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‘The Tetris Effect’ is a meditative salve for this savage world

Here’s how software engineer Garth Kidd defined the “Tetris effect” in his 1996 paper, “Possible future risk of virtual reality,” for The Risks Digest.

“Many people, after playing Tetris for more than an hour straight, report being plagued by after-images of the game for up to days afterwards, an ability to play the game in their head, and a tendency to identify everything in the world as being made of four squares and attempt to determine ‘where it fits in.'”

In the more than two decades since that term started kicking around (it was actually first coined a couple years earlier, in a Wired story), the game of Tetris has existed in many different shapes and sizes. But not one of those games has ever tried to capture the feeling that Kidd described. Until now.

The Tetris Effect, from Enhance (the folks behind Lumines Remastered), is a 2018 take on the planet’s most ubiquitous video game. Drenched in shifting neon lights that pulse along with ambient techno soundtrack, this is Tetris by way of… well… Lumines.

The stylistic similarities between the two are hard to ignore, though not in a bad way. Lumines is an entrancing Tetris-inspired puzzle game in which the falling blocks and swirling psychedelic backgrounds sync up around rhythmic interactions with the soundtrack. The Tetris Effect takes that vibe even further. 

In one stage, a pod of dolphins swims along underneath your field of falling blocks. Every time you clear a line, all five of the oceanbound mammals leap out of the water in unison. Another one opens on a desert scene and a line of marching camels stretching out to the horizon.

Your every act in The Tetris Effect produces a result. Move or rotate a tetromino and the soundtrack  responds. Clear a line and expect to be treated to a burst of color and another audio cue. In the desert stage, wiping out a line produces a burst of wind and a cloud of sand particles. Clear enough lines and the camera shifts to a higher angle, then an even higher one, and finally, a view from the surface of the moon.

Journey’s 27 stages are subdivided into smaller groups of three, four, and five. You “complete” a stage by clearing a certain number of lines, at which point you’re immediately punted to the next one. Once you clear an entire group of stages, a results screen delivers your numerical score along with a letter grade.

This is Tetris by way of Lumines.

In a neat twist, reaching tougher stages in The Tetris Effect doesn’t merely translate to “faster falling blocks.” The game’s speed fluctuates over time, in 10-line-clear increments. You might start out one stage feeling overwhelmed as blocks stream down at a breakneck place, only to hit that 10th line clear and see them immediately slow to a crawl.

The variable difficulty keeps you on your toes. High scores are the goal in Journey, but it’s tough to clear a full group of stages without failing, especially once you reach the later groups. If you do fail in the middle of a group, you can pick up at the stage you left off and keep going to clear that group and make your way to the next one. But your score suffers for those failures.

Separate from Journey is a group of “Effect” modes, a lengthy playlist offering different types of challenges. There’s a minor online component here: as you play and earn points, your profile levels up and unlocks music and avatar customization, the latter of which you’re able to show off online.

If Journey is where The Tetris Effect feels like a game, Effect is where it embraces more of a self-help vibe. The list of different Effect modes — each of which serves up a varying assortment of stages and rules — has a look and feel that wouldn’t be out of place in a meditation or binaural beats app.

The “Classic” options are your more traditional Tetris challenges, prioritizing speed and score. “Relax” options, meanwhile, do away with “Game Over” and emphasize stages backed by ambient beats. “Focus” challenges push you to zero in on strategy by aiming for things like combos and “All Clears.” Finally, the “Adventurous” Effect modes go for the element of surprise, employing unexpected and sometimes shifting rules.

The Tetris Effect is great on its own, but it really shines the brightest when you have a PlayStation VR headset handy, along with some nice headphones for pumping the game’s tranquil beats directly into your brain. The psychedelic backdrops expand outwards in virtual reality, with swirling flashes of light seeming to physically wash over you after each line clear.

It’s a powerful experience. Video games, and virtual reality especially, are all about immersing the player in a digital landscape. This goes a step further, delivering an audiovisual feast that syncs up perfectly with the game and your physical relationship to the controls. You don’t just play The Tetris Effect; you feel it.

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