Learning From Clyde, The Sensitive Pac-Man Ghost

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I’m a Classic Era Gamer when it comes to video games. I was four years old when Space Invaders landed, and seven when Pac-Man began its relentless quarter-munching campaign. I vividly recall the first time I saw a Pac-Man cabinet at Straw Hat Pizza in Malibu. I thought it was the coolest thing ever invented, like a cartoon come to life with a joystick attached.

Pac-Man and its sequel Ms. Pac-Man remain my games of choice to this day, with Dig-Dug right behind. These are the only video games I can play that will cause people to come over to watch.

Over those many years of playing Pac-Man and its sequels, I’ve given serious thought to Clyde, one of the four multi-colored ghosts in the original game. Clyde is the orange ghost. Aka “Pokey.” The “random one.” The “stupid one.” No matter what nicknames he may attract, I adore Clyde and his twin sister Sue, who takes his place in Ms. Pac-Man—probably because Clyde was reluctant to show up a second time. I’m going to dress up as Clyde for Halloween. If I buy a Pac-Man T-shirt (bound to happen one day) it’s gonna be a Clyde shirt.

Only recently have I started to grasp fully why I like Clyde the most of the four ghosts. I know how his programming operates, but watching his behavior in the game has given me something to contemplate. So let’s have a little talk about him. Caution: I’m going to take a bit of a serious direction with this eventually.

Clyde’s Programming

Clyde’s Japanese name (Otoboke) translates as “feigned ignorance,” and since this is the name given to him by his creator, Toru Iwatani, it offers us a better insight into him—certainly more than “Pokey,” his official name in Midway’s US version. (“Clyde” is listed as a nickname, but everyone calls the ghosts by their nicknames. Nobody calls Inky “Bashful.”) The English name “Pokey” must be a translation hiccup, because Clyde isn’t slower than the other ghosts. They all start each maze at the same speed, and Blinky, the red ghost, speeds up later.

Below is a brief rundown on how the ghosts behave when in Chase Mode, highly simplified from Jamey Pittman’s exhaustive Pac-Man Dossier, which is worth reading for Pac-Man enthusiasts or anyone interested in programming.

Blinky (Red): This ghost is the relentless pursuer. He targets Pac-Man’s current position and goes straight toward it. This is why Blinky always seems to be riding down your tailpipe when you’re playing. His speed ramps up late in each maze and he stops going into Scatter mode, making him extra dangerous. Everyone fears Blinky—and with good reason.

Pinky (Pink): “Head ‘em off at the pass!” That’s Pinky’s mantra. He targets an area ahead of wherever Pac-Man is moving, which often creates a dangerous pincher move with Blinky. He’s sneaky and treacherous.

Inky (Blue): Inky is the most mysterious ghost because his pattern isn’t easy to visualize in the midst of the fever of the game. He targets using both the direction Pac-Man is facing and the position of Blinky. The closer Blinky moves to Pac-Man, the more Inky follows Blinky’s pattern. He becomes harder to predict the farther away Blinky is from Pac-Man. Inky is irritating and deserves more scorn than poor Clyde.

Clyde (Orange): My boy has two different strategies. When he’s more than eight spaces (or “tiles”) away from Pac-Man, he targets Pac-Man just like Blinky. When closer than eight spaces, Clyde targets the lower left corner of the maze. This is Clyde’s “home corner,” the area he goes when he’s in Scatter mode. This is why Clyde often seems to make the wrong pursuit choices when Pac-Man comes near him. He’ll only make the apparent correct choice if Pac-Man is on the direct path Clyde needs to “go home.”

The image below from the Pac-Man Dossier shows Clyde’s pattern. Inside the dotted circle, he targets the home square in the lower left corner. Outside the circle, he targets Pac-Man (the closer “T”). You can see how easy it is for Clyde to  surrender the chase and head toward home. That’s a wide circumference for Clyde to say “nope.”

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So the Japanese name “Feigned ignorance” is a good descriptor. Clyde knows to chase Pac-Man, but backs off at close proximity. It looks like ignorance, but Clyde has a specific goal—it’s just not always Pac-Man.

Clyde: The Highly Sensitive Ghost

Going past the programming tucked underneath, let’s examine how Clyde behaves in the world we see on the screen.

Clyde is always the last ghost to leave the Ghost House and join the chase; in the first maze, he doesn’t emerge until more than a third of the dots are consumed. That’s a lot of time to muster up the courage to step outdoors. And once Clyde goes out of the communal Ghost House, he won’t be able to go back in unless Pac-Man has chomped him. That can’t be a pleasant idea for someone who was reluctant to go outside in the first place. I think we’ve all been there.

Once Clyde has gotten himself outdoors, he starts off doing what he’s supposed to, which is chase Pac-Man. He knows Blinky has the best strategy, so Clyde goes with that. But when he closes in …

Yeah, Clyde’s not going through with it. You can only be a follower for so long. The actual “prize” isn’t worth it to Clyde. He has a second home away from home, a nice corner where it’s often quiet. He’ll go there and relax a bit, stay away from the stress—at least until he gets guilted into following after Pac-Man once more. If he does collide with Pac-Man, it wasn’t Clyde’s intention. Pac-Man just got between him and the easiest road home. He’s sorry about the misunderstanding.

From watching him in game after game, I’ve come to believe Clyde is an HSG. A “highly sensitive ghost.” It’s identical to an HSP, “highly sensitive person,” a psychological trait associated with people who have high sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). I may write about HSPs more one day, because I’m one of them. This high sensitivity is neither a gift nor a disorder, but best described as a neutral “trait” by psychologist Elaine Aron. Highly sensitive people (and ghosts) can offer much to the world around them, even though they may seem “shy” on the outside. An HSP likes to avoid conflict, but that doesn’t make an HSP weak.

Clyde’s behavior feels like a human HSP trying to navigate a world that delivers bigger rewards to the Blinky approach of aggressive extroversion. Clyde feels like he ought to be doing what the other ghosts are doing. Yet that’s not who he is. Clyde likes his home, his familiar settings. The constant chase doesn’t fulfill him. The goal of the other ghosts—destroy Pac-Man at any cost—isn’t Clyde’s goal, although he can be drawn into believing it for a short time.  

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person (recommended for anybody who believes they may be an HSP), Aron states her belief that 15%–20% of the population has high sensory processing sensitivity. If true, this explains the breakdown of the ghosts. With four of them, it’s likely one is an HSG, and Clyde (and sister Sue) fit the pattern. Of course, I can’t actually question Clyde to know for certain, but I have his actions to observe, and he definitely shows the traits of a highly sensitive ghost.

Clyde’s trait makes him useful and helpful. He gives the player controlling Pac-Man a bit more breathing space to enjoy the game: a ghost who will go his own way so Pac-Man can deal with the aggressions of the other three. Blinky may drop out of Scatter Mode eventually, but Clyde is sort of always in Scatter Mode, and that’s good for the player. But Clyde adds his own kind of challenge to the game. Because he often drops out of the chase, it’s harder for Pac-Man to corral the ghosts in one space for quick chomping and maximum points scored in Frightened mode. When you don’t nab that last ghost for the big 1600 points, it’s probably Clyde’s doing.

Calling Clyde “stupid” or “random” doesn’t make much sense. First, he adds extra strategy and relief to the game. Pac-Man is a better game thanks to him. Second, and more important, there’s nothing stupid or random about wanting to spend more time on your own and away from the grueling race. Clyde knows he has to step outdoors, and he knows he has to interact at times when it feels like the world pulls too far away from him. But he also knows he needs time on his own. We should all grant him that as an HSG.

Of course, when he turns blue, go ahead and chomp him! All’s fair when all’s blue!