Escape to Virtual Reality Arcade
1054 Centenary Blvd (Street View)
Pac-Man is living language, a logomotive being. His body is a sigil built from くち, the Hiragana for “mouth;” as such, his flesh is code that executes his only impulse. He moves ceaselessly forward through hazy, phosphene labyrinths, oscillating between fleeing from the entities that occupy its corridors, and devouring them himself. These ghosts are trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth, as is Pac-Man himself; that is, assuming the player has the time and tokens.
Surprisingly, the ecosystem that exists beneath the arcade cabinet’s glass remains relatively mysterious to this day. Pac-Man was one of the first games to organize its players into developing and sharing competitive strategies, resulting in guides that emerged not as official Namco products, but rather, as the fruits of personal discipline and oral tradition. Scholars note that players studying the ghosts over time have never actually come to a consensus on their deceptively simple behavior. The ghosts have somehow remained unpredictable in 2019, despite limited technological parameters, deterministic architecture, and years of player research.
Adept pacmancers seeking true mastery of the game inevitably reach Level 256- a number that any programmer would immediately note is two to the eighth power- the largest numeric value that eight bits can represent. Players who achieve this milestone find one hell of an anomaly waiting for them: a jumbled mess of letters and numbers resulting from total computational breakdown where their next challenge should be. The memory buffer of the arcade cabinet can’t handle a nine-bit level count, and produces a schizogontal labyrinth that is both unsolvable and unintelligible.
In his paper Dots Fruit Speed and Pills: The Happy Consciousness of Pac-Man for the Journal of Cultural Research, Dr. Alex Wade compares this moment of reckoning to the Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges:
“The unconventionality of the maze is held in the premise that there is precisely no exit from the labyrinth. This is seen when the grid resets after Pac-Man has eaten the last dot of one level and it is interminably replaced by another identical in content (if not strictly form), ad infinitum. This structure is therefore closer to a Borgesian labyrinth, from which there is no exit, the escape route acting as ‘one of the free sides’ which ‘leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery identical to the first and to all the rest.’
However, as is well known in videogame lore, level 256 of Pac-Man, the so-called ‘spilt screen’ level, is fundamentally different from all of the preceding levels in that the space that it revealed was unknown - even to the developers at Namco- as it was believed that the game was too difficult to be ‘beaten’ and would continue forever. However, the legendary level 256 “Displays the left half of the maze correctly, but the right half is a jumbled mess of randomly colored letters, numbers, and symbols [resulting in] a confusing series of open areas, tunnels, one-way intersections, lone walls, and pass-throughs—all invisible to the player.”
Namco’s ignorance of this final level ‘labyrinth of symbols’ when assumed to have fallen into chaos, or nonsense, makes it difficult, or impossible, in normal play to traverse the final level to turn the level count of the machine over. This is in distinction to the player of Space Invaders or Asteroids, who can, hypothetically at least, carry on forever. ‘There is no final victory waiting for Pac- Man, only an empty half maze full of ghosts… there is nothing left to do but sacrifice Pac-Man to a hungry ghost.’ This is entirely consistent with the Borgesian labyrinth where the hero dies just a few leagues from where he was born, in a manner befitting of the withering of Pac-Man ‘my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind.’”
The notion of eternity in an impossible, bifurcated labyrinth of choices between left and right joining birth and death, of smoky lights and ravenous spirits, should be familiar to anyone who has studied myth and spiritual traditions as the afterlife described in the Bardo Thodol, marketed in the United States as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book is a series of instructions for recently deceased spirits, who must navigate a series of colorful corridors of light on their journey to either reincarnation or enlightenment. Though it would be irreverent to consider a book as holy as this a strategy guide for dying, its recommendations and structure are not unlike those dispersed from the shelves of Waldenbooks in the 1980s.
During the fourth night after death, the spirit passes through the realm of Preta-loka, where the pretas (often translated as “hungry ghosts”) reside. These beings, which exist across numerous Buddhist myth traditions and beyond, are described as “footless beings with wide mouths and swollen bellies,” insatiable and endlessly tormented by their inability to ingest. They will devour anything, including their fellow dead, due to their inability to overcome attachment to worldly delights.
Much academic work relates Pac-Man’s insatiability to the rise of consumerism and capitalism- the bottomless nature of desire under the present economic order- though it is not difficult, with a step just beyond the traditional scholarly lens, to see even older models of human suffering in Pac-Man’s doomed sojourn toward satiation. The highest-possible score simply could never be represented in worldly integers. Perhaps we, too, are trapped in the Preta-loka. No, that would be too simple an illusion to escape, too obvious, too procedural.
There is also the possibility that, through Pac-Man, children worldwide during the 80s and 90s seized control of a subsection of the afterlife for twenty-five cents a play, damning the souls of the recently deceased to be reborn as millennials; and, furthermore, that the results of this glitch were entirely in accord with dharma.