Why Pac-Man Still Delights Us 40 Years Later

Why Pac-Man Still Delights Us 40 Years Later

Decades later, Pac-Man's thrill of the chase is still exhilarating.

"Chase, or be chased" is the core of Pac-Man. Toru Iwatani's arcade classic is so deeply ingrained in gaming culture that its gameplay might not even be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of it. Really, last week's 40th anniversary was as much about Pac-Man the game as it was about Pac-Man the mascot.

Still, even decades on, it's worth looking at how Pac-Man is designed and why its gameplay endures. While it borrows the wraparound playfield from Spacewar!, connecting it back to video games' earliest progenitors, Pac-Man ultimately excels at something far more fundamental. Pac-Man is essentially a game of tag played in a maze. Yes, you can turn the tables on the ghosts with a power pellet, but the highs of high-level Pac-Man play don't come from being good at chasing ghosts—it comes from being good at being chased.

Taking It to the Streets

Pac Manhattan, perhaps more than any official or unofficial play on Pac-Man made since, understood and cleanly expressed that Pac-Man is all about avoidance. A version of Pac-Man played in real life on the streets of New York City, the idea was so instantly clear that the team of students behind it hardly needed to discuss what it would be before they started working on it.

"I believe it was a colleague of mine, Chris Hall[...] we were throwing around ideas, and he just said the words 'Pac Manhattan,'" Amos Bloomberg recalls. Bloomberg, now an associate professor at New York University, was a grad student at the school's Interactive Telecommunications Program back in 2004 when he and his classmates devised Pac Manhattan. "No explanation, no description, nothing like that—immediately, everyone knew what it was going to be."

The idea also immediately made sense to the New York bystanders who saw Pac Manhattan happening on the streets. The costumes the class made helped: There goes Pac-Man, being chased after by someone in a Blinky-red Ghost poncho. It read, instantly, as what it was supposed to be, but behind the scenes, the grad students were also trying to operate it like an actual game of Pac-Man played over several city blocks.

"Location-based apps were not what they are now," Bloomberg explains. "You didn't have GPS in most phones, or any phones really. We had to find a way to do tracking on a gameboard of people's position without GPS." The solution was having the players on the street, both Pac-Man and the ghosts, report back to a control room over the phone. "For every one person on the street, there was an equivalent person in the control room, in real time just talking with them."

While on the macro level the team of students was doing their best to compile the game state that would exist on a Pac-Man board, it was still up to the Pac-Man and ghost players to just do their best to touch or not be touched. "Our best Pac-Man, I think, was Dennis Crowley, who went on to found Dodgeball and Foursquare," says Bloomberg. "He was very good as Pac-Man at jumping over cars, ducking under things, and using the cityscape as a natural obstacle course."

Ghosts in the Machine

If you're playing a game of Pac-Man on the streets of Manhattan, of course, then some of the rules of Pac-Man and pacing can be expected to go out the window in favor of plain old tag. These rules from the original are quite well documented though, and one of the reasons why Pac-Man feels so good is that it's not a game of constant pressure. Even setting aside the moments where you have the power pellet, when Pac-Man's being chased there are ebbs and flows in that gameplay too, enhanced by the different "personalities" of each ghost.

So much of Pac-Man exists in those few lines of ghost code. Later cheating-scandals aside, Billy Mitchell leveraged deep knowledge of these AI behaviors in order to become the first person to achieve a perfect score on Pac-Man. Any programmer looking to either recreate or make a variation on Pac-Man has to consider how even the smallest changes in logic can lead to different results, leading to entirely alien experiences of the chase.

Case in point: take Google's playable Pac-Man doodle, introduced in 2010 for the 30th anniversary. Played on a maze modeled after Google's logo, you might think it's a quick and dirty Pac-Man clone, but play long enough and you can observe the same familiar ghost behaviors from the arcade classic. In a presentation the doodle's designers gave after its release, programmer Marcin Wichary revealed that a simple multiplication error was enough to completely throw off the ghost behavior, proving just how brilliant and efficient the few lines of code Iwatani made were at eliciting a certain feel.

"The way I found out about it was not by looking at the code—and I don't do unit testing because I'm a terrible programmer—I did it because the ghosts felt funny as I played it." Wichary explains. "It speaks volumes, because [the approach] actually worked, you could actually feel the different personalities of the ghosts." So, if you change just one value, Pac-Man's ghosts can feel completely different—to come up with new ghost behaviors and still have something feel like Pac-Man, then, you've got to think carefully about how you're balancing those changes.

The most brilliant solution I've seen to this ghost problem came from Namco itself via the sleeping ghosts in the Pac-Man Championship Edition games. Positioned around the mazes at certain positions, the player has to pass these ghosts as they collect pellets. Upon waking up, the ghosts all chase after Pac-Man in a straight line, which is humdrum and easily avoidable compared to the way the original ghosts operate. The key is that all the ghosts form a line trailing Pac-Man, forming a constant reminder of the need to collect power pellets while borrowing a tricky element from Snake—let the line get too long, and players risk being forced into the tail they created.

That relatively simple enemy design forms the basis of Championship Edition's biggest innovation on the Pac-Man formula: eating up those long chains of sleeping ghosts changes the power pellet risk and reward dynamic completely. Not only do you start to think about maze navigation and ghost avoidance differently, but you're being rewarded with points and an audio-visual lightshow the better you get at being chased. The longer players get those chains to be, the more exciting the momentary reprieve from the chase is.

The Thrill of the Chase

As a venerated arcade classic, it's doubtful that people will stop making variations on Pac-Man any time soon. Next month will see the launch of Pac-Man Live Studio, a Twitch integrated collaboration between Amazon and Bandai Namco that will allow for multiplayer, user-created mazes, and more. That effort may certainly bear some interesting fruit (Pac-Man pun not intended), but even if it doesn't, I don't think it'll be long before another fan-made or official effort comes along with a new spin.

It's also funny seeing Pac-Man being officially adapted for Minecraft, considering that Pac-Man's already been a go-to for any game with built-in creative tools for years now, from Little Big Planet to Halo. Nobody needs to be told to make more Pac-Man, it seems. Pac-Man is also simple enough in its rules and themes that new contexts and ideas seem to stick to it with ease.

"Pac-Man is the perfect game for today," Bloomberg offers, "because Pac-Man is socially isolated, [he] keeps his distance from other creatures that might exist outside that universe." It's a bit of a bleak reading of Pac-Man to be sure, and a reminder that it might be a while before Pac Manhattan sees a modern revival, but it serves to show that part of Pac-Man's brilliance is what we bring to it. To play Pac-Man is to simulate the experience of being chased, and whether we're consciously applying a lens to it or not, we all get something out of it that's more than just blocky ghosts in a maze converging on a yellow semi-circle.

The old joke about Pac-Man from comedian Marcus Brigstocke—that if video games can have undue influence on us, then we'd all be walking around in dark rooms munching pills and listening to repetitive music—actually gets at this idea perfectly. Pac-Man isn't a game about going to a rave... or maybe it is. Pac-Man really isn't a game about social distancing, but it can be if we choose to adopt a different framing. It's not a game about grad students running down streets and hopping over cars, but for a summer in 2004 it was, thanks mostly to a pun.

What really matters, what has kept players coming back to Pac-Man for 40 years, is that any strange new idea or variation on the game might come to us as we engage in the chase, dodging ghosts and flinging around corners at the last possible second. We run and run and keep running, and whether or not we find some new meaning in that run, we go back for more. The chase entertains and enlivens us. Here's to another 40 years of it.

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Mathew Olson


Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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