I’m only about halfway through about a half-dozen different video games at the moment, but I cannot stop playing Tetris Effect, a reimagining of the classic puzzle game for the PS4 from Rez Infinite and Lumines creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. So much so that, after some long sessions with the game this past weekend, I found myself experiencing the titular hypnagogic phenomenon: when I closed my eyes on Sunday evening, I was seeing the game’s signature tetrominos falling into place.
The game is incredible, sure, but I think something else is at work here, too. More than any other game this year, Tetris Effect feels like an escape, in the purest and most enjoyable sense of the word. And not just an escape from current events and the news cycle, or from work and daily drudgery, but an escape from the world of online game culture that threatens to swallow up a title like Tetris Effect and render it irrelevant in mere days or weeks, as is prone to happen to games not featuring firearms or cinematic production values.
Modern video games, of both the online and the meaty single-player narrative variety, seem to arrive, blow up, and then fade away at an ever-faster rate these days. Whether it’s the new Spider-Man game or the just-released battle royale mode in the latest Call of Duty or Rockstar’s massive open-world Western epic Red Dead Redemption 2, it can feel like taking a break from your PlayStation or Xbox for just a few days might as well be abandoning the hobby for good. And if you’re a Fortnite fan, well forget about keeping up with that, unless you want to sink countless hours into the game seemingly every day.
It feels like games are getting more dense, requiring more time investment to the point of it becoming a sense of pride in among some players to devote themselves entirely to a new release at launch. Red Dead Redemption 2 is particularly emblematic of this trend of unsatiated, nonstop game binging that we all seem to participate in nowadays, with the viral social media a testament to how fast and eagerly we unearth a game’s secrets and share them immediately with the world.
Even South Park got in the joke, dedicated subplots and a comically indulgent amount of references over its last two episodes to just how many hours the residents of the small Colorado town were spending in the game’s virtual 19th century slice of the American South. A recent post on the excellent r/relationships subreddit detailing a 24-year-old woman whose boyfriend was spending a dangerously large amount of time playing the game felt especially relatable, if not a hilarious snapshot of the moment.
All of this is exactly why the newest iteration of Tetris is the perfect game for 2018. It only demands of you small segments of your free time — each session may last a few minutes, and only more if you’re in marathon mode or chugging through the game’s new “journey” mode. It’s also a game pleasantly devoid of cultural references, narrative that can be spoiled, and mechanisms that demand you sink as much time as humanely into achieving virtual goals.
Sure, it does have high scores and letter grades, as well as some unlockable avatars and music tracks. But Tetris Effect feels like a video game in the way the art form was originally conceived: as a way to shut out the outside world and focus, for just a few sweet minutes at least, on the task at hand — and not necessarily like a second job or a series of to-do lists. Tetris Effect also has the benefit of featuring a killer soundtrack and art design that make each of its stages a dynamic, interactive audio-visual experience, if you’re okay with a few moments of sensory overload. (You can tailor the intensity of the music and visual effects if you like in the settings.)
Last weekend, when Tetris Effect first hit the PlayStation Store, I picked it up despite its steep $40 price tag predominantly based on the strong reviews it was getting, and of the excellent trailer and a few Twitter videos showing off the music and visuals. Come Sunday night, I was enthralled by the game. I had put down Red Dead Redemption 2, stopped grinding out milestones in Destiny 2, and couldn’t help but sink in rewarding, two- to three-hour Tetris sessions throughout those initial post-launch days.
One of the best parts of the game though is the knowledge that I’m not missing out on anything by putting it down, and that no matter the conversation swirling about it on forums and social media, Tetris Effect will always be accessible and reliably fun when I pick it back up again. There may be a bit of nostalgia at play — though I was never a big Tetris fan, sinking back into the familiar zone of geometric matching does conjure feelings of my first puzzle game experiences on the Game Boy.
But Tetris Effect pushes past nostalgia and achieves something novel: it’s made seemingly anachronistic game design feel fresh again, by appealing to what makes the original Tetris great and combining with what so many of us, including those disillusioned or uninterested in the demanding video games of today, sorely need right now from such a product. It doing so, developer Enhance and Mizuguchi have made the best version of Tetris — here in 2018 when it has to compete with photorealistic simulations of the American frontier — that we’ve ever had.