‘Tetris’ Creators Reveal How the Famous Video Game United Both Sides of the Iron Curtain
The incredible true story of how a wildly popular video game got through the iron curtain comes alive in Apple TV’s “Tetris.” Taron Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, the Japan-based Dutch-American video game designer and entrepreneur who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989 to secure the intellectual property rights to Tetris. This film is about much more than businessmen in boardrooms discussing numbers, as a foreigner traveling to that part of the world during this time period was incredibly risky. First, Henk had to earn the trust of Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), the creator, designer and developer of Tetris, before the two men found themselves bound together in this bumpy journey.
When we first meet Henk, he is living with his family in Japan, running the company Bullet-Proof Software with his wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi). It is at the trade conference CES in Las Vegas that he first sees a demo of Tetris and becomes enamored. Not long afterwards, he goes to Seattle to meet with Nintendo founder and president, Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura), and VP, Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles). Arakawa and Lincoln give him a sneak peek at the prototype for the first model of Game Boy, and it is a magical moment, as the handheld device is the one that made Tetris a worldwide phenomenon.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Voice, Rogers and Pajitnov discussed “Tetris” and their real-life experiences. While the film featured a lot of real events, people and emotions, certain liberties were taken, and that includes the Nintendo scene. Rogers did have that meeting with Nintendo, but it happened a little differently than what is depicted in the film. “Game Boy had already been released in Japan at that time,” revealed Rogers. “I was surprised by this new piece of hardware, but this was Hollywood being Hollywood… That scene would have happened, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had already been released. It certainly captures the excitement, and the Game Boy was an exciting machine. It was the first portable gaming machine. It was a big deal.”
In reality, Rogers met with Arakawa to convince him to choose Tetris to be the game that was included with every new Game Boy, arguing that Tetris had a universal appeal. Before their meeting, the Nintendo founder was leaning towards selecting Mario Brothers. Rogers recalled, “I said, ‘If you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, then include Mario. If you want everyone to buy your Game Boy, than you should include Tetris, because everyone plays Tetris.”
A deal is struck, and just a few days after this fateful meeting, Henk finds himself on a plane heading to Moscow to secure the handheld game rights. But this is far from an ordinary business trip, as entering the Soviet Union was a dangerous undertaking, one that Rogers likens to traveling to North Korea today. Aside from the obvious risks, Moscow was not exactly set up to be a tourist-friendly destination. Fortunately, a friendly guide, Sasha (Sofya Lebedeva), shows up at his hotel to help him navigate this city. She even knows how to get him to ELORG, the government organization that had a monopoly on the import and export of computer hardware and software in the Soviet Union. Over time, it becomes apparent that she has ulterior motives.
“I would say they captured her personality pretty well,” Rogers said when asked of the character who was inspired by a real woman who acted as his guide. Her role is expanded in the film. “She was excited, and so on and so forth. I was a little suspicious. Why did this person all of a sudden show up in my life? She knows everything and was the answer to all my problems. I was a little nervous.”
Was the real Sasha part of the KGB? “Actually, you’d never know,” said Pajitnov. “That [was] kind of their style. You’d never know… In general, people who were appointed to communicate with foreigners, they — everybody, literally everybody — had to fill out a report with the KGB… The truth is always in between.”
Even a computer engineer like Alexey is under the watchful eye of the government, which makes it understandable why he is hesitant when the gregarious Henk introduces himself to him. Egerton and Yefremov play well off of each other as it becomes apparent the two are kindred spirits. There’s even a great scene of them putting their brains together to make exciting improvements to Tetris.
While Rogers was not the first businessman to come around with an interest in Tetris, Pajitnov said he knew he was different because he was forthright and honest. There was also something else, “What melted my heart is that he was practically the first colleague of mine. He was also a game designer, and such a profession did not exist in the Soviet Union, so I was kind of the first one in the entire country, so I had never met a real colleague before. So that’s why we started to feel a connection right away.”
“Tetris” is more than a buddy story, as real threats close in on them, not just in the Soviet Union, but also back in Japan, where men from the Soviet embassy arrive unannounced to Henk’s office, frightening Akemi. This scene really drives home how far of a reach the Soviet government had. In real life, these men did show up at Bullet-Proof and give his employees a scare, as they did not even know what Rogers was up to in the Soviet Union.
The main antagonist in Moscow is Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), a corrupt politician who is not above threatening Alexey’s family. While Rogers has no recollection of encountering a Valentin, he believes the character to be a composite of several government figures he encountered.
“I do remember strange guys being in the room and I didn’t know why the hell they were there,” recalled Rogers. “The way it would work is that I would be explaining something, and there would be eight people on the other side, and they would start arguing with each other. ‘What the hell? Aren’t they on the same team? Why are they arguing?’ They would argue, and then they would ask me another question. I would answer, and then they would argue again.”
“Actually, all the other participants were the real people with their real names. It is amazing how accurate the script is. This Valentin is the only exception. He was a combination character,” added Pajitnov.
The other villains are Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), the owner of Microsoft who already has a business relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh), and his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). Both are insufferable, but Kevin is especially pompous, and he provides comic relief as he demands unearned respect from everyone around him. In the end, it does not pay to be a spoiled nepo baby, and Henk proves that the ability to earn respect by being respectful and personable can go further than money and influence.
Henk and Alexey do have an ally in Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan), the director of ELORG who takes a major risk by going to bat for Henk. In real life, he probably was not beaten up by thugs, just like Henk and Alexey were never in a car chase (although this makes for a thrilling sequence), but they were all under constant threat and surveillance.
“Belikov was fighting for his country and communism,” explained Rogers. “He was a good guy. I really feel that he believed in the [idea] that everything belongs to the people… In my mind, he really was a hero. He really stuck up for me and did the deal, despite the fact that Kevin Maxwell and the politburo were pushing him to do something different.”
Tetris went on to become a global success, and Alexey has a great line that sums up the theme of the film — “Good ideas have no borders.” While Pajitnov does not recall if he has ever spoken that line in real life, he stated that it does encapsulate his philosophy. “That has been my position for my entire life. I always think this way, that an idea really has no border and it belongs to everybody. That’s my statement.”
Today, now relations between the United States and Russia continue to be a hot topic, making “Tetris” a film that carries an important and timely message, that friendships have no borders. Rogers elaborated, “Ultimately, the people of Russia, and the people of the United States, they’re not enemies. There are some people at the very top who are powermongers, there’s the military industrial complex, stuff that has nothing to do with the people at all. People themselves are just people, no matter where they go. If you just give them a chance, they’ll be friends.”
“Tetris” begins streaming March 31 on Apple TV+.