Not long ago, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the legendary game designer behind musical classics Rez and Lumines, was on vacation with his family in Hawaii. When he looked out the window of his Airbnb, his view was dominated by a lush, green golf course. As he stared outside, he couldn’t help but see very specific shapes in the grass. “I found a tetromino in the golf course,” he says.
What Mizuguchi experienced is something known as “the Tetris effect,” a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to invade their thoughts. It’s named after the classic puzzle game, where falling blocks have been to known to enter players’ dreams if they play too much. Tetris Effect also happens to be the name of Mizuguchi’s next game.
Tetris Effect launches on November 9th on the PS4, and it mashes the block-falling puzzle game with Mizuguchi’s trademark synthesis of zen-like gameplay and music. It’s also a game that the designer has been thinking about for some time. Mizuguchi says he grew up playing Tetris in Tokyo arcades, and when Sony first announced the PSP back in 2004, he thought it would be the perfect platform for a musical take on the game. Unfortunately, licensing issues meant he couldn’t make Tetris, so he went ahead and made his own block-falling game Lumines.
But he didn’t stop thinking of tetrominoes.
Over the years, Mizuguchi became close friends with Henk Rogers, founder of the Tetris Company. Eventually, Rogers became interested in letting the Lumines creator explore Tetris, sorting out a licensing deal that allowed development to begin. In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect fit. Tetris is known for creating a zen-like experience where players stop thinking and just react. Some call it being in “the zone.” It’s a feeling Mizuguchi has been chasing with his most iconic games; syncing up with the music in Lumines creates a similar state of mind, as does losing yourself to the abstract shooter Rez.
That feeling, or state, is already possible in Tetris, of course, so Mizuguchi’s goal was to enhance it. He likens it to architecture: the foundation was already in place, he just needed to add some flourishes. “Tetris has this really strong construction,” he explains. “If we can amplify that, and add something — the sound and the visual magic — in an interactive process, then you can feel more.”
Tetris Effect is a surprisingly technologically advanced game, considering it’s based on a title that’s more than three decades old and was especially popular on the original monochrome Game Boy. It supports 4K visuals with advanced particle effects that the developer says are pushing the limits of what the PS4 can handle. The result is a kaleidoscopic effect that can feel all-encompassing at times. You’re surrounded by trippy sounds and visuals while you try to match up blocks.
“When you’re in VR, you’re blocking out the rest of the world.”
The game also supports PlayStation VR. Mizuguchi has already toyed with virtual reality with the “Area X” section of Rez Infinite, which created a beautiful, free-roaming space for players to explore. While VR hasn’t necessarily taken off like many expected it would, it’s a platform that works particularly well for the games the designer makes. “Putting on the VR helmet, usually, that’s a negative. But we wanted to turn that into a positive,” explains Tetris Effect producer Mark MacDonald. “You’re not staring at your phone. You’re not being bothered by all of the normal stuff. When you’re in VR, you’re blocking out the rest of the world. And as a game that’s designed around having you get out of your head, relax for a bit, and escape, that’s a huge plus.”
Tetris Effect is a game that can be hard to explain. Even after watching a trailer, you probably won’t fully grasp how clearing away columns of blocks can be an emotional journey. Instead, the developers are releasing a limited-time demo of the game to let players experience it as a teaser. The demo launches tomorrow, and you’ll be able to play it until November 5th before the game’s full release on the 9th.
Earlier this month, Mizuguchi and MacDonald were in Portland at the Classic Tetris World Championship, where a 16-year-old named Joseph Saelee put on a shocking performance, defeating seven-time champion Jonas Neubauer to take the title. A clip of his performance went viral. You can see from the determination on his face that Saelee is in that “zone,” acting instinctively as he racks up an impossibly high score. At one point, Neubauer can’t help but clap for the dominating show his competitor is putting on. The crowd went wild.
“It was what we hoped Tetris Effect would be,” says MacDonald of the event. “People were getting really emotional.”
“I almost cried,” adds Mizuguchi.