How is Tetris the hardest game ever? It’s so simple that anyone can play it. It’s about stacking blocks in a big box. Both of these are true, but there’s a lot of hidden complexity in this little game. At first, it’s child’s play, right? There are seven different shapes you can rotate, and you try to fit them into straight lines to get points. You just do this until you lose. Easy. Or, at least it sounds easy.
But then the pieces start moving down the screen faster and faster with each line you complete. Eventually, they go so fast that each new piece is down with the chaotic clump of squares at the bottom as soon as they appear. You inevitably run into a streak of bad pieces, and awkward shapes that you can’t get rid of. Your only chance of salvaging your game is to think fast, adapt, and find a good place for each piece. Things ultimately get worse and worse until the screen fills up and you lose. Tetris never goes on forever. So why is it that you can lose and feel so accomplished?
It’s all about high score. The concept of the high score is old-hat, but Tetris does it better than any other game. When you lose a round and just barely miss out on beating your personal best score, it’s crushing. But when you sit down, focus, and beat your score, it’s the most satisfying feeling ever. Again, why?
The answer gets down to the root of the psychology of human accomplishment. People are driven by adversity, and fueled by self-improvement. Tetris isn’t pitting its players against a well-defined gauntlet of challenges, it’s pitting them against themselves. Victory in Tetris is doing better than you did the last time you played. Doing better and better means venturing further out of your comfort zone than you ever have. It also means mastering the management, adaptation, and quick reflexes that are required to play the game. And the only way to do this is playing the game over and over. See what I mean?
Tetris is a game with no surprises. Everything in the game is right in front of you from the start. It’s a distilled essence of what makes games fulfilling. Experience, improvement, and perseverance. Every game from Dark Souls to Super Meat Boy is based on these precepts. But the grace of Tetris is it’s simple, accessible, and endless. It’s also the best-selling game of all time at over 170 million copies sold. Considering what I’ve said here, now I can see why.