Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
Wednesday Nov 02, 2011
AFF Review- The Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
I still remember the first time I ever played Tetris. It was at Diversions arcade in Leon Valley (the northwest edge of San Antonio). We had just moved back from Panama and I was remarkably overwhelmed by everything in the US. Since coming back though my exposure to video games had been restricted to “Super Mario Brothers” at the local Stop N’ Go or some odd, generic, kung fu fight game with two joysticks (imagine a really tame 16 bit version of Mortal Kombat) at the 7/11. To say the least I was uninitiated in arcade gaming.
Not to say I was totally out of the loop. No, we got games in Panama, it’s just that they tended to be a bit… well, out of date seems an appropriate word. Yeah, we had games like Sinistar and Super Punch Out (pre Mike Tyson), but mostly it was odd, secondary games that US arcades wanted as far away as possible. I still remember playing the Krull game at the café on Howard Air Force Base. It bared little resemblance to the film.
So, we came back to the US and I got to spend the day with my old friend Justin at Diversions. So, we are having a time and I discovered this odd, Russian looking machine and decide to have a go. I’m not going to lie, I was having a great time. Then Justin walks over to me and says, “Man, I can’t believe you’re playing Tetris,” and I stopped.
That’s right, I was shamed out of playing Tetris.
A few years later I was reintroduced to it in my sisters journalism classroom, where I would play a few games while waiting for her after school. I still loved it.
That’s the funny thing about Tetris, it is impossible to have a negative attitude towards it. Yeah, I can see it not being your favorite, but come on! It’s Tetris, you can’t really hate it.
Is there a more universally known and played game than Tetris? You can throw out all the names you want, but deep down you know there isn’t one.
Donkey Kong? Ask the next five people you talk to about it and there is a chance that at least one of them hasn’t played it.
Pac-Man? Closer, but still, there are some folk who are uninitiated, or at least haven’t played it in over a decade.
Solitaire? Maybe, but now you’re just being deliberately unreasonable.
Other than older members of your family, can you think of anyone you know who hasn’t played at least one game of Tetris? Hell, at this moment, somewhere in your office, someone is playing Tetris instead of working.
Thought about from this perspective, one could almost ask, “Why the hell has it taken so long to get a documentary about Tetris?”
The answer? Because nobody could make one as good as “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters,” until now.
There have been a handful of video game documentaries, but they have all been standing in the shadow of one. Which is really a shame because “Chasing Ghosts” is phenomenal, and “8 Bit” is a really interesting look at the phenomena. But let’s be honest, in this genre there is “King of Kong,” and then there is everything else.
That was the attitude I took into “The Ecstasy of Order.” All I wanted was something that reached the level of “King of Kong.” Thankfully it did, and in many ways that level was surpassed.
Fans of the show know that both Campbell and myself have a few issues with “Kong.” For those unaware, the main issue is the treatment of Billy Mitchell as a default villain and the assumed acceptance of Steve Wiebe as an underdog hero. Honestly, Mitchell’s only crime is success and Wiebe’s only claim towards heroism is his status as an underdog. Granted Mitchell did engage in some prickish gamesmanship, but he was also very unfairly painted. He is shown as completely avoiding Wiebe when in fact the two did have dinner together. The filmmakers chose to show their relationship as being hostile and antagonistic when it really was not.
This is perhaps my favorite part of “Order.” There isn’t even an attempt to paint one of the competitors as somehow morally superior to the others. Thor Aackerlund, a near mythic figure in the world of Tetris, is treated with the same objective eye as all the other players.
All the competitors are shown as friendly rivals who are united in their love of the game. Thor is willing to give advice as well as demonstrate his playing style for the others, players sit together and talk about their difficulties with the game, their strategies, their tough losses, and in general come across as a group of friends hanging out rather than a group of competitors fighting for supremacy.
Even though the focus of the film is the tournament of champions there is also a good amount of time dedicated to the history and development of the game. From it’s creation by Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov, who got screwed out of a royal payday for making the mistake of creating a global phenomena while living in the USSR, to it’s current state as a global obsession we see how this game is now a part of the world’s pop culture vernacular.
And to be clear, this game is still a global phenomenon. Japan still has arcade games that bestow the title of “Tetris Master” on individuals who can survive for one minute on a board where pieces become invisible once placed. This game is huge.
It is just this universality that makes this movie so affective. When the tournament comes around you know the frustration the players are dealing with. Who hasn’t gotten a board going, created a massive center well and was waiting for some straight column pieces to fall so you could rack up some points, only to screw up and place one of the Z pieces over it and kill your game? We have all been there.
So, knowing this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the audience was literally hanging on the edge of their seats over the final tournament. It shouldn’t be, but somehow it is.
How many movies have you been to where the audience audibly groans and cheers as one at the same moment? It was like the first time I watched “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and had to pause when I found myself hanging on every move made in a chess game between children.
The thing is, this movie prove why this shouldn’t be a big deal. What difference does it make what the activity is? If the movie is made right and you feel empathy and connection to the people on screen, why shouldn’t your emotional involvement with the outcome be that intense? Emotional connection is emotional connection. Hell, Alfred Hitchcock was able to make you crawl out of your skin over a man lighting a Zippo, why shouldn’t a game of Tetris have the same impact?
I am very critical of much documentary work these days because they abandon all pretexts towards objectivity. There is a good guy and a bad guy, even if there isn’t a good guy or a bad guy, or the documentarian has to prove their thesis even if they lack the evidence, or the point of the film is so obscured that the filmmaker can clam whatever victory they want.
This new school of documentary was very much in danger of ruining the entire genre for me. I guess that’s why I am so fond of this film. Oh, to be sure it is an outstanding film, but for me it’s more than that. It is a documentary that simply documents what happened. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t politicize, it doesn’t attempt to propagate any particular agenda or viewpoint. It simply shows you a world and lets you see what happens in that world, leaving all interpretations and opinions entirely to you.
For the first time in a while we have a documentary that isn’t full of a bunch of manipulated footage (Michael Moore’s attendance at a GM stockholders meeting in “Roger and Me,” the ignition of the tap water in “GasLand”), unsubstantiated claims (Morgan Spurlock’s refusal to release his food diary from “Super Size Me,” the interesting take on what constitutes science in “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”), or invention of drama/villains/heroes (“King of Kong”). It’s kind of a refreshing change of pace to see a documentary that is content with simply documenting something.