Return of Pac Man

The munching blob that captured the spirit of an era.

It's 1982. Next to a letter suggesting that Tron, the arcade game, should be read as a "Jungian myth", the journalist Bill Freda quietly announces a new epoch: "In days gone by, the national pastime was baseball. Today, it is Pac-Man." Freda's column appeared in the 30 August issue of InfoWorld ("the news weekly for microcomputer users"), when the Namco corporation's Pac-Man franchise was just two years old. Pac-mania was in full swing.

In April that year, the Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Simon predicted that Atari would sell nine million units of the game by Christmas. Its advent in May 1980 had ushered in what aficionados now call the golden age of arcade gaming, till then only intimated by the Space Invaders craze of the late 1970s. American teens were soon spending over 20 billion quarters a year on video games, translating to approximately 75,000 hours of continuous play. In Japan, the sudden popularity of arcade parlours reportedly caused a national shortage of ¥100 coins.

Freda's declaration of Pac-mania's "epidemic proportions" was no exaggeration. Months after its release, game centres became more common than convenience stores in many American towns. According to Eddie Adlum of RePlay magazine: "Even a few funeral parlours had video games in the basements. I believe churches and synagogues were about the only types of locations to escape."

Pac-Man's profits, meanwhile, quickly surpassed the earnings of 20th-Century Fox's Star Wars, which was the highest-grossing film to date. The video-game format had found its first bona fide pop icon. Stanley Jarocki, then vice-president of the US software distributor Midway, said in an interview with Time magazine: "I think we have the Mickey Mouse of the 1980s."

Thirty years on, it seems curious that a concept so simple could have inspired such devotion and excitement. A two-dimensional, yellow blob moves along a grid, eating nondescript dots or fruit while evading ghosts. And that's it. There's no narrative and no resolution -- not even an end sequence to reward you for your time. Those who try to complete each stage of the game are met with a "kill screen": an unplayable, glitch-ridden half-grid that betrays the limitations of a simple circuit board.

The programmers, it seems, never expected players to reach level 256 -- or that anyone would even want to. Yet six gamers, so far, have reached the fabled finish line. As recently as 2009, David Race "clocked" each stage in an unprecedented three hours, 41 minutes and 22 seconds.

Controversy once raged over whether the kill screen could somehow be negotiated to gain access to further levels, but even after a $100,000 bounty for proof that a 257th level existed was issued by the Florida-based hot sauce manufacturer Billy Mitchell -- himself a record-holder for achieving the first perfect game of Pac-Man -- no gamer came forward. "I have reached the 256th screen hundreds of times and cannot get through," said Mitchell in 1999.

On 5 December 1982, however, an opportunistic Ronald Reagan attempted to ride the craze and sent a presidential letter of congratulation to Jeffrey Yee, who had reported a new record of 6,131,940 points. Other players were sceptical: Yee's score would only have been possible if he had somehow beaten the kill screen.

In late May this year, Google celebrated the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man's Japanese release by hosting a basic version of the game on its home page. The retro tribute proved so popular that the search engine giant has since decided to make it permanently available -- which may be bad news for businesses. According to the software analysts Rescue Time, internet surfers around the world wasted almost five million work hours playing the embedded game during the course of one day.

Pac-Man is, on the other hand, the purest product of the hyper-capitalist, 1980s mindset: a fantasy of the consumer who does nothing but eat and acquire ("rampant consumption", says the games writer Siva Vaidhyanathan).

No wonder Reagan's interest was piqued. With the Tories back in No 10, and a sequel to Wall Street on the way, perhaps no other game will better sum up the spirit of the coming decade.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump