[Gamasutra contributor and game theorist Eric-Jon Rossel Tairne explores how Namco's Pac-Man became an all-time classic by being the first game to challenge insular, male-focused arcade stereotypes and aim for mass appeal... and by betting on women's love for cookies.]
To bring you up to speed, in 1976 Breakout came along to refocus Pong as a single-player experience, to redefine the video game in terms of the player’s relationship with the gameworld, and to inject a remedial sense of narrative.
This had profound effects technologically, in terms of design theory, and in terms of the narrative application of video games. Three threads would arise: the home PC, and two distinct schools of design; one focused more on the the pure theory, and one more on the storytelling potential of the form.
Two years later, Space Invaders reinvented Breakout as a tense battle between the lonely individual and inevitable doom from above. Suddenly players could reach out and touch the targets, and it mattered if they did.
Add in a high score table, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Arcades were established just to fill with this one game. The video game had become a summer blockbuster, its audience’s emotions and impulses carefully orchestrated for word-of-mouth and return visits.
Yet all was not well. Just as Pong had enjoyed several years as the generic video game, overnight Space Invaders became the only game in town. Every game on the market, from Galaxian to Radar Scope, was an Invaders clone. And yet its appeal was not universal. Somehow, as the young Toru Iwatani observed, those dingy, smoke-filled arcades were filled entirely with socially-inept males. Furthermore, the game’s bleak tone and the mental state it aroused through constant repetition was a bit worrisome.
Clearly there was something wrong with this picture, and Iwatani set to figuring it out.
Toru Iwatani’s first love was always pinball. When he joined Namco, it was under the misapprehension that they produced pinball games. Crestfallen, he set himself to producing Breakout clones, organized to play a bit more like pinball. After three unsuccessful ventures, he had his epiphany about video games and their audience.
Where were the women, he wondered, and why were video games so stigmatized? Were the two somehow related, and if so what was the common factor? Iwatani decided the theme and tone were largely to blame. Although the games were addictive, there was this constant theme of death and violence. Muted and abstracted, to be sure, but it was there. The only contact you have with the world is through shooting; anything that can really touch you brings you harm.
Okay, so what would appeal to women? What motivates women in life? Iwatani settled on fashion and eating.
Yes, well. Give the man a little credit.
So what Iwatani basically did was construct a pinball table (or, if you will, a Breakout board) where you directly control the ball around to eat all the cookies. (Over here we just know them as dots.) Eat all the food (that is, break all the bricks/shoot all the Invaders) to move on to the next board. If a random bit of food, such as a piece of fruit -- pops onto the screen, all the better. There’s your bonus, in place of Space Invaders’ UFO. Nice and nonviolent.
To give the game some pressure, he took a note from Space Invaders and scattered the board with colorful monsters, intent on hemming in the player’s avatar. Eating them isn’t the point; it’s just a defense. And the monsters, he stresses, never actually die. When eaten, their spirits return to their nest to be reborn.
When Iwatani showed the game to his boss, his boss told him to make all the monsters red. The player would be confused by all the colors, the man argued. Iwatani argued back that the colors were the whole point; they gave the monsters identities, and made the game pretty to look at -- all the better to attract a female audience.
Along with color came characterization. The protagonist was basically a giant mouth, which fit the premise and was expressive in a sort of Saul Bass mod graphic design sense. The monsters were all multicolored ghosts with googly eyes, each with its own behavioral patterns. In the intro they were assigned names, and between levels (against more protest) Iwatani insisted on adding cutscenes to develop the characters. The more empathy the player felt, he said, the better.
Another key element was in the maze walls; conscious of the sense of claustrophobia and stress brought on by solid lines, he chose to open up the psychological space of the board by leaving the walls as simple outlines. The point was to open up video game spaces -- such as those dingy arcades -- and make them inviting.
In design terms Iwatani’s real innovation is in the “super cookie” (or power pellet): a token that turned the tables and allowed the player to be “it” in the game’s perpetual game of tag. The concept of a power-up may have existed before, but this was a turning point. The entire idea of Pac-Man is to eat or be eaten. Most of the time the player is defenseless, and must concentrate on the primary goal -- clear the board, to move on.
The player does this through bodily scouring every inch of the playfield, touching everything there is to touch. Generally the game is warm and encouraging to explore; the only thing there is to fear is the small collection of monsters. Add in that magic talisman, and the player need not even fear the monsters. Fair’s fair, nothing is dangerous all the time, and one way or another everything can be eaten.
The thematic unity to the game, both in terms of linking everything to a single mechanism or concept, and in terms of psychologically freeing the game through exploration of that mechanism, made the game a smash hit. Iwatani’s projections were on-target; women and children flocked to Pac-Man, turning the game’s characters into video gaming’s first icons.
Players identified with the characters, enjoyed freely exploring the game’s world, and enjoyed the game’s sense of back-and-forth fairness brought on by the power pellets. There were cartoons, breakfast cereals, pop singles. Pac-Man was the first videogame celebrity. Finally here was a game you could play in mixed company.
In place of the imposing threat of Space Invaders, Pac-Man presents a sort of a closed ecosystem. There is a sort of mild violence, but it’s fair and understandable. Everyone in that system has a role and a purpose, and playing is just a matter of immersing one’s self in that logic. As with Space Invaders, the act of playing does trace out a simple story -- although now movie segments jump in between levels to support and inform the play narrative.
So now we have a sense of the cutting edge of Japanese design: distinct characters (Pac and the ghosts); a predefined story that emerges partially through play and more substantially outside of the player’s control; a confined world, open for the player to explore; a design based almost entirely around a single mechanic (in this case eating), that serves to illuminate some practical ideal; power-ups to even the odds; and collectible trinkets to give a sense of progress.
Now take all that, flip it on its side, and stretch it out really far. Say, over eight worlds and thirty-two levels, and you can extrapolate Super Mario Bros.. But we'll save that for next time.
[Eric-Jon Rossel Tairne is a writer most recently hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When he manages to detach his brain from his keyboard, he spends his hours concocting bagels and exploring the deep places of the Earth. You can sponge up more of his work at gloaming.aderack.com. ]