Cory Aaland

Essay About Pac-Man

Cory Aaland

             | Waka waka waka |
             | That is the sound | that the Pac-Man makes | as he travels through | the pure black tunnels | eating yellow, digital dots. |
             | It might be better to say | that waka waka waka | is not the actual sound | that the Pac-Man makes | but rather | our interpretation of the sound | that the Pac-Man makes. | We are often incorrect | about the simplest of things | and I say this because | the world cannot agree | on exactly | what sound the Pac-Man | is making | although the world | created that sound | and perhaps instead of arguing | about the correct sound | that the Pac-Man makes | we should accept the fact | that we have created a noise | beyond our language. |
             | For example | the other day I was in Target | and I picked up a Pac-Man shirt | and underneath the Pac-Man | it said | nom nom nom | I thought to myself: | Now that is just not correct | not even close to correct. | This angered me | mostly because I don’t like it | when people misrepresent the characterization | of the Pac-Man | and I am well aware | that the way we translate the Pac-Man’s sound | into letters and words | affects our cultural conception | of the Pac-Man’s character.1 |
             | When I listen | my ear close to my Game Boy’s speaker | I think it sounds more like we-ew we-ew we-ew2 | a sliding rubber chainsaw trombone | back and forth | paranoid, industrious, the glissando indicating motion | but also indicating the audible confines of the game. |
             | In the game | the waka waka waka continues | beyond three wakas | and I wonder why exactly | it seems right | to put three wakas together | instead of, say | four or five | or six | or even two | since a more accurate way | to describe the waka | would be to say | waka waka waka waka waka waka | and by adding | the extra three wakas | the listener would then know | that the wakas are not | as we have represented them | grouped in threes | but rather | are strung together | to digital infinity. |
             | I do not like how | putting three wakas together | somehow demeans the waka | into a concise rhythmic form | with an end. |
            | We all know | that the Pac-Man | will never stop eating | yellow, digital dots | and will never stop living inside | the we-ew we-ew we-ew | or the waka waka waka | since his essential motion is inherently connected | to the sound | unless you mute the volume | but even then | you know that the sound is still there | with the Pac-Man | you see his mouth move with it. | And perhaps we even think | or can think | that when we turn off the Game Boy | and stop controlling the Pac-Man | that he is still there | inside the small square of plastic | the idea of him | in all that digital data | moving forever—in wakas—beyond our vision. | That’s the thing about the Pac-Man | he can’t stop moving. | Except that is not exactly true. | If you let him travel into a wall | he will stop moving | until you press the down or up or side arrow button | which then allows him to continue traveling down endless | interconnected tunnels. |
             | One way of looking at Pac-Man stopping at a wall | is that he is not actually stopped | because we understand | that according to physical Pac-Man laws | he cannot stop. | He is there | continually walking or gliding or drifting |
             | (what is his motion?)3 |
             | into a dead-end. |
             | Our assessment of the Pac-Man’s sound | as a waka waka waka | and not a we-ew we-ew we-ew | seems to | instead of actually attempting to explain the sound | create a new sound | which more accurately reflects | the nature of his motion | waka being harsh, brash | describing his reckless mouth smacking. | I am amazed at the economy of this expression | how the Pac-Man’s reckless masculine nature | is created by a small amount of pixels turning off and on and off again | yellow, then black | then yellow again | combined with waka to | form the idea | of a moving mouth, chomping. |
             | I like to hold my Game Boy close to my face | and look at the individual pixels that compose the Pac-Man. | While you are inside the game it is easy to forget about them. | They are tiny squares that, when added up, compose a circle | a Pac-Man. |
             | We notice that the Pac-Man is the same color as the food he eats | but we never think of him | as the food he eats. | One absurdity in Pac-Man | is that he eats food and never shits and never grows | (he is just large enough to travel through the tunnels). | The food pixels disappear into him. | They don’t come back out. | Strangely, we are even unsure | of the Pac-Man’s motivation | for eating such a vast | amount of food. | And why exactly | do the ghosts care | if he eats it | since as they drift through the food | they do not absorb it. | For this reason | we can be quite sure | that the ghosts’ interests | the reason for the conflict | does not have anything to do | with the food itself. |
             | I wonder why | we care about this conflict | or perhaps I should ask | why we care about | interacting with this conflict | between the Pac-Man | and the ghosts | why we find pleasure in eating | the food and | foiling the ghosts’ plans | if we don’t even know their motivations | or characters. |
             | You can even turn off the game | and see the pixels with no color | just gray squares of potential | stretching out across the entire screen. | This gives us the appearance of a flat surface | a unified plane | a blank slate where the Pac-Man | and the tunnels | and the ghosts | can materialize if we slide the power button to “on.” |
             | (The Pac-Man cartridge is still plugged in—connected to these pixels but also not at all connected to these pixels and I often wonder where inside the cartridge the Pac-Man is moving or programmed to connect with these pixels and perhaps he is trapped inside the cartridge and would like to come out, and the thought of an unused and unrecognized cartridge of Pac-Man inside a Game Boy makes me sad, or perhaps not sad, but I can see the sadness inside of it.) |
             | If you look closely enough | you will see the black lines | of space in between each pixel. | This is what we could call | wasted space | wasted space which surrounds and makes possible the distinctions between small components that create the Pac-Man. | I like to think about those lines while I am playing | especially in the context of the black tunnels that the Pac-Man travels through. | If you look closely enough, even the black background of the tunnels | is textured and segmented. |
             | When we begin | to | segment | things | the components lack | the fluid motion | into one another | and if we look | closely enough | we still see the system | in the cognitive presence | of those components | sometimes this allows us | to admire the system | sometimes this | makes us | lose the | magic, and what I mean | by magic | is that the thing that was most pleasurable | about the system | sometimes disappears | but maybe I shouldn’t be | so pessimistic | because perhaps a component has pleasure in its | own way | for example | take a second | to look at the way that this letter looks on its own: | y |
             | I am trying to master the game of Pac-Man. | We must all try to master something—it really doesn’t matter what. | It mostly proves that we care about some form of human expression. | It mostly proves that we are acknowledging the thinking, the creation | of someone who is not us | but who is also very much us. | It mostly proves that we value thought, and the representations it leaves | as traces of matter in the world. |
             | There are 244 yellow dots of food in the Pac-Man maze. | Each dot is composed of one square, yellow pixel. | This means that 244 pixels of the Game Boy’s total 23,040 pixels | are being used to represent the food dots at the beginning of the game. | That number obviously decreases as the Pac-Man eats food. | We notice that the pixels turn from yellow to black as the Pac-Man passes through them. | This indicates that he has eaten the dot and, in effect, the one pixel. | I am amazed | at the | economy | of this expression. |
             | I consider the best games | to be ones in which the layering of simplicity creates intricacy | and what I mean by this | is that I like a game | wherein the components | which on their own do little work to create pleasure | work together | and not only create a system | a game | but create a system | which in its complexity | enables the player | to infinitely express4 himself through an infinite number | of scenarios | and situations | and combinations of variables. |
             | Pac-Man is one of those games. | If you are moving sideways (as the Pac-Man) and need to move down | you can hold down before you can actually turn down—this is called “pre-turning.”5 | If you do this, the Pac-Man will turn faster than a ghost can turn, meaning | the Pac-Man will round the curve while the ghost will turn like a square. | This small, unnoticeable intricacy of the game helps compose the complexity | which allows you, the real you, but also you the Pac-Man you, to gain speed | and evade ghosts. |
             | At some point in the history of the world, a person decided that a dot of Pac-Man food would consist of one, yellow pixel. I find comfort in acknowledging this. I can’t help but interpret this decision as a small gift of | constraint | which understands the | sensibilities | of | each person. | I can’t help but think of these dots as small messages for me to enjoy; I can’t help but think that by acknowledging these dots I acknowledge the passage of history, the handing down of history. I want every Pac-Man game ever created—all that potential—to be played and remembered at least once a year. I hate the thought of all those Pac-Men living inside their cartridges, unused. |
             | Notice how at the end of the game the Pac-Man’s mouth disappears | since he no longer needs it (there is no more food to eat; the level is over) | and how he becomes a perfect circle composed of squares | as if he is standing with his back to us, or standing, looking at us, with his mouth finally closed | and humble, or smug (we cannot really tell which but we know it’s something like that). | This too, was a decision made long ago; they could have easily showed us the Pac-Man | with mouth rudely open and malicious and confident | but instead the Pac-Man | presents himself in all his pixilated, yellow, and circular perfection | all that crude character represented inside a perfect yellow circle composed of squares | as if saluting like a soldier in uniform to the general | a small, understated, explosion of character for only us. |
             | And how can we tell he looks up? |
             | The other day, a friend of mine said something to me. | She said, “I mean, I don’t think that you become the Pac-Man while playing.” | She meant that while I am looking at Pac-Man | on my Game Boy screen, she didn’t think that I actually | thought that I was the Pac-Man. | This felt right, maybe. | We were talking about violent video games. | I used to play them. | Call of Duty is a game that I played as a young adult. | I was/am very good at Call of Duty. The point of Call of Duty | is to | kill | people, to shoot them and to kill them—sometimes in the head with a sniper rifle. | It is fun to do so. | No one knows why. | It is a mystery in this world. | I proposed to my friend, I said, “Do you think it is possible | that instead of enjoying killing the soldiers virtually, perhaps the players | of first-person shooters enjoy the rhetoric of mastering a system | where they are not actually engaging with the content, but rather | mastering the skills of the motions which compose that content?” | I was thinking about the Pac-Man when I said that. |
             | I became so good at Call of Duty when I was younger, that I could run around the level without shooting my gun, killing opponents (they were real people in front of their own televisions, connected to me through the internet) by only running up to them and stabbing them with my knife. |
             | You can achieve sort of the same feeling as killing someone virtually (actually I am unsure whether it is exactly the same—it is sort of like a trance: a deep dedication to the mastery of the game) while playing Pac-Man | if you obsess enough over the most efficient ways to move through the tunnels. | But ironically, the most pleasing parts of Pac-Man | are when the ghosts are chasing you and you do not think that you will make it | and they are closing in on all sides | their eyes are very big and nice and scary in their niceness and they have no mouths which is interesting because if the Pac-Man is trying to eat them by moving toward them in the tunnels, what are they trying to do if not eat him? | And you narrowly escape. In other words, the game is pleasurable when you succeed | in your reckless, nonrational, movements. In other words | in the moment where probability masks itself as skill. | In other words | when the complexity of the system shows itself to you, and you escape it, and in doing so, you become aware of it. | Or perhaps you do not become aware of it in the moment of playing | perhaps this is more of an explanation of how the spontaneity of defeating a system | can create pleasure while playing | a video game. |
             | I am trying to master the game of Pac-Man. | I am not doing so well. It is quite difficult in all its simplicity. | When you eat an energizer ball the ghosts go blue and you are then allowed, as the Pac-Man, | to eat them. The first ghost you eat is worth 200 points, then the second ghost is worth 400 points | then 800, then 1,600. | If you do not eat all four ghosts before they turn back to their original colors | you will not receive the full 3,000 points. | Eating one piece of food is worth ten points. | That’s not very many points.6 | I began to wonder about my gameplay. | At first, it seemed right to find | the most efficient route through the tunnels | while ignoring the ghosts completely | but the fact that the game rewards so many points | for eating all four ghosts in the span of one energizer ball | made me think that it would be more beneficial point-wise | to stop the Pac-Man at the wall next to an energizer | and then wait | for every ghost to get as close as possible.7 | And then in the last second | eat the energizer | and then eat all the ghosts, thus acquiring the most points. | This seemed logical for points | but was unsatisfactory | in terms of achieving the highest amount of rhetorical and stimulated enjoyment | from the game. | It didn’t feel good | mentally. | That’s when I began ignoring accomplishing the levels all together | and just ran from the ghosts | until they caught me.8 |
             | Sometimes the system | does not understand | the most fun way to play | its own game. | This is just like Call of Duty | in that I was transcending the system of the game | making my own rules | navigating through the moves | which if mastered | would give me the most pleasure | rhetorically | attempting to understand the pleasure of the system | more than the makers of the game themselves. |
             | It was not enough to shoot them with sniper rifles anymore. |
             | We all need to try to master something. |


             | The Pac-Man has no eyes. |
             | The ghosts are all eyes in color. |
             | The Pac-Man is all mouth. |
             | The ghosts have no mouths. |
             | Why is this? |
| When the Pac-Man eats an energizer, the ghosts turn blue and their eyes shrink and they suddenly have squiggly mouths. This is what we might call a change in character—this instant appearance of mouth. I find this strange, because you would think that the best way to show the ghosts’ fear would be to change their eyes, not just shrink them and make them purely white (and it is not humanly white, as in a removing of the pupils, it’s a demonically silver white) and then emphasize the mouths. I say this because eyes, in general, evoke more emotion than mouths. The Pac-Man does not change visually after eating an energizer, only the ghosts, so we cannot tell if the Pac-Man is excited about the opportunity to eat the ghosts. |
             | Everyone knows | that the red ghost | is the meanest ghost | and when we say meanest | what we actually mean is | that the red ghost is the ghost that takes his job most seriously. | That is actually true. | Each ghost is programmed | to have a different personality. |
             | The red one is the most aggressive—he’s most animated about chasing the Pac-Man. |
             | The pink one attempts to get in front of the Pac-Man and ambush him. |
             | The blue one is the most unpredictable and random. |
             | The orange one lags behind the Pac-Man9 |
             | Together this forms a system of ghosts. | We can be fairly certain | that the programming of the ghosts | is not that intricate, but the system | itself is intricate. |
             | I wonder why a person might consider mastering the movement of the Pac-Man in relation to these ghosts’ personalities an honorable or noble or interesting thing to do, because, you know, after you play the game and turn off the Game Boy you are probably just going to get up and eat some nachos. Perhaps a better question is why we do anything, why these systems matter, and when I wake up in the morning am I enjoying the content of the morning itself (everything I see, the light coming through my window, the taste of coffee in my mug—these are components) or am I responding to the routine, the apparatus congealing, the rhetoric of my every day, devoid of content, and what a horrible thing to think, and I always wondered why sometimes all the ghosts converge on my location, and then how one of the ghosts moves away from my Pac-Man instead of chasing it,10 thus allowing me to narrowly escape without rational thought. |
             | This | is the best thing about Pac-Man | how it doesn’t tell you anything. | It just assumes | that you are fine | with being a yellow circle | who is masculine | (and do not kid yourself, Ms. Pac-Man is still masculine: just because she has a bow and lipstick does not change that fact that she fills space and chomps loudly and exerts masculine power while eating) | and waka waka wakaing | and that you are fine with ghosts chasing you | and that yes, you wouldn’t mind | navigating this tunnel for food | that you will never be able to literally taste. |
             | For example | there is a feature in Call of Duty | where if a player | gets shot | he falls to the ground | injured | and he will crawl along the floor | for about ten seconds | before he dies | if another teammate | doesn’t revive him. | In this ten second window | you,11 the enemy | can walk up to him | and shoot him | and sometimes | if he is facing away from you | you can stand behind him for a second | hesitating | and you can take your time | and slowly point the gun at his virtual head | and this is quite a telling moment in the world | because as games get better and better | they essentially become | more system | and less component | although you know | in your brain | that the components must be there | but in this moment | if you are a kid or a young adult and you just got home from work or something | you surely | don’t think about components | and systems | in your brain. | What you do think about | is how the opponent | dying on the ground | cannot get around in time | with his pistol | to kill you | and you think about how long | you should wait | while he rotates toward you | before you kill him. | You do not think | about why you keep | playing after this. | You do not think | about how pleasure is created | from his slowly revolving curvature. | You do not think | about how | or why | you enjoy it.12 | Perhaps you hope | the virtual blood | which spurts from his virtual head | is purely vanity | a nonessential component in an infinite system | a bow on Ms. Pac-Man’s head. |


For example: Nom nom nom feels more clumsy, more stupid than waka waka waka, and although I don’t exactly enjoy the interpretation of waka waka waka either because of the way it makes Pac-Man seem inconsiderate and asshole-ish, I would rather the public view Pac-Man as inconsiderate than as a dumbass who stumbles about his task without conviction, proclaiming, “Nom!”
I would argue that I have arrived at the correct interpretation (which will probably not catch on because we-ew we-ew we-ew won’t look good on a T-shirt and I also realize that the sound may vary from system to system), not just because my interpretation is what the Pac-Man actually sounds like, but because we-ew we-ew we-ew evokes a level of childish sincerity for Pac-Man, which allows the player to take the game less seriously, and I also think that we-ew we-ew we-ew counteracts the chomping and negative masculine energy that I sense from Pac-Man; it makes him more likable.
He moves in two dimensions, like most flat video game characters, but he does so without the context of a floor. This reveals not so much about the Pac-Man’s movement as it does about the nature of the tunnels and the space itself, which is not so much of a space, but more of a maze in the absence of space, as if the Pac-Man and the ghosts drift through regimented segments of void. We know they are not walking, even though the movements of the dresses of the ghosts’ bodies often makes it seem as if they are using them to skirt across a ground which does not exist visually. The Pac-Man lacks this kind of visual cue to suggest his mobility. He simply moves with no explanation. We know he is not rolling, because his mouth always points ahead of his body.
I can’t help but think of playing a video game as a form of self expression for the player, and I often wonder a great deal about what kind of expression, exactly, it could be, especially since that expression is limited to the confines of the game, to the screen. But there’s an attention to detail (or perhaps I should say that there can be for a person who takes it seriously) in the playing of a game that mimics close, critical reading, that resembles the transitive state that some people attribute to art-making. I like to think about my Game Boy screen as a siphon which focuses my complicated brain onto a less complicated system (Pac-Man). What interests me though is how that controlled thought expands and contracts and expresses itself—pulsating—within the constraints of the game: how it can, say, focus all its energy on achieving the maximum turning potential in the tunnels of Pac-Man and how that can be creative in its own strange way.
I find almost no pleasure in the collecting of points in any video game, and in this way, the creators of the game greatly misunderstand its players. Or perhaps I am wrong, and they see the futility of points, too, and insert them as a formality to make the game, the system, functional as a system. I can do nothing with a point, except perhaps tell my friends how many of them I got after playing, which still does little to cause actual enjoyment while playing. My point is I doubt that points have any reason whatsoever to do with what makes any given game enjoyable—for me.
The ghosts are programmed to move in three different ways: the first is “scatter,” in which all four ghosts move to the four corners of the maze and do not chase the Pac-Man at all, the second is “chase,” in which all four ghosts attack the Pac-Man, and the third is “frightened,” in which the ghosts aimlessly wander the maze—fleeing the Pac-Man. It is therefore possible to wait for the ghosts to enter chase mode and then lure them all toward the energizer ball at the same time.
Except that sometimes I’d beat a couple levels in order to do this with as much speed as possible because the Pac-Man starts on Level 1 at 80% of its potential speed, and then in Levels 2-4 that increases to 90%, which is much more enjoyable.
You could have just killed me! Notice how almost every game, no matter how seemingly nonviolent, includes the word “kill,” even though the game never actually says that the ghosts are killing the Pac-Man. The same goes for the phrase, “losing a life.” I especially enjoy this latter phrase in the context of Pac-Man because it implies that Pac-Man actually has a life outside the game, or perhaps it implies that Pac-Man’s only expression of life is in this eating, in this endless and seemingly meaningless search through tunnels, which I consider to be kind of funny. There is a pretty funny Pac-Man scene in a Family Guy episode which understands this: it depicts the Pac-Man depressed and smoking a cigarette in an arm chair while the ghosts try to cheer him up by coaxing him with animated voices and turning blue. Or perhaps it implies that any given game has an inherent, pre-given level of violence attached to its meaning, regardless of content.
You are a soldier with a gun. You can choose which gun: machine gun, sub-machine gun, bazooka, shotgun, etc. You cannot see yourself, only your hand: you are looking at the dying virtual person in front of you in the first person.
| I wonder why | we care about this conflict| or perhaps I should ask | why we care about | interacting with this conflict | between the Pac-Man | and the ghosts | why we find pleasure in eating | the food and | foiling the ghosts’ plans | if we don’t even know their motivations | or characters. |

CORY AALAND lives in Tucson where he edits the Sonora Review blog. He is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program in creative nonfiction. In 2013 he was awarded a University of Arizona Poetry Center Award, and his play “Scabs” was produced by the Boog City Poet’s Theater in August 2012.