The original game came from a very rich design tradition, and that tradition involved more than fluid controls and detailed graphics.
When Pac Man was launched in 1980, it did not become popular as a video game alone, it was much more than a video game. Pac Man cereal surfaced in grocery stores, a hit Pac Man song came to the radio and a Pac Man cartoon also surfaced on our televisions. Since then, Pac-Man has influenced all genres of the gaming world, from pokies we play at casinos online to the consoles we have in our homes.
The conclusion is that the cultural impact with which Pac Man blew into the world was of a very large scale, the type that no video game has ever achieved in the past.
About 40 years after the release of the Pac Man video game, a novel by Martin Amis was inspired by the game. It also inspired a fashion collection and lots of merchandise from alcohol for remembrance from Matsunami Sake Brewery, to novelty boxer shorts. The fact remains that the Pac Man appeal transcends video games.
Even when we try to stick to the games, we will see a game that has experienced more than 200 releases since then, and yet the audience continues to stick with them. This year makes it 40 years since the launch of Pac Man, and the Google stadia service is billed to release the Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle, which is another title to the franchise. And, Google is actually not alone. The creators of Pac Man, Bandai Namco launched the Pac Man Geo software in October, and this does the job of making real life city streets look like Pac Man Mazes. Last month also, Pac Man- the card game – a family tabletop game was also released by Steamforged Games from Britain. So, why has the appeal of Pac Man remained so enduring?
Just like there are some fundamental techniques in filmmaking, including zooms, pans, CTs and angles, video game making also has some fundamental techniques. But unlike the metalanguage of films, which we’ve been talking about for more than 100 years, we are still grasping with the fundamentals of video games, how our gaming experience is shaped by their operations, and how they create meanings too. In this angle, Pac Man sets the pace.
In my book titled ‘How Pac Man Eats,’ I tried to explain the design innovation that engineered Pac Man and made its impact so strong. I also talked about how that approach is being applied by game developers to the fundamental techniques of gaming up till today, making the ideas that they can express even broader.
One of these techniques is collision, and it explains the simple act of the object of a game running into other games. Every video game player is aware of this to the extent that they don’t even see it as a thing to think about. But the fact is that the significance of this operational logic or feature is worth studying. Those games that ruled home consoles and arcades before the arrival of Pac Man had collision as a major element, and they include Space Invaders and Asteroids.
These games succeeded hugely, and they inspired the spread and dominance of arcade across the United States and the entire world. The cultural position held by pong was even taken over by space invaders, to the extent that it became the common cultural example for a video game, to the extent that the descending aliens in it are still treated like an icon for video games even among people who were not born in the 1970s.
But things were elevated to a whole new level by Pac Man. That Pac Man became a character, made people desire to enjoy a Pac Man cartoon. This is something that has never been achieved by any previous game, and this was not hinged on technology. The simple animated circle of Pac Man had nothing to do with a technical leap beyond the ship of the player in the Space Invaders. Instead, it was the game that gave Pac Man the disposition of an easily relatable character, because of how the game approached the idea of collision in an entirely different and unique way.
However, ‘collision’ in Pong-like games, unlike it is in Pac Man, was literal all through. The meaning is one thing overlapping into another with some effects to it. In most of the video games like Space Invaders and Asteroids that came earlier, collision was only literal too. The meaning was one thing overlapping into the other with some effects. In the 1960s, MIT was developed by Spacewar, and it had two spaceships that could collide in a fatal manner with a star in between them in the screen and with missiles that other players can fire. The first ever video game to be successful publicly is named Pong, and there are two paddles that rallied back and forth as each of them tries to collide with a ball, and when the ball hits the end of the screen of the player, the other player scores points.
But in Pac Man, there is a metaphorical level to the collision. Here, collision’s physical act takes the place of the physical act of consumption or eating. This, instead of fluid controls and detailed graphics, gave Pac Man the disposition of a character that players can relate with and to. This is the conception that the people behind the game have. The Bandai Namco Entertainment’s US division’s Director of Brand Marketing, Dennis Lee told Marketplace – the radio show, that eating is a natural humanistic characteristic.
Now, it is good to note that the company did not just get into this shift by accident. Instead, it was a result of the work of the creative team that set out to discover how a gem could be given a new meaning that will help it explore new experiences and excite a new audience. In the “High Score,” Netflix documentary, Toru Iwatani, who is the leader of the set that created Pac Man recalls that they had the desire to create a game that goes against the style of death in space invaders. So, killing each other is not involved in eating, according to him, and maybe it might appeal to women as well.
When it comes to ‘How Pac Eats,’ this approach to the fundamental element of games could be described as expensive. This approach is something that the creators of new games will continue to discover, and with it, create new potentials for what gaming could mean or entail. We also discussed how Dys4ia, which is an autobiographical game from Trans designer Anna Anthropy, is beginning to gain ground, and how it exemplifies a wider approach to collision. Now that collision is being used extensively by gamers in a natural manner, creators like Anthony can now increase the volume of metaphor as much as they can, expressing everything from body image’s personal experience to conversation’s power dynamics with collision.
The executives at Google Stadia, who decided to bet on Pac Man Mega Tunnel battle, may not know that the original Pac Man had a very hugely rich design tradition. But they certainly know about the deep and lasting cultural impact of Pac Man. As we keep studying the fundamental elements of games, and as we get a good grasp of games where these elements are applied in newer ways, the opportunity for more creators to use games to bring about cultural changes increases.