ALEXEY PAJITNOV has two remarkable skills: creating groundbreaking puzzle games and surviving large bureaucracies. One of these is far more useful than the other in the modern gaming era, and it’s not the one you do in front of the computer.
Actually Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris and Pandora’s Box, looks pretty content in his office on Microsoft’s Redmond West campus—surrounded by puzzle books in various languages and a truly word-beating collection of tchotchkes and games, with the specters of neither Tetris’ notorious legal history nor Microsoft’s recent legal uproar shading the room. If anyone on campus is having a cheery week in the wake of Judge Jackson’s decision, it appears to be the affable Pajitnov, whose hiring by Microsoft was announced in October 1996 with the kind of salivatory language usually reserved for a particularly juicy corporate acquisition.
Of course, even bureaucracy has its advantages. Pajitnov benefited from that security once already when he invented the game that bridged the East-West chasm, delivered millions of Game Boys into the hands of consumers, and helped to bring down a media empire. That makes his current task look easy: This time, all he has to do is reinvent the puzzle-game genre.
Back in 1985—yes, Virginia, there were computer games back in the mid-’80s, we’d discovered the PC by then and everything—Pajitnov was working for the Computer Center of the Moscow Academy of Science. A long-standing interest in puzzles and logic led to computers; computers led to a job in a Soviet-government R&D lab; computer-lab access led to Tetris; Tetris led to one of the gaming industry’s seminal legal trench wars, pitting entertainment giant Nintendo against the Maxwell media empire, Atari, and a whole lot of other companies (not all of which survived the battle).
Tetris! To play it once was to play for hours, and to play for hours was to run the risk of Tetris-head, the seven shapes falling and falling in your minds’ eye long after kind friends dragged you away from the computer. EverQuest will fascinate you, and Flight Simulator will hook you, but only Tetris can break your brain.
Tetris broke a few other things, too, like the Robert Maxwell media empire. Maxwell, who took a mysterious header off his yacht in 1991, owned a software company called Mirrorsoft, which he believed to have bought the rights to market a Tetris video-game cartridge. Mirrorsoft, however, was not the only company under that impression. Due to various diplomatic and bureaucratic mix-ups (and no small amount of frankly hinky wheeling and dealing), the rights to market Tetris around the world were contested in court for years after the game first reached the West in 1986. In the ensuing melee, Maxwell’s questionable business dealings began to catch up with the flamboyant entrepreneur. When he died in 1991, it was discovered that he had bankrupted his various companies with pyramid-scheme style debt, including Mirrorsoft.
Pajitnov was shielded somewhat from the fuss by the Soviet bureaucracy that licensed and managed the game advertised as “from Russia with love.” (He was also shielded from those pesky royalties, though Pajitnov avows that creating something that has become “part of the culture” is sufficient reward.) After Tetris, Pajitnov moved to the West, selecting Seattle because, well, the first American city he saw was Las Vegas during a computer trade show; enough said. Since joining Microsoft, he’s worked on MSN’s Mind Aerobics and the MS Entertainment Collection Puzzle Pack.
SO WHY ARE there no world-beating modern puzzle games? And how is signing on with Microsoft going to help? Pajitnov explains that the last five years have “hit the puzzle genre hard. Only a big company can afford to do them.” Besides, he says, Microsoft is a good company for family-oriented games; they also have—and here the shadow of the dark side of Tetris’ history looms briefly over the office—good licenses. He also points to serious play-testing as a benefit of going big: Pandora’s Box was tried by a beta group on average every two weeks during development.
It’s certainly a pretty thing. Pandora’s Box has 350 puzzles—puzzles that slide, puzzles that contort, puzzles that shift in and out of focus. Most of them are based on the kinds of puzzles that have relatively timeless appeal, such as jigsaw puzzles, but each has an element that makes it only possible on a computer. (Just because you looked at your bookcase and hallucinated falling Tetris-tiles doesn’t mean that was possible in real life, either.) Pajitnov argues that “something in the human brain is attracted to this stuff,” even though he admits that after all the development, he’s “probably the only person in the world who can’t play [Pandora’s Box].”
Pandora’s Box enters a radically different gaming market, one in which Pajitnov says, “I don’t feel the pure puzzles can survive now.” Certainly the visual contrast is substantial. Where Tetris was minimalist, Pandora is lush, with a storyline inspired by fairy tales and the rhythm of the adventure/quest games that supplanted the likes of Tetris in the quick-twitch reflexes of a generation.
In other words, no matter how addictive the gameplay, the trappings are now so different as to make a modern Tetris all but unthinkable, or at least not such a success. The storyline alone—the last component to be settled—means that players approach the game in a different mental context than the relentlessly abstract Tetris. (There is a puzzles-only mode that dispenses with the storyline altogether.) Pandora’s Box also depends heavily on actual nonelectronic works of art; each puzzle is based on culturally significant works of art or photos. In a few cases, Microsoft even contacted artists directly for rights to depict, distort, and otherwise work with their work. Graphics, Pajitnov says, add the visual interest necessary to attract women to the game; the hard-core puzzle fanatics might not even notice.
The most substantial challenge to doing a successful puzzle game at the turn of the millennium comes not from the rigors of storytelling but from multiplayer environments like the Net. Pajitnov notes that puzzles are essentially a solitary pursuit, while the action now is in communal gaming. Post-Pandora’s Box, he’s on a new project, which should take around 15 months to complete. What that might be he’s not saying, though he hints that one of the puzzles in Pandora’s Box, Lens Bender, might be part of the shape of things to come.
Times have changed in other ways, as well. Pajitnov received almost none of the billions of dollars generated by Tetris over the years, since the games were created under the Soviet government’s employ. If Pandora’s a hit, even Microsoft’s strongest detractors allow that that history’s not likely to repeat itself.