No, this ain’t the Olympics. Or the Super Bowl. It’s beta testing.
You see, I’m an avatar in a video game. Not just any run-of-the-mill character. I’m Ms. Pac Man.
There are plenty of us ladies running around mazes in arcades. We all look relatively the same. Outside the game, they give us our own duds. Red boots. Or blue heels. Orange gloves. Inside, the only difference between us and the guys is we wear makeup and red bows.
Doesn’t matter. We can be just as fast.
Some Ms. Pac Mans are a little slower. Heavier. Their bows are larger and block the visuals. The lipstick’s a little thicker. Maybe it makes ’em prettier. Whatever. All those little extras only slow me down.
Maybe that’s why I’m beta testing, and they’re not.
Either way, I’m in a new game with my male counterpart. I suspect you know him. He’s the bald one on the other screen but on the same machine.
Our play monitors are on opposite ends of the full-sized arcade game. There are two displays, two joysticks, and two players. It’s Pac Man vs me. This game’s never been released to the public before. We gotta see if this is gonna work.
Check ‘em out on the other side. All his adoring fans. The kids in the test group are LINED UP in front of the arcade machine just to get a look at him. But he’s all hype. Sure, he sprints. But can he do a long haul if his controller makes him do it? You know, run through ten miles of pellets without a ghost in sight? Or maybe time it just right so two spirits smack right into each other trying to kill him while he’s still eating pellets? Sure, the kid’s controlling the game, but we do all the work.
And I do that stuff for breakfast.
He’s only in this game because he thinks he’s gonna win. After all, he’s the more popular one, so maybe he thinks he’ll get better players. I doubt it.
The two kids at the front of the arcade game stand at the screen. One on either side. Of course, the line behind my player’s full of girls. You never catch a boy willing, let alone showing excitement, about playing my game. It’s a gender stigma. Too bad.
Luckily my girls, the ones who’ll move me around with the joystick, know what’s up.
Towards the kids waiting to play Pac Man’s side, I yell, “Let’s see who’s little Mr. Misogynist AFTER I kick your boy’s ass on the screen!”
Yeah. I know they can’t hear me. I don’t care. I’m hella psyched and ready to win.
The children press start, and the machine spits out that familiar tune. Even if you don’t know it, you can imagine it. Like trumpets at a derby.
And we’re off! Already I know this is a new machine because my girl maneuvers the joystick without the jolts and hesitations I normally feel in an older screen. It’s a maze that lets you glide and make those quick turns without so much as a momentary pause. No jerkiness. Zero fits and starts. That waka-waka sound trails me as I race down to the bottom middle of the screen and eat as many pellets as I can. I’ve been fasting for days just for this. It’s better to get them early before the ghosts are really on your tail. A glance to my right tells me my adversary’s already eaten an energizer and is now chasing blue ghosts. His kid’s got no strategy. You gotta leave those things until the end.
Once I’m done with the bottom, I move on to the top to eat more pellets. There’s a ghost on my tail. My girl swerves me right. Then left. I duck through the tunnel. Keep right again. Still make it to the top. But that one spirit trailing me now has multiplied into four. And my player’s gotta decide.
Do I eat an energizer? If I do, I’ll be able to scarf down those ghosts. But I only have four energizers, so she’s gotta be choosy about when I gobble them. Since I still got all of them, she makes me partake. Makes sense, so I feel good about it. Just before I do that, I check the other guy. Pffft! He only has two energizers left.
What’d I tell you?
His boy’s got no strategy.
I swallow the energizer, and right away chomp on all four ghosts in a fuzzy blue pile. Their googily eyes hightail it back to their box. When they return to haunting, my girl zooms me back to the middle, above their home. It’s only risky when someone’s lurking inside. So, she made a good decision to send me there at that moment.
Finally, I’ve cleared the board, except for three energizers. Oh, wait. I missed three pellets on the far left, near an intersection. My girl’s gotta make a note of that for later.
So, I get over to the energizer furthest from me. And my player makes me wait. Just sit there and take a breath. Then another. I stay still until I got ghosts for miles. Then she has me eat the energizer and show ‘em who’s boss.
Before I know it, I’m at the last energizer. A quick glance around the board tells me my girl’s forgotten about the three pellets. Aw crap. I gotta go get them. They’re on the other side, too. But the ghosts are hot on my trail, so she can’t exactly make me pick up and leave to collect the remaining ones. So, I’m praying my player thinks of a strategy. My guess? Eat the energizer, gobble the spirits in my way, and sprint to those last pellets.
Sure enough, she’s got me doing what I figured she would. The first part of the plan works. I scramble to the remaining pellets. Meanwhile, the ghosts fly in and out of the box way too quickly. And now they’re onto me. Two of ’em are racing to the pellets. Those guys know where I’m headed. Does my player know they can do this? She’d better if she wants me to stay ahead in the game. And I got two more right behind me. So, I gotta book it to make the pellets before them.
My player’s probably leaning on the joystick to maneuver me faster. I feel the speed flapping my bow. Yeah! That’s right, girl. Punch it!
I’m going so fast, the pellets hit me right in the face. Meanwhile, the ghosts following me somehow meet up with the other two trying to ambush me. And it’s a full-on explosion of spirits smacking into each other while I plow through to victory. I was way too fast for them. The screen freezes, and the colors on the walls of the maze flash. I passed Level One. Then I look over at my counterpart. Crap. He was nearly done, too.
My player’s gotta make me go faster next time.
As I’m thinking this, it occurs to me I didn’t see a cherry. What the hell’s wrong with beta people? Can’t they get the story right? It’s in every Level One. But not here.
Whatever. Maybe I’ll see it later.
We continue to the next level. This time, it’s faster. My girl follows the same strategy. It’s predictable and comfortable. I look at the other board, and he’s already eaten two energizers.
This time, when I’m almost done with the pellets, guess who comes over like it’s his sector? Pac Man. That’s right. Starting in Level Two, we can cross into each other’s territory. That’s part of the design of this new game. As he does this, I’m thinking, ‘what the hell’s he—’
He’s taking an energizer. And eating my ghosts.
That’s when the cherry pops up, and he takes that, too.
While my ghosts recuperate in their box from the attack from an outsider, my player makes me head for Pac Man’s board. I’m thinking she wants revenge. And I shout to my ghosts, “I got you guys!” because I’m definitely on board with her. If anyone’s gonna eat the hell out of my spirits, it’s me.
As soon as I can, I sprint through that tunnel, and the colors on the walls go from pinkish orange to blue. It’s surprisingly disorienting. But I don’t let it mess with me. I look for that dummy, and he’s at the bottom running away from his demons. Of course, he is. That’s what his player’s always making him do. Sprinting away from ghosts. Whatever. While he’s trying to escape, my girl has me going to one of his energizers and waiting for his spirits to come get me.
Sure enough, his ghosts show up. Then I show them. While I’m at the far right, chomping on HIS spirits, he should be eating pellets, right? Take advantage of the fact no one’s chasing him for once. But no. He’s only watching me.
His player’s a dummy.
“Dude, your player sucks!” I say, running to the exit. “You should be eating pellets right now!”
We almost finished with the level, but, of course, he gets eaten.
So, we gotta start again.
I eventually clear my screen on Level Two, except for the energizers, and guess who comes back? Yeah. The other guy. His player wants to steal again. I glance at his board.
He’s got no more energizers. What the hell?
Didn’t his boy ever learn to save for a rainy day and all that crap?
Whatever. I’ll get him in the next board.
We move on to Level Three. As per usual, my player makes me clear my board except for the energizers. She makes me grab the orange, too, which gets her more points.
Then she decides we’re going on a hunt. His closest energizer is just past the tunnel. As I make my way to the entrance, he starts coming over to my side through the same connection. But here’s the thing: this has never been done before. No two avatars have passed through the same tunnel at the same time.
What’s gonna happen? We’ll have to communicate. If I open my big mouth, will he listen? Is he gonna be pushy? Maybe order me around? Or is he gonna be a professional? At least a decent individual? I got no time to imagine the ending because now the ghosts are on his tail, also heading to the same place.