Dear Video Game Fans,
As readers of this fine web site and
magazine might know, I recently reviewed the 2016 video game Pac-Man Championship Edition 2. I loved the way it reworks
concepts from the classic Pac-Man arcade game and modernizes them without
compromising its core conceit: eating dots and killing ghosts. I wrote that
review with confidence in my assertion that it was one of the exalted Good
Games and stand by what I wrote.
However, as I continued playing more
of it in my free time post-review, a seed of doubt began to grow within me. I
had been wantonly chasing high scores for the better part of an hour, looking
to score an S-rank on the Hexagon course. As I devoured my umpteenth ghost
train, one of the little suckers’ eyes caught my attention. They may have just
been several dots put together without a mouth or visible reaction, but they
nonetheless evoked an empathy I’d never felt before.
And I realized this entire time,
Pac-Man has been the bad guy, and we have all been complicit in his Pac-Mania.
Before we fall down this rabbit
hole, let’s establish what does and does not count when it comes to Pac-Man.
All the supplemental material (the TV show, the other TV show, the cereal, etc.) does
not count as things we can use for evidence. It is puck propaganda; none of it
is true, and the fact that the networks who aired or produced it failed to
conduct even the most rudimentary fact-checking before showing it is shameful.
Most Pac-Man games beyond the first
Pac-Man and the Championship Edition series don’t count either. For one, the
details of Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man, and whatever other members
of the extended Pac-Family I’m forgetting are irrelevant to Pac-Man’s role as a
horrible monster, and I want to protect their innocence. Another reason they don’t
count is because there are just so many of them, and going through every
Pac-Man is more work than I’m willing to put in to make my point.
What does matter is Pac-Man’s
central premise. First, consider the inspiration for one of Pac-Man’s most
unique traits: power-ups. Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani has stated power
pellets were inspired by how Popeye becomes more powerful after eating spinach.
This puts into perspective the basic conflict at the heart of Pac-Man: that of
the slighted protagonist seeking revenge. Like Popeye, Pac-Man is helpless
against his foes until he eats his favorite food (in Pac-Man’s case, cookies,
which is what each dot represents according to Iwatani). He’ll die if the ghosts (who are
presumably other dead Pac-Men) touch him. But the power cookie grants Pac-Man
vindication: Finally, he can turn around and give the ghosts who have oppressed
him their due.
Now, we don’t know for sure why Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde chase
Pac-Man around. We can’t be sure if he’s an intruder in their realm searching
for cookies, or if the ghosts have invaded Pac-Man’s cookie-littered home.
Either way, Pac-Man has a right to defend either himself or his home from
ghosts who are aggressively attacking him. The conflict is justifiable, if a
Pictured: A tragic massacre.
But with every new game, Pac-Man has
grown more powerful. By the time Championship Edition released, Pac-Man was
nearly unstoppable. In that game, he encounters enough power cookies to eat
ghosts almost constantly. In Championship Edition DX, ghosts are hardly a
problem – most of them lie sleeping around the course, and in his wanton
cookie-eating rampage, Pac-Man wakes them as he passes by. The ghosts rightly
become agitated and chase him around for waking them up. But because most of
them simply follow behind, they don’t really threaten him unless he turns
around (usually after eating another power cookie).
In Championship Edition 2, ghosts
don’t even harm Pac-Man the first time he bumps into them; Pac-Man has to
bother them repeatedly for them be a threat. And when he eats a trail of
ghosts, the game revels in his murder by panning the camera upward as he
ascends a spiral of ghost-death. The game's giant boss ghosts are a final
attempt to get Pac-Man to stop eating so many damn ghosts, but to deal with
them Pac-Man summons his own army of Pac-Men to devour them. The scene of a
crew of Pac-Men devouring a sea of helpless ghosts is altogether too much.
At this point, Pac-Man is far from
the vindicated Popeye character Iwatani set out to make him. Pac-Man has no
excuse for recklessly gobbling up ghost after ghost. This goes so beyond
self-defense. I could go a step further and suggest the Pac-Man series has
always been about the gluttony of modern consumerism, but by writing this
sentence, I already have. No way does a puck (or a pizza that’s missing a
slice, or whatever Pac-Man is) need to eat cookies that badly.
Some might say he’s not too
different from the average video game protagonist, who is often endowed with
more than enough tools to overcome any situation, even when they’re portrayed
as the underdog. The main difference here is that Pac-Man is a monster who has
decided to kill hundreds of Pac-Men who have already died. He is irredeemable.
I am not calling for a ban of
Pac-Man. There are no laws currently in place that could stop him, and I doubt
our legislature could put them in place. But that’s not what this is about. I’m
still going to play more of Championship Edition 2 and kill hundreds (possibly
thousands) more ghosts because I’ve decided that’s the kind of person I am. No,
this is about coming to terms with what our entertainment is telling us,
whether by choice or by accident. The Ghosts in Pac-Man have always been
portrayed as villains, but they are victims. Pac-Man has always been the hero,
but he is a monster. And we have been complicit.
Thank you for your time.
P.S. Please watch this video evidence if you are