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Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters director talks building blocks and the rise of gaming

It’s probably easier to count the number of people who haven’t played a game of Tetris at some point in their lives than those who have, but precious few have approached the block-arranging triumphs featured in filmmaker Adam Cornelius’ new documentary, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.

Already a popular film on the festival circuit, Ecstasy of Order takes a deep dive into the competitive world of Tetris “masters” whose ability to twist, stack, and think several moves ahead of the blocks descending down their television screens seems almost superhuman. The film chronicles the path to crowning the first-ever “World Champion of Classic Tetris,” and also takes a fascinating look inside the lives of some of the game’s greatest players — from the kid whose life was forever changed by winning the 1990 Nintendo World Championship to the Tetris masters of today.

Digital Trends spoke with Cornelius about the film, which is available now in limited release, and also became available via various forms of Video On Demand this week.

How did you end up doing a documentary about Tetris, of all things?

The simple answer is that I was actually trying to master Tetris myself. It was a hobby I took on as early as maybe 2003, and I noticed that Harry Hong was at the top. So some of those names that ended up in the film were in my consciousness for a long time, because I was looking at the Twin Galaxies scoreboard. Even though I wasn’t that good, I was curious about it, so I started watching Harry’s YouTube videos of his record games to try and figure out why he was so good. I was doing that for a while, but it never occurred to me that it would be a good documentary idea until I met Robin Mihara, who’s in the film. It turned out that he was inspired to make it into a big tournament, and I had just filmed my first interview with Harry at that time, so it was a stars-aligning moment. Robin and I realized we were basically doing the same project from slightly different angles, trying to bring these people together — and it just unfolded from there.

When you decided to move forward with the project, did you have any difficulty wrangling all of the great Tetris players and getting them into the same room?

It wasn’t that hard, because we initially went through Twin Galaxies. And because Robin was part of the Nintendo World Championships, he knew of players like Thor [Aackerlund] who hadn’t posted anything with Twin Galaxies, but he knew they were just as good as kids in 1990s as the current crop of players are now. I think that was really what gave the movie its life and heart and depth. It actually has a history. When I started the project, I’d never even heard of the Nintendo World Championships, but I really think that became the heart of the movie. You have this group of 30-somethings, and their attempts to be Tetris masters has cast a shadow over their lives. Some of the people in the movie weren’t involved in that, but the ones who were gave it a lot of depth.

You brought up Thor, the guy who won the Nintendo World Championship when he was a kid, and I feel like his story was one of the most fascinating narrative threads in the movie. There was so much going on with him and his life up to and including what happens in the documentary. Did you know about any of that going into this project?

I had no idea. My focus early on was Harry and Jonas [Neubauer], because they had maxed out the game. When I started the project, I said, “As long as we can get those two guys in a room competing, something good will happen.” The thing with Thor came about later, because he’d never verified any of his scores — they were things he did in hotel rooms in L.A. back in the ’90s that some kid witnessed. So he had this lore surrounding him that went beyond the other kids in the competition. His picture was in Nintendo Power, and he had such memorable name. Everyone linked him with that film The Wizard with Fred Savage and Christian Slater, and people thought of Thor as the real-life version of The Wizard.

So his importance in all of this emerged, and it became more and more obvious that he was already slightly famous. For me, that was something I had to discover on my own — it wasn’t something I knew going in. Everything you see in the movie — the rumors surrounding him and such — that was what I was experiencing behind the camera. I try to let his appearance in the film and what he does speak for itself, but for me, behind the camera, I was experiencing the same thing people on the other side of the camera were experiencing. I didn’t know this guy. I didn’t know if he would even show up, and I was ready to make a movie without him. So it was good fortune that he was ultimately interested in being involved.

We’ve seen quite a few documentaries about video games and gaming culture over the last few years, from King of Kong to more recently, Indie Game: The Movie, and now Ecstasy of Order. Why do you think that is?

It’s becoming the dominant form of entertainment in our culture. Video games started outgrossing Hollywood as long ago as 2004, and we’re on the cusp of this wave. Not too long ago, film was looked down upon as a medium. Theater was the real thing, and literature was the real thing, but film was this tawdry, seedy thing that you wouldn’t want to put your name on. I feel like video games are coming out of a phase like that now, too. If an actor did a voice in a video game a couple years ago, he or she might use a pseudonym, but now people are proudly being a part of this stuff and it’s being viewed as a real art form.

Even though Tetris doesn’t exactly fit in with all that, right now our whole culture — including academia — is scrutinizing video games and what they mean to us, while a few years ago people were dismissive of it. That can be seen in the fact that this movie is being screened with Indie Game at an event hosted by MIT. I grew up with video games, and I feel like a gamer myself to some extent, but I feel like the people who weren’t part of that and didn’t have that experience now have this intense curiosity. Those people are starting to realize that this isn’t just a trend, it’s a part of who we are now.

This movie chronicled the 2010 championship, so what’s happened in the aftermath? Has there been an epilogue that people should know about?

There have been a lot of updates as far as the players. We had another tournament in 2011, and I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that the tournament in 2011 was really exciting and the rankings ended up a little different. We now have five people who have maxed-out the game that we know of, and I think that number is going to keep growing. I joke that this movie is the worst thing I could do to everyone for their standings, because all of these new players are coming out of the woodwork. People all around the country, they’re sitting in a screening, and suddenly they realize that they’re as good as someone in the movie. I think my best all-time score would’ve ranked me 15th when the movie started, but now I’m down around the 30s now.

What did you learn about Tetris and what sets it — and its fans — apart from fans of other games?

I felt that the Tetris players were a very diverse group, as opposed to what you’d get if you did a documentary about Call of Duty or something like that, you know? I think there’s a whole spectrum of personalities represented in Tetris players. People might have it in their minds that these Tetris players will all be run-of-the-mill eggheads, but it’s not like that at all.

When the film received such positive buzz on the festival circuit, were you surprised? Did you expect it to have this sort of mainstream appeal?

I was shocked. People who have never even played a video game tell me it’s one of their favorite documentaries. I absolutely didn’t predict that. I thought people who were in their 50s or 60s, who never played video games, would take one look at it and run away screaming. That hasn’t happened at all. I’m blown away by how accessible it seems to be. I assumed it would be sort of gamers-only, but I thought that was okay, because there are millions of gamers. But it hasn’t been that way at all, so I’m very happy.

And if gets more people interested in Tetris, that can’t be bad, either…

[Laughs] That wasn’t necessarily my goal, but hey, that’s fantastic.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is available this week on various Video-On-Demand platforms, including PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, and will be available for download next week on iTunes. You canget more information about the movie at EcstasyOfOrder.com.

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