Those who advocate gaming as a storytelling medium miss a point. And this point isn’t solely the gameplay, but the way in which a narrative focus can change the experience.
A classic board game such as chess or Connect 4 is played on its own merits, nobody cares why the black and white king are at war or even the logic behind attempting to line up four pieces of the same colour — players simply learn the rules and play within the framework they create. That is a game.
Some of the first arcade games were precisely this, but more so. Space Invaders showed how an automated set of rules could move more game pieces simultaneously than feasibly possible with the physical space of a board or tabletop game. Pac Man was about the removal of pieces and a set of rules to prevent the player from easily doing so; to challenge them.
Ah, Pac Man. A game whose only narrative is that the ghosts are out to get the player, and power pellets will enable them to turn the tables. The repetition of that same ruleset and playfield are made challenging with heightened speeds and decreasing ‘power pellet’ periods. Pure ludology, with cute iconic graphics as presentation. But what of those who simply wouldn’t accept such a premise without a story?
Pac Man’s abstract nature lends itself well to interpretation, and one can garner a narrative from this if they desired. Let us explore.
Storyline number one: Pac Man, a yellow dot, munches tiny yellow dots — the young of his species. The ghosts are in fact those of the young, who Pac Man has found a way to exorcise and devour once more. The game is an allegory for cannibalism.
Storyline number two: It is a blue warehouse owned by an eccentric with a penchant for ghost-shaped storage trolleys, which our ‘Pack Man’ must indeed pack full of the produce in said factory to later take to the shipping area, inexplicably in the center of the warehouse. As Pack Man gets more experienced at the job, he is given less and less time to perform his duties. The game is a surreal simulation of the work environment.
Storyline number three: Pac Man finds himself in prison, populated by oversexed inmates who dress as ghosts to scare the fresh convict so they can sexually assault him. However, in the corners of the prison are utility cupboards which contain personal alarms (which would constitute the high pitch when ‘ghosts’ are vulnerable) and pepper spray; and these allow Pac Man to suppress his would-be violators. The game represents non-consensual intercourse in a penal institution.
Each one of these storylines are unpleasant in some way; either uncomfortable, dull, or potentially-triggering a traumatic event the player may have experienced or witnessed. And yet, they could legitimately be the narrative for the game.
Pac Man is a fun game with clearly-defined rules. Focus on story has the potential to detract so wildly from this as to destroy the experience entirely.