AFF Review: Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters


[For the next week, I’ll be covering indie films and upcoming wide releases at Austin Film Festival in Texas.]

Ecstasy of Order is an ambitious project with 130 hours of film edited over eight months. Like King of Kong, it’s an amusing glimpse into a obscure subculture full of eccentric characters. What sets this film apart, however, is the intensity of its subjects, their troubled histories, and film’s unique look into the lonely childhood of the competitive videogame player. In the end, all these characters make the most of what they are given. Life isn’t fair. Neither is Tetris.

There is no “King of Kong” in this film, but there are a handful of characters with a lot of heart and humor that will win you over. Ecstasy of Order will charm Tetris-fanatics and non-gamers alike. Above all, this is a film for anybody who ever struggled to complete a difficult game or have the #1 score on a cabinet at their local arcade.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
Director: Adam Cornelius
Rating: Unrated
Country: USA

Despite Tetris being one of the most popular games of all time — according to the documentary, half of the U.S. population has played it — the game never had a reigning champion. It’s never had a Billy Mitchell. After 1990 Nintendo World Champion contender Robin Mihara decides to find the Mitchell of Tetris, competitive player/filmmaker Adam Cornelius decided to document the process of finding the true Tetris champion. Soon enough, they had gathered a wild bunch of players from across the U.S. and put them together in an L.A. auditorium for the grandest Tetris tournament since the 1990 NWC.

Much like King of Kong, Ecstasy of Order follows the lives of the top U.S. players of an iconic ‘80s videogame. Between these two films, I get the feeling that anyone who pursues a top-score in a 20+ year old game has to be a pretty eccentric.  

Ecstasy of Order never presents a rivalry. As a result, some of the tension of King of Kong is lost. On the other hand, the variety of amiable, hilarious characters lends the film a much more jovial tone. Watching the camaraderie grow between the players is part of the fun and part of what makes it difficult to root for one over the other.

From beginning to end, you never get the sense that there is a player destined to win. Is it the legendary 1990 NWC-champion Thor Aackerland, who mysteriously disappeared in the mid-90s? Or will it be one of the cocky new players who learned all their moves on YouTube?

The film opens with Ben Mullen, a nerd’s nerd: He wears nothing but videogame T-shirts, he won his girlfriend over by teaching her how to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and he has played 296-line Tetris games (a feat most other players dream about achieving.) Each of the film’s subjects has their quirks, special techniques, and moment to shine.

Harry Hong is a determined player who wraps his hand in a T-shirt to protect his precious thumbs. After years of trying, he maxed out the Tetris score (999,999 points) and drank the bottle of Johnny Walker he’d been saving for two years. Jonas Neubauer, another key player, developed a technique where he goes all crazy-eyed so he can get a better look at the upcoming block box on the right-side of the screen. Then there is Dana Wilcox, a female player competing in a culture dominated by men. She is a lesbian, which is ironic because she’s a “one-way flipper” (she only uses one button to flip blocks; a rare trait in a top-tier player).

Every character in the film is fascinating, but the film keeps things interesting by rolling them out at a deliberately slow pace. It’s only near the end of the film that we get to meet Thor, the grandmaster of Tetris, and Alex, the face of the new generation of Tetris who learns games by reading the code line-by-line. He’s one of 30 players to become a grandmaster of Tetris: The Grand Master, which requires the player to clear lines WITH with all previously placed blocks rendered invisible! No wonder he has a fan-made manga about him in Japan.

Alongside introducing the players at the top of the Twin Galaxies‘ leaderboard, the first-half of Ecstasy of Order gives a good introduction to the game of Tetris. Even if you aren’t a fan, the explanation of the rules and advanced techniques are captivating and help make the stakes of tournament-play feel tangible. When a player hasn’t had a line-block for a minute (a “drought”), you know he is screwed. By the end of the film, you feel like you might have a shot at the title of U.S. champion due to all the information the film feeds you.

The one area where Ecstasy of Order falters is in its final tournament. It lacks the sort of tension and fanfare you want to see, after so much build-up. To be fair, the event wasn’t the sort of crowd-puller that a Donkey Kong or Street Fighter tournament have become. In fact, the winner only received $1,000 but it’s clear that the bragging rights  and challenge are all that matter to these players. I still think the scene could have been shot better — we don’t even see audience reactions!

There are some moments where the editing and filmaking leave something to be desired, but the overall production quality is worthy of theater distribution. I can’t overstate how brilliant the film’s score is and how far it goes in giving the film a unique tone. Done with all analog keyboards, the film has a surreal, dark tone that accompanies it through it’s ’80s cyberpunk-like soundtrack. Think Mass Effect or Blade Runner and you aren’t far off.

No film this year has impacted me more than Jon Rafman’s short Codes of Honor. Within a surreal, futuristic world, Rafman depicts the loneliness of the hi-score chaser and competitive videogame player in a way never before attempted. In It, he explores the yearning for greatness of a young player  and the strange form of nostalgia that later accompanies a gamer in life. We are as nostalgic for virtual worlds as much as we are for simpler times in the real world.

The Wizard depicted the glory, King of Kong captured the competitive edge, but I’ve been waiting for a feature-length film to faithfully show the collective drive and bond between competitive players, alongside the lonely pursuit that comes with hi-score chasing. Ecstasy of Order is as close as a filmmaker has come to capturing this spirit in a full-length film. I’m not even a Tetris fan and I have no hesitance in saying Ecstasy of Order is one of the best videogame films of all time.