Sunday, April 3, 2011

Throwing Shapes: An Informal Tetris Lexicon

When we lived together briefly during college, my younger brother Josh and I played a lot of Tetris. Like a whole lot of Tetris.

We played so much Tetris, in fact, that we quickly found ourselves needing a more nuanced language to discuss the types of scenarios we encountered in the game. I touched on our shared Tetris vocabulary in "Player One, Player Two," the essay I wrote for Kill Screen Issue 0 (which is now sold out, unfortunately). In the interest of posting frivolous b-side material on the Internet, I figured I'd post a more fleshed-out lexicon of the words and phrases that emerged during our play.

One last note of context: we only played 8-bit NES Tetris and only 'Type B,' which involves trying to complete a quota of 25 lines on a level that has been seeded with a jumble of randomly generated block clutter. We played 'Height 5' on each level, which also happens to be the maximum amount of initial wreckage allowed, because anything else would've been a sign of weakness and Heights 1 - 4 exist solely for tongue-chewing hobbyists.


(1) Running the Gauntlet — Playing Level-9/Height-5 through Level-15/Height-5. However, you can only proceed to Level-10/Height-5 once you've beaten Level-9 and so on and so forth. This is usually a collaborative effort where Josh and I alternate after each loss or successful completion of a level. (Note: Even though the menu only displays levels 0 - 9, you can play 10 - 19 by holding the A button when you press start on the selected level, 0 = 10, 1 = 11, etc.)

(2) Googie — A single gap (missing block) in the horizontal line that prevents successful completion of the line.

(3) On the Fast Track to Googieville — One player gets a succession of googies, usually bringing about a fast-forwarded demise (see also: 'Building the Googie-heim Museum').

(4) Death Knell — One player makes such an egregious mistake during a game that player and onlooker know the game in progress is already over and not worth playing to its inevitable conclusion.

(5) Gilligan — Player fails game before completing a single line of the 25-line quota.

(6) Skipper — Onlooker feels compassion for player who received the Gilligan and allows another turn. Common courtesy dictates that the Gilligan-offender receiving a Skipper must respond with a salute and either an "Aye, Aye Skipper" or "I'll make you proud, Cap'n."

(7) Buzz Saw — Player is doing quite well, breaking down the wreckage and chipping away at the quota, but suddenly makes a grotesque error which causes a chain of equally grotesque errors. (A Buzz Saw can end a game in less than two or three seconds from the initial mistake.)

(8) Split-Level Fish Monger — Player successfully completes two lines with the placement of a piece, however these two lines are divided by a non-completed line.

(9) Breaking it Wide Open — Player makes a brilliant move which clears out a particularly gnarly chunk of wreckage, revealing a wide open space below.

(10) Popping the Chute — Player has filled up the screen with a solid structure, leaving a single horizontal column open. When player receives a straight line and inserts it into aforementioned gap, receiving a Tetris, he is said to have popped the chute.

(11) Hitting Rock Bottom — Player has cleared away a sufficient amount of wreckage, allowing for a falling piece to make its way clear to the bottom of the playing screen.

I discussed Josh and my 'Tetris bonding' in an essay called "Player One, Player Two" I wrote for Kill Screen, Issue 0.

(12) Spent — A player can describe himself as 'spent' once he's been playing for a long time and begins to make careless errors as a result of his Tetris fatigue.

(13) Coming in Cold — A player who enters late in The Gauntlet and does poorly because he hasn't had a chance to warm up on some of the lower levels.

(14) Bearing the Load — One player is responsible for beating the majority of the levels during a given Gauntlet. (Until The Gauntlet has been successfully run, both players will argue over who is going to end up bearing the load when all is said and done.)

(15) Catching a Cold Wave of Pieces — Pretty self-explanatory, getting a succession of pieces that don't fit neatly into the structure you've built (also provides a good excuse if one player happens to be doing poorly and needs a scapegoat).

(16) Stymied — Player has been waiting patiently to pop the chute but no straight-line shape ever appears and impending doom catches up with him.

(17) Consolidation Tactics — Player has built the structure all the way up to the top of the playing screen but continues to try and pack pieces in, ignoring the death knell which is chiming loudly in the ears of both player and onlooker.

(18) Courtesy Tactics — One player has just beaten Level-15/Height-5, thus completing The Gauntlet, and must allow the helpless onlooker several uninterrupted turns to beat the level himself and salvage his pride.

(19) Desperation Tactics — Player is about to lose but begins scrambling to complete lines thinking he can pull out his tail spin at the last second. This differs from Consolidation Tactics in the sense that the player has actually deluded himself into thinking he has a remote chance at redemption.

(20) Off Night — A player who has had sufficient warm-up time continues to play poorly for the duration of The Gauntlet, thus failing to bear the load or gain upper-hand in trash talk (read: cheap copout).


  1. Is there any way I can read the initial article, since, you know, there are apparently no more reprints for the origin issue of Killscreen?

    Although I can't remember specifics, my younger brother and I also created our own gaming vocabulary during our formative years. Your b-side brings back the warm fuzzies.

  2. I've heard rumours that there might be plans to do a reprint at some stage, but I'm not sure where that stands. Or perhaps they'll post some of these older pieces on the mag's website (


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