Even to those with no interest in the world of video games, the name Tetris is perhaps well-known, owing to the engrossing pass-time game involving the arrangement of falling bricks. The biographical drama film “Tetris,” streaming on Apple TV+, tells the surprisingly convoluted tale behind the origin of the fairly simple video game. The film actively tries to honor the roots of gaming, often turning real-life visuals into 8-bit-styled assets while also maintaining the tones of danger and thrill that loomed large over the central characters. Although some of the greater connections that it tries to make do not work out, “Tetris” is fairly entertaining in its spy-thriller parts.
‘Tetris’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
“Tetris” begins in 1988, when Henk Rogers, a videogame and software developer, first came across a new game at the Consumer Electronics Show. While Henk was trying to sell games and products for his own company, Bullet-Proof Software, he noticed the new game titled Tetris to be immensely addictive among users and workers present at the exhibition. Trying it out himself, Henk realized the potential of the never-ending puzzle game and wanted to be a part of the huge business that it could make. Learning that the global distributor rights were bought by the UK’s Mirrorsoft publishing company, he bought the rights to sell Tetris in Japan for personal computers, videogame consoles, and arcade machines. In order to pay for this highly expensive project, Henk readily traded his house in exchange for a bank loan, confident that he would be able to make a huge business from the game. The first obstacle struck when the CEO of Mirrorsoft, Kevin Maxwell, called him up to inform him that he was unwilling to let Henk have the arcade rights for the game and that he had not really signed the deal they had made. Realizing that he could either have PC and console rights or none at all, Henk agreed to Maxwell’s terms.
Just like many other developers and sellers in the software business at the time, Henk Rogers’ plan was also to get hold of the rights to Tetris and sell them off to some big publishers in the West. In the case of Henk, a massive player was sitting very close by since he was living in Japan with his family at the time, and the player in question was Nintendo. After managing to meet with Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, Henk agreed to a deal to sell all rights for publishing Tetris to Nintendo. Soon enough, he was given access to a top-secret product in the United States, where Nintendo was developing the Game Boy handheld video game device. The developers here were thrilled to see Henk’s Tetris run on the new machine and could immediately think of the huge profits it would fetch them if the Game Boy was released with Tetris on it. Nintendo now wanted Henk to secure rights for publishing the game on handheld devices, but the fact that handheld gaming itself was a new category meant that there was nobody with the license for Tetris in this regard. This also meant that Henk Rogers now had to go past the Iron Curtain and meet with the developer of Tetris himself, Alexey Pajitnov, in the USSR.
Who Were The Different Foreign Publishers Wanting To Get Rights For Tetris?
The Soviet Union never had a video game industry, as it was always fundamentally skeptical about such art forms that required high-end technology and machinery to run. When the Tetris game first left the country on floppy disks, it quickly caught the attention of game developers and publishers, who all realized the business potential of it. Irrespective of the fact that the USSR did not have any gaming industry, some sought to buy the rights for the game to be released in international markets. Chief among them was Robert Stein, a businessman who was already in the trade of acquiring software rights from Eastern Europe and selling them to publishers in the West. It was Stein who had directly made a deal for the rights to Tetris with the developer, Alexey Pajitnov, and this included the rights to distribute the game for PC and gaming consoles. As soon as he believed he had obtained the rights, Stein then approached the established Mirrorsoft company in the UK, with whom he had previously worked.
Mirrorsoft was headed by the Maxwell family corporation, which was by then the owner of Mirror Group Newspapers and various other publications in the UK. Even though the two sides, Mirrorsoft and Stein, had a history of working together, both were not satisfied with this history. Robert Stein was still owed money in the form of royalties that had been promised by Mirrorsoft CEO Kevin Maxwell and his father, Robert. On the other side, the shrewd corporate setup kept wondering why they needed Stein in the middle, and Kevin instead wanted to directly approach video game developers and get deals done without anyone in the middle. Owing to this tension between the two sides and the fact that both were keen on getting the rights to distribute Tetris for handheld video game consoles (since Nintendo rivals Atari were also developing their own at the time), both Kevin Maxwell and Robert Stein ended up going to the USSR to meet with the sellers at the same time, without informing each other about it.
On the other side was Henk Rogers, a Dutch citizen who grew up in the United States and was at the time living in Japan with his wife and children. Henk always kept a keen interest in video games and software in general, and he was also running his own company called Bullet-Proof Software. When Henk first acquired the rights for the distribution of Tetris in Japan, he was very particular about getting it on all platforms. He was very particular about including arcade machines, which bring in instant money and to a greater extent than PCs or consoles, which were comparatively still very limited in number. However, when Kevin informed him about the cancellation of the arcade deal, Henk knew that his best bet was his agreement with Nintendo. As things panned out, he got the opportunity to cut a deal with the Soviet owners with regard to the handheld gaming console rights. Henk has been portrayed as a supremely optimistic individual who would push to any limit to get his work done. After all, he had staked his entire house and the lives of his family on the line in order to earn this big money, and he, therefore, does not even mind going over to the dangerously unwelcoming country of the USSR. Henk is typically presented as an American salesman, who one can never say no to, and this comparison is directly drawn in the dialogues in “Tetris” itself.
A moment arrives, starting off the main drama in the film, when all three of these sides go to Moscow to deal with the Soviet Elektronorgtechnica, or Elorg, which was the country’s centrally controlled organization to look after the foreign trade of software. On one side was Robert Stein, still working with Mirrorsoft, who had just learned from Henk that there was a sudden demand for handheld rights for Tetris as well. Since Nintendo and their direct rivals Atari were both developing handheld gaming devices at the time, both sides needed the rights to Tetris, and while the first appointed Henk to do their bidding, Atari seemed to team up with Mirrorsoft. The Maxwells, therefore, got hold of Robert Stein to do the dealing for these rights with the Soviets since Stein was the one who had sold them the previous rights as well. However, with a seeming change in control of the company from father to son, i.e., from Robert to Kevin, there was also a clear intention to remove Stein as the middleman. Therefore, Kevin Maxwell himself also reached Moscow to sign a new deal for the distribution of Tetris, including all gaming platforms. Lastly, there was Henk, who wanted to sign the worldwide handheld rights since he believed he had all the other platform rights for the Japanese market. Knowing that he had the backing of Nintendo, if only financially, Henk took a flight to Moscow, very well aware that his American origin would be taken very negatively and that nobody could ensure his safety behind the Iron Curtain.
How Was The Ussr An Obstruction In The Way Of Foreign Publishers?
Despite the two foreign distributors and one publisher themselves reaching Moscow to strike up a deal for Tetris, the first and ultimate problem was to figure out who the real owner of the software was. Because of the governmental rules and ideologies in the USSR, the developer of the game, Alexey Pajitnov, was not one to be considered its owner. The communist state ensured that technological facilities, like fax machines, international telephone lines, and, obviously, computers, were only available at state-controlled places and not at personal homes. Alexey, who was a worker at the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, had actually developed the game during his free time during work hours. Since the software had been developed at the state facility, its ownership was also considered to be that of the state itself. Added to this was the fact that Soviet copyrighting rules did not allow any one individual to be the owner of intellectual property since such a thing was a staple of capitalist economies. Therefore, it was the Soviet state that owned the right to sell Tetris to any buyers outside the country.
However, the 1980s were an unstable time for the USSR and the communist government, too, with a failing economy and rising dissent among citizens. Since stepping into the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party, and therefore the role of leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev had been opening up to the idea of foreign trade. Therefore, when the three parties intending to sign a deal for the global ownership of Tetris showed up, the representatives at Elorg were ready to have a discussion. The main characters presented in “Tetris” from the Soviet side are Nikolai Belikov, the director of Elorg, and Valentin Trifonov, a high-ranking politician in the Communist government. Although the two belong to the same side, there is a stark difference shown between the two with regard to their intentions. Being in charge at Elorg, Belikov wanted the best deal to be struck for the rights to Tetris so that his nation and government would benefit from it. Belikov tried to ensure that he played all three parties to get the best offer from either one of them. Although the director knew that Stein had bought the rights to the game on PC, he was not aware of the large profits that were being made through the console versions. This was because Stein and Mirrorsoft had cleverly found a legal way to treat PCs and gaming consoles as the same thing according to their contract, and Belikov wanted to change this right away. With the help of Henk, he managed to make Stein sign a new deal for the PC version of the game and change the definition of PC on the contract to keep consoles out. He then listened to both the offers of Henk and Kevin Maxwell in order to see who offered more money for the game.
However, it was Valentin Trifonov who was on a completely different course of action altogether. Knowing that the Communist Party was struggling and that the USSR would fall sometime in the near future, Trifonov wanted to fill his own pockets with wealth as long as he could. Making use of his powers, since Trifonov seemed to have strong ties with the state security KGB as well, the politician wanted to make hefty money through the Tetris deal. The owner of Mirrorsoft, Robert Maxwell, had acquaintance with Gorbachev through his business dealings and therefore got acquainted with Trifonov as well. It was now Robert who agreed to pay Trifonov a sum of $400,000 personally as a bribe to ensure that Mirrorsoft was given the rights to Tetris for the lucrative handheld platform. As was expected, Trifonov then used his influence and hierarchy to overrule Belikov’s decision over the sale of Tetris and ensure that a deal was made with Mirrorsoft. Kevin Maxwell, who saw this deal through, had no idea that his father had bribed the Soviet politician, and he and Belikov signed a deal stating his company would have the publishing rights for Tetris globally in exchange for $1 million, which was to be paid within a week of this contract being signed.
‘Tetris’ Ending Explained: How Did The Tetris Company Come Into Being?
Although Henk Rogers returned to his home and family in Japan with no hope for the future, the contacts he had made in the Soviet Union believed in him. By now, Belikov had guessed what had happened, and through the developer Alexey Pajitnov, he sent Henk evidence of the fact that the deal between Elorg and Mirrorsoft was actually just a letter of intent, which was to expire if the 1 million dollars were not paid within a week. Using this evidence, Henk convinced the higher-ups at Nintendo to take the risk of going to Moscow together and signing a proper deal for the publishing rights for Tetris on handheld devices. On the other side, Kevin Maxwell was still confused about why their company had not paid the promised money yet, unaware of the fact that his father, Robert, was involved in tremendous financial fraud and that Mirrorsoft actually did not have enough funds at the time. This was also the reason why they had not paid any of the royalty fees to Robert Stein. Robert Maxwell was confident that he could make a direct deal with Mikhail Gorbachev, saying that they would keep the capitalist practice of paying money for something out of the deal and instead just exchange the IP of Tetris for the publishing rights for the Collier’s Encyclopedia. With his country and people suffering from financial distress, Gorbachev declined such an offer. Taking advantage of this situation, Henk Rogers and Nintendo agreed on a deal with Elorg for Tetris in exchange for $500,000 and 50 cents for every copy of the game sold.
Although Henk had succeeded in signing the dream deal, he and the rest of the Nintendo officials were not safe owing to the fact that Trifonov and the KGB were against them. A cat-and-mouse chase takes place at the end of “Tetris,” with Henk and his team finally managing to fly out of the USSR just in time. At this time, a KGB spy named Sasha, who had been appointed to keep an eye on Henk, got to know of Trifonov’s corruption and plans for personal monetary benefits. Being a dedicated worker of the Soviet Republic, she too turned against the man, and contacting the General Secretary himself, she managed to get Trifonov arrested for his crimes against the state. While the deal for Tetris had been finally signed, the game’s developer, Alexey Pajitnov, did not get a single dime from it owing to the ownership rules of the country. The engineer was instead made to face a lot of hardships by the KGB under the influence of Trifonov. It was only after the fall of the USSR in 1991 that he decided to move to San Francisco in the United States, and he subsequently met with Henk Rogers, who, too, had moved to the country with his own family. It was in 1996 that the two finally came together to start The Tetris Company, which got back the rights for the distribution and publication of the popular video game from Nintendo and continues to be the owner of the game today.
Is ‘Tetris’ The Film Based On Real Events?
“Tetris” makes it clear from the very beginning that it is indeed based on real events that took place in the 1980s. In fact, both Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov, as well as Henk’s daughter Maya, happen to be part of the team of executive producers for the film. Most of the events, if not all, are based on what actually happened regarding the sale of the highly popular video game. As far as the characters are concerned, all except for the main villain, Valentin Trifonov, were real people involved in the whole matter. The film ends with photographs of the real men, starting with Henk and Alexey, who continue to be great friends and co-owners of their company.
In 2014, they appointed Maya Rogers as the new CEO of The Tetris Company, which still continues to license the game for each and every platform. Robert Stein continued to license video games, while Mirrorsoft crashed badly with the fall of the Maxwells. Robert Maxwell was found to have stolen $900 million from his corporation’s pension funds and had also gathered debts of more than $5 billion. The man passed away in 1991 under mysterious circumstances, following which his son Kevin was arrested too. While the Maxwell Corporation ceased to exist on one side, Tetris as a videogame continues to be one of the most popular video games ever made, with more than half a billion sold copies.