Hear me out when I say this. Pac-Man is one of the first survival horror games. Looking back on it for its 30th anniversary, Pac-Man has almost every element that can make up the titularly terrifying genre baked into its core. While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a realistic ‘M’ rated jumpscare-filled rendition of Pac-Man (nor should we ever), if we break down the elements of the genre, we can find that Pac-Man is fit to a T.
First of all, most survival horror games have a monster of some sort. In Resident Evil, these monsters are zombies, in Silent Hill, these monsters are demons or manifestations of your sins, and in Pac-Man, these monsters are ghosts. We’re never given a reason for why the ghosts have it out for Pac-Man, but we do know that they are deadly as one touch makes Pac-Man split open before blinking out of existence.
The next element of a survival horror game is the pursuit of these monsters and feeling trapped. In Silent Hill, you’re often running from these demonic creatures as they chase you endlessly through the fog of Silent Hill. You can take a wrong turn down an alleyway and have to find a way to sneak passed the monster without wasting precious ammo. In Pac-Man, the ghosts not only chase you, but are designed to move a certain way around the maze to trap you. Surrounded by ghosts on both sides, the only thing you can do is accept death. You feel helpless.
Which is one of the final elements of a survival horror game. Classic survival horror games such as the original Resident Evil games and Silent Hill titles feature tank controls. These are controls where you have to push forward to move forward, but moving left or right only turns you rather than moves you in that direction. It’s unintuitive, but fighting with the controls makes you feel more helpless in terrifying situation.
This same feeling of fighting the controls happens in Pac-Man. During the game, you are always moving and you are stuck strictly on a path. If you miss your turn, it could mean you’re on a pathway towards destruction. While you can turn around, the time you’ve wasted trying to get to where you want to go means you’ve only given the ghosts more time to advance towards you. You are, once again, in a helpless situation.
Pac-Man has the elements of a survival horror game when these elements are brought to a base-level. It’s clear that the classic dot-munching game can easily fit into the genre, but it wouldn’t pass as a survival horror game if it was marketed that way today.
Of course, these elements could also be applied to Dig Dug and Mappy, so is it really more of an issue of oversimplifying something to see if it can be misconstrued as a specific narrative? Tune in next week when I argue that Galaga is actually the precursor to Halo.