Playing to Lose
3 February, 2013
How competitive Tetris players approach an unwinnable game
This article was first published in The Magazine, Issue 7.
“Three, two, one, GO!” I yell, and Ben Mullen and Bo Steil are off, playing a game of Tetris on their NES consoles almost faster than I can follow. I have to stay focused, as I’m refereeing the match at the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship as a volunteer. My own history with Tetris involves flop sweat and throwing the controller in frustration; now my task is to observe pairs of Tetris players as they zip through the game. It takes all of my concentration to monitor the action — and I’m not even playing.1
Dual ironies compete. Mullen and Steil are tight friends in the competitive Tetris community, although I didn’t know that as I watched them last September. They also rank among the top NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Tetris players in the world. Mullen chooses to begin play on level 18, the highest allowable starting point.2 At “GO!” the pair press START on their NES game controllers — which are nearly as old as they are3 — while a crowd looks on, clustered behind a line of blue masking tape on the concrete floor of the Oregon Convention Center.
Neither competitor can actually win. NES Tetris cannot be defeated, even in a so-called “max-out” game, in which the top possible score of 999,999 points is achieved. Every game ends with a player topping out and losing.4 Yet the best possible loss is exactly what these men seek, though each hope to win the Championship first.
Mullen, a 30-year-old college advisor from Minnesota, takes the first game with 308,237 points.5 Steil tops out at 253,539 points, and the thrift-store CRT television connected to his NES shows an end-game animation. I put on my best referee voice: “Good game, guys!” Neither man smiles. They hardly look at each other.
Steil wins the second game, forcing a third game as a tiebreaker. In that final game, Mullen tops out, and his frustration is obvious. He runs his hands through his shaggy brown hair and frowns, fiddling with his controller as Steil quietly slams tetrominoes into place.6 Steil keeps an eye on the score box, and drops his controller the instant he beats Mullen’s score.
I record the results, pass them to the head referee, and Steil crosses the blue-taped line as a quarterfinalist. He is eliminated early in the next round.
Mullen’s loss stings. He was the number three seed in a field of 50, and this is his third year failing to win the Championship. Victory for Mullen always seems just out of reach. As he says in the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, “The one trick to training [at] Tetris is to be always almost dead.”
Mullen’s gameplay reflects his philosophy, with his stack of tetrominoes often showing gaps and rising dangerously high, only to be knocked down in the nick of time. After decades of gameplay7, he has come within seconds of a perfect, 999,999-point max-out game nine times8, but perennially scores short just one “tetris” of a perfect score. (In one painfully memorable instance, he topped out at 996,500 points.)9
Mullen and his wife, Mary, return to Minnesota after the loss on September 30. But Mullen doesn’t quit. At home he plays what he calls “Rage Tetris,” inspired by frustration.10 Exactly one week after his Championship loss, Mullen posts a photo on Facebook: It shows the NES Tetris high score screen, revealing that BEN M has achieved 999,999 points.
This is only the seventh time anyone in the world has achieved this feat11, and it earns him the #2 global rank, just behind Matt Buco.12 Competitor-slash-friend Buco jokes, “Fake…you are only allowed within 1 tetris [of winning]. Nice job Ben!” To celebrate the max out, Mary gave Ben a bottle of Crown Royal and two cans of Pepsi Max.13
Bo Steil spends his days in a 3M factory making the same blue masking tape that separated him from the crowd at the Tetris Championship. Each spool is a model of orderly precision. Steil, 31, says that Tetris is always on his mind, though he claims that his day job indicates a certain lack of ambition. “I’m the guy that everyone meets and says, ‘What the heck are you wasting your time working here for?'”
It’s clear that Steil has at least one abiding ambition: Tetris mastery. Steil quit college two classes short of a bachelor’s degree, and his high school career was mixed, as he didn’t bother to do homework. “In algebra, I’d actually sit and play Tetris on my TI-83 calculator during the majority of class. I was the #1 calculator Tetris player in the school.” He currently ranks #13 in the world, and plays every evening in an attempt to max out.
Steil’s quest for Tetris supremacy started more than a decade ago. He began taking Tetris seriously in 2000, and his goal was to clear as many lines as possible.14 He set a personal record of 292 lines in 2001 (though he didn’t verify the record with Twin Galaxies, the de facto video game high score arbiters) and signed his own Tetris cartridge in victory. He then hung up his controller.
In 2008, Steil saw the documentary King of Kong and decided to check with Twin Galaxies to see if his unofficial lines record had been broken. He discovered that Ben Mullen had bested him, putting up a record of 296 lines. Discouraged, Steil didn’t attempt to beat Mullen’s record.15
But then in May 2012, Steil went to an Ecstasy of Order screening in Minneapolis. Mullen was there to introduce the movie and to host a mini-tournament beforehand. Steil met Mullen for the first time when they played a match together, which was Steil’s first game of Tetris since about 2001. Steil was shocked by Mullen’s ability to play smoothly on the high levels, and Mullen won that game. But Steil proceeded to beat all the other entrants, earning him free tickets to the show.
The men became friends after discovering they lived an hour’s drive apart and that they had independently sought the same Tetris lines record for more than a decade. Just four months after that first meeting, Steil had upped his game enough to eliminate Mullen in Championship play.
Steil often starts his Tetris training sessions around 1 a.m. He continues until as late as 5 a.m., then sleeps before it’s time to work in the blue tape factory. He is driven, and his rise to Tetris prominence has come fast, although it’s a lonely game. “It is a battle with yourself. That’s who you play with over and over,” he told me. It’s rare that he has the opportunity to interact with other players in person.
The Lonely Tetris Masters
NES Tetris is a one-player game, and its masters are willing to put in long hours, typically for years, playing the game in solitude. Steil said, “The overwhelming time is spent by yourself, alone in the dark, game after game, minute after minute, hour after hour.” Steil likes to play with a second TV on, while Mullen prefers music.16
Despite — or perhaps because of — the intrinsically solitary nature of their game, Tetris masters have formed a community online. All the top players are Facebook friends, and many have become friends in daily life. This leads to friends constantly both competing against and encouraging each other.
Steil explains that “any time someone passes you in score, you are happy for them and ticked at the same time. That’s usually when I play the worst, when I’m playing like I need to get a score.” He says his games go much better if he just sits back and lets them come. Steil’s friendship with Mullen is textured by competition and their shared quest to max out, which each had hoped to achieve before the other. After Mullen maxed out, Steil recalls his friend told him that “he was happy to get it out of the way. Now he can truly cheer me on.”
This is the core of competitive Tetris: a group of friends who all want to win, but feel bad about beating each other. Steil told me he didn’t want to play Mullen at the Championship (and indeed I had no idea the players knew each other at the time), but the luck of the draw pitted him against his closest friend in the community. The fact that Steil was eliminated in the quarterfinals (making him #8 in the Championship overall) was bittersweet: Steil had arrived as a serious player, but he got there by beating his friend.
Minor Successes and Monumental Failures
When Steil achieved his current high score of 889,131 points (and 222 lines) in October of 2012, it felt like a loss. Despite being Steil’s best game to date, it represented a failure to reach the perfection of a max out. When he posted the score on Facebook for his Tetris friends to see, he wrote, “Another new high score, but what a choke job at 222 [lines]. Each new high score is a minor success as well as a monumental failure.”
This attitude pervades competitive Tetris, and it highlights the perverse aspect that the best game is still a loss.17 Faced with this harsh reality, NES Tetris players have devised ways to compete (the Championship), milestones to achieve (max outs and high numbers of lines per game), and ways to measure performance (max outs achieved starting at higher levels are more difficult due to the game’s speed). Fundamentally, however, players compete against themselves and lose every time.18
After Mullen maxed out, I asked him how it felt. He had four answers. “Great, because it’s so hard to do. Liberating, because now I can play for fun. Relieving, because so many great players are fighting for position all the time. Bittersweet, because the chase is now over.” It’s instructive that Mullen feels he can only now “play for fun”; he has the attitude of a professional athlete who has reached a level of mastery in a sport and can look again at what drew him to it in the first place.
After maxing out NES Tetris, Mullen turned his attention to its sibling: Tengen Tetris, an alternate version of the game that was briefly on the market in 1989 before it was the subject of a legal battle. Tengen Tetris differs from NES Tetris — it has a multiplayer mode and a co-op mode, and most importantly it reaches a stable top speed. Unlike NES Tetris, which speeds up with every level, eventually breaking most players with the brutally fast level 29 “death screen,” Tengen Tetris tops out at a comparatively leisurely pace on level 17. This, combined with a score counter that flips over and restarts19 rather than stopping at 999,999, means that Tetris masters can play indefinitely, limited only by endurance.
On November 20, 2012, Steil decided to try his hand at a Tengen Tetris marathon. Tetris legend Thor Aackerlund (winner of the 1990 Nintendo World Championships) held the world record on the game, having scored 3.5 million points during a marathon session in 2010. Steil spent over four hours playing and scored 10.4 million points, shattering Aackerlund’s record.20 He stopped only because he had to go to work.
Steil is still actively pursuing an NES Tetris max out, playing with the same steady intensity that earned him a spot in the Championship. When he’s not playing NES Tetris, he plays Tengen, and he has begun playing in co-op mode with Mullen, simultaneously dropping pieces into a single gigantic well. With Tengen Tetris, the pair can finally play together and share their victory; Mullen says they plan to set the high score record for cooperative play. Despite this newfound sense of shared accomplishment, both men intend to compete in the 2013 Championship and “win” as best they can.
This article comes with Special Features.
Update, 29 August 2013: Bo Steil maxed out NES Tetris today, after months of effort. You can watch his 999,999-point performance on YouTube.
This article was originally published in The Magazine, Issue 7. It took me several months to report and write, and after its exclusive run in The Magazine, I had a choice: should I put it on my website for free, put it up for sale on Kindle/whatever, or leave it solely at The Magazine where some readers can’t access it? For lots of reasons I chose to make it free.
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What’s next? More articles in The Magazine, in Mental Floss, and beyond.
Do You Know the Coders of NES Tetris?
I’m working on a followup story, and have been searching for anyone on the team that coded NES Tetris. The Tetris masters I’ve been interviewing for all this time are curious about the process behind the creation of the NES version of the game. If you know anyone who might have a lead, please contact me so this bit of video game history can be recorded.
1. The game of Tetris, originally developed in 1984, sports blocks of four units in various shapes descending one unit at a time inexorably from the top to the bottom of the screen. The player moves blocks left or right and rotates them around their axis to fill holes in incomplete rows at the bottom. A filled row disappears, scoring points. The game speeds up over time, varying by version. A player loses when the screen fills with incomplete rows of blocks. In most versions, there is no way to win.↩
2. At the CTWC, players are allowed to start games of “A-Type” Tetris, played on vintage Nintendo hardware, at any point from levels 9 to 16, or on level 18. Why not level 17? 2012 CTWC organizer Adam Cornelius tells me and the other referees that “on level 17, the colors are kind of a mauve and violet and don’t stand out against the black background enough. All the TVs are different. It could cause a big disadvantage if one player had a lower-contrast TV. And level 17 is just really ugly.”↩
3. The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the US in 1985; NES Tetris in 1989. Both men were born in the 1980s.↩
4. In Tetris, “topping out” occurs when the stack of pieces reaches the top of the screen, ending the game.↩
5. For comparison’s sake, my best game of Tetris ever was around 50,000 points, and that involved a lot of screaming at the TV.↩
6. Top NES Tetris players often bring their own controllers to competitions, like athletes carrying their own bats or musicians their instruments. Mullen brought his own, but Steil used an onsite controller, since he had bought an NES only months earlier and its two included controllers weren’t great.↩
7. He began playing in 1989 but says he only got “serious” about Tetris around 1999.↩
8. In NES Tetris, the score counter stops at 999,999. The game does not. It is only possible to score 999,999 points at very high levels (typically level 29), making it a rare achievement. Because of its insane difficulty (and perhaps because it’s well known to most players), NES Tetris is the canonical Tetris used in the Classic Tetris World Championship.↩
9. Scoring a “tetris” means clearing four lines at once, only achievable by dropping a long bar vertically into a slot. This grants the player a huge score boost: 1200 points times one higher than the current level’s number (1200 × (level + 1)). Mullen refers to his one-tetris-away-from-a-perfect-score games as “one-aways.” For example, on March 7, 2012, he earned a 996,500 score on level 28 — that’s just one tetris away from a max out. His Facebook comment: “I have no words.”↩
10. Mullen explained in an email: “The most rage I ever felt in the game was the month after Matt Buco maxed out in January 2012. The rage allowed me to play more than normal, with more anger than normal, and with better outcomes than normal.”↩
11. Harry Hong was the first NES Tetris player with a documented max out, recorded in 2009.↩
14. Tetris tracks the number of lines cleared in addition to the player’s score. Separate records are maintained for lines and points.↩
16. Mullen said he listens to “’90s music or golden oldies,” and turns the Tetris music off — though he leaves the sound effects on (which he calls “the beeps”), so he can use them for feedback. Steil watches either sports or shows he can mostly ignore; he says it’s the only way he can still watch Dexter.↩
17. Mullen actually sees this as a positive feature of Tetris. He writes: “I love a game that doesn’t end with a silly celebration! Tetris is made perfectly this way; you play, you lose, you go to bed. In real life, basketball courts and football fields don’t tell how great they think you are after you do something good, you just do something good and pride yourself in it.”↩
18. What appeals to me most about these players is their unabashed pursuit of a series of white whales. When Mullen couldn’t win the Championship, he raged his way into a max out — a goal that had eluded him for years. Steil is only half a year into his quest for the max out; it could be days, months, or years before he achieves it, but he just keeps trying. For competitive Tetris players, record-setting success arrives in an instant, after a series of defeats that stretches over staggering lengths of time.↩
19. The Tengen Tetris score counter flips over to 100,000 rather than the more obvious 0, which makes keeping track of scores in the millions an exercise in arithmetic. Steil writes, “An [easy] way to look at it is first flip is a million, every other one after that is +900,000.”↩
20. No bathroom breaks or pauses are allowed, though Tengen Tetris does periodically pause itself between levels, showing statistics and counting up points, allowing the player a roughly half-minute respite to stretch his or her thumbs. Tengen players joke that it’s only a matter of time before someone attempts a marathon record while wearing a diaper.↩