Battling Blocks with a narrative lens – Looking at Tetris with a narrative lens

Since the future of Twitter is looking a little uncertain, I’ve started archiving threads on my blog. To set the scene a narrative designer has said the magic phrase ” But everything in the game is narrative!”.

A steely eyed colleague/friend/spartan looks back across the void of the birdsite. They stop, smile ( even through the helmet if they are a Spartan). They invoke the spell.

” But what about Tetris?”

Ahh I have just posted they think. Well it’s great because you can post right back…

Dramatic recreation of Twitter to give context for future generations.

Looking at Tetris with a narrative lens:

Every so often you get threads bounce around Twitter which boil down to: 

– If all games are narrative what about Tetris? 

– If Tetris is narrative then does the term narrative have any meaning? Do we need narrative designers? 

This is actually more than one discussion. 


The way the term ‘narrative game’ is used at the moment is really more of a Steam user tag. Used that way it’s fine it probably means you’re looking with a game with a story or characters. That’s the kind of game people also most associate with ‘needing’ a narrative designer. 

But if you’ve followed me long enough you’ll have heard me say that all the parts of the game inform the narrative. It’s the what you’re doing and why. The mechanics, art, music, code all of it come together to form the experience. 

I think it was @Kanaratron who called this holistic design, and even games labelled as narrative can struggle to work this way. You get the old writer v narrative designer argument, or all the common problems projects have with communication/siloing. 

But this isn’t a thread about that specifically. This thread is about the narrative design of TETRIS. Tetris has been around in many forms since Alexey Pajitnov made it in 1984, and who didn’t get the right back to it until 1996. That’s yet another story.

In 1996 he cofounded the Tetris Company to manage the rights and we’ve had some absolutely great Tetris games since then. 

So we’re going to discuss using narrative tools 

to shape game design by looking at two different Tetris games. Puyo Puyo Tetris and Tetris Effect. 

First up Puyo Puyo Tetris. Puyo Puyo Tetris is a mash up of the two aforementioned game series. Puyo Puyo is itself a spinoff of RPG Madō Monogatari. It features characters from those series who represent different powers/playstyles and since it was based on an RPG a story mode. 

Even the blocks have eyes!

What does a story mode in a puzzle game like this do? It uses stages of a story to set up pre configured puzzles for the player. So when it came to design Puyo Puyo Tetris it gets a story mode because it evokes the feeling of Puyo Puyo.

Again using the idea of a story mode to present challenges, it uses it to present the player with variations of the Tetris/Puyo rulesets. Tetris also gets its own mascot characters to balance things out. 

The whole thing has a cute anime aesthetic and music.

Screenshot of Puyo Puyo tetris

Feels quite different to this though doesn’t it? Sure Tetris has had some mechanics like hold etc added but here’s a classic example of how look/feel evolves and can change. As an aside Puyo Puyo Tetris when played in just Tetris mode is a really great version of Tetris. 

Now Tetris Effect, specifically here Tetris Effect Connected. It’s named after the Tetris Effect which happens when you do an activity so much it impacts on your everyday life. 

I got this really badly when I binged Portal, I kept thinking every white tile I saw would be a great place for a portal. 


It’s obviously named after Tetris. Mizuguchi games often focus around music and feeling. Those games are designed to experiment with your senses and for the player to have holistic experiences, and hey here’s that term again.

It also features a single player mission mode..but there are no cut scenes here. Instead we’re treated to various stages with distinct visuals and soundscapes. The music is perfectly tuned to fit gameplay. As it’s meant to be one experience. 

The first level ” the Deep” is set underwater, tranquil music plays. Bubbles pop, fish swim about. 

Well actually they are using narrative tools to theme this level as underwater. There are bubbles, fish, tranquil music. The controller vibrates in time. 

The mission mode is a journey across time and space. It’s on a great big space map. This theming appears across much of the game, including player avatars. There’s a lot of work gone into making everything tie together and yet all cross many themes and genres. 

There’s even a special point scoring mode called “Zone” and I don’t think this is a mistake. We often say we’re in the zone when we’re concentrating. Tetris Effect is a journey designed to invoke immersion. Yes, this is Tetris. 

So Connected. When they added Multiplayer they again applied narrative tools. It’s a theme. The Multiplayer update has a ton of modes but the main one has three players take on AI bosses. Their grids start seperate.

But to do damage to the boss, you have to play well enough that your grids merge. Suddenly you’re all connected the music swells and the lyrics say ” We’re all connected.” It’s on the nose but it gets away with it because it’s a banger. 

So there you go you can use narrative tools when making a version of Tetris. It’s a skillset. Narrative Designers are specialists in this. Not every game will have one, but I’d certainly hope someone has that skillset. 

A narrative designer is a specialist who can spend their time thinking about how to use all the tools and systems at the team’s disposal to make better games. Of course that goes hand in hand with everyone on the team thinking that way at least some of the time. 

So anyway this has been a thread that’s been brewing in my head for a while. I’ll recommend you two talks if you want to think about these things some more. First this one by Nintendo. 

Look at the way the characters, the mechanics and the world tie together. Nintendo are masters at this, even if you don’t think of many of their franchises being narrative. Many Nintendo designers even say it’s not important to them..but you can learn from them! 

If you have GDC Vault look up ” Storytelling in Small Spaces ” it’s about the little things games can do to impact the player. It’s focused around a casual game but a lot of bigger games can learn from it. 

So there you go you can learn narrative design from looking at Tetris. Design cohesive considered games. Try not to fall in the trap of making disconnected content. Words are a single tool in a whole toolbox.

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