Feature: Love, life, pac-dots and pac-death

By Neil Merrett

Ms. Pac-Man on NES – released 1993, Tengen

Friday – August  6, 2013 …. nearing the arse end of a day off

You’re always supposed to respect your elders – the same theory should probably apply to games.  After all, can you truly appreciate where something is headed if you don’t have respect for where it’s come from?

Yet for anyone born in the mid 80’s onwards, the character of Pac-Man always felt like something whose time had passed – a relic of what games were, rather than what they could be.

Chomping around a seemingly endless number of mazes, collecting up all the tiny pellets, pac-dots, or full stops littered around the screen while avoiding brightly coloured ghosts.  I could never escape my childhood view that the game lacked depth, especially in an era of foxes with propeller tails and well… pretty much any other character that actually had feet.

In fairness, the key gimmick of Pac-Man was a cool one – turning the tables on your tormentors by consuming one of four power pallets around the levels.  At this point, all the ghosts on screen would suddenly turn blue and fretful, indicating they were vulnerable for a set period of time as they attempt to flee from you.  

During these moments you were able to hunt down and briefly consume the ghosts, or instead carry on collecting the remaining pac-dots to move to the new level.  It was a game – for a time at least – unlike any other. But times change.

Although arguably the first gaming icon, Pac-Man failed to move with the times in the way future icons have done, despite attempts to shift towards 3D platforming, isometric titles like Pac-Mania and even a cartoon series.

The character’s evolution always seemed uninspiring compared with the franchises and characters that would follow.

It’s all in the family

As a child, this lack of inspiration seemed no more apparent that in the early sequel concept of Ms. Pac-Man, largely the same game, but with spousal support in the form of a Pac-woman, whose main identifiable feature was a bow on her head.

Yet a full 20 years from its release, on one of those sobering nights whereby any distraction to forget an impending week of work ahead is welcomed, it was perhaps desperation that led to a revaluation of the Pac-Man mythos. Something had changed.

Ms Pac-Man’s design included a cooperative mode whereby she would tackle new mazes and ghosts alongside her significant other.  The player now was required to share the burden of conquering each maze with a partner, conserving your power pallets as a means to protect or trap your harassers.

Working together to scrape through each level, pooling together your resources and hoping to come through it all unscathed while overcoming literal ghosts, could it be that Ms. Pac-Man largely captures perhaps the truest form of a couple in video gaming?

Ms. Pac-Man’s and her spouse’s appeal is perhaps largely around conserving resources, and not losing your head immediately at the monsters and villains around you – drawing them close and planning ahead.

Pac-Man was never really something children were able to fully understand with its almost purposefully unsexy mechanic of storing your power pellets until you really needed them to escape a single terrible moment or series of poor decisions.

As a child, we hardly need reminders of how vulnerable and ill prepared we often are in the grand scheme of things, but in getting older – we seem to take much more satisfaction in planning ahead and getting through those ever present, seemingly endless hurdles in life.

Decades later, the game’s elegance now seems fairly apparent? Although not necessarily more mature or wiser, I was at least good enough to get to level six on my own. With someone else at your side, who knows how far you can go.

There might just be a functional metaphor in there somewhere.

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