Is Tetris an indie game?

Digging deeper into the concept that Tetris is actually an indie game due to the nature of its creation.
October 18, 2019 10:00 AM by Morgan Shaver

It’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish indie games from their big budget “AAA” counterparts. As the worlds of indie and AAA merge closer together, I can’t help but wonder whether comfort can be found in the thought that most classic games feel like they were built on an “indie” foundation, like Hamurabi and Pong.

It’s a concept I brought up during the Indie Games: Past, Present, and Future panel at PAX West 2019, and is something I’ve pondered over since I first got bit by the indie game bug. To be completely honest, I probably think about it more than I should because of a little game called Tetris.

Everyone who knows me knows I love Tetris. It’s one of my all-time favorite games, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I play it every single day. I’m hopelessly addicted, or as a wise man once said, “BOOM, Tetris for Morgan!”

Fine, Jeff. It was Tetris for Jeff, but you get the point.

I'm hopelessly addicted to Tetris, including modern versions like Tetris 99.
I'm hopelessly addicted to Tetris, including modern versions like Tetris 99.
© Nintendo, Tetris

Maybe I’m biased in wanting to rope my favorite game into the indie scene, but when you look at the history of Tetris, it’s hard to ignore how similar the story of its development feels to that of most games you would classify as indie.

You see, Alexey Pajitnov didn’t conscientiously plan to create one of the most iconic video games of all time. Instead, he’s stated that Tetris was created as a fun way to test out hardware during his time working at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre in Moscow, Russia.

“I did it in my spare time, and I was just a programmer in [the] Computing Centre,” Pajitnov explained in an interview with Adam Sessler. “I wrote several small games and Tetris was just one of them.”

Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while he worked at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre in Moscow, Russia.
Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while he worked at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre in Moscow, Russia.
© Tetris

At E3 2019, I was able to meet up with Alexey and ask him whether Tetris immediately stood out as the amazing game millions of people would later come to play, his response was quite enlightening.

“I did several puzzles, and I enjoyed putting puzzle games together on the computer. Tetris was just one of them, but it looked outstanding right away. I couldn’t even stop myself from playing it.”

It’s clear from Alexey's response that Tetris was a passion project, one that he returned to because it – in the wise words of Marie Kondo – sparked joy.

Similarly, almost everyone who’s played Tetris has experienced this feeling of never wanting to stop, including Henk Rogers who’d swoop in to help license and distribute Tetris out of Russia.

Hearing him talk about his initial experience with Tetris at the 2015 D.I.C.E. Summit perfectly sums up how it feels to discover Tetris for the first time.

To unravel why Tetris is so addictive, and the concepts that make it indie, you need to look at the game's creative roots. So, Tetris was based around one of Pajitnov’s favorite puzzle games, Pentominoes. With Pentominoes, you’re given several rectangular wooden boards and 12 uniquely shaped pieces.

The goal of the game is to arrange all of these pieces to fit neatly inside the boards.

With Tetris, the concept is similar, though you’re given 7 uniquely shaped pieces and have to arrange them into lines. When the lines are full they're cleared away, letting you build new lines and allowing for endless play. This is part of what makes Tetris so addicting. It’s also why it can be somewhat therapeutic in nature.

I play Tetris in Marathon Mode to help ease my anxiety and depression, and countless others have reported the same.

Something else that has undoubtedly helped Tetris succeed is how easy it is. Sure, it can take years of practice to get as good as the pros who compete in tournaments like the Classic Tetris World Championship, but at its core, Tetris is wonderfully accessible.

Tetris gets better with age, and is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
Tetris gets better with age, and is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
© Enhance, Tetris

Indie developers often advise those interested in creating their own games to follow their heart, rather than their pocketbook. The goal is to create something you love and want to play yourself. Tetris fits this box because Alexey loved puzzle games so much, he made his own.

The other thing about indies is they tend to be made with limited resources, forcing the developer to get creative. Again, Tetris was made while Alexey worked at the Computing Centre in Russia. He had to use what was available to him there, and you could argue creating Tetris was a bit of a puzzle in and of itself.

How to code it, how to make it work, and so on.

Personally, I feel a game remains indie even if it goes on to achieve widespread success. Examples of this include Undertale, Stardew Valley, Five Night's at Freddy's, and even Untitled Goose Game. No matter how much money and popularity they rake in, they were still made as indie games. 

Looking at the origins of Tetris, it's hard for me to consider it anything else but indie. 

If you agree, and we’re officially calling Tetris indie now, I have no trouble proclaiming it to be the best indie game ever made... because it is.