Tetris Effect, the latest installment of the unstoppable falling block puzzler, is more than just another notch in the series’ championship belt. While most of the world remains ignorant to the minutiae of Tetris’ evolution over the years, the game has gone through very few radical reworks as there’s only so many directions tetrominos can fall. The series is only occasionally jolted out of the dusty box in our minds where we keep Snake and Solitaire whenever it appears in some form on Games Done Quick or a tense world championship finals – played by impossibly talented demigods – but now Tetris is back and bringing a noise we simply can’t ignore.
Brought to life by Enhance, Inc. and headed by Rez and Lumines creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Tetris Effect is about everything outside the game. As evident from his back catalogue, Mizuguchi is a big fan of creating synaesthetic experiences in his games, a fascination that began after seeing the way crowds reacted as one at a music festival in Zurich in 1998. While most rhythm-music titles focus on replicating the process of playing an instrument, Mizuguchi’s games focus on incorporating compelling, abstract gameplay into the music-making process in search of a rare psychological state: flow.
Lumines gave us the first hint of what Tetris Effect has now mastered back in 2004 on the PSP, a block-dropping puzzler attached to a regular beat matrix with visuals to match. Your inputs influence the music, while the music influences where you must place blocks to get combo clears. It was a mesmerizing experience, but one that all too often dragged you out of a trance and muddled the melody as you aimed for the big score.
Tetris Effect avoids this by disconnecting the game from the rhythm. The music of each level starts slow, building along with your confidence and accompanied by the level-specific trills of your piece rotations. If you want, you can make some music yourself, idly spinning tetrominos along to the beat. But eventually you focus on the puzzle at hand, and the chaos of just playing the game occasionally lines up with crescendos in the constantly evolving soundtrack until you feel like you’re making music anyway.
The division of gameplay from music-making, then, has paradoxically achieved that almost intangible goal Mizuguchi set out for almost exactly 20 years ago: synaesthesia. And what ties the whole experience together is Tetris Effect’s only new gameplay feature: The Zone. Athletes, musicians, artists and gamers alike will tell you that they perform best when they achieve a zen-like state of not thinking and just doing. Tetris Effect turns the concept of flow into a mechanic, clearing lines builds your Zone meter, and triggering it pauses time, allowing you to stack up multiple line combos together. Where once the four-line clear – a Tetris – was the maximum, we now covet the Decahexatris, 16 lines in a single, perfect, clear.
The audio-visual accompaniment to all this inspires the psychological state of the zone as well as its mechanical counterpart. Transcendent synthy sounds and airy vocals on some levels pair with constellations of sea life, drifting past as you enter a calm Tetris trance. But in other levels, tribal chanting builds up to an urgent drum chorus as you slam pieces into their waiting homes, a fiery ritual of people worshipping and bowing at the base of the tower you’re constructing, all of you awaiting the fabled Long Piece and the bliss it brings with it.
There are many reasons people are comparing Tetris Effect to a religious experience. There’s something very spiritual and meditative about the way it inspires a singular focus and rewards you for avoiding distraction. A feat even easier inside the PlayStation VR, with a headset pumping beats into your ears. The PSVR’s OLED screen wraps the surrounding lightshow over your entire vision, while a good headset deletes the outside world entirely. It’s just you and the zone.