Coding Collagers

Pac-Mondrian's creators take him for a wokka wokka.
The internet is packed with funny. A clever idea, executed well, can move quickly through the blogosphere. So when I first saw Pac-Mondrian, a videogame that juxtaposes the famous mouth against a famous painting, I wasn’t bowled over. I did like the incongruous old-time jazz soundtrack, however, and the text on the website hooked me: “Each play of the game is an improvisational jazz session. Pac-Mondrian sits in as a session drummer with Ammons, Lewis and Johnson, hitting hi-hats, cymbals and snares as he eats pellets.”

When I got in touch with the creators to set up an interview, I discovered I wasn’t the only one hooked. I was sent press clippings of stories from the Globe, the Toronto Star and the biggest fish of all: Pac-Mondrian had made the front page of The New York Times. I headed down to Neil Hennessy’s apartment at Sherbourne and Bloor to get the story of local-boys-made-good raising questions about pop culture and high art.

I join three members of The Prize Budget for Boys collective — Neil and two Mikes (Horgan and Brown) — in their living room and ask them how they started working together. Neil explained that The Prize Budget for Boys started out doing multimedia performances called the Spectacular Vernacular Review. Pac-Mondrian was an element of one of the shows.

“When I had the idea, I was all excited,” Neil tells me. “I have a computer science degree but I hate programming, and so I was really, really hoping to find something good to steal from. Then the geek power of the internet came through for me — I found a perfect Java implementation with beautiful documentation.”

Mike Horgan brought Mike Brown, his co-worker at videogame company Digital Extremes, to one of their performances where Pac-Mondrian was being projected. Brown was so taken by it he offered to make an arcade cabinet. And it wasn’t like he didn’t have enough to do. “Have you heard about the Electronic Arts controversy about people working too much, burning out?” Brown asks. “It was like the epitome of that. Working on Pac-Mondrian was the only thing keeping me sane. Getting to work on art, it was fun.”

“I think what we were taught is that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life,” Horgan says. “But I think what we learned was that if you want to hate your hobby, start getting paid for it. The Pac-Mondrian stuff gives us a videogame outlet that isn’t so rigid and inflexible.”

But without deadlines and meetings, how were they able to get things done? “It’s a challenge,” Hennessy says. “For the longest time, the cabinet just sat there. I was unemployed, we couldn’t get any grants … but then Mike Brown got a new computer and we used that for the cabinet, and all we needed was paint. A friend was doing an art show at Antenna, and that gave us a target date to get the cabinet done.”

“At one point, because I thought I might be able to get away with it,” Hennesey says, “I went to the Self Employment Assistance program and I tried to pitch Pac-Mondrian as an educational CD-ROM that taught art history and videogame history to children.” Though that didn’t pan out, he credits this false start with helping them tighten up their game. “We had built the project up so it had a lot of different aspects,” Hennessy says. “It was already a multi-faceted project when people caught [on to] it.”

Pac-Mondrian's creators take him for a wokka wokka.A visit to makes these many aspects of the project clear: postcard prints made at Coach House Books, new level designs with a Toronto techno theme and an array of merchandise.

“There’s a rich history of that,” Hennessey says. “Pac-Man was everywhere, on lunchboxes and bedspreads and wallpaper. Mondrian has a lot of merchandise too. We want to do that with Pac-Mondrian but in an art context.” (The master proofs of the postcards were auctioned off on eBay for $12,100.)

“The art people love it because it’s low art meets high art,” Hennessy says, “but the gaming people hate it because it’s not playable. That doesn’t bother me, because there’s a long history of really bad Pac-Man implementations — like the Atari 2600 version.”

But while the project might have focused more on the press copy than programming code, the collective is more concerned with moving on to their next project than obsessing about perfecting Pac-Mondrian. In what is to be the second in their series, Alexander Calder’s mobiles are brought together with the space shooter Asteroids: it’s called Calderoids. Like with Pac-Mondrian, they’re adapting code that already exists, in this case a java applet that models Calder’s kinetic sculptures. In the beta they showed me sans collision detection, the floating asteroids grew and shrunk as they came “closer” and went “further.”

I tell them the thrust on the vector ship has a great feel, and that the physics in the game will give it a good press hook.

Hennessy grins. “If you drop science on their ass, they’ll love it.”

Categories: Videogames

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