Kindness = chaos: the problem with choice in Tetris 99

tetris gameplay

By Neil Merrett

Tetris 99, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, developed by Arika

Tetris 99 serves to show us that no gamer is an island – that every choice we decide or refuse to take, reverberates all around us in sometimes unexpected and unintended ways…

A nihilistic person might tell you there is a certain inevitability to the human condition. That some negative outcomes are the unavoidable product of existing in a society, even when individuals look to lead a ‘good’, or morally upstanding life.

This may seem a strange start to looking at the classic puzzle game Tetris.

Yet in creating a competitive online puzzle game about lining up multicoloured, odd-shaped blocks, the game highlights every individual’s complex relationship with the world around them.

The original Tetris, which became a multi-million selling smash hit on Nintendo’s first Gameboy portable console, was a largely personal experience where the player had to fit a series of oddly shaped bricks together to try fill up any blank spaces. Creating a full line of blocks would see them removed from the screen in a kind of satisfying clean up.

Yet a failure to stack these blocks correctly would lead to an increasingly incongruous and unordered pile of blocks that were highly difficult to clear, eventually resulting in a game over once the screen was filled up.

One single space could undermine the player’s whole game. Success therefore required increasingly quick thinking and forward planning to ensure they are all filled up.

Each successful line of blocks cleared would see the player’s score increase, while making each new set of bricks fall with increasing speed, leading to a sharp rise in difficulty with every success.

The addictiveness came from the appeal of the player trying to get that little bit further to beat a personal best score.

Countless numbers of puzzle games have since followed seeking to replicate and build on the simplicity of Tetris.

With decades of innovation from a technical and communications standpoint having passed since Tetris sold in the millions as a pack-in title with the Gameboy – we now have Tetris 99.

This is a more simplistic, perhaps even highbrow battle royale-style game, where 99 players compete against each other online in an interconnected network. The winner is simply the last person standing.

While the original Tetris did allow for two players to compete by linking up their Gameboys, Tetris 99 scale’s up the concept to rope in dozens of additional strangers.

Making a classic competitive

It would be fair to ask how a game seemingly built around personal triumph can be played and enjoyed on a competitive basis.

As with classic Tetris, the aim of the game is to clear rows of blocks as effectively as possible, ideally in multiple numbers. These blocks once removed are then built up and deposited into your rival’s game.

With up to 99 players, the biggest innovation along onside play is how you chose to dispose of your blocks. Much as in life, waste is an unavoidable consequence of trying to succeed and move ahead.

How then to best dispose your junk?

tetris moral choice

Morality, if such a thing can exist in Tetris 99, is boiled down to a seemingly simple four way choice.  If someone must suffer from your actions, who do you choose?

The player must choose one of four options to dispose the junk blocks from their game. So, at the touch of a directional button, they must either target an individual player that is struggling in their game and near to being overwhelmed – further ramping up the pressure – or alternatively go for the player that is ostensibly the most successful at that point in the game in terms of earning reward badges.

Certainly, a more satisfying option may be to opt for someone in the process of attacking you. Revenge against an attacker seems morally acceptable on the rocky path to victory, yet these more aggressive approaches all put you in the sights of the other 98 players as a threat.

Alternatively, why not opt for to drop blocks onto a randomly assigned player chosen by the computer.  This allows the player to go a little more undetected. What can be fairer than earnest random chaos? Afterall, you know the thing about chaos……

But playing passively, often to the outcome of falling short of that elusive top ten place, leads one to begin to question if playing with a self-imposed sense of morality, or perhaps sitting on the fence, is the best way to play the game.

Like your 98 other players, as a society, we are all connected to each other, even if we actively chose to directly engage or not. Every action and choice we take impacts others, even on the smallest most miraculous scale.

Are there limits then to fairness, and is the idea of playing a game with a sense of moral purism an illusion if a superior player may end up find themselves defeated due to some random quirk of programming?

Thankfully in life, unlike competitive videogames, not every action we take necessarily forces a negative outcome onto individuals.

We are more than just creators of junk, whether in the form of actual physical waste, or pretentious musing on gaming.  We can pass on good as well as bad in even small ways.

We also have more than four choices for how we react and impact the lives of others.
Random acts of kindness they say.  Now there is an idea for the next battle royale craze.

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