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Behind a pizza-slice smile: the dark side of Pac-Man


Powered by article titled “Behind a pizza-slice smile: the dark side of Pac-Man” was written by Keith Stuart, for on Friday 22nd May 2015 05.00 UTC

On 22 May 1980, Japanese arcade machine manufacturer Namco changed video games forever. Its new release, Pac-Man, was designed to appeal far beyond the teenage boys pumping coins into early shooters like Space Invaders and Galaxian. Designer Shigeo Funaki specifically set out to create a “comical” game that everyone could enjoy, especially women. His loveable lead character is effectively a pizza with a slice missing, the enemies are four cute ghosts with names like Blinky and Inky, and you collect colourful fruit for bonus scores. What could be nicer? The game would go on to sell 400,000 machines within two years and has seen countless home console conversions, updates and spin-offs. Pac-Man is a cultural icon. Everyone loves Pac-Man.

But then you look a little closer, and there’s something … dark. While most players see a cute character chugging around a maze gobbling pills and running away from cute ghosties, others build a more sinister narrative.

For some cultural commentators the sheer compulsion of the game, its almost narcotic effect, is the darkness at its heart. If you’re good at it, Pac-Man ostensibly never ends. When you clear a maze, another one appears and you continue munching, driven by the “wacka wacka” sound effects. When Martin Amis wrote his now fabled book on arcade games, Invasion of the Space Invaders, his thoughts on Pac-Man largely concerned its enslaving properties: “I have seen bloodstains on the PacMan joystick […] I know a young actress with a case of PacMan Hand so severe that her index finger looked like a section of blood pudding – yet still she played, and played through her tears of pain.”

More well-known perhaps is Marcus Brigstocke’s oblique comparison between Namco’s game and the rise of the ecstasy-fuelled club culture. “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids,” he said, “We’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.”

Madness of Mission 6
Madness of Mission 6 – a Pac-Man true story by Travis Pitts

In his book Trigger Happy, writer and gamer Stephen Poole saw Pac-Man as a precursor to the “survival horror” genre of games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. It is, after all, about being trapped in a claustrophobic location, desperately attempting to stay alive while being relentlessly tracked by supernatural enemies. As in the Resident Evil titles, ammunition (in the form of power pills) is in short supply, and only has a temporary effect on monsters. Player power is only ever fleeting, and the monsters always come back.

Elsewhere, in his essay on the game, Dots, Fruit, Speed and Pills: The Happy Consciousness of Pac-Man, researcher Alex Wade draws comparisons between Pac-Man’s inescapable maze and the Labyrinths imagined by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – the exits are just entrances to other parts of the whole. Similarly, comic writer Zach Weiner, has pictured the game as a sort of terrifying Kafka-esque nightmare, in which a man wakes up to find he has been reduced to a living mouth that must consume to survive.

This ties in with another interpretation of Pac-Man as the ultimate modern shopper, trapped in a cycle of meaningless consumption and endless binging on electronic treats in a sterile technological landscape. “He is the pure consumer,” wrote Poole in Trigger Happy. “With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly only wants one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, in other words buys enough industrially produced goods – he will attain … perfect roundness. But it can never happen.”

The most pure expression of the lurking horror behind the Pac-Man concept though, is one simple T-shirt illustration by designer Travis Pitt.

Named The Madness of Mission 6 it is effectively a Pac-Man narrative in one image: a desperate astronaut trapped on a doomed spacecraft, wolfing down anti-anxiety pills while his dead shipmates haunt his feverish mind.

Funaki would be truly horrified. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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