We have a new low

There’s something generally attractive about expertise. Conversations between masters in a field can be engrossing to even the barely informed bystander. We’ve all been to some party where an annoyingly relaxed and handsome dude walks in and casts the rest of us into shadow… or a super-hot babe balanced on designer stilts catches everyone’s eye and sets all the wives and girlfriends fuming… but expertise isn’t like this. Barring the wild-card of them being horrifically boring or personally unpleasant, no-one begrudges when an otherwise ordinary individual unveils and shares the fruits of their profound learning or experience; and if, when they leave, they also happen to lead all potential partners of applicable sexual-alignment from the room the way the Pied Piper lures rats, no-one minds. The Expert Earned It.

But enough about my enviable social life. This morning I bought a Humble Bundle containing a documentary focused on one of the world’s more niche areas of expertise: Tetris. I actually bought it for reasons of personal empathy because it contained another documentary about excellence called Men with Beards, but for some reason I clicked the link to Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters first and watched a few minutes streaming while I weighed up downloading it. Five minutes later I started downloading it. Ten minutes later I cancelled the download, made another cup of coffee and got comfortable.

Watching a good documentary is like meeting an interesting party guest – and yes, this is a half-hearted and likely wrong-headed attempt to expand the opening paragraph into a metaphor. Or a simile, depending on which word is correct. Anyway: they keep you engaged, provoke a little thought, and (whether the conversation is serious or light) when they’ve said their piece they leave you with the feeling that your knowledge has increased, even if only in a trivial way.

…and, for the sake of continuing down this tortured path, let me also suggest that by contrast the average fiction movie is the equivalent of a polished, good-looking party animal who dominates the whole room telling his best story, very loudly, and is probably very entertaining but maybe goes on a bit too long, and afterwards everyone says bitchy things about him on the drive home. That guy likes himself too much.

Ecstasy of Order introduces an unlikely crowd of experts: the best Tetris players to ever thumb a game-pad. In its heyday, Tetris was the most mainstream game on the planet, with many versions across all the platforms, selling hundreds of millions of copies worldwide. I was struck in passing by just how close the parallel is to the “current” state of game production, in which every successful idea is replicated out of control, by bedroom hobbyists and software companies alike, until there are gem-matching, fruit-slashing, turret defence clones as far as the iCan see. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun… apart from Tetris, that is, or as one commentator puts it, the perfect game – because what could you change about it to make it better?

However perfect the game might be, the players themselves were just ordinary kids for the most part, awkward when an uncertain media spotlight was pointed their way – and television’s grasp of how to present computer games has always been notoriously fumbling. Even now, when professional and competition game-playing is a well-established big-money business, it’s a rare thing in the traditional media for gamers to take centre stage (unless their passing acquaintance with Candy Crush surfaces post-massacre…).

So, while this isn’t the mainstream media, and while it isn’t surprising that a pro-game documentary would cast players in an affectionate light, it is a pleasant change not only that their enthusiasm is taken “seriously”, but that they are not presented as merely a catalogue of comedy tropes – the nerds, the outsiders, the socially inept, cannon-fodder for The Big Bang Theory. It’s possible that a few might flounder when out of their normal environment, but you get the definite impression that, on the whole, they are all very comfortable in their skins.

Superficially, the story being told is of fairly trivial interest: despite its globe-spanning appeal, Tetris never acquired a singular champion, an officially recognised Best Player Ever. There were certainly contenders and pretenders to that throne, but none was ever crowned and that time is nigh. Well, that’s nice and all, but it risks sounding like the high life being lived on a pretty small scale – no drink sponsors, no red carpet, just a count-down to a great big play-in.

To assume this would be an error. It’s the personalities that carry it at first; I won’t lie, there were a couple of passing encounters who made me roll my eyes, even think mean thoughts, but the principle participants are quirky, down-to-earth, ordinary but interesting, and varied. However, the film gradually builds a surprising weight – it seems there is something of a mystery at the heart of this sub-culture, almost a scandal, and getting to the bottom of it proves engrossing.

I really enjoyed meeting The Tetris Masters, but in case my post title strikes you as misleading: I wanted to quote the point at which, more or less, the film won me over. Early on, just after an alpha geek named Ben Mullen had whipped out his victory-dance (t’, t’, t’, t’…), we see a mere mortal making a rookie mistake that leaves him with all of 53 points – this in a field where the ultimate goal is 999,999. The thing is, the response to this epic fail is nothing more than affectionate laughter on the part of everyone there, loser included – and I laughed too, because I know which end of the Tetris hierarchy I’d be lurking at.

In Ecstasy of Order we may not have a new high, even if we do see one or two get scored, but it is far from a new low. What we have is something geeky, which in this case is to say knowledgeable and good-natured. Worth lending an ear to at your next gamer party, maybe, safe in the knowledge that it probably won’t steal all the chicks. If any come.


Postscript: I thought about linking to a trailer, then thought again. There is one, but it doesn’t really do the film justice. For a start, it includes both the people I found annoying saying the things I found them annoying for saying. One of the pleasures of the film is getting used to the participants, but there is really no way to make gamer geeks (or most other normal people, I expect) come over well in ninety seconds of sound bites; plus it vaguely spoilers the “big deal” drifting around at the heart of the story. My recommendation is that, should you be tempted to dip in, jump without testing the waters first. And if you aren’t tempted for some weird reason, choose not to reinforce your prejudices, you small-minded monster. 🙂


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