Chances are, you know the name Alexey Pajitnov. Arguably the most famous game designer to come out of Russia, he gave the world Tetris, which is regularly referred to as one of the greatest video games of all time.
However, the name Vladimir Pokhilko might be less familiar - despite the fact that he is often credited as co-creating the game alongside Pajitnov, and would later work with him on other video games. While Pajitnov continues to live off the fame of his most famous creation, Pokhilko has faded into history.
Pokhilko was a Russian academic and a clinical psychologist whose work included using puzzles as psychological tests. He was a close friend of Pajitnov's, and when he was shown the concept of Tetris, he convinced Pajitnov that it would make a perfect video game. Pokhilko helped shape the final product, and post-launch used the puzzler to conduct clinical psychological experiments.
However, due to the political climate in Russia at the time, neither Pajitnov nor Pokhilko were able to make any money off the game. Because it had been created during work time on state-owned equipment, Soviet authorities demanded the rights to the title, which were duly transferred to the state-owned company Elektronorgtechnica (ELORG).
The story of how Tetris became the hottest property in video games - and created a massive legal bust-up involving the likes of Nintendo, Mirrorsoft, Sega and Tengen - has been covered many, many times in the past. Deals were conducted by Dutch businessman Henk Rogers, who would work with Pajitnov and Pokhilko to establish AnimaTek, a Moscow-based 3D software company. This venture gave the pair the means to generate their own capital away from the state-owned Academy of Science of the Soviet Union, and Pajitnov continued to search for that elusive Tetris successor.
Games like Welltris, Hatris (which Pokhilko co-invented - he's even included as a character in the NES version) and Wordtris couldn't replicate the critical and commercial performance of his breakthrough hit, however. 1990's Faces - co-created with Pokhilko - was also given a lukewarm response.
In 1991, Rogers convinced Pajitnov and Pokhilko to leave Russia and move to the US, where they established an AnimaTek studio in San Francisco. Two years later saw the release of aquarium sim El-Fish - a moderately successful PC title - and in 1995 they produced the FPS Ice & Fire together.
In 1996, the Soviet hold on the rights to Tetris expired and they reverted back to Pajitnov, finally giving him the chance to make some money from his most famous creation. Pajitnov and Rogers formed The Tetris Company, which continues to oversee the game's licensing to this very day.
Sadly for Pokhilko, the outlook was less positive. He was left at AnimaTek, a studio which was struggling to keep its head above water. To make matters worse, economic problems in Russia - where most of the company's staff were based - began to apply even more pressure.
While his friend and former business associate Pajitnov was beginning a new chapter in his life which would bring the wealth and recognition he had been so cruelly denied following the initial success of Tetris, Pokhilko's story was about to come to an abrupt and tragic end. On the night of September 21st, 1998, Pokhilko used a hammer and hunting knife to murder his wife Elena while she slept. He then killed his 12-year-old son Peter using the same tools. Pokhilko then slit his own throat with the knife and was found by the police on the floor of his son's bedroom.
A note was discovered at the scene, the contents of which were not disclosed until 1999. It read:
I've been eaten alive. Vladimir. Just remember that I am exist. The devil.
It has been reported that Squaresoft showed up the following Wednesday at AnimaTek's offices, ready to pay $200,000 for the company's services - money that could have eased the company's problems and Pokhilko's suffering.
Pokhilko's actions have no doubt resulted in his contributions to video games being airbrushed from history. Tetris is, after all, the perfect rags-to-riches tale which proves the endurance of the human spirit. However, while Pajitnov was able to eventually regain the rights to Tetris and gain his just reward, his friend and co-creator Pokhilko was left behind to run a failing company which would eventually drive him to the brink; without him, we may not have had Tetris at all, and without Tetris, would the Game Boy been as successful?
Thanks to Nintendo Life contributor and all-round good egg Chris Scullion for bringing this tale to our attention. If you don't follow him on Twitter already, you really should.