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Vol. 2, Issue 1
November 9, 1999

Pixel Obscura:

Adventures in CandyLand

by Josh Vasquez




ideo games have become infested with ghosts. One of the trends in the industry over the last few years seems to be an exploratory revisitation of the successes of the past. Old bones, however, are just that, and the stars of yesteryear needed a bit of "fleshing" out (fade to a boardroom meeting: "men, we gotta think big" the boss says as a chorus quietly sings "Dem Bones" in the background). In a ritual of redressing, paradigmatic characters like Donkey Kong, Frogger and, most recently, Pac-Man have all been resurrected with a day-glow pulse and bubbled out into a new landscape by way of a wonderful conceit: the illusion that one can implant the third dimension into the second. In essence this neoteric life promised to the faithful is a movement to the geometry that applies in depth. It's a deepening meant to tap into nostalgia and thus, hopefully, into wallets as fans trade for a peek at the "new world."

As a side effect of this marketing strategy, a new aesthetic has arisen around these once flat heroes that stretches beyond the "fish out of water" charm of seeing them turn 360 degrees. On the one hand, watching something being brought back to life can persuade the observer to develop a new appreciation for the tools used to work such a miracle. Seeing Pac-Man in the increasingly standard "3D environment" format has the potential to help the surfeited player rediscover a magical sense of awe at such video game advances, like seeing the sun rise through the eyes of someone regaining their sight after a year. Now, while I don't want to overstate the power of this awakening (in the end it is just a game after all), there is something to be said for its ability to induce a warm smile if nothing else. On the other hand, there is an interesting A+B=C equation taking shape here.

Mixing the cartoonish with a more fully "realized" environment has some curious side-effects. Treating Mario or Donkey Kong like, for example, Lara Croft (and whether Tomb Raider came before or after is beside the point), or at least placing them in a similarly rendered quest format, forces a strange marriage of the serious and the silly. Even though the ideas behind the games may be completely different, utilizing the same type of overall design to reach utterly different goals, the viewer can't help but see one in the newly cast light of the other. Just by 3D-ing the environment of a game you are evolving the narrative, raising the stakes if you will. This is true even if the new Pac-Man is still all about gobbling those little white dots; the walls of the maze are instantly more "dramatic" in a three dimensional setting than in the original by virtue of their being made more concrete. I am not suggesting that the creators have to have intentionally worked out a more detailed plot line for this to be true. If the individual is inspired to let his or her mind wander, stretching to account and plan for the possibility that a threat awaits behind that next hill or around the corner, then a more heightened interaction is automatically taking place between game and player. The intriguing and humorous bent comes in when the character is not a barbarian warlord or a robot monster but Frogger.

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, you cartoonish villian, you.