Back in the so called Golden Age of video gaming, the rudimentary graphical technologies at the hands of developers meant it was much easier to create an in-game player-symbol that rarely changed its physical appearance. Animation costs were saved, as well as countless hours of work, and as a result many of the early playable figures in gaming were purely functional – tanks, spaceships, and cars. That all changed with Pac-Man. Video game scholar Mark J.P. Wolf asserts that Pac-Man was a major turning point in video game development – that the arcade title revolutionised the medium in terms of characterisation, identification, and marketing. The question I ask then, is how? Looking through the history of Pac-Man I aim here to recognise key elements of Pac-Man‘s genesis and aesthetic that proved it to be so revolutionary in Wolf’s, and so many others’, eyes.
When 27 year old Toru Iwatani ordered pizza in 1979 he had no idea that delicious meal that would arrive at his door would lead to one of the most acclaimed video game franchises in history. After two slices, he saw how the pizza now resembled an open mouth. From its very origins then, we can see that Pac-Man as character was created as a player-symbol to represent the player in one form or another. In its initial conception, Pac-Man was conceived as a living protagonist, characterised by the force behind life itself – consumption of energy.
In fact, so influential was this role of eating, of energy consumption, that Pac-Man’s original name was Pakkuman, deriving from the Japanese phrase “paku-paku taberu”. An onomatopoeia slang term for the sound a chewing mouth makes, the idea of a life force sustained by food is prevalent at every stage of Pac-Man‘s genesis. So from the start, Pac-Man as character has been aligned with a living protagonist even down to, and precisely through, the most rudimentary elements of life.
To take this even further, we see emphasis on Pac-Man as living character in another rudimentary element of life – death. Pac-Man’s animated death sequences were the first representations of the player-symbol dying in a graphical matter.
I do not mean graphical as we do today denoting a crude, often bloody portrayal of death, rather I mean literally graphical. Previously we saw a tank blow up, and took it as an assumption that us players as controllers of that tank were inside the vehicle and are therefore dead – we never saw this. Pac-Man’s onscreen death therefore furthers this emphasis from the start of the character as an identifiable and relatable living character to be empathised with.
To put this obvious indication of life into its historical context, we must look at what the arcades were housing around Pac-Man’s birth. These were the days of Asteroids and Space Invaders – predominantly war-based games featuring nameless vehicles that fostered precise shooting skills, a happy trigger finger, and inter-planetary defence. Through their inherent themes, as well as the hyper-masculine artwork on the side of cabinets, arcade owners expected to see flocks of young boys and teenagers outside their doors. True, it was this demographic that early video game developers envisioned as the most profitable and willing target market.
Part of Pac-Man‘s revolution though, was in its wider demographic. Iwatani added both the maze elements of the game (making Pac-Man the first maze chase title) and the personalisation of each of our hero’s enemy ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde) to draw in the female audience. The resulting push of genre opened up the arcade to a completely new audience. Having a player-symbol that represented a living being itself appealed to this wider, female, audience. Fostering increased identification and empathy when placed alongside the faceless war games of the 1970s certainly served Namco well. These previous games lacked the level of life to life empathy that drives much of human instinct and the concept of humanity itself. Their focus on getting the job done with less emotion, less identification, and more simple functionality was soon eclipsed by the player-character introduced by Pac-Man.
We can even see revolution in the Western change of Pac-Man‘s arcade cabinet art. With increased focus on the ghost as enemy as encouraged by the large, vibrantly coloured cartoon we are forced to further empathise with Pac-Man in his plight. An aggressive ghost looms over a more human representation of the protagonist, who smiles wryly back, in cocky humour over the caricatured gaping mouth and red eyes. It is in itself a satirical overproduction of the values of enemy and ally which serves to cement the us vs them notion that empowers Pac-Man’s capacity for relatability and emotional investment.
Predictably after the success of such a character, Pac-Man as character came to represent Namco in its entirety. It’s a familiar trope, a company’s most successful titular character symbiotically representing that company’s value system and market presence. The first gaming mascot therefore, Pac-Man enabled player-symbols to take on much more than the function of control. It opened the door for identification with video game characters, a door that needed to be open for many of today’s most successful franchises to survive. It spawned the massive marketing epiphany that was merchandise, and proved testament to the power of an identifiable, relatable player-character.