[22 April 2012]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
If Plato’s forms do exist, then the Platonic form of the video game must be Ms. Pac-Man.
Ms. Pac-Man is pure. It’s basic. Ms. Pac-Man speaks to the most essential nature of what a video game is, clarifying what makes a video game a video game and not any other type of game.
It’s a game that tells us that video games are not digital versions of board games. It tells us that video games are not games like sports.
While any number of board games can and have been translated into the medium of video games and while some video games have made their way onto dining room tables complete with dice and cardboard chits, Ms. Pac-Man can never be a board game. It would make no sense as a board game. It would be no fun to play at all, since what you do in Ms. Pac-Man cannot be simulated on a tabletop, nor is the reason why we play it: velocity
Like all games, Ms. Pac-Man can be played with an overall strategy and it certainly requires tactical decisions. What the game requires of its players is something that can only be achieved via electronic or mechanical means. It’s a game that requires that when players play it that those players respond instantly to a changing board, to steadily shifting content.
It requires rapidly implemented tactical decisions, much as a game played on a board with a timer might, like Speed Chess, for example. However, it differs from speed based games in that it requires that rapid thinking be implemented alongside necessarily rapid physical response (you could have someone else move your pieces in speed chess—successful play does not include the idea of skillfully moving the pieces themselves, it’s merely a test of skillful and rapid planning, mental planning).
Video games are physical. They require all of the mental processing of any other game, but they require the player to play as physically as they require the player to play mentally.
In that sense, one might wonder if Ms. Pac-Man is really just some form of sport. After all, what I have just described might as easily be a description of what a football player or basketball player must do. Think responsively and physically react to shifting circumstances in a game very much physically.
Ms. Pac-Man would also be a terrible sport were it translated into non-digital play. One might imagine playing Ms. Pac-Man in a hedge maze, collecting dots, being chased by ghosts. Actions and reactions within the maze might matter, but getting caught would largely be the result of random happenstance, would often seem arbitrary. Two ghosts just happen to wander into the same lane that you are in, penning you in on both sides. You are caught. After all, from your perspective, you couldn’t see the whole board that you are playing on.
But Ms. Pac-Man isn’t played like a game played on a field with the limited perception of a single player that is “down in it”. More like the board game, Ms. Pac-Man offers a view of the whole “field” at any given time. The player must manipulate an individual’s movements, as if he or she were a mere player on a field. However, that player is also afforded a God’s eye view of the experience. In a sense, very frequently the video game combines the roles of coach and player into a singular experience, allowing for a broader and more general view of what is going on (as a coach might have) with the requirement of manipulating skillful plays on the field itself (which a coach is not required to do, much as he might want to at times).
Indeed, the overhead view of Ms. Pac-Man is one that speaks directly to the game’s own non-digital ancestry, to its relationship to the broader medium of games themselves. Ms. Pac-Man‘s basic play is based on one of the simplest, earliest challenges that can be stretched out on a tabletop for someone to figure out, to work their way through. It’s a maze.
It’s a strange maze that lacks both entry point and exit, and thus, it approaches the maze in a rather novel way. Normally, the goal of a maze is to locate the way out. It requires the player explore its various twists and turns, but usually players attempt to avoid dead ends and try to find the most direct route possible to the exit. Ms. Pac-Man instead changes the nature of the exploration of a maze into less something about reaching a specific endpoint than it is about almost completely exploring the maze.
It’s about experiencing the whole of its world, the whole of its strange setting in which cherries and peaches bounce down hallways and ghosts turn blue when they are most vulnerable to perennially chomping lipsticked lips. The dots in Ms. Pac-Man serve as markers, whose “collection” demonstrates that the player has successfully explored each passageway in the maze (or nearly every passageway, there are a few spots in the maze, very few, that are free of dots that need to be eaten in order to proceed to the next level) in order to know that they have fully completed this maze, are ready to explore and survive in a new miniature world.
Additionally, of course, it creates mobile “obstacles” (the ghosts that chase Ms. Pac-Man) to hinder successful completion of the maze. This element, of course, speaks directly to the almost equal emphasis that the “pure” form of the video game places on mental and physical reactivity that I mentioned earlier as essential to this form of gaming.
One might wonder, though, why I choose Ms. Pac-Man as an exemplum of the Platonic form of the video game when its predecessor Pac-Man seems to share all of these qualities, and it is, after all, the predecessor, the prototype, the blue print of this, its sequel. To put it quite, frankly, Ms. Pac-Man is a better game than Pac-Man. And for one clear reason: it’s faster.
Certainly, there are a number of additional elements of Ms. Pac-Man that improve on the previous game, a greater variety of mazes, more “escape” tunnels that allow Ms. Pac-Man to move from one side of the maze to the other, mobile bonus fruit to collect (rather than the static, boring kind), and the little story vignettes that add a little charm, atmosphere, and visual reward to gameplay itself. Oh, and Ms. Pac-Man herself wears a bow, lipstick, and has a beauty mark. She’s delightful. She’s so curvy, she’s spherical.
These are important elements, and in part, they are elements that speak to how this form of the video game manages to cast its shadows into the more varied forms of video games that exist in modern gaming. More challenging “side quests” (mobile rather than static cherries), more relatable and endearing characters, a tendency to want the game to do more than offer a challenge, but to tell its own story to us, these are all elements that the shadows of Ms. Pac-Man as an ideal form of video game (these shadows being the modern video games that descend from their antique, arcade ancestors) have developed in more complex ways. But importantly to my argument, they are present here, too, in this very early form of the video game. They acknowledge the possibilities of what games are to become.
However, what Ms. Pac-Man is still all about is speed. It’s what makes the value of dropping a quarter into the gaudy pink trimmed arcade cabinet, so much greater than dropping a quarter on the dull blue trimmed one. Ms. Pac-Man‘s speed heightens an awareness of the significance of velocity to gameplay in video games. It’s a game that is all speed of thought, speed of muscle response.
Playing Pac-Man at its “dumbed down” speed (and really it requires less quick witted decision making to play Pac-Man than Ms. Pac-Man, advocating it to me is to advocate “dumber” play) allows for an almost leisurely ability to figure out where to go next, how to avoid those ghosts chasing you down, when to gobble the power pellet, and in turn, to gobble all those ghosts up at precisely the right moment. Pac-Man speaks to the pace of “the game”, the board game, the chess board, the poker table. Ms. Pac-Man speaks to the pace of the progressively more sped up levels of Robotron 2084, to the pace of Tempest, to the pace of Doom.
It’s a game that moves at the speeds that video games are headed towards in video games’ future (a future that is now), as the tech increasingly allows for faster processing, greater ability to display visual effects, and smarter AI to make us think more quickly, respond more rapidly, survive more narrowly. Pac-Man moves at the pace of the past. Ms. Pac-Man moves at the pace of now.
Ms. Pac-Man is why we choose to play this kind of game, the video game, and not any other kind of game. It tests our brains and our reflexes at the highest velocity. It urges us to move and to move now.