Last week, I watched someone pull off one of the most impressive gaming feats I've seen in a long time. He was playing Tetris, and the pieces were invisible. I had to find out how he did it.
The amazing Tetris player above is kevinddr, aka 21-year-old Kevin Birrell. Everyone's cheering because he's achieved master rank in Tetris: The Grandmaster 3. To do so, Birrell had to play a seven-minute game of Tetris where, almost immediately, the pieces drop to the bottom. As if that wasn't hard enough, at the end, he had to drop pieces without being able to see them.
A little removed from his accomplishment at this year's Awesome Games Done Quick, Birrell is still catching his breath. He turned his phone off for a while because his Twitter account exploded. The way Birrell had set Twitter up, each mention became a text message. His parents couldn't even call to say congratulations.
"It was really weird," said Birrell. "You have to understand. When we play this game, the community for this game is niche within niche communities. It's so small because the game itself is super brutal. It's this weird Japanese arcade release that hardly anyone knows about."
Tetris isn't niche, though. I've shown Birrell's video to people who barely play games and they're always blown away. Tetris has, over the years, achieved a cultural status other games can only dream about. Nearly everyone knows what Tetris is and understands how to play it.
You might not be up-to-date on Tetris lingo though. Here's a quick glossary:
- Tetris The Grandmaster: A Japanese variant of Tetris released in arcades.
- Tetrises: Clearing four lines at once.
- Auto-shift: A piece automatically moving sideways as soon as it spawns into the game.
- Delay: Time between when a piece permanently locks into place and a new piece spawns.
- Gravity (G): What determines how fast a piece moves downward.
- Cool!!: A piece of positive feedback from the game by clearing lines of blocks.
While the entire Tetris section of AGDQ is worth watching, Birrell's performance and those elusive invisible blocks is what captured everyone's imagination. I'd recommend watching the run, then coming back here for a breakdown of what exactly happened. It starts at 01:03:00.
Impressive, right? The invisible credits sequence, which is the only way for a player to achieve the incredibly difficult master rank, is unlocked by meeting the following requirements:
- Master is the one of the game's hardest rankings, and clearing blocks and getting tetrises contributes to the game's internal grading system. You must clear a lot of blocks very fast.
- For the first half of the game, during each section, you must achieve at least two tetrises.
- In the rest of the game, it's one tetris per section.
- Clear the next section no more than two seconds longer than the previous section.
Phew. There's a little more to it, but that's the gist.
The First Two Minutes
Notice how quick Birrell drops the pieces into place. That's because Birrell has already determined where the piece is going before it's spawned.
The average Tetris player lets a piece appear, then moves it towards its destination. Not here. Birrell is queueing up pieces in advance of the pieces actually becoming part of the game. In effect, he's thinking several moves ahead of what's actually being loaded into the Tetris stack.
"You're putting in inputs before the pieces come onto the playfield," he said. "If you've locked a piece, if you hold a rotation button, when it spawns, it will make a little noise and the piece will come out pre-rotated. It lets you get around certain situations. [...] You can charge your auto-shift. You tap your button, the piece moves, and then it moves faster if you keep holding left or right. You can actually charge that auto-shift in the delay between pieces. So you can have a piece spawn, pre-rotated, and moving left to right at the maximum speed."
In the above GIF, he's getting the game to flash the word "cool!!"
"Cool!!" is usually a good sign. Usually. "Cool!!" can signify meeting a time requirement or clearing a bunch of pieces away. Music changes, however, mean the requirement's been met.
"Every piece you drop counts as one level, every line you clear counts as one level," he said. "A section cool is awarded when you go from 00-70 of each 100 levels within two seconds of the time you did it in the previous 100 levels. If I went from level 0-70 in 42 seconds, I would have to clear level 100-170 in no more than 44 seconds. The game is totally cruel, too. There's a couple other special conditions — like getting a ton of tetrises — that can make "COOL!" flash up on the screen. So unless you're mentally keeping track of your times throughout the game, it's hard to always know if you actually got the section cools, or if the game is just trolling you."
Here, Birrell has now hit maximum speed: 20G. Clearing lines means the speed picks up.
"20G is as fast as pieces can possibly drop in Tetris," he said. "20G means it literally drops 20 rows per frame. That's essentially instant drop, basically. The pieces effectively spawn on top of the stack."
Players are limited by the game's speed early on but the pace intensifies as the levels increase.
"At the lower levels, you can't play the game faster than it will let you, really," he said. "But from [level] 400 onwards, the delays between pieces start becoming really small. If you want, you can manually lock the pieces down very quickly. The game lets you play pretty fast at that point, so if you try to go faster than you can mentally handle, you might [make a mistake]. If you make a mistake, it will kill your time trying to cover and clean it up in that section. That could be enough to miss the cool for that section and your run is over, basically."
Once the game's running at maximum speed, the player's approach changes completely.
"The game goes," he said, "from these speedrun-style perfect placements — putting pieces in places that require the least amount of inputs at the start of the game — to a pure input speed game at the end. No other Tetris even comes close to that kind of depth."
It Only Takes One Mistake
It's barely noticeable, but Birrell shakes his head. He believes he's screwed up, dooming his run.
He asks someone nearby to check and see if he's missed a "cool!" If it's true, he'll have to make up for it by going faster.
"I thought I might have missed the cool entirely," he said. "That's the thing. It doesn't even have to be screwing up a stack. It could just be that you had a really fast section before, and maybe you had to pause mentally for just a little bit for one of the pieces in the next section. Then, you lost a second there. You had to pause a little bit for another one."
He didn't miss it, but he has to slow down.
This is what it looks like for Birrell to go "slow."
"Say you cleared a bunch of singles instead of tetrises," he said. "Then you've slowed your section down. It's tough because you have to hold back a little and not play as fast as you can, really, if you want to consistently get the cools. So if you make a mistake, you can go super turbo, slam the pieces down for the rest of the section, to make up for the time you lost."
We're nearing the finish line here. Birrell asks for silence.
"Yeah, it needs to be very quiet after this," he tells the audience. "It's going to get very hard."
"I can't believe I said that," he told me later. "There's so many speed runners who are like 'I need you guys to be quiet right now, this is a serious time.' I must just sound like a total blowhard arsehole…but it's kind of true."
He was asking for silence because the invisible credits section was about to kick in….now.
The (Invisible) Finish Line
This, my friends, is invisible Tetris. He's forced to play like this for an excruciating 58 seconds.
"The invisible rule is brain-frying," he said. "When I first learned about the invisible rule, when I was training — [it was] maybe like two months before I could start clearing it. It just fried my brain. I felt almost ill when I was practicing it. It's such a weird thing to memorise the stack."
This whole section is incredible to watch. While it requires an insane amount of practice and concentration, Birrell said people assume too much about how much he's truly memorising.
"There's a couple of techniques I use to help BS my way through it," he said. "Assuming I haven't made any significant mistakes, [I] just memorise the layout of the top of the stack — the shape of the outline of the top. The outline of the stack has a little white line around it. I pretty much just memorise that during the credit roll. I don't think about anything below. A lot of people think the invisible roll is crazy because 'how do you memorise the whole playing field?' You don't. You memorise the relative heights of ten columns. If you think about it, it's not that much to memorise. Assuming you don't make any mistakes. [laughs] That's the critical part. You're playing at the maximum speed of the game."
It's impossible for human eyes to notice, but as he nears the finish line, he makes a mistake.
"I must have [created] a hole in the playing field," he said. "which made things really difficult. If you don't know what column it's in, then you run into real trouble. You're relying on a piece going where you think it's going to go. If the piece gets caught in a hole, then you have such little time to react. What do you do? [laughs] If I don't know where a hole is, I'll place a piece in a column and jiggle it left and right really quickly. I'll be sliding it to the left, it will get caught in a hole, and I'll do a little right-left input on the joystick to see if it moves. If it doesn't move, then I know the hole is one-wide. I call it feeling your way around the play field."
It all goes according to plan, though. He pulls off master rank and the crowd goes wild.
"I felt like I was going to throw up before the run," he said. "Not because I was really nervous about performing, but this is the chance to get this game out there. No one knows about this game. We're totally unknown to the speed running community. The good feeling came from not letting myself down and not letting my community down. "