GMotW: Ms. Pac-Man

Boy is it ever Wednesday! Haha, woo!

AHEM. Game Mechanic of the Week. Let’s go… classic. Let’s pull a line straight from Ms. Pac-Man’s instruction manual:

“As soon as she gulps down the energy pill, the ghosts turn blue with fright.”

Oh yes. Eat a power pill, and now your enemies are no longer terrors to be feared and fled from, but delicious and nutritious sources of points, points, points!

Me, I don’t care about points. Points are meaningless abstractions for me, I’m more invested in the narrative push and pull of “ghosts are certain doom” and “ghosts are certainly tasty.” Ms. Pac-Man–and of course the original Pac-Man and later Pac-Man Junior and really all the incarnations of the Pac-Clan–does not have a complex or coherent story… there is a maze, it is full of dots and ghosts and sometimes fruit, eat everything and you’ll find yourself in a new maze. There’s no sense of progression of a story, and yet the ghosts are iconic… arguably the first iconic villain characters in gaming. Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and whomever is taking up the fourth slot are memorable in part because they have individual and unique AI, in part because the game introduced the cut-scene to show the ghosts and and the Pacs out-of-game interactions, and in part, I think, because of those power pills.

The ghosts can be avoided and evaded by those with a quick joystick, but they really need to be outthought; grabbing the powerup isn’t a matter of “see it, get it” as it is on most games. Rather, the clever Pac-player holds off on snagging the pills until A) he is in dire need of not getting killed, or B) she has a good line to eat one or more ghosts in a row. The former ushers in a mojor shift in the power dynamics of the game; for a time, the player was doomed, ever doomed, but now he is Pac-Man the Destroyer, ready to take the entire world apart with the power of pills! It changes EVERYTHING about the player’s interaction with the game, because it ceases being re-active and becomes pro-active, whether the activity is rampant carnage or merely sweeping through the areas the ghosts like to haunt when you are immortal.

Regardless, it alters the players relationship with the little ghostly sprites… because you are at times the prey and at times the predator, you see more sides of the ghosts and develop a relatively complex attitude toward them. Someone who gets the pill planning to eat as many as possible has that as well; rather than things to be inherently feared, they are fish to be lured into place; pull them in close, risk your own Pac-flesh to do so, hope not to get killed and eventually BAM! When the moment is right, pill up and flip the tables. Delightful!

The ghosts are iconic villains because they aren’t solely mooks to be smashed or obstacles to be avoided but something in between. Getting the pill becomes an emotional moment for a player, because it forces a mental switch to be thrown twice in succession: joy or relief when the pill is eaten, and fear when the things start to blink again. Emotional beats that draw the player closer to these ghosts… ghosts with personalities (albeit very simple ones), ghosts which the player has a complex relationship with.

If the power pill merely froze the ghosts, or made them disappear altogether, or just made the Pac ignore their attacks, or even made them vulnerable but didn’t make them run away… all of that would accomplish a similiar mechanical necessity for allowing players to get away from the ghosts which are following too closely, but none of that would convert the player’s need to run into the thrill of the chase. None of those options would open up the same emotional beats, so none of those options would create villains who are quite so memorable. Eat a power pill, then you can eat ghosts. It’s a classic and it has endured, rightfully so.


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