Sunday, May 23, 2010

Our Pop Turns 30
So it turns out that this weekend saw two anniversaries of tremendous significance: 30 years ago this past Friday, May 21, "The Empire Strikes Back" first hit movie theaters, and a day later, "Pac-Man" was released. This likely makes May 21-22, 1980, the most culturally consequential two-day stretch of my childhood, maybe that of my whole generation.

To be honest, if asked when Pac-Man first appeared a week ago, I probably would have answered 1981. But it was the previous year when the original came out in Japan, then called Puck-Man. You can probably guess why they changed it for American release. I was probably a bit too young to really obsess over Pac-Man, though I was sufficiently into it that somebody did give me a little paperback book of tips for winning the game. Reading this piece on the game's "meaning," though, I'm struck by what a technical accomplishment Pac-Man was, and is.

Ultimately, it is Pac-Man's simplicity that brought it such a huge audience. Yet to designers like Meretzky, trying to replicate that was no easy task. Meretzky recalled designing a title called Hodj 'n Podj, which featured several reworked classic games, including a remake of Pac-Man. "It made me much more appreciative of the game," he said. "It was really, really hard to get the game balance right, and get the [artificial intelligence] of the ghosts right. You look at Pac-Man and you think it's such a simple game and an easy game to clone. But it's hard to get the balance right."

...[C]lassic games like chess, checkers, and Go are all conceptually easy to understand, but take a lifetime to master. "I think Pac-Man does very well on that metric," Garriott said. "It's easy to understand and sit down and try to play. But then [you see its] wide variety of foundational strategies that unfold only after you have played many, many times."

It still holds up pretty damn well, as anybody who wasted time Friday or Saturday playing the version coded into Google's homepage can attest.

Still, at least for my personal development, Pac-Man's significance pales next to that of "Empire." I'd been bearing the unbearable waiting for the "Star Wars" sequel to come out, reading fan newsletters that I couldn't really understand (being 5 or 6), obsessively playing with my toys, daydreaming myself into the story. When the day came, I skipped school--a parentally sanctified transgression that had an aura of holiness to it--with my uncle, his girlfriend and my brother, age four. (Somehow, almost every great parental or family act of my childhood was Star Wars-related. I still think my mom's parenting pinnacle was the month or so in 1977 when she took me to see "Star Wars" every Wednesday.)

The movie was a fucking mind-blower. I don't think it quite traumatized me, as it evidently did for this guy, but it certainly opened up new dramatic horizons and moral vistas within the world of make-believe. It probably helped that I wasn't totally blind-sided by the setbacks the heroes endure: after all, the title "The Empire Strikes Back" is a fairly transparent giveaway that some heavy shit is in the offing. Still, the wrenching shock of "No, Luke: *I* am your father!" sets an unreachable standard for psychological awfulness, the new piece of information that explodes every preconceived notion you hold.

What Luke does in the face of that knowledge, as well as his own defeat at the hands of evil, made a lasting impression too: he steps off the walkway into the emptiness of the air shaft. I remember feeling shock as it became clear what he was about to do--and then, when he did it, seven years old and accustomed to audience participation, I started to applaud. The theatre was otherwise utterly silent; after two claps, I stopped. So in addition to everything else, "Empire" gave me my first experience of social awkwardness stemming from incongruous behavior. Of many.

There's one more aspect of "Empire" worth noting, something it brought to the table that's almost unimaginable now: it was pretty much spoiler-free and, at least to my young eyes, self-contained as a story. Without the internet, and probably owing to the extreme secrecy fetish of George Lucas and all those he ruled, no secrets were leaked. (The only way one could have had the surprise exposed was some loudmouth talking about it as the previous screening let out--a scenario "The Simpsons" played out in one of the many flashback episodes to the courtship of Homer and Marge.) And while there were commercial tie-ins aplenty--the Burger King "Empire" glasses probably lasted most of the decade in our home--they didn't seem to be the point, as sadly felt like the case three years later when "Return of the Jedi" finished the trilogy. I remember watching the movie, again on the first day while out of school, and thinking that the Ewoks were primarily there to sell toys and swag.

I wrote a novel (not published, not even shopped, but "finished") in which one of the characters muses that everything bad about growing up in the '80s was made up for, and then some, by being kids when "Star Wars" played out. It's even still paying off for us, most recently in the form of "Robot Chicken" episodes that were much more loving homage than parody. It's probably not too much to say that Star Wars saved our childhoods, and that "Empire" gave those movies the bulk of their lasting power.

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