On Tetris and Reimplementation

Stephen Brennan • 12 June 2015

I’m the kind of programmer that likes to implement everything myself. That’s not to say I don’t believe in other people’s work. But rather, I believe that if I do something myself, I will gain a lot more from it than if I use someone else’s implementation. For instance, I’ve implemented my own regular expression parser in C, using my very own C data structures library. Hopefully I’ll post a bit more about those in the future.

Without a doubt I’ve gained tons of experience and knowledge by doing those things myself. So it kind of makes sense that I would continue that process by doing another project that’s already been done, all for the sake of learning how to do it. This time, I tackled the game of Tetris. To keep it interesting, I decided to do it in C.

This actually isn’t my first game in C – I wrote a Minesweeper clone in C a few weeks back. I never blogged about it, but I might in the future, since it was a fun project. That experience probably helped guide me through this process.

Making C GUIs

The thing about writing games is that you have to focus on the interface. I’ve got plenty of experience writing libraries (i.e. code that other programmers can use to make their programs). Libraries are nice. You think about how you, a programmer, would like to use the service your library provides. You come up with names for all the functions, along with descriptions of how they should work. You write example code that uses your hypothetical library, to see how comfortable it is. Then, you start implementing those functions. There’s no “user interface” per se. You spend all your time thinking like a programmer, which is very intellectually interesting. But most software is written for users, and games are probably the most user-oriented software around.

C doesn’t really give you lots of simple options for user interfaces. There is the classic command line interface (read from the console, print to the console). That type of interface is nice, because all you need to do is deal with incoming text and outgoing text. Unfortunately, not only is that unsuitable for most games, but most users run screaming away from a terminal (i.e. command prompt) window.

On the other extreme of C GUI programming, you have the world of window toolkits. These libraries give you the power to create windowed programs like you’re used to seeing on a desktop computer. There are quite a few of these toolkits. Microsoft Windows, of course, comes with one. Linux has a wide array of them, with the GTK being a prime example. Unfortunately, any windowing toolkit in C involves copious amounts of boring and difficult to understand code. The reason behind this is simple: C is a rather low level programming language. In general, programming languages are bad for describing GUIs. The lower level they are, the more work it is to describe what your interface looks like in code.

Fortunately, there is a happy middle ground. For somebody who wants to quickly write a simple Tetris game, this middle ground is perfect. Instead of printing and reading lines of text to the console, what if you could draw your interface on it? Since consoles are simple grids of characters, it would be easy to make a grid-oriented game like Tetris that way. As it turns out, this is a fairly common interface style (especially for Linux/Unix programs). Plus, there is one pretty much universal library for making these interfaces, called ncurses.

ncurses gives you the ability to do some very cool things with a terminal window. While a typical C program can only add text to the terminal by printing, ncurses programs have the ability to move the cursor around on the terminal, and put individual characters wherever you’d like on the screen. In this way, an ncurses program can build a user interface with lots of interactivity, directly on the terminal window.

Building Tetris

So, I decided pretty much from the beginning that I wanted to make Tetris using ncurses. The next step along the way was building the game logic. My goal was to have my Tetris game logic completely separate from the user interface logic. I achieved this by having two code files: tetris.c and main.c. tetris.c has no idea about a user interface, because main.c handles all of it. Similarly, main.c doesn’t know anything more about how Tetris is implemented than what I made public in the tetris.h header file. The reasoning for this is pretty simple. You should write code that does only one thing, and does it well. If you take a sloppy approach and do two things in the same code (like implement Tetris game rules in your user interface), you’re more likely to mess up both of them. Plus, an important bonus of this approach is that I can make a new interface for my Tetris game without ever touching tetris.c.

Game Logic

I initially thought that Tetris would be trivially simple to write. A little bit of research showed me that there’s actually a lot more to it than you might think. For instance, you take it for granted that when you rotate a block against the wall, it will “kick” out (instead of getting stuck). That (and every other special behavior) is something you need to keep in mind as you build the game.

I started with a simple game loop, and filled it out over time. The function tg_tick() (tg stands for tetris_game) performs a single iteration of the game loop. It looks like this:

  Do a single game tick: process gravity, user input, and score.  Return true if
  the game is still running, false if it is over.
bool tg_tick(tetris_game *obj, tetris_move move)
  int lines_cleared;
  // Handle gravity.

  // Handle input.
  tg_handle_move(obj, move);

  // Check for cleared lines
  lines_cleared = tg_check_lines(obj);

  tg_adjust_score(obj, lines_cleared);

  // Return whether the game will continue (NOT whether it's over)
  return !tg_game_over(obj);

Let’s tackle this line by line. First up is tg_do_gravity_tick(). In Tetris, the falling block moves down every so often due to gravity. The higher your level, the quicker it moves down. So the gravity tick function will count down how much longer until the next time gravity “acts”. If it is time to pull down the block, the function does so, and then resets the timer, using your difficulty level to figure out how long until the next gravity action.

After the gravity tick, the game handles user input by calling tg_handle_move(). This function takes a tetris_move, which can be any of the moves you’re used to doing in Tetris: move right, move left, drop, rotate, or put a block on hold. It executes that move, and returns.

Now that gravity and user input are handled, it’s possible that some of the lines of the board have been filled up. So, we call the tg_check_lines(obj) function to count those lines, and remove them. And then we update the score based on how many lines were cleared. Scoring depends on both your level, and the number of blocks you cleared.

Finally, the user interface code that calls this tg_tick() function will want to know when the game is over. So, tg_tick() returns true while the game is running, and false once the game has ended.

There’s a decent amount more code that goes into the tetris game logic - tetris.c totals almost 500 lines. I’m not going to present it all in a blog post. It’s fairly interesting, because that code needs to know every type of tetromino, and what orientations they have. It has to do collision detection, and handle “wall kicks” when you rotate the pieces. If you’re interested in exactly how I did it, you can see more at the GitHub repository.

User Interface

Of course, all of the code for the game logic above did nothing to display the game to the user. It simply modified the structure of the game in memory. The job of displaying that game, and handling the user’s input, was done by main.c.

I would like to show the main function of main.c, but I feel like it is too long to show in this block post. It’s not complex or difficult to understand, but there are many lines and most of the specifics aren’t relevant. But, I can give a reasonable pseudocode explanation of how it works.

int main(int argc, char **argv)
  // If the user gave a filename, load the saved game.  Otherwise, start a new
  // game.

  // Initialize the ncurses display library.

  // Do the main game loop:
  while (running) {

    // Call tg_tick() to move the game forward.

    // Display the new game state.

    // Sleep for a bit (otherwise the game would be too fast.

    // Get user input for the next loop.

For more information on the user interface code, you can look at main.c in the GitHub repository.

The End Product

At the end of the day, my simple Tetris implementation is pretty complete. In just over a day of work, I implemented most of the features of Tetris:

The only thing I really wasn’t able to do was play the Tetris theme song in the background. Maybe some day I could come back to it, but the options out there for simply playing sound in C aren’t very good.

If you want to try it, it would be best for you to be running Linux. You’ll need to have ncurses installed (for Ubuntu, that means running sudo apt-get install libncurses5-dev). Then, get the GitHub repository, compile with make, and run with bin/release/main.


In this post, I’ve spent a lot of time on the implementation of my Tetris clone. And, to be sure, I think it’s worth talking about. I think I came up with a pretty decent design, and that makes some of the code (like tg_tick()) very nice to look at. What’s more, it’s a program I seriously enjoy playing, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. However, I’d like to conclude with a bit of a philosophical diversion regarding reimplementation.

When I told my girlfriend I was writing Tetris, the first words out of her mouth were along the lines of “hasn’t that already been done?”. That’s a pretty reasonable reaction. And the truth is, of course it has. If that were the criteria for writing programs, most of the code I’ve written in my life wouldn’t exist. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for doing something new and different, and even more to be said for code reuse. But doing something old and the same is not nearly as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Practice makes perfect, and practicing by reproducing the big name, important programs out there (like shells, regular expressions, web servers, firewalls, and other games) is the best way to hone your programming skills, while expanding your domain-specific knowledge by leaps and bounds.

Programmers that know loops, conditionals, functions, and classes are so common. They come out of universities like cupcakes out of a mold. You can do plenty with just that knowledge, but to me, that’s just the beginning of a much more exciting education. When you learn how real world problems are solved, you finally have a chance to do the things that you probably were told about in school, but never learned because you didn’t actually implement them. Plus, you get started on learning the domain specific knowledge (e.g. Linux, HTTP, TCP, ncurses, GTK, …) that nobody teaches you in school, but someday you’ll use every day in your job. And even if you don’t use that specific set of domain-specific knowledge, you’ll benefit from having your mind broadened with new tools and approaches that you wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.

In short, doing these little “reimplementation” projects has been a vital part of my education, complementing the computer science theory I learn in school. I’m certain that I wouldn’t be the programmer I am today without them. I can think in terms of C programming now. Pointers, arrays, structs, bits, bytes, and system calls are becoming second nature to me. I understand how programs do the things we take for granted like create processes, spawn threads, and communicate. I could talk your ears off about how packets are routed through the Internet, and how a firewall sifts through them, especially in Linux. I adore the Chomsky Hierarchy, and would love to tell anybody who listens about how the pure theory of regular languages and finite automata has led to the implementation of regular expressions, one of the most widely used computer tools in the world.

With the understanding and experience gained from reimplementation projects, I think in new and better ways. I see the connections between new problems and old ones. I think in terms of how to re-use the best ideas. I’m getting better at recognizing why design decisions were made. I can approach problems in the same disciplined manner I’ve observed in other implementations. The discrete bits of information I’ve picked up are merging into a new kind of understanding: a combination of broad knowledge, better approaches, and a recognition of how little I actually know. And the best part is, I’m just 20 years old. Some people have been programming longer than that. Imagine what sort of experience I’ll have in another 10 years! Probably enough to make me think that everything I’m doing now is silly!

So, as I get ready to stop the rambling and get off my soapbox, my final thought is simple. Let’s do more re-implementation. Let’s try writing the code that we rely on, even if we think we “already know how it works.” Chances are, it’ll make us all better.


Creative Commons License

Stephen Brennan's Blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License