‘The Tetris Murders’ Explores the Sinister Theories Behind the Video Game Co-Developer’s Grisly Death

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Discovery
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Discovery

The Tetris Murders can’t resist having someone compare its true-crime homicide investigation to the famous video game, since both were intricate puzzles with lots of pieces that had to be put together in just the right order. One might additionally say that ID and Discovery+’s three-part docuseries (out Dec. 5) wants to tell a mysterious tale that’s so addictive, and becomes so lodged in viewers’ minds, that it replicates the “Tetris Effect”—a condition in which gamers see visions of Tetris’ falling blocks long after they’ve stopped playing.

Such cutesy parallels aside, however, there is considerable intrigue to this re-examination of an infamous tragedy—even if, unfortunately, there appears to be no definitive way to solve it.

The Tetris Murders is an inquiry into the strange case of Vladimir Pokhilko, the co-developer of Tetris, who on Sept. 22, 1998, was found by a friend in his Palo Alto, California, home, dead of a severe knife wound to the neck. His wife, Yelena Fedotova, and 12-year-old son, Peter Pokhilko, were also deceased, having been bludgeoned to death with a hammer and then repeatedly stabbed. Responding Palo Alto CSI Tech Investigator Sandra Brown, Sergeant Curtis Chan, Sergeant Scott Wong, and detectives Mike Denson and Jean Bready all recall that it was a nasty, bloody scene. At least on the surface, it appeared to be a clear-cut murder-suicide, given that Vladimir was holding the knife used to cut his throat and he had left a suicide note—which, bizarrely, read, “I’ve been eaten alive—Vladimir. Just remember that I am exist—The Davil.”

Grigoriy Shapirshteyn states that his friend Vladimir wasn’t a religious man, so his final missive’s reference to Satan made little sense. As Brown and her colleagues soon learned, that wasn’t the only baffling aspect of this horror show. Two different hammers had been used, one for each victim. After Yelena and Peter were fatally clubbed, the killer procured a knife and stabbed both of their corpses exactly 11 times. After that, he went into the bathroom, washed the knife off in the sink, and wiped down the faucets—and the hammers—so they’d have no fingerprints. If Vladimir was the perpetrator, he then wrote the note, burned a bunch of financial and travel-related documents in his backyard barbecue, and killed himself in thoroughly awkward fashion, gashing himself with a blade gripped in his right hand in the right side of his neck, making a four-inch downward cut that was so deep, officers could see the back of his larynx and his spinal cord. Even after doing that, Vladimir held onto the knife, which was found clutched in his hand, boasting only palm (not finger) prints.

To Brown, Chan, Wong, Denson, and Bready—all of whom participate in The Tetris Murders—this reeked, suggesting that someone had staged the scene to make it look like Vladimir was the culprit. Their subsequent peek into the family’s life and history didn’t change that impression. Vladimir was a Soviet immigrant who had worked as a psychologist at a Moscow medical center in the 1980s before turning his attention to computers, which he believed could have fascinating and productive psychological applications. During this period, he met Alexey Pajitnov, who had taken his love of pentominoes—a game in which you create pictures by piecing together five differently shaped blocks—and reimagined it as Tetris. Vladimir was immediately entranced by this interactive title, and spent a year helping develop it alongside Alexey, with whom he formed the company AnimaTek and, afterwards, moved to the United States in 1991.

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Tetris’ intellectual property rights quickly became tangled thanks to post-Soviet corruption, but they finally wound up in the hands of Alexey, who formed The Tetris Company with Henk Rogers. Vladimir, meanwhile, concentrated most of his energy on AnimaTek, all as his wife Yelena—who had been a successful yoga instructor in her homeland—tried to turn a profit with her new American studio. At the time of their deaths, Vladimir and Yelena were apparently facing financial difficulties, with Vladimir forced to lay off workers in Russia and the U.S. Yet everyone interviewed by the Palo Alto PD reported that they were a generally happy clan, and a brief news clip depicts one of Peter’s teachers praising the boy as a uniquely gifted student.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Palo Alto Police Department officers conduct an impromptu conference Sept. 22, 1998 at the scene where three bodies were discovered in a home. It was later revealed that Vladimir Pokhilko murdered his wife Yelena Fedotova and 12-year-old son Peter Pokhilko before taking his own life.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images</div>

Palo Alto Police Department officers conduct an impromptu conference Sept. 22, 1998 at the scene where three bodies were discovered in a home. It was later revealed that Vladimir Pokhilko murdered his wife Yelena Fedotova and 12-year-old son Peter Pokhilko before taking his own life.

MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

What, then, could be the explanation for this calamity? The Tetris Murders throws out a variety of theories, the majority of them having to do with the Russian mafia and their potential financial connections to Vladimir. There’s much detailed talk about late-1990s Russia as a gangster state epitomized by newly installed FSB chief Vladimir Putin, and how oligarchs and mobsters ruled the roost, demanding sizable cuts from any profitable homegrown operation. That idea sounds plausible, and the fact that the FBI swiftly involved itself in the case—and, as further revelations exposed, had been watching Vladimir before the murders, as part of a separate investigation—only boosted such suspicions. That was especially true for Brown, who spends most of The Tetris Murders expressing skepticism that this was a murder-suicide, even though two separate autopsies determined that it was, officially closing the books on her efforts.

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There’s a lot of smoke in The Tetris Murders, but it doesn’t amount to an illuminating conflagration. Like so many docuseries, insinuation and implication take precedence over actual hard evidence, such that it seems entirely believable that Vladimir didn’t kill himself or his wife and child, if far from definitively provable. Thus, this Discovery+ docuseries is something of a tantalizing tease, and is undercut by the streamer’s middling aesthetics. Corny dramatic recreations are plentiful throughout the course of these three episodes, as are overdone musical cues, slow motion, and cliffhanger commercial-break soundbites that were ostensibly scripted by a team of writers. Television’s nonfiction standards aren’t particularly high these days, and they won’t be elevated much by this latest offering.

Still, The Tetris Murders isn’t interested in formal daring; it just wants to scrutinize a beguiling triple homicide that was related to one of the world’s most popular video games. Those ambitions may be modest, but as Tetris itself proves, sometimes simplicity can be surprisingly, and intensely, transfixing.

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