Pac-Snake

1998. That’s fourteen years ago now – more if you’re a citizen of the future. I remember fondly the time I spent as a youngster; enjoying 90s action films when I was too young to realise they were genuinely crap, watching children’s cartoons when I was too young to realise they were genuinely brilliant and wondering why my penis felt all tingly and nice when I hugged a pillow between my legs and thought of Kate Winslet. They were simpler times, really – videogames being no exception.

I still remember being hunched over our Playstation, constantly replaying the demo levels of Metal Gear Solid and snapping more necks than a nine year old should be allowed to snap. But back then, as with most games of the time, there was always an element of artificiality to the experience which prevented the guttural choking sounds of my enemies from being anything more than audial conformations of my victory over a simple game element. It was only later in life, however, that I realised that this artificiality – the angular levels, the identical guards, the constantly repeated sound effects – was actually part of the game’s cohesive and endearing design. I came to this realisation whilst playing an archaic Pac-Man machine in my local pub.

Pac-Man, as you no doubt know, is brilliantly simple. The player has to collect all the small white dots within the level-maze whilst avoiding the deadly ghosts that converge on their position. Eating one of four power pellets in the level will render the player with limited invulnerability, allowing them to temporarily devour the enemies in their path. The whole maze, and as such all aforementioned game elements, are displayed on screen during play (as you can see below).

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Though the mechanics are simple, Pac-Man is a surprisingly exhilarating game. The enemy ghosts will chase Pac-Man, but not with perfect efficiency, and a good player can outmanoeuvre them just long enough to grab a power pellet and completely turn the tables. This leads to those clammy-joypad inducing moments where you’re desperately trying to nab the last power pellet before a horde of ghosts descend upon you, and force your feeble circular form to rip itself inside-out in one quick convulsion.

It was this pursuit style gameplay that reminded me of stealth-action games like Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed. Indeed, upon closer assessment of the game’s mechanics, it is possible to classify Pac-Man as a sort of ‘inverse’ stealth game. Sneakybastards point out that one of the defining characteristics of stealth games are their ‘low threshold for failure’, meaning that it’s very easy for the player to get discovered, something which usually results in a rupture of normal play and the commencement of a pursuit scenario in which the player must escape. In Pac-Man, this state of ‘failure’ constitutes normal play, whilst power pellets buy the player essential time to manoeuvre freely before the pursuit begins anew. Pac-Man, then, is essentially a distillation of this rupture or turning point – keeping us constantly on the cusp of this exhilarating pursuit, with only brief glimpses of breathing room before we’re plunged back into the fray. And by examining how Pac-Man succeeds in providing this experience, we can also understand how other stealth games succeed or fail.

What the designers of both Pac-Man and Metal Gear Solid understood was that truly engaging game experiences occur when the player is in complete awareness of the game entities around them, and the mechanics by which they operate.

An important aspect of Pac-Man’s design which contributes to this sense of awareness is one it shares with many other retro games: a preference of abstracted, simple aesthetics over any attempt to imitate reality. All Pac-Man’s game elements are broken down into simple shapes and colours to give them distinction. The maze boundaries, edible dots and empowering power-pellets are all starkly contrasted against the black background, while the enemy ghosts and player-controlled Pac-Man are equally distinct from one another, looking like stylised puddings and a partially consumed cheese wheel respectively. The result of this aesthetic choice is twofold.

The first occurs in any game with visually represented elements, but Pac-Man’s simple design facilitates the process: each game entity becomes an easily recognisable symbol within the playable game space. The cheese wheel comes to represent the player’s vulnerable, digital self within the game, as well as their sole way of exercising their agency (i.e. the ability to eat things), while the puddings become emotionally-charged oppressors, pursuing with the intent to destroy. We are, after all, pattern-seeking animals – our brains love to apply structure and rulesets to anything we come across – and so it only takes a few seconds of playing Pac-Man before a new player’s brain has filled in the gaps, and these abstract shapes have become value-charged game entities.

Secondly, because all relevant visual information is displayed on the screen at once and is designed to be individually distinct, the player is in complete awareness of the playable space and can always comprehend the ludic significance of any moment of gameplay – in the above screenshot, for instance, the player is being hounded by a number of ghosts, and is in something of a tight spot. But thanks to the game’s clarity of design, their strategic options are obvious; they can flee the enemies in pursuit of more dots, or they can take a chance and make a dash for the power orb, a dangerous but potentially profitable move.

This fight-or-flight scenario is just as complex as the strategic opportunities we have in modern games. Sure, in Assassin’s Creed we may have a plethora of lethal devices with which to hinder or incapacitate our enemies, but more often than not the true drama – the true strategy – of the game comes down to that moment where you have to make a snap decision. The Byzantine guards have spotted me, and are highly suspicious. Do I retreat, hide, maintain anonymity? Or engage, and hope I can dispatch them all before arousing further attention? These are the moments that make games exciting, and Pac-Man conveys them with ease, with just a few symbolic game elements and four directional buttons. Compared to contemporary games it’s like a design brief, or even a synopsis – it’s the core elements of a game, laid out bare, easily digestible and entirely comprehensible.

Metal Gear Solid is so endearing because, like Pac-Man, it makes its core gameplay mechanics entirely comprehensible to the player from the start – no small feat for a 3D game which is also attempting to convey a realistic aesthetic. This is, in fact, a problem which still persists with contemporary titles. It’s easy to communicate the ludic function of a game entity through abstract symbols, as we’ve seen with Pac-Man, and this is because game mechanics themselves are abstract and digital. But to veil the game-world in a realistic guise is inherently detrimental to the goal of communicating game mechanics, because entities with digital, limited functions (an enemy which can move in eight directions on flat ground, for example) are disguised as having analogue, potentially infinite functions (a human being who can traverse a wide range of terrain types), and our knowledge of the latter impedes our ability to learn about the former. Put simply, with realistic-looking games the player has to learn what entities CANNOT do, whereas with abstract games each entity is a blank canvas, and the player can learn a truer sense of such entities’ ludic abilities through trial and observation, unclouded by preconceptions based on a pseudo-realistic aesthetic.

(This is why, if one of your parents has ever walked in and watched you play a video game, they have probably asked some inane question along the lines of “why can he jump so high?” or “how can he survive being shot so much?”. A person with little inexperience of game rulesets will naturally apply real life rulesets to what they see on screen, and most gamers have (without realising) un-learned their real world expectations by immersing themselves in game worlds. My parents, of course, asked different questions: “why are you such a goddamned queer?” and “how in fuck’s name haven’t you beaten that boss yet?”)

While many contemporary games would prefer to exacerbate the illusion of realism for the sake of ‘immersion’ or somesuch, MGS highlights the dichotomy between the pseudo-real and the underlying digital game mechanics throughout. It gleefully tears the two apart, and revels in inviting the player to peer through the seams and recognise the game’s artificiality (just think of those Psycho Mantis cutscenes, for example). Indeed, MGS chooses to first convey the gameplay mechanics to the player in an environment almost entirely devoid of pseudo-realism , in the optional VR training missions. These missions are not dissimilar from Pac-Man’s level-maze, what with their small wireframe environments containing a few distinct gameplay elements. In this context, soldiers and security cameras stand out as clearly as the ghosts in Pac-Man, almost reverting them back to the status of symbols. Furthermore, these missions are often designed to convey how overtly predictable the guards’ behaviours are. They have short, repeating patrol routines, and the levels force you to exploit their blind spots and obvious deficiencies. Stand shoulder to shoulder with one, and as long as you are outside of the guard’s cone of vision, the player is invisible. Knock on a wall, and the nearest guard in earshot will investigate without fail. The game wants the player to understand that these are AI systems with limited agency and predictable behaviours which can easily be exploited.

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Even in the game proper, MGS constantly undermines its own realistic aesthetic. The radar in the corner of the screen also functions to remind players of the game’s artificiality. It breaks the level down into a traversable maze, and reduces guards to their cones of vision only. It is essentially a window into the realm of the digital and the symbolic, reminding us that we inhabit a space of limited game elements. Even in the level as a whole – in the space of the pseudo-real – there is an economy to the game’s realism, where seemingly decorative elements are drawn back into the game’s functional ludic core. Footsteps in the snow and puddles of liquid, for instance, are both methods of attracting a guard’s attention rather than being simply decorative, while every door and ventilation shaft can be entered (with the right keycard, at least) where in other games they would be illusory – ‘locked’ and leading nowhere. The symbolic even pervades the pseudo-real at times, with exclamation marks appearing over enemies’ heads to signify the detection of the player, and items floating above the ground like a pick-up in an arcade shooter. These elements are all the more noticeable for their distance from the realistic world they inhabit; a ration, slowly spinning in the corner of a room, is just as obvious as a flashing power pellet against Pac-Man’s black background.

The camera helps too, hanging disembodied above the player-character and allowing for a wide survey of the player’s immediate surroundings at any one time. Its default alignment is always the same, with the top of the screen leading north, which helps to orientate the player within an objective space and makes it easier to memorise the layout of the level (it is interesting to note that while Shadow Moses may seem like a sprawling complex, the entire game is actually one long road north, much like a Mario level is a constant journey to the right of the screen. In MGS, the top of the screen is always the direction of Metal Gear Rex – the ultimate objective of the game).

Metal Gear Solid, then, attempts to educate the player of the game world from the bottom-up, making its gameplay mechanics obvious from the start and intending for the player to have a complete awareness of their situation at all times. It does this by giving the player an awareness of space, visually identifying elements of ludic importance, and by making these elements deterministic and predictable. As a result, the gameplay on both sides of the aforementioned ‘low threshold for failure’ found in stealth games is improved. When the player is sneaking, they have control over their immediate environment; they are empowered not in strength or ability, but through their understanding of the world around them and the strategies available to them; they have the means to exploit a game system which they recognise as deterministic. And when the failure threshold is breached and the regular rhythms of play are interrupted, and the deterministic game world breaks down into unpredictability, the same comprehension of game mechanics which empowered the player before now enhances the emotion and exhilaration found in their escape. The player, aware of their surroundings, has numerous strategies for evading their pursuers; but is also constantly aware of who is chasing them, and the danger this poses. It is at this point that Metal Gear Solid most closely resembles Pac-Man, as the player knows full well their vulnerability in the face of a relentless oppressor, and is forced to quickly navigate a level-maze in search of a hiding place – a power pellet which will turn the tables.

Essentially, the design decisions we have assessed in both Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man enhance the experience of playing a game with a low threshold for failure. It’s easy to see where similar games have failed. Assassin’s Creed, for instance, lets its pursuit of pseudo-reality get in the way of actual gameplay (ironically, considering the whole thing is set in a computer simulation). When the player is spotted, chases are dull affairs as the player must focus on running and climbing, and usually cannot see their pursuers behind (imagine a chase scene in a film if you could only see the person running). Furthermore, the openness of the game world prevents the tense strategy of manoeuvring in a cramped environment – a factor which is essential to the gameplay of MGS and Pac-Man. On the other side of the failure threshold, I’ve always found the stealth gameplay of Far Cry to be incomprehensible, for the simple reason that I have no idea the limits of the guards’ perceptions. While you understand the guards’ behaviours in MGS from the very beginning, I played through the whole of Far Cry setting off every alarm in every encampment, usually spotted by a guard I thought was too far away to see me (my brother John has an incredible ability to play the first Far Cry stealthily. I know not what dark intellect resides in the depths of his brain which allows him to do this, or what secret pact was made with entities unknown, but one thing is for sure: Far Cry’s stealth system is shit and John is a bizarre wanker).

I’d even go as far to argue that the gameplay of subsequent MGS titles has been impeded by attempts to modernise the series. MGS4, for instance, attempts to draw the player closer to Snake’s perspective with its more intimate third-person camera and the lack of a contextual radar. And while this is all in keeping with our contemporary desire to immerse ourselves into the ‘experience’ and merge with the character we are playing, it comes at a price; at best the game is simply more fiddly, and at worst it becomes disorientating and frustrating. In fact, I enjoyed the AC!D PSP spin-off titles far more than MGS4, as despite being turn-based card games, they better understood what made the original MGS’ gameplay so satisfying and endearing.

In fact, I think life itself would benefit from being more like the original Metal Gear Solid. I grow tired of the complex unpredictability of human emotions – wouldn’t things be easier if we simplified things a bit? Imagine a world in which, rather than having to worry about money and relationships and your own insignificance in a vast universe of unknowns, the most pressing concern in anyone’s life was where those footprints came from, or what that noise was. You’d always know if someone was pissed off with you, thanks to the giant exclamation mark hanging above their head, and the situation could easily be diffused by hiding in a cardboard box. And sure, most of your friends would have weird psychic powers or would be quadruple-crossing you for an organisation run by a mouldy carrot in the basement of Scotland Yard, but at least you could skip all the cutscenes.