Henk Rogers is always looking for the next big thing, no matter the cost. That’s why he risked his home and his freedom for “Tetris.”
He knew the game, created in the Soviet Union, would break barriers and become a hit. So he wanted to arrange to bring “Tetris” to the rest of the world, by getting it included on a yet-to-be-revealed device from Nintendo called the Game Boy.
The young video game publisher flew to the Soviet Union from his Tokyo home in 1988 under the false pretext of a tourist visa, illegally entered government buildings and was monitored by KGB spies, all while the country’s Communist Party fell apart around him like tumbling blocks.
Rogers and a bureaucrat had to meet in parks to break down their deal. “It was dangerous – cars and rooms were all assumed to be bugged,” Rogers said in a recent interview from his home in New York City.
His journey and the complicated legal battle is the subject of a new film released last week in theaters and appearing on Apple TV Plus starting Friday. Also called “Tetris,” it’s a dramatic, slightly exaggerated retelling of how Rogers navigated a complex web of Soviet law, stacks of hastily worded contracts and shifty international business executives, including Robert Maxwell, the late media magnate who was later convicted of fraud and is the father of disgraced Jeffrey Epstein confidante Ghislaine Maxwell. That’s a lot of drama for a game about squares – but “Tetris” fulfilled Rogers’s instinct that it would broaden the video game market to appeal to more than just men, and it went on to sell more than half a billion copies worldwide.
“Tetris” was created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, who was then a programmer for the Soviet government. It became a 1980s version of a viral phenomenon, spreading among Russian workers. But because the game was created with government resources, Pajitnov didn’t see a penny of royalties at first. Rogers befriended Pajitnov during his negotiation attempts, and together they started the Tetris Company, which earns royalties for both of them.
The villain of the real-life story and film isn’t just corrupt Soviet politicians. Robert Maxwell was a sublicensee for “computer rights” to the game well before Rogers discovered it. Maxwell liberally interpreted his agreement with the Soviets to determine “computer” as any electronic device, including arcade and console machines. But he was not paying royalties for those devices to his licensee, and thus the Soviets, which angered the government once Rogers told them.
When he was approached about a movie, Rogers was initially apprehensive because “biopics can really be junk,” he said. He was eventually lured in by the quality of the script and the potential size of the production.
The script by Noah Pink caught director Jon Baird’s eye because it was written like a classic Cold War spy thriller. The real-life story is not that far off from the dramatization, which is peppered with a made-up car chase and Communist Party thugs grimacing at the camera longer than most humans would. Pink said he heard about the Tetris story in 2015 and “dropped everything” so he could learn more about it.
“Since I wrote the script on spec, I didn’t have access to Henk or Alexey until the second draft,” Pink says. “It was their recounting of events that convinced me this story was living in the world of spy thrillers. But that being said, this is also a story about a video game, and I wanted to subvert the genre by throwing in a bit of ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’ to the classic [John] le Carré genre.”
The comedy would come from the contrast between the low-stakes drama of video game licensing and the imminent crumbling of the Soviet Union. The actors played up their parts, with Roger Allam playing Maxwell as a stuffy, cocky British tycoon, and corrupt Soviet politicians growling in every scene.
But Baird said once the crew went to edit the film, he realized it was still a bit too grim and serious.
“It’s a fast-paced thriller, but it’s got a lovely heart to it, a buddy comedy, as well,” Baird says. “We got in edit, and we felt we had to lighten up slightly in terms of pace and have nods to the game, as well, so we started putting more graphic elements.”
These elements include pixelized transitions and depictions of Moscow that nod to 1980s video game visuals. They color up an otherwise drab city and energize the film’s introduction of its many characters.
Actor Taron Egerton, who nails the squirrelly energy of the real-life Rogers, met him through Zoom calls during the height of the pandemic.
“I’m a firm believer that as an actor, you try to see what qualities the character has, and you try and find those qualities in yourself and amplify them or reduce them,” Egerton says. “Henk seemed to me, having read the script, as somebody with abundant enthusiasm, a lot of energy and childlike wonder. I certainly have those qualities. as well, so they’re the sort of things I dialed into.”
Egerton says he was drawn to the lightheartedness of the film, especially after the heavier Apple miniseries “Black Bird.” “It felt like a nice kind of counterweight.”
The true heart of the story is the friendship between Rogers and Pajitnov. The two hit it off during the tense negotiations because although there was a language barrier, they were fluent in computer code. When in Russia, Rogers suggested that four lines should be cleared instead of one, thus forming the idea of completing a “tetris” for higher scores in the game.
Pajitnov says getting capital from the game wasn’t his initial priority or intention.
“I gave up on that. For me, I thought, I will make this game as fabulous as possible,” said Pajitnov, who now lives in Washington state. “Instead of money, it should deliver me glory, it should deliver me recognition and be very well published. … ‘Tetris’ has had such a great life, my baby. And you will have the opportunity to watch the most peak episode of the life of this game.”
Rogers says that after meeting Pajitnov, he made giving Pajitnov that glory (and money) another goal. “I asked him during my first visit: ‘I’m going to make money off this game. Can I pay you something?’ And Alexey says, ‘What, you want I should go to jail?'” Rogers says, mimicking Pajitnov’s still-thick Russian accent.
Rogers almost died in 2005 due to heart problems, and it prompted him turn to another form of altruism. He now spends most of his time as CEO of the Blue Planet Foundation, a charity focused on promoting 100 percent renewable energy. The foundation successfully lobbied Hawaii lawmakers to commit to that goal by 2045.
Rogers is bullish on clean energy as he was on “Tetris.”
“I always compare business to surfing: You can’t read about it in a book and expect to be able to know what to do,” says Rogers, a Hawaii resident for much of his life after studying computer science at the University of Hawaii. “That said, you will fall of your board a bunch of times, so don’t be afraid to fail. Fail early and often.”
In the end, Rogers hopes that people who watch “Tetris” walk away with the understanding that “great ideas have no borders,” a quote from the film.
“For me, friendship trumps ideologies and countries,” Rogers said. “This friendship is so much stronger than everything else going on. It just gives me hope that people will understand that with people everywhere in different countries and ideologies, we can all be friends.”
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