Friday, June 21, 2013

Ms. Pac-Man – Life and Love Under Constant Surveillance

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book God, Philosophy, and Politics in the Golden Age of Gaming.

Every once in a while, there comes a blockbuster sequel that not only rivals but even surpasses its predecessor.  When Namco released the original Pac-Man arcade machine in 1980, gamers were so captivated by its revolutionary graphics, unforgettable sound work, and gripping drama that they thought video gaming had reached its pinnacle.  12 months later, Midway and Namco proved those speculations wrong with Ms. Pac-Man, a continuation of the epic series so profound in its message, so emotional in depth, and so astonishing in technical achievement that it remains unmatched to this day.  Ms. Pac-Man proved itself the arcade equivalent of The Dark Knight and rightly retains a broad fan base even as next generation games catch up to the vision and beauty it captured 30 years ago.

As many old-timers remember, Pac-Man ignited widespread controversy for its morbid, cynical tone and violent imagery; in contrast to family-friendly sports games like Pong and Pole Position or lighthearted alien invasion parodies such as Defender, Galaga, and Asteroids, Pac-Man was a dark and gruesome yet effective horror game that glorified revenge, rewarding players with bonus points for butchering their enemies as they fled and eating them in cold blood.  Because of his reactionary philosophy, Pac-Man became one of the most polarizing protagonists in all of fiction, revered by some for his undying commitment to justice (or his view of it) and reviled by others for his brutality and unsavory methods.  In fealty to its roots, Ms. Pac-Man retained the graphic, M-rated violence and nightmare-inducing specters of the first installment, but softened the brooding themes exponentially in conformity with its new, feminine protagonist.   While Pac-Man is aptly described as a thought-provoking crime thriller with supernatural elements, Ms. Pac-Man is better perceived as a romantic drama set in a dystopian universe, where the city’s communist thought-police perpetually try to separate two rebellious lovers, locked in an illegal union that defies the collective identity enforced by the ruling class.  Ms. Pac-Man more nearly conveys the tragic themes of George Orwell’s 1984 than any official adaptation, and its timeless elegy about forbidden love remains the most moving story in the history of video games (take that M.C. and Cortana!).  Many analysts have criticized the game for its unprecedented amount of explicit sexual content, with one writer for EvangelicalWeekly ranting, “Ms. Porn-Man has contributed more to the rise in illegitimate births, single-parent households, objectification in media, and general societal decay than any other factor, topping even Doom and Grand Theft Auto for moral depravity.”  Such scathing vitriol is no more than the sound and fury of closed-minded fundamentalists, whose intolerance blinds them to the poetry and beauty of the love that two Pacs share for each other, a love that’s threatened not only within the arcade machine but without it, where bigoted followers of Big Brother try to restrict romantic unions to those He deems healthy for Oceania.  Critics of Ms. Pac-Man’s romantic story couldn’t care less about the game’s prolonged sex scenes, for what truly irks them is the way their hateful ideologies are mirrored in the narrative, reflected in the villainous phantoms who strive to punish the star-crossed lovers for their deviant behavior.  Ms. Pac-Man is a richly provocative and deeply important relic of gaming’s Golden Age that’s been instrumental in effecting much of this country’s social progress.

Ms. Pac-Man’s cast deservedly swept the Academy Awards in its year, with Sigourney Weaver winning best actress for baring her soul and more as Ms. Pac-Man, Arnold Schwarzenneger receiving best supporting actor as her lover, and Clint Eastwood getting a nod as the nefarious and bloodthirsty Blinky, ringleader and chief officer of Pacland’s Inner Party guards.  The performances are arguably what most elevate Ms. Pac-Man above the original game, in which Schwarzenneger seemed uncomfortable and one-dimensional.  The addition of Weaver to the sequel helped immensely in exposing Pac-Man’s character (innuendo intended): no longer was Schwarzenneger just an angry face (literally), but a committed and protective partner who would fight the power for a reason greater than himself.

Ms. Pac-Man is still one of the most visually amazing games ever produced, so far ahead of its time that its graphics put even the biggest blockbusters like Halo 4 to shame.  Gamers’ first venture into the labyrinth of Pacland was spectacular in itself but fairly limited in comparison to the awesome open-world of the series’ 2nd entry.  While the domain of the first game’s plot was confined to a single, dilapidated ghost town, Ms. Pac-Man expanded the universe’s scope fourfold, enveloping players in a series of colorful city streets, hidden alleys, winding underground sewers, and ministry hallways, each level radically different from the last and featuring its own color scheme, architecture, layout, and police patrol routes.  As one dashes through the glowing, neon-streaked environments of a futuristic, totalitarian capitol, one can’t resist wondering how Midway compressed so much detail into one machine.  People don’t simply “play” Ms. Pac-Man – they immerse themselves in an alternate reality where they can experience the jolt of sharp turns and collisions, taste the finest fruits and delicacies, hear the approach of a half-dozen hostile guards, and feel the reassuring warmth of Pac-Man’s tight embrace, an indescribable bond between two individuals that a tyrannical regime vows to break.

Ms. Pac-Man is more than just a video game; it’s a heartrending, powerful, and epic masterpiece about the bliss two bodies derive from their union, and the strides of selfish men to tear that union apart.  In another life we’ll see a worthy conclusion to this trilogy.  But not yet... not yet.

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