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 little lopsided.
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 not convinced.