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My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

November 30, 2022: Video Game Studying: Pac-Man

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On three of the many ways Namco’s smash 1980 launch helped changed the game(s).

1)      Character: Arcade and video games had certainly diversified in the decade or so since the release of yesterday’s subject Pong, with the biggest hits in the years before Pac Man arrived space shooters like Space Invaders and Asteroids. But one thing that no game had quite featured until the little yellow dude was a recognizable and marketable main character, one who could become the mascot and (literal) face of the game and franchise. That focus allowed the game to include another innovation: cutscenes in between levels, brief mini-movies featuring that main character in wacky adventures. It allowed for hugely successful sequels like 1981’s Ms. Pac-Man that would not have been possible without a distinct character at the heart of the franchise. And it paved the way for many of the most popular video games and franchises of all time: the Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, Kirby, the Angry Birds, and more.

2)      Artificial Intelligence: One of the game’s vital coding innovations was that the enemies—the four cute but deadly “ghosts” (Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde, natch) who pursue Pac-Man as he tries to eat all those delicious dots and fruits—were programmed with artificial intelligence and could respond to the player’s moves. I don’t imagine it was the most sophisticated such AI—Ex Machina this wasn’t, that is—but nonetheless, even the idea that every time you played Pac-Man, you could have an entirely different experience depending on your own choices and what effects they had on the ghosts’ behaviors was a profoundly new element to video gaming. I talked in Monday’s post about the flexible and interactive qualities to video games; of course that was somewhat true even with the Pong’s of the world, but adding artificial intelligence in this way (and at any level of complexity) really began to illustrate the possibilities for that kind of player-game interactivity.

3)      Winnability: That artificial intelligence and its promises of constantly evolving gameplay certainly contribute to a sense of Pac-Man as a particularly replayable arcade and video game, one that grossed over $1 billion in quarters (!) in its first year of release. But another important element was Pac-Man’s seeming yet elusive sense of winnabililty; as Atari’s Chris Crawford put it in an 1982 interview with Byte magazine, “An important trait of any game is the illusion of winnability ... The most successful game in this respect is Pac-Man, which appears winnable to most players, yet is never quite winnable.” Indeed, Pac-Man was designed to have no final level, although apparently if a player beats 255 consecutive levels, a bizarrely split-screen and supposedly unbeatable 256th final level does appear. Even that strange, glitch-like detail, however, would only add to that sense of potential yet also ephemeral winnability, making playing Pac-Man again and again that much more appealing. Which, for nearly forty years now, is just what gamers have done.

Next game tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

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