The coolest fucking thing happened to me when I went to Tennessee with my hubby last June for his annual video game convention. Yes, he’s a total nerd. A video game nerd. (Not nearly as cool as a science nerd…or an entertainment nerd…or a book nerd, but I digress.) I just wasn’t allowed to talk to you about it until now. Allow me to explain. While there, a man by the name of Robin Mihara invited us all to participate in a private screening of a documentary film he’d been a part of. By contract, because the film had not yet been released for general audiences nor had it been shown at any film festivals, we could not to speak a word of it to another living soul until further notice. Well friends, said notice has finally been given. The film is called Ecstasy Of Order: The Tetris Masters and it is a documentary about the world’s best Tetris player & how that player came to be found.
What surprised me, a person who can count on both hands the number of times she’s ever played any video game (and never played Tetris), is the extreme human-ness of the story. Robin Mihara, the film’s narrator who was among the top 3 finalists in Tetris at the Nintendo World Championships back in 1990 (he was 12 at that time), realized a couple years ago that there had never been a champion crowned in the game of Tetris. He decided to organize a competition in order to find said champion. During his quest, he meets several people who are “masters” of Tetris and each of their stories are subsequently told. One of those people is Thor Aackerlund, who took 1st place at Tetris back in 1990 at Nintendo’s championship. Aackerlund was a kid at that time; he and Robin had not seen each other since then. Robin tracks Aackerlund down and invites him to compete in the Classic Tetris World Championship, an event that took place in 2010 which would finally find the Master of Tetris.
What I’ve noticed is that many of the people who’ve seen Ecstasy Of Order feel inclined to compare it to King Of Kong. I understand why. They’re the only two documentaries I’ve seen about video game record-holders. They really are very different films, though. I’ve seen and enjoyed both flicks. King Of Kong followed two men specifically, one long-time record-holder and the man who beat his record. From the audience’s viewpoint, one of these men was clearly the villain and the other, something of a hero. Ecstasy Of Order revolves around a group of talented Tetris enthusiasts, all planning to compete for the title of highest-scoring player ever and it takes a close, personal look at each of their lives. None stood out as a villainous character. In fact, they’re all interesting, skilled people who who seem to share a kinship with one another. Though all individual participants in a competition, the feel you get while watching them interact is one of camaraderie.
The most striking message (in my opinion) and the one that has left a lasting impression came through the intimate examination of their personal stories. Ben Mullen, one of the competitors, made a few comments that gave me some insight into what it is that’s so appealing about video games. For him, it’s much less a game and more of an art. It seems, at least for these folks who choose to devote hours of their lives to it, to be as much about personal expression as entertainment. Something not just to lose themselves in, a mindless entertainment, but something into which they can PUT themselves. Closer to what painting or sculpting is for painters and sculptors, or what writing is for me.
Though I still have no interest in gaming, I walked away from Ecstasy Of Order feeling a connection to the people in it. It’s a film about Tetris, about competition, and about the absolute best living Tetris players. But, for me, it was also very much about what connects us – that investment of ourselves in something else. And just how alike we all really are.