Guest Column: Apple TV’s ‘Tetris’ is Only One Half of the Story of Soviet-Born Video Games

Guest Column: Apple TV’s ‘Tetris’ is Only One Half of the Story of Soviet-Born Video Games
Mar 2023

Long before he became the president of Armenia, Dr. Armen Sarkissian was a scientist who had a front-row seat to the intrigue and geopolitics surrounding the spread of the iconic game 'Tetris' and its follow-up 'Wordtris.'

A friend recently sent me the trailer of a forthcoming film from Apple TV+ with this message: How much of this do you think will be true? The film in question is Tetris, about the addictive, Soviet-born video game that stormed the West in the 1980s. A film about a bunch of bars moving about the screen? Actually, no. Tetris is pitched as a gripping thriller about the geopolitics and intrigue that surrounded the origin and unstoppable spread of the game. Since I have not seen it yet -- it releases at the end of March -- I cannot remark on its veracity. But I have high hopes. Taron Egerton, who plays the lead role, is an outstanding actor, and the director Jon S. Baird and his screenwriting partner, Noah Pink, are equally brilliant professionals. The trailer certainly evokes the anxieties and tension of the true story.

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The reason my friend brought the film to my attention is because he and I survived the world in which Alexey Pajitnov, the beleaguered creator of Tetris, operated. It was at the computer center at the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union -- the prestigious scientific institution where Pajitnov worked -- that I co-invented Wordtris, the game launched just before the 1990s and later sold to consumers as the follow-up to Tetris. We did not think much of these inventions at the time. As scientists with passes to the ASSU, we constituted something of a national elite because we had a relative measure of autonomy and constant access to computers. And developing video games emerged as a hobby -- a brainy pastime to make things to show off to and share with friends and colleagues.

Wordtris, born roughly at the same time as Tetris, emerged out of a project I spearheaded in the early 1980s to invent a fax machine capable of translating information from one language into another during transmission. I was a young professor of theoretical physics at Yerevan State University, where I had founded the department of mathematical modeling of complex systems. My partners -- Sergei Utkin and Vjacheslav Tsoy -- were scientists based in Moscow. We used the applications developed for the fax machine on an educational game in which the player would have to make words from letters raining from above. After displaying our creation to friends, we forgot all about it and got on with our lives. Sergei and Vjacheslav carried on doing fascinating work in Moscow, and I, trained as a mathematician and theoretical physicist, traveled to do research at Cambridge University.

While I was away, Moscow was agog with rumors that American entrepreneurs were sniffing around the Soviet Union for video games. Rather than being clandestine, their trips were facilitated by Electronorgtechnica, or Elorg -- the foreign trading company run by Soviet spy agency the KGB. Pajitnov's Tetris was acquired by the Americans. But the tales of fabulous wealth passing hands we heard were not reflected in Pajitnov's way of life. What should rightfully have been his was pocketed by the Soviet state, which had a monopoly on the copyright. As far as we knew, he wasn't given a single cent. Pajitnov later fled the Soviet Union for the better life that was his due. If what had transpired taught us that there was a vast market for video games beyond the frontiers of the Soviet Union, the unjustness of it all made us resolve that we would not let the Soviet regime do to us what it had done to our colleague.

In 1987, when the Soviet authorities agreed to let me travel to the U.S. to perform research at Harvard and Berkeley, I flew with copies of the code for Wordtris. I didn't bother to try to hide them because hardly anyone knew code language. A network of Armenian diaspora lawyers in America advised me that we could protect our interests if we vested the copyright of the game in a U.S.-based company. They even suggested a generic name. I proposed Armenica -- a portmanteau of Armenia and America -- and incorporated it in Delaware, then transferred the rights to the game to it. I then flew to California to give a demo of our game to Spectrum Holobyte, a company affiliated with the British video game publisher Mirrorsoft.

Spectrum was sufficiently impressed to offer to come to Armenia between 1987 and 1988 to see the whole game. Fortunately, while in Cambridge I had saved up my stipend to purchase an IBM PC XT machine. With its monochrome graphic display and 20-megabyte hard-drive, it proved an inexpressibly precious private asset in our command economy. For the next month, Sergei and Vjacheslav moved into my house in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where we tweaked, tinkered with and perfected the game on my machine. We made it bilingual and even incorporated music into it. You may think I am biased, but I say with utmost sincerity that the final product was a sublime work of art. Wordtris was not our name for it. We called it Lavengro -- Romany for "wordsmith."

The Americans, however, had other ideas. Their emissary, traveling as a tourist to elude the KGB, liked what she saw and invited me back to the United States to sign the deal. Back in California in 1988-89, I was told that our game would be christened Wordtris and sold as a follow-up to Tetris. I protested, not least because I feared it would mean further enriching Elorg, which owned the name Tetris. But we were assured otherwise. The game developed almost as an act of self-amusement by three Soviet scientists was then tossed over to a team of 500 video game developers to be revised and rewritten. What they reproduced before putting it in the market was nowhere near as beautiful as what we had created, but we could not complain.

It was an incredibly uplifting moment. My sons were the first recipients of the prototype developed by Nintendo, and the late Steve Jobs prodded me afterward to rework the game to be included on the Mac machines as an educational program. But my interest in video games, intensified by the adventure of developing and selling Wordtris, faded away once I moved into diplomacy and politics after the independence of Armenia from the Soviet Union in 1991. Now, the trip down memory lane prompted by Tetris has inspired me to revisit Wordtris -- in what form I do not know yet. But, all these years later, I am grateful for having had that great adventure.

Wordtris became a beloved game from the United States to Korea. We had succeeded, with the aid of capitalism, in beating the Soviet Big Brother's Communist machinations, to share our invention with the world. We also felt that we had, along the way, avenged the wrong done to a fellow member of the scientific tribe. We had also, in the process, earned the income that was our due without giving a cent to those who had stolen from a brilliant colleague. It is heartening, all these years later, to see that he is receiving from Hollywood the recognition he was denied by the Soviet state.

Dr. Armen Sarkissian served as the third prime minister and fourth president of the Republic of Armenia. His book, The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World, will be published in November.