Why do we still see Pac-Man cabinets in bars, bowling alleys, and recreation centers, when so many more recent arcade hits have faded away? And why, when somebody wants to make an editorial game, is Pac-Man such a common template to turn to? The game is quick to learn, but nearly impossible to master. It has just one intuitive control: a four-way joystick. But most importantly, I think the principle of trade-off decisions is the key takeaway from Pac-Man. Every tactical turn you make has both a positive and negative side. I'll analyze this point more with the incorporation of two recent political cartoon games modeled on Pac-Man. First, let's recap the rules of the game.
The player guides Pac-Man up, down, left, and right through a maze filled with dots for him to gobble up. Four ghosts are also in the maze, chase after our hero, trying to capture and kill him. The goal is to clear the maze of dots while avoiding the ghosts. Each round starts with the ghosts in the "monster pen" at the center of the maze, emerging from in sequence it to join in the chase. If Pac-Man is captured by a ghost, a life is lost, the ghosts are returned to their pen, and a new Pac-Man is placed at the starting position before play continues. When the maze is cleared of all dots, the board is reset, and a new round begins. If Pac-Man gets caught by a ghost when he has no extra lives, the game is over.
Recently, a webgame called Mayor Munch
, featuring Toronto's five mayoral candidates, was designed to raise awareness of the race while providing an informal look into who might win the October 25th election. It is created by the OneStop Media Group, based upon the Pac-Man
template, and lets players choose one of the six candidates---Rob Ford, Rocco Rossi, Sarah Thomson, Joe Pantalone, Giorgio Mammoliti or George Smitherman---to play as.
A small results window shows how often each candidate was chosen by other players, figures that might presumably correlate to their outcome in the election. In late September, Rossi was leading in the game, having been selected as the on-screen avatar of choice 28% of the time---a number that directly contrasted with polling figures showing a huge 26-point lead for Ford. Of course, Ford eventually won the race, but it is still interesting to see how these candidates reacted differently to the game.
Thomson was, at one time, on top of the Mayor Munch poll, prompting her office to issue a press release complete with cringe-worthy videogame puns stating, "This is war. We are turning the gears of war and we will win! There is a resident evil at city hall, you don't need a goldeneye to see it."
Pantalone was less amused by Mayoral Munch, calling it "just a mindless game," while a spokesperson for candidate Rossi added, "We are busy running a campaign and reaching out to Toronto voters. We are not busy playing Pac-Man."
Another game, Forces of Hell
, is a current event game with a strong editorial line. British Labour Party politician Alistair Darling had accused British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's aides of "unleashing the forces of hell" against him for accurately predicting the recession. Our goal in this game is to help Darling flee from the clutches of Brown and his minions.
So we can see that the Pac-Man template lends itself to news stories that can be construed metaphorically as "races" or "chases." But do these two recent examples properly integrate the dynamic complexities of the original?
In Pac-Man, just the act of eating dots is perfectly designed, because eating them slows Pac-Man down to a speed slightly slower than the pursuing ghosts. This makes the act of eating dots a trade-off decision for the player, because to eat dots - to accomplish the game's primary goal - is to put the player in danger. Unfortunately, in these lesser designed games, staying in lanes where there are no dots doesn't allow the player to move faster than the "other candidates" or Brown's minions. It would be much more fun if we could see the Pac-Men in these games trying to balance different factors and to evaluate the results of "eating dots" through multiple frames---determining if the negatives of one framing (immediate survivability) do not outweigh the positives of another framing (a new high score).
Another trade-off decision is that, when Pac-Man eats one of the four power dots, it turns the tables on the ghosts---not only taking away their threat to Pac-Man but also making them valuable to eat. This is where the two editorial games come closest to playing off the rhetoric of the original. In Mayor Munch, collecting ballot boxes will give you temporary powers to eat the other candidate. The pursuit of other candidates takes away from the player's primary goal of collecting polls, but it's a trade-off decision for the player (greed for points vs eating dots and moving to the next maze). In the Forces of Hell, points double with each of Brown's minions eaten, but this requires relinquishing for a short time the primary goal of snapping up debt.
Unfortunately, the appearance of bonus fruit hasn't been adapted by these games. It would have been compelling to player, because in politics, people often take dangerous risks to pursue something (public image, personal benefit) only to end up taking backfire. So, dying while pursuing the fruit, the player knows full well it was she only has her own greed to blame. Other design aspects of the original are mostly ignored by the above two examples: the design of the maze itself (which includes dangerous areas where it's easy for Pac-Man to get trapped), the tunnel that leads through the screen, and the different personalities (different AI) for the four ghosts. All of these design decisions and procedural nuances are ripe for contextualization in current event games, but they are arguably the most difficult to capture and couple to real-world systems.