It’s pretty common to have your mind fixate on something like a song you just can’t get out of your head or an argument that didn’t end well. Human nature is a difficult thing sometimes, but it’s even worse when you can’t control it at all. Some things sink deep into your psyche and have an impact on how your brain works, if even for a short time, and none are more profound than the Tetris effect. And even though “Tetris” is in the title, it can spread to other decidedly non-Tetris games.
It’s a simple, documented phenomenon that goes beyond the blockbuster block stacking game but it is the place where most people will feel it. After looking at blocks for long periods of time, matching together their shapes, and slotting them together, your mind starts to work differently. It could be hours after an intense game of Tetris 99 or the titular Tetris Effect, and suddenly you’ll blink and falling blocks will flash before your eyes, or walls will start building in your dreams.
So, given the origins, it’s incredibly odd that the Tetris effect shows up in Apex Legends. The ping system is genius. Everyone should know about it already. You simply aim at whatever item, location, enemy or anything you wish to call attention to, and press a single button to alert your team. It’s so robust it can replace the need to use voice chat in a competitive shooter, and that’s incredible. Like using emojis, it can quickly become a simplistic second language, one that you can become fluent in quickly. And sadly, it has changed the way I think.
It’s too simple to just aim at an Ultimate Accelerant and expect my team’s Lifeline to pick it up. Even when on voice chat with my friends while playing Apex Legends, I find myself unusually silent, just listening to chatter and pinging whenever I want to draw their attention. Usually, my voice is reserved for bouts of swearing when I die. I’m fluent in a second language now, but that language is only useful in one video game, and it’s ruined my mind.
While walking through the gym, I noticed someone had left their expensive protein shaker on the floor. I’m not going to pick it up and start asking people if it’s theirs, I’m just going to leave it there, hoping it finds its owner eventually. But when I saw it, the first thing I tried to do was ping it. I stood there, in real life, looking at a real object, and my first instinct was to press a button on a controller I didn’t have. And this isn’t an isolated incident, I find myself wanting a ping button to point things out to friends, or asking them if they want something when my voice is perfectly capable.
With the Tetris effect, tetrominoes can be seen without you even thinking about them, and it makes the game even more addictive. With the ping system, Apex Legends has managed to penetrate my mind on a daily basis in the same way. Even when far removed from both games, days after playing either, sometimes I just blink or try to give someone something, and suddenly the games have returned to my mind, right in the forefront. Games, much less ones in the battle royale genre, don’t usually do this, but Apex Legends has, which is a testament to how well designed it is.
How the Tetris effect expresses itself in Apex Legends works because of how it affects our procedural (or unconscious) memory. Tetris programs that part of our brain to search for perfect fits, anticipate upcoming blocks, and clear out stacks. People with memory loss issues who can’t remember playing the game may also have dreams about the blocks in their sleep. Even when it is completely out of your sight and even out of your conscious memory, the Tetris blocks stay with you. It’s this factor that makes Tetris such an addictive experience along with other pattern-based games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
It’s this penetration into your psyche that makes the Tetris effect so pronounced and inescapable. It makes the game you play a part of your mind. While it’s clearly a prevalent experience when playing puzzle and rhythm games, very rarely does it happen with other genres. But by changing the way I communicate, it has happened in Apex Legends through its nonverbal pinging.
Pinging is the most essential and noteworthy part of Respawn’s battle royale for how it helps players in the moment, but it’s also impressive in how it can rewire us in a way similar to Tetris. Puzzles games are designed to hook you in that way but first-person shooters aren’t, which makes the Tetris effect showing up in Apex Legends that much more surprising and impressive.
While I might not always appreciate the Tetris effect — especially when I’m trying to get work done — it’s undoubtedly the sign of a quality title. When a game sinks so deep into your mind that it becomes unforgettable, whether you like it or not, you know you’ve found something that has gone far beyond a great game and an experience that has sunk its hooks deep into you. Now I just need to become a battle royale champion…