Pac-Man [1980]

Since Space Invaders [1978], the game in the arcade has become more clear: it’s all about managing and producing tension. If Space Invaders was a jazzed-up marching band tune, Pac-Man is an Alfred Schnittke all-out orchestral assault. It could not be a starker contrast to the stately Lunar Lander [1979], in its loud poison-frog colors and gratuitous police sirens, which function also as the Antiquity sirens, luring players to be dashed upon its rocks. The player is suspended in a constant state of moderate anxiety, peaking when you’re cornered and functionally doomed. If graphed, the difficulty curve and adrenaline levels would look less like a steady slope and more like erratic Richter scale jumps from 5 to 8. You can never be at rest. As if trying to eat a cake they made mostly of icing, every game of Pac-Man ends up tasting of chalk, or ashes, its only proper ending being a glitch. Not to lapse into mere consumer review, but I find Pac-Man actively unpleasant to experience. Fun is maybe the last word that would come to mind if you asked me to describe Pac-Man; it is a protracted, overstimulating simulated panic attack. A glimpse of a neon Hell.

Alfred Schnittke – String Quartet No. 2 II. Agitato [1981]


At least you’re not there, though. Every game so far (that we’ve covered — despite the historical trappings of a chronological approach I don’t think I’m qualified to rigorously pronounce anything as a true First —) are all in second-person, even (especially) our great narrative leap forward Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77]. In those games, even if you’re playing a role (such as Oregon Trail Settler,) you are embodied within the gameworld. Now, you are not Pac-Man, you merely puppeteer him. The iconic hieroglyphs of Space Invaders and their reception paved the way to this development, of not just Pac-Man but the ghosts. They’re each sketched with one word descriptors and bestowed with separate AI routines that give them unique personalities and approaches to chasing Pac-Man. (My favorite is Clyde.) In the pioneering cutscenes, we see Blinky, haplessly and gradually stripped of what is revealed to be a bedsheet ghost costume on some kind of barely-discernible flesh worm creature, in a wink to the theatrical artificiality of the whole endeavor that harkens again back to Colossal Cave.

This savvy injection of character that gives the audience something to latch onto and personify enabled the cast of Pac-Man to transcend simply being a video game and become the beachhead for a larger media franchise of Pac-Man cartoons, Pac-Man breakfast cereal, Pac-Man board games, etc. Pac-Man was designed from the ground up with marketing concerns in mind: for example, in the search for a new, more universal theme besides the perennial space and/or war. It was handsomely rewarded, upping the Space Invaders ante and becoming by most accounts the most successful coin-operated video game of all time. It’s not that this is a dishonest or invalidating or approach to art, but the motivations of market survival are a stark divergence from the motivation of hobbyists, and it elevates works that thrive in those conditions (like Pac-Man) to canonical, and works that may be good but not as well-engineered for its environment or promoted to obscurities.

Who is this Pac-Man character, though? First of all, setting a bad precedent, he could hardly be more explicitly gendered despite his featurelessness — despite the full intention of the designers and marketers to appeal to a broader demographic, including women. The cutscenes only show him running away from ghosts, then turning the tables with a power pellet; standard Pac-Man behavior, except without the eating. The designer, Toru Iwatani, posits him as a naive, childish figure, eyelessly blind to all but the basest of needs. A manifestation of yawning, infantile, animal id that cries out for our guiding minds and hands. Pac-Man is a computer’s parody of the basic mechanics of biological life.

Pac-Man is inarguably an emblem of consumption, and it follows that he’s also traditionally been interpreted as an emblem of go-go computer-fueled 1980s capitalism. (Not just by critics, either: the “Pac-Man Defense” is when you turn the tables on a hostile takeover of your business by taking over the attempted takeoverer instead.) After all, Pac-Man does not simply eat, he completely and compulsively clears his plate. This is not natural behavior, this is Homo Economicus at work, never-ending consumption and increasing profits with no limits until the apocalypse. In Pac-Man, we can finally be what society wants us to be. If, in Space Invaders, we could see the process of playing the game as akin to our labor, in Pac-Man, we see again masses of people drawn to a cartoonish, reductive reflection of the other half of the equation of ideal individual life from a corporation’s perspective. All that is missing from this model of the economy as experienced by the average person is any conceptualization of ownership — although it’s become clearer over time that ideally, we wouldn’t “own”, only rent. (For further exegesis on the intersection of Pac-Man and capitalist culture, you may want to check out Alex Wade’s The Pac-Man Principle, although be warned that it is one of those critiques that lapses into fits of talking straight past the work.)

The other traditional interpretation of Pac-Man is through the lens of addiction, usually to comic effect, like in video games-themed Newgrounds cartoons where Pac-Man could cameo as a strung-out twitchy pill-popper. Early Aphex Twin made the premise merely tongue-in-cheek and turning the noises of Pac-Man into a straightforward Jungle club anthem for pill-popping. That in turns brings to mind the more famous Pac-Man song, Buckner & Garcia’s chart-topping Pac-Man Fever, which illustrates the other half of this pop-culture perception: of the Pac-Man player as the addict, like in this bone-dry Lily Tomlin bit. The game itself even invites comparison to the slot machine, dangling those fruit symbols before you, and from there invites comparisons to the confusing layout, predatory gluttony, overstimulating onslaught of brightness color and sound, of Las Vegas, the worst city in North America. To this day, “addictive” is a positive word to apply in a game review. Addiction is the normal (or “normal”) consumption cycles of induced need gone haywire and insatiable, medically rewiring your mind and body for dependency. Unlike their matched counterpart the gangster, who reflects the entrepreneurial self-reliant aspects of capitalist culture going too far and is generally regarded with a tense but fruitful mixture of admiration, fear, and hatred, the figure of the addict is regarded with admonishment, ridicule, or pity — as a failure, in any case. Pac-Man, then, is one of the few works I can think of that truly celebrates and glorifies the addict.

There’s no way out. There’s no way in either. There’s no solution, and no confusion. We call Pac-Man’s map a maze or labyrinth by convention, but it’s not a maze-as-puzzle, even despite the Thesuesian breadcrumbs. This is not The Garden Of Forking Paths — there is no other possibility — so much as it is The Library Of Babel in its never-ending repetition, its symmetry, its tediously regular angles, its perfectly equal value across the whole board a contrast with the craggy and arbitrarily-valued lunar landscape. The empty starfield of Spacewar [1962] has been carved up with blue lines into discrete knots, the stars laid out evenly-spaced in a regular grid and made more than decoration. (In fact, there is no superfluous frippery.) Pac-Man lives in a mere tunnel complex, a rat in a sewer. As in Tank [1974] or Maze War [1973] before it, the map is a stage. The central challenge is not in navigating. You are indeed tasked with trodding on every part of this map, but that is a triviality, especially with your immediate absolute knowledge of its geography. The maze-as-puzzle, though, is an anthropologically new development: for far longer, the maze or labyrinth has been more of an icon, perhaps for contemplation, be it a tiled pattern of tangles and turns with no solution on the walls or floor creating the impression of incomprehensibility, or a single curling path, classically a spiral into the center. Both of these traditions speak to understandings of knowledge in the broadest sense and our place in the world, with religious connotations I opt to leave as an exercise for the reader. The mess maze, in creating a dazzling, overwhelming impression, tells us we can’t know it all and encourages us to submit to the sensation and implicitly release from cognition. The simple maze shows the importance of perspective, in that whilst inside it could be dizzying and isolating, from above it is immediately apprehendable, with a clear organizing principle leading to one point. Call it what you will, the God’s eye view, the bird’s eye view, the drone’s eye view: top-down, with no obstructions, is the most privileged and empowering of all viewpoints, barring perhaps the Cubist view from multiple angles at once. The puzzle maze can be seen as hybridizing the two, but points towards yet another entirely different way of seeing more in line with confident, Enlightenment era thinking. The maze (the world) may be a baffling place, full of deception, but with diligence and applied intellect, you can prune away the irrelevancies and arrive at the correct answer, or one of a couple. It also seems more authored than the haphazard assembly of the mess maze or the simple maze generated from pure geometric principles. Pac-Man nicks a couple features from this ascendant mode of maze creation in the way that its many corners and multivalenced branches foreground agency and choice, but primarily it exists in the iconic tradition of the simple maze. One major modernizing twist: in what would be its center, instead of unity and peace you find only erratic menace.

The threat is the haunting, well, the hunting. It’s a game of tag, like Gotcha [1973], without which the game would be positively serene. The ghosts here are not of the past, some gothic representation of the repressed weight of history, but creatures of the present and future, looking at where Pac-Man is going to be, not where he is. They apparently, until Atari’s massive promotional push for their port, weren’t even intended nor taken as ghosts but as generic monsters, suggesting maybe a dungeon theming. Pac-Man is not haunted by the ghosts, but possessed by the player. It’s our first player/character separation: Pac-Man is that parodic body, hungry and vulnerable, and the player serves as the higher mind that is the only thing that can make Pac-Man act, and act intelligently. Without you, Pac-Man is a corpse. Act now and delay the inevitable. There rarely is a cleaner illustration of Descartes’ mind-body dualism — AKA, “the ghost in the machine.”

Pac-Man, being such a phenomenal (and phenomenological) success, inspired a legion of imitators, including, like Pong [1972] before it, a rash of nefarious clones and counterfeits, differentiated from noble ports and copies only by the vagaries of that hot meta-commodity, official imprint. Sometimes not even then is it very clear, as with Ms. Pac-Man [1982], which was originally an enhancement kit (or in modern parlance, “mod”) for Pac-Man cabinets called Crazy Otto before legal troubles led them to seek approval of Namco-sanctioned official American arcade Pac-Man distributor Bally Midway, or in the case of Baby Pac-Man [1982], where Bally Midway, figuring themselves the legitimizing authority or at least having the implicit go-ahead of Namco, made their own Pac-Clone, and then got slapped down. Baby Pac-Man’s plot of transcending the boundaries of ghost-Pac racism would be left dangling, where Ms. Pac-Man would become an integral part of the greater Pac-Mythos. Atari, having secured home game rights, sued other Pac-Man clone makers to clear the way for one of the most infamous arcade ports of all time. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was a tessellation of four horizontal slices with flickering ghosts and oddball handling that was widely reviled for its unfaithful reconstruction straining under the limits of the technology and the way they worked their developer like a mule to crunch the game out by Christmas. It was the best-ever selling game for the system on name brand alone, exactly as Atari bigwigs predicted, but like they teach you in business school, overproduction (to the tune of “more cartridges produced than there were consoles to hold them”) negated profits, and retailers took the brunt of millions upon millions of returns from dissatisfied customers, a situation they banded together to make sure would not burn them again. Atari, for their part, would learn absolutely nothing from this fiasco and make the exact same mistakes over again, but that’s a story for another day.


Please donate to protester bail funds, be audience to more than cis white males, and do what else you can to help where you are. It’s not even close to over. Black lives matter. Abolish the police.

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