A few days ago, I plugged in (and into) a PSVR for the first time. I fired up Tetris Effect, and it was great. In VR, the falling tetrominos and the well float on a two dimensional plane within 3D surrounds. Head tracking helps to provide the illusion of depth, emphasizing the two dimensional plane of the well against an often shifting, animated background. As I cleared lines, the surroundings flowed past and around me, between me and the well, and in the space in between the well and the background. Tetris Effect executes this in such a responsive, graceful way that I was not initially sure how much it impacted my experience of its gameplay. In some ways, that is the point. Tetris Effect is about more than a redesign of its decades-old source material: it’s also a redesign of the environment in which Tetris is played.

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That effort to craft a more immersive environment is a common denomenator of VR games. A more demanding, although related game to consider is Thumper, the 2016 “rhythm violence game” developed by Drool. And like Tetris Effect, you can play Thumper either on a flat screen or in VR. Playing both ways makes it easier to grasp how designing for VR changes a game.

I attempted to play Thumper on a screen around a year ago. I didn’t make much progress. The game was very unforgiving, allowing only two mistakes before rewinding my avatar, an iridescent space beetle that I hate to see explode. Thumper’s sound design, dripping in bass drones and punctuated treble hits that are largely responsive to the interactions of beetle and environment, can be lovely. But in repeated failure, it quickly became repetitive. In frustration, I uninstalled the game. I only recently reinstalled so that I could check it out in VR.

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VR adds senses of depth and speed to Thumper that are indispensable. On a flat screen the game plays as an unforgiving rhythm game. While its designers attempted to introduce new mechanics in the flow of the game, if you don’t pick them up easily you’ll find yourself repeating the same twenty measures of music over and over again. That’s just to learn a new game mechanic: applying it at the level of a world’s boss requires a higher level of precision, entirely. But going through Thumper in VR suddenly made all of that precision timing so much easier. All of a sudden, it felt like I could react late or early and still nail inputs. I went running straight through the first and second worlds. A night later, I ran through the third with only a little more difficulty with a new mechanic, then went back to fully “S” rank the first. It has become very rare for me to have to replay any segments at all, leading to some deep breathing flow.

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Even though I played Tetris first, it was Thumper that immediately felt like a new and original experience. That spun me off into thinking more carefully about what, if anything, was added to Tetris Effect in VR. After all, both games have a lot in common. They share a history of design inspiration, not in the least from Rez and Every Extend Extra. Like those games, both Thumper and Tetris Effect are meant to evoke a more synthetic audiovisual experience. But while Thumper does this quite literally on a rail, Tetris Effect’s moment-to-moment play is more emergent and responsive.

Thumper insists that your play heads in pretty much one, singular direction- towards the vision of “S” rank perfection. Which, I will say, was very satisfying to hit, even if only (so far) for the first world. Tetris Effect has grades and rankings and leaderboards and double-S ranks, too, and score chasing is as good a time as it ever is in tetris games. That aspect has been improved upon with Journey mode, an extended set of skins, music, animation, and interaction that push way beyond what previous Marathon modes achieved. One of the most exhilarating sessions that I’ve had with Tetris Effect so far was playing through Journey mode, start to finish, culminating in a double-S rank on the final level. I knew the final song/environment (appropriately named “Metamorphosis”) was coming, but it was fantastic, anyway.

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But score chasing isn’t all there is to Tetris Effect. This is partly a consequence of how the game builds on the respectfully layered and transformed work of many previous tetris iterations. Stuffed as it is with different modes, Tetris Effect is downright encouraging of the idea that there are many ways to play, enjoy, and succeed at its game.

And that attitude towards encouraging the player is at the heart of it. Despite a similar desire to put players in the zone, Thumper and Tetris Effect diverge in their approach to encouragement. Thumper is purposefully alien and oppressive in its soundtrack and psychedelic, biomechanically-inspired graphics. Tetris Effect, on the other hand, is tremendously welcoming. Like Ben Kuchera has written, the approach of Tetris Effect removes friction between the player and the game. Thumper is after something similar, but when the friction comes it is sudden, intense, and punishing. If you fail to respond to its audiovisual cues in a way that is tightly coupled to the game’s rails, it drops you back at the start of a level. In between, your chromium space beetle explodes. You know, the space beetle that you pilot. The one that pulses from within and reflects from without. Damn, I love that space beetle.

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Gif: This beetle.

The more open, emergent character of Tetris gameplay is no less absorbing than the on rails experience of Thumper. This is not only true of Tetris Effect, but of most tetris games– hence, the title of this most recent iteration. The concept of the “Tetris effect” is that playing prolonged sessions with games that invoke patterns causes the perception of like patterns to bleed over into other activities. People talk about the effect manifesting as they imagine how different objects like firewood or items on store shelves could be stacked together. Others may visualize falling tetrominos after prolonged play sessions. Enhance, the studio behind Tetris Effect, even went as far as to produce a mini-documentary about it.

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Tetris Effect, particularly in VR, is designed to encourage this experience through immersion in a world responsive to, well, tetris. The environment of the game is responsive to the movements of tetrominos and the lines you clear. Within VR, everything that you see and hear becomes directly linked to the actions of play. This is what is most novel about Tetris Effect - the intentional design of not just the game of Tetris, but the environment in which Tetris is played.

This environment is mesmerizing, but it has its flaws. To sound a critical note in harmony with Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, it’s a shame that these environments sometimes manifest an exoticizing gaze that plays on images of more “natural” cultures. With some few exceptions, the most human elements of the environments of Tetris Effect invoke indigenous peoples. This playes on mythic imaginaries that link together indigeneity and closeness to nature. That the designers of Tetris Effect utilize this connection in their efforts to redesign the experience of tetris is disappointing. It connects popular theorizing around the tetris effect and images of more natural or ritualistic states of mind. Ironically, for me and some other players (like my partner) this breaks immersion in the game. Instead of focusing in, there’s a twinge of, “wait, what kind of myth is being invoked here?”

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In the scope of the game, these environments (namely “Ritual Passion,” “Spirit Canyon,” and “Hula Soul”) may be exceptions. But they are revealing exceptions that show how the game’s designers think about the environment of the game and the experience they’re trying to evoke. The thing is, while they got so much correct, they missed an obvious point: playing tetris isn’t about a return to a natural state. Instead, it’s an interface, one that plays out between a player’s attention and the game, unfolding in motion and interaction. When the game really fine-tunes that interaction, removing friction from it, it shines. The best moments from the game feel more like a simulated collaboration than something fictitiously “natural.”

It’s still surprising to me that, of the two games, it’s Thumper that gets this most consistently right. In its pulsing psychedelic field, its kelp-like structures have a chromium gleam. Sparse rhythms foreshadow more complex ones, creating a sense of musical and visual velocity. The only thing close to human figures are the nightmarish, gargantuan faces on world bosses. In VR, those tower over the rail, so massive that I have to turn my head upwards to face them. Throwing rhythms literally into their teeth is viscerally satisfying. The environment of Thumper is as constant and singularly thematic as its gameplay, but its imagery can be marvelous in its defiance of tropes.

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At its best, Tetris Effect rides tropes to hit dizzying heights. It pulls you from dark oceanic depths to pulsating bioluminescent flurries, or out of a launch bay alongside an orbiting satellite. The scale of these transformations is grand, and it’s incredible that Tetris Effect provides the feeling that the player is, as mediated through the play of tetris, their conductor. That’s where Tetris Effect succeeds as a new experience in VR and in games, in general. Best of all, it responds to you as you play it, fast or slow, chasing a leaderboard or floating in its media. And that’s what will keep me playing it on a flat screen, with big over ear headphones, or in VR. After all, how could I resist? It’s just Tetris.

-Don

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