Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Genius Of Pac Man

Looking at my stat counter, I noticed that five people have been lead to this blog because they were Googling boomerang Formica counter tops. Perhaps boomerang Formica really is coming back! Who knew?

But that's not really what I wanted to blog about this week. This week I want to blog about video games (pause while all the non-geeks click on some other link)...

...I think that those of you who are still reading will agree that video games have evolved unbelievably over the past twenty years or so (pause while all the pimply-faced kids who think that first video game ever was called "World of Warcraft" click on some other link)...

It used to be that video games were of interest only to nerds like me. Let's face it, they were quite primitive in the early days. The color palette was often limited to four or six colors, low resolution images necessitated simple graphics with jagged edges and the sound effects were electronic and artificial. Back then, video games sounded like video games. Early games were often designed and developed by small teams of programmers (sometimes even a single individual).

Advances in technology have since turned video games into a serious industry. Today's games feature 3D high-resolution graphics with an almost infinite color palette. Digital sound and music make it hard to distinguish a computer game from a movie. Game development studios have budgets that rival Hollywood movie studios, and large teams including programmers, artists, designers, writers, sound technicians and, yes, even actors spend months or even years on big budget games.

So how come I don't seem to enjoy playing computer games as much as I used to? I don't spend near as much time with joystick in hand as I did in the eighties and nineties. Perhaps I've matured. Perhaps I've outgrown computer games. Perhaps the passage of years has sobered me and turned my thoughts to more serious priorities (pause again while I break down laughing until tears flow down my cheeks as I pound the floor with my fist). Yeah, right!

The truth of the matter is that modern games just don't excite me anymore. I've been trying to finish BioShock for months but every time I fire it up I play for maybe twenty minutes before I utter an apathetic "Meh!" and click the Quit Game button. It's not that BioShock is without its charm. Its weird, decaying aquatic art deco environment is interesting enough. The menacing Big Daddies provide a suitable challenge while the Little Sisters, the genetically mutated little girls that they protect, are downright creepy. But haven't we seen this before? In the end, isn't it just another "Shoot the Monster" game, albeit a fancy one?

It seems to me that the problem with modern games is that their developers focus too much on technical wizardry and forget about originality and game play. In the days of eight-bit processors and 16K storage capacities, game developers couldn't afford eye candy so they had to hook the player with innovative ideas and imaginative challenges.

Here's an idea for a game. There's this maze full of dots. In the maze is a round yellow "head" with a mouth that continuously opens and closes. It's not a person or a character or an animal; just a head represented as a plain yellow circle with a triangular opening for a mouth. It doesn't even have any eyes! The player moves this little head through the maze using a joystick. As the head passes over dots in the maze, it eats them up. The object is to eat all the dots in the maze. But then we'll put a bunch of little ghosts in the maze too. They float around the maze, chasing after the munching head, and if they touch the head the player loses a life. Oh but, get this! We'll put four big flashing dots at the corners of the maze and, if the munching head eats one of those, the ghosts turn a different color and then the munching head can eat them too, and you get bonus points for eating them. So then the ghosts all run away from the munching head but, after a few seconds, they turn back to normal and go after the munching head again. Oh! Oh! And every so often fruit appears in the maze and that's also worth bonus points if you eat it.

Sounds simplistic, doesn't it? What was the designer who came up with that idea smoking, and where can I get some? Who would have guessed that Pac Man would become the phenomenon that it did after it was first released back in the early eighties? If we analyze the game play, though, we begin to see that, as with chess, the rules and mechanics are simple, but there's a lot of subtlety that only becomes apparent when playing. When Pac Man eats one of the flashing dots and the ghosts become vulnerable, do you use the time to eat up the remaining dots in the maze in relative safety, or do you go after the ghosts and the extra points and then risk not being able to finish the maze? If you chase after a ghost, can you catch it before it switches back and eats you? Each successive ghost that you catch while they're vulnerable is worth more bonus points. How greedy are you? How far are you willing to push your luck? The game demands split-second decision making while testing your judgement and your nerve and that's what hooks you. It doesn't need 3D graphics or digital sound or a big development budget. It keeps you coming back with pure game play.

I'm waiting for the game with graphics and sound comparable to BioShock, but the originality and simple yet engrossing game play of Pac Man. That's a game that I want to play.

1 comment:

Tubes said...

Don't know if you have seen it, but go to google's regular screen for the google logo. have fun while it lasts....