Tetris: The Game That Made AI Actually Give Up

Loss was inevitable in Tetris, thanks to math.
Tetris: The Game That Made AI Actually Give Up

We're looking at retro games all this week, stuff at risk of being lost forever without dedicated preservationists. Consider how, last month, Russia bombed the Mariupol Computer Museum, which stored decades of old games and consoles. That was hardly the worst thing Russian forces did in Mariupol last month, but it was a pointless tragedy, and the destruction of the life's work of curator Dmitry Cherepanov (whose house they also bombed).

The museum memorialized tech that those in the Soviet Union had access to. Though you might not think of gaming first when you think of the Soviet Union, one of the biggest games of all time came from the USSR. We're talking about Tetris, which was such a Soviet product that creator Alexey Pajitnov received no royalties until a decade after he made it, when he moved to America. It was such a Soviet product that cosmonauts played it in a space station, making it the first video game in space. It was such a Soviet product that the famous Tetris music is really a reworked Russian folk song:

As a true Soviet game, Tetris makes most of us think of frustration and failure. In fact, in 2013, when a programmer created an AI and unleashed it on Tetris, it concluded that the best move was to simply pause the game and give up right before the stacked bricks hit the top of the screen.

This AI wasn't using a strategy that had been programmed specifically for Tetris, you see. Had it been, we're sure a computer could play the game longer and faster than any human. Instead, this was an AI designed to beat any NES game by analyzing which variables the game considers progress and then figuring out how to raise those variables as quickly as possible. 

Realizing that game wanted players to stack blocks, this AI (which had great success tackling Super Mario Bros. with no guidance) dropped blocks immediately, paying no regard to positioning them or eliminating rows. Then it paused the game right before the moment when it was going to officially lose.

So, you might say this all reveals more about the limits of AI than it does about Tetris. And yet, that AI picked up on something about the game that you might otherwise never guess: You are bound to lose Tetris sooner or later, even if you play perfectly and tirelessly, and even without the game intentionally ramping up the difficulty as time goes by. 

Assuming the game picks its blocks randomly, sooner or later, it will spit out a series consisting totally of those annoying zig-zag tiles, a series so long that absolutely no strategy can arrange the tiles properly and keep you from losing. You might think that randomness ensures that no such series will ever come up, and yet in reality, randomness ensures that such a series will come up, given enough time. Probability's weird like that. The reason new versions of Tetris (meaning, any version released in the 21st century) can be played for so long is that the blocks now do not fall randomly. An algorithm kicks in to force variety. 

Yes, Tetris has driven many people to give up. That does not include creator Alexey Pajitnov who made a bunch more games after he moved to the US. But it does include Pajitnov's co-creator, Vladimir Pokhilko. The company that he and Pajitnov founded together in Moscow did not prosper. Then in 1998, despondent over his failures, he murdered his wife and 12-year-son then sliced open his own throat. He left behind this as a final message:

"I've been eaten alive. Vladimir. Just remember that I am exist. The davil."

Top image: Brandenads/Wiki Commons


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