We all love a good tragedy.
That’s why Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and MacBeth are the most famous of all Shakespearean plays. That’s also why we love a good horror or romantic comedy flick that doesn’t end with a “happily ever after”. After all, life doesn’t always work out. Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we fail.
The story that Tetris tells is a tragedy.
At first glance, you’d assume that a game like Tetris doesn’t actually have a proper ending at all. No endgame right? Organizing neverending blocks that fall with increasing speed is an impossible task to complete — all you can do is try your hardest. Ultimately though, the endgame that Tetris does offer is inevitable failure. No matter how hard you try, no matter how many hours you log, and no matter how good you get at stacking blocks, eventually the game will beat you. It ends as a tragedy. And even to this day, when people boot up their NES to play Tetris, they know how it’s going to end.
I know plenty of people who are filled with glee at the thought of beating their high score in Tetris, but I’ve never been one of those people. But games that use this narrative template — whether they’re high score puzzlers, endless runners, procedurally-generated arcade shooters, even popular iterations of these genres like Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run – have never really been able to hold my attention for more than a few minutes.
Even as a young man, the idea of collecting points as a reward unto itself in videogames has never given me much satisfaction. For my pre-adolescent self and my friends, it was always about beating each other and achieving those highly-desired bragging rights. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. on my SNES via the collection Super Mario All-Stars and laughing at how arbitrary the points in the upper left hand corner of the screen seemed. “Why would I need points to tell me how good I am doing? How fleeting!” Mario had an end game after all and all I wanted to do was slide down the flagpole at the end. I didn’t care about personal records. I just wanted to see those credits roll. I just wanted to win.
Something about the arbitrary feeling of collecting points or coins always got on my nerves, for some reason I could never quite isolate — that is until I played a little iOS puzzle game called 10000000. If you knew how many hours I have logged playing this game in the past few weeks, you might say that my desire for beating high scores in puzzle games has grown significantly over the years. When I first heard about the game, I laughed at the impracticality of the name, double-checking the number of zeroes multiple times as I searched for it in the App Store. ”Indie developers are too clever for their own good,” I thought to myself.
At its core, 10000000 is a dungeon-crawling puzzle game — a streamlined take on Puzzle Quest that is perhaps not so unlike many other puzzlers out there: there are icons to be matched, combos to be made, and serviceable graphics to wade through. There is, however, one big difference that separates 10000000 from most puzzle games, referenced right there in the title. It has an end game. The entire game is built around it: 10000000.
After achieving less than 1000 points on my first run-through of the game, it became clear that the developer must have chosen the game’s title as an arbitrary way of mocking its players. 10000000? Seriously? I never really had any serious plans of getting there. Not only did I not have the mental dexterity for puzzle games, I also didn’t have the patience necessary to even want to get that far in a game like this. But every day I’d swipe past that app on my phone and find its name silently taunting me. What was the point of including an ending in your game, but making it nearly impossible to achieve? Perhaps that is what true despair really is: a glimpse of the end — the victory — without the means to actually get there. False hope.
But as I continued to make my way through the game, I found that the game wasn’t about to just leave me in the dust. As I leveled up, upgraded my weapons, and honed my puzzling strategies, 10000000 held my hand through the increasing challenges of dexterity and mental endurance. It didn’t leave me to my own devices. I felt like I was actually getting better, even while the enemies got more and more difficult. There were small achievements and accolades along the way, all spurring me on to continue playing and get better. It was almost as if the game wanted me to win.
Before falling asleep I’d lie in bed and go for a few quick playthroughs, only satisfied to turn it off when I had made some substantial progress. I’d make a dungeon run when I was on work breaks, while my food was cooking, and pretty much whenever else I had two thumbs to spare. It wasn’t long before it became quite clear to me that 10000000 wasn’t just a high score. It was a final boss that I had to beat, a race that had to be finished, a story that I wanted to see the final conclusion of.
Now three weeks in, when I open up the game on my phone and see my personal record sitting right around 6000000, I know that I have every intention of crossing the finish line. Let me just say, it feels really good.
Jonathan Blow once said that every game is teaching you something about life. A lot of times they aren’t always lessons we like to admit that we are inadvertently learning. But 10000000 has been teaching me that knowing the endgame — knowing the nature of the story — changes how you play. When there is a foreseeable goal, a coming victory, a hope — it changes everything. It changes what you value, where you find meaning, your motivation for reaching that end, and everything in between.
The past few years of my life have been a time of constant transition, rife with clouded visions of the future and an uneasiness about where I am. There have been times when I’ve lost sight of the goals in my life — lost sight of what my life was really meant to be about and who I was supposed to be. There’ve been times when the endgame seems so distant and unlikely that I’ve lost sight of it. There have been times when my life has felt like a game of Tetris. Maybe sometimes life does bear more resemblance to Tetris than it does to 10000000. But if I had to pick a life to live for myself, I know which I would choose.