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After 40 years, ‘Pac-Man’ creator Toru Iwatani’s first concern is still for the players

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 6, 2020

By Gene Park Washington Post

Even after 40 years, Pac-Man is unforgettable. The reason is literally as simple as his design.

His creator, Toru Iwatani, thinks of a 17th century haiku, when asked about the importance of audiences identifying with a fictional character, especially when said character’s defining characteristics are simply being round and ravenous.

The haiku, written by Matsuo Basho, translates to, “So tranquil is the area, that the sounds of cicadas seeps into the rocks.”

“Varying images come up in everyone’s mind when reading this haiku,” Iwatani, 65, said in an interview with the Washingon Post. “Thinking and imagining the serenity of the scene in the haiku instills a sense of joy.

“People read novels while imagining the scene where the story is taking place. In a similar fashion, simplicity helps people to identify and imagine the character they’re controlling.”

The images Iwatani and a team of seven created for the first “Pac-Man” game in 1980 are forever embedded in pop culture, in part due to how instantly you can relate to the iconography. The first video games, like many of the most popular ones today, were violent and centered around conflict. “Pac-Man,” instead, would tell a story open to interpretation.

For millions of others, “Pac-Man” was a cute and easy distraction from life’s winding paths. For some, it was a reminder that life is a confusing labyrinth where we are either running from or chasing down our ghosts. In the end, all we can do is keep eating.

It’s a far-fetched and somewhat ironic reading of the story, but the simple design was always intended for players to project their own thoughts and feelings. Iwatani says the ghosts were inspired by manga artists and Casper the Friendly Ghost, while their back-and-forth hostility with Pac-Man was inspired by Tom and Jerry episodes.

“I designed Pac-Man to be simple to the point that he doesn’t have eyes or any other adornments,” Iwatani said. “Likewise, I designed the ghosts to be simple and cute.

“This draws on Japan’s age-old appreciation of ‘wabi-sabi,’ where people found transient beauty and depth in simplicity, and I think the world accepting this Japanese aesthetic has made people embrace Pac-Man in various ways.”

The character has starred in hundreds of games over the decades. He’s the star of the Namco Museum Archives, a collection of old Bandai Namco games just released in the West. Dozens of tomes have been written about the impact of Iwatani’s iconic character design, inspired by a pizza missing a single slice.

It’s the first video game mascot. It was the first video game that told a narrative, paving the way for story-driven games. The game was designed to widen gaming’s audience appeal, particularly to women.

Iwatani is proud when he sees statistics of a diversifying games audience. As of 2018, women make up about 46% of Americans who play games, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Japan’s numbers are similar, with 48%, according to the Japan Online Gaming Association. Iwatani attributes Japan’s growth to other fun activities like photo sticker machines and claw cranes in arcades.

But he never had any doubt that gaming would be a permanent fixture of global entertainment. Not when he was playing so much Intellivision back in the 1980s. Anything that entertaining, he says, would become commonplace. He also saw great promise in Nintendo’s early experiments with portable technology, notably the “Game & Watch” handhelds.

“That said, I never expected to see something like a smartphone released, letting people connect to the internet and communicate with players worldwide,” Iwatani said.

Iwatani said in a recent Game Informer interview that he still wants to break “the norms of gaming” and work on uncommon ideas. Since 2007, Iwatani has been a professor at the Department of Games at Tokyo Polytechnic University. He said he’s working on a “gaming suit” that works as a display and controller device and hopes it would inspire new concepts.

Iwatani has blanket advice for any game developer and storyteller today: “Put players first in anything you do, and carefully create games that cater to them as much as possible.

“Then set the concept of ‘fun first’ as your foundation. And freely communicate with fellow creators while making sure you think about how people feel and think.”

Iwatani’s thoughts echo practices of many studios small and large today. Social media and online streaming have given developers more ways to receive feedback. And emotionally harrowing games including “The Last of Us Part II” raise the now-old question of what “fun” means in video games.

For now, Iwatani says he has found excitement and inspiration from “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” Nintendo’s hit launch game for the Switch console released in 2017. To him, it’s a game that lives up to these principles, a game that “kept players’ thoughts and feelings in mind” and that the game design is “generous,” he says.

“The game is quite amazing with how it naturally introduces the game world and mechanics to players, presents stress-free controls and showcases graphics that play on people’s emotions,” Iwatani said. “I think this game is a prime title for developers to use as a benchmark for game design.”

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