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Learning Tetris

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #133. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Personal marks scattered through time.

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In March 2019, I made an impulsive purchase. I couldn’t put it into words back then, but it was around the time where I was feeling that something was amiss in my relationship. We had been together for over two years by then and, for a long while, everything had been great. But there were a couple key moments that started to distance us. Time would pass and, slowly, we always went back to where we once were.

2019 was somewhat different. It was also the year I started learning Tetris.

It wasn’t my first time playing it, but I had neglected it throughout my life. I guess I never saw the appeal – I’m not really a fan of puzzle games, nor did anyone tell me to give it a try during my childhood. It just seemed . . . fine. In 2018, however, everyone was talking about how great Tetris Effect was. The classic foundation was there, but the experience was completely different, creating a sensory realm around the tetrominoes. These blocks now invited you to swim with dolphins, to visit new places around the world, all the while a soothing soundtrack set the scene, and a subtle story, around each moment.

We’d had our favorite games throughout the years. Some withstood the passing of time better than others. But I felt like she and I were missing a new experience to hold on to. That was my reasoning anyway. It was unlikely that the game would go on a sale anytime soon, but it didn’t matter. I saw if for $40 on the PlayStation Store, ignored my hesitation due to the steep price and purchased it. At least for the following weekend, we now had something new to look forward to. I had successfully borrowed some time.

“No . . . that’s not how you, just . . . what are you doing?!”

“I don’t get this.”

One of my first lessons was realizing that Tetris isn’t as simple as it seems. The whole point is to arrange these falling cubes in the clearest manner possible to avoid creating unwanted gaps. When gap inevitably appear in your grid, you have to improvise on the fly to try and keep your structure as far from the top as possible. But this can go sideways in a matter of seconds. You can make a wrong move in the first few rows and create a massive blank space, or mess up in the middle and be left with no options to turn back and fix it.

“It’s easy,” she would often say. “Be one with the cubes.”

The years between my first relationship and this one had been lonely, to say the least. I had grown accustomed to that routine and, one day, it slipped out of my hands. Despite how bad it had turned towards the end, the healing process after made me realize I missed being with someone. I had a couple other love interests in the following years that didn’t lead anywhere. After finishing highschool, it all remained the same for a long while – but I was partly guilty of that, avoiding certain situations because I was afraid of getting hurt and lied to again. The same happened when I denied an invitation to grab a cup of tea from this person I had met while working in a local publication, despite the fact that I knew, deep down, that I had feelings for her, in the worst possible way. We continued to talk, and a second chance for a date arose some time after. I’m still thankful for that.

During those first few months everything went well. I began to soften again as we both became more comfortable with each other. We found lots of things in common, and simply had a good time – to the point where we didn’t have any arguments whatsoever. Her siblings would often joke about it, but were mostly surprised that we hadn’t had any differences, telling us it was something natural. Something that is supposed to happen.

This changed when she went on a trip to Europe with friends. Our last date before it had been odd – it had been only recently that I started visiting her house and I had the feeling that her family didn’t like me much. I’m not sure if it was due to the age difference (I was 19, she was 25) or the fact that I felt so out of place that I would barely speak during gatherings. This time, I helped her to pick up some final items and we had lunch. I would usually order a beer, but I decided to skip it that day, which surprised her. Her family was going to gather at the house to set up the Christmas tree, as she was spending the holidays overseas, but the plan didn’t quite include me, so we parted ways early in the day. I wanted to go, of course, and I later found out I was invited to tag along, even if it wasn’t specifically stated. But, perhaps involuntarily, I marked my distance.

This followed during the trip. My loss of confidence, and the insecurity that quickly led to jealousy, made this first distance between us incredibly hard. I’d worry if I didn’t hear from her for long periods of time, or overthink every message and audio clip, while she was only enjoying herself with long time friends on a trip she’d been excited for ever since it became a tangible plan. She had even left me a gift – a box filled with letters and activities for each day until her return, so I wouldn’t miss her that much. But I let the worst part of myself win, creating a gap for the years to come.

It became a cycle. We would have a big talk where I apologized, she would say it’s okay, I would reply that it’s not and that I wanted to change, after which a period of distance set in. This meant a week or two without seeing each other, but over time these periods turned longer. I didn’t see it as clearly as I do now, but I could notice the weight of these moments lingering in our relationship. She gave me more chances than anyone else would have in her place, but I knew these repeating patterns had to change. With every one of these periods that followed, I started to fear that one day I wouldn’t be so fortunate.

I kept borrowing time. I treasured the moments when we were back on our feet and blamed myself constantly during the in-betweens. But most of our last year together was spent playing Tetris Effect, trying to make as much progress as possible during my visits, passing the controller whenever one of us lost. I slowly got better at it, but the game never stopped challenging us. The fire levels in particular always invited an “oh no” in unison, since these would often change speed all of the sudden and become intense towards the end as we sat there waiting for that fucking long tetromino to appear. Overcoming these obstacles was always gratifying and the next level rewarded our efforts with a moment of respite. A brief period of time where everything seemed as great as it once used to be.

This went on until we reached the final level. We probably restarted it hundreds of times in the span of weeks. At one point we would just move to a different game and return every now and then to give it another try, but it couldn’t be done. Compared to the previous ones, this one has a hefty goal, as it asks for 90 lines when you can usually get to do 36 or so, depending on the difficulty. The last few were under an incredibly high speed, too. And yet it was a joy to witness, with its bright colors, the imagery that references past moments of the journey you just went through, and the mesmerizing lyrics in the background.

“Come follow me
I’ll show you this side of the world
The places that you’ve never seen
Come follow me”

Something I reflected on, as I kept on practicing Tetris Effect on my own at home, is that we had been ignoring Zen Mode completely. This feature presents the ability to stop time to try and get rid of as many lines as possible without having to worry about what’s to come. The more lines you can make during this period of time, which lasts a couple seconds, the bigger the bonus score will be. But the downside is that these lines don’t count towards your goal. You just buy some time and increase your score, but you eventually snap out of it.

I realized that we were playing to win. We just wanted to finish it, no matter how long it took us, even if my slow learning process would often drag us down. Being stuck in the last level for so long was frustrating, but perhaps there was a reason why we couldn’t beat it. I don’t think it was the lack of skill or luck. Something else was amiss. We were stuck right there, 90 lines away from the goal, 90 lines away from the end. And we couldn’t take that final step together.

Looking back, I had known this stillness all too well. I put up with it in silence – there was a lot we just didn’t talk about, but should have, even if it had led to the sorely needed arguments that we had neglected. As much as I enjoyed the “perfect” months before her trip, I couldn’t shake that feeling of loneliness that had been with me for so long, even with a partner on my side.

Every time we parted ways I would return sad, wishing we could have done something else after the movies, or dinner, or whatever. We would see each other once a week, which to me felt like ages. I only got to see the person I loved four times a month, 48 times a year. Whenever we had dinner during the week, I always tried to make the most out of our brief meetings. There were a couple times that broke the norm, of course, but it was mostly like this. The fact that intimacy wasn’t in our plans also wore me down, in ways I was never able to articulate. I often yearned for a trip to the coast, a day-long picnic, or even just to be in her room with the door closed and the lights turned off for a while, but these never happened. As much as arguments are expected in a relationship, I wanted more freedom. I wanted more time with her. And I always thought those moments would finally come at some point – I only had to try and not mess things up to avoid having another period of distance between the two. But I always failed.

I started going to therapy in mid 2019, and a couple months later I was able to mention some of these things to her. But it was late by then. Time had finally caught up to us and, understandably, I didn’t get another chance. The fact that we didn’t kiss during our last date gave me a bad sign from the beginning – I’m sure she had made the decision way before arriving at our usual Starbucks. For the first time, I couldn’t understand why our last talk had led to an argument, in which I mentioned that I always wondered why we never had that picnic, as corny as it sounded, as well as other things that I was happy about from my time in therapy. As slow as my progress was, I was proud of it, and intended to stick to it. But I didn’t understand how late I was until I answered her question.

“Are you doing this for me, or for you?”

“For us.”

“It has to be for you…”

It’s been over a year since that talk. I’m still going to therapy, and have allowed myself to process and heal over it some time ago. I even opened myself to new relationships, to the point of expressing my feelings to somebody new. I’ve been single, however, and I can’t say I’m a fan of dating apps. Even less so during quarantine. But I continue to work on myself, and to reflect on things that have passed. I never quite had the opportunity to just hang out during my adult life and be free to do whatever, and it’s something I look forward to when all of this is over. But in one way or another I will always remember those years.

I continued playing Tetris Effect, too, but I also got stuck on the last level. For a long while, I didn’t want to see the end if it weren’t with her. I believe that we owed that to ourselves. But I eventually went back to it.

Turns out that the more you play Adventure Mode, the more experience you gain, which leads to certain categories for your profile after meeting a required milestones. Despite the dozens of hours I had put into it, mine was still “Apprentice,” but that was okay. I knew that despite all my progress, I still had a long way to go. But I had to give it a try. I had neglected myself from closure long enough. The only thing left to do was to fill in the gaps, to coexist with the distance of the grid to get to those 90 lines.

This time, however, I started using Zen Mode. Even if just for a brief moment, I had control of the situation. I could stop to see everything that had gone wrong. I realized what a fool I had been for believing that my progress during these moments didn’t matter, and that I could just borrow time to get to the end.

“Come follow me

I’ll show you this side of the world

The places that you’ve never seen

Come follow me”

On December 31, 2019, I heard the lyrics once more.

And I finally made it.

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Diego Nicolás Argüello is a writer from Argentina who has learned English thanks to videogames. He also runs Into The Spine and is objectively bad at taking breaks. You can catch him procrastinating on Twitter @diegoarguello66.

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