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The Guns of Navarro: PAX Aeterna

The Giant Bomb crew (barely) survived another PAX East, and Alex was even able to remember some of it.

I wonder how many of you out there remember when PAX East first came to Boston in 2010. At the time the concept seemed, at least to me, like little more than an acknowledgment by its Seattle-based organizers that PAX Prime lacked accessibility for those who couldn't just jaunt off to the west coast for the sake of checking out some video games. Initially held at the Hynes Convention Center, a dingy, peculiarly vertical event space sat smack-dab in the middle of one of Boston's busiest areas, that first PAX East wasn't much to look at or speak of. Publishers showed up, but were crammed into tiny booths laid out in a fashion that proved aggressively unpleasant for most people to navigate. I only went because I was still living in Boston at the time. Jeff joined me, primarily because he was invited to do a panel with Ken Levine and Chris Avellone. We walked around, saw pretty much the entire floor in an hour, and mused to ourselves about how low-key and frankly depressing it all looked compared to actual PAX.

The PAX East show floor, as seen by Game Informer's Dan Ryckert. I can practically smell the humanity of it all.

Flash-forward to this past weekend, which saw PAX East 2013 descend upon Boston's other, bigger convention center, where it has set up shop for the past three years. Trying to reconcile that first PAX East with the image of what it's become is like staring at two entirely different pictures. The show floor is swollen to the point of bursting with publishers, indie developers, and throngs of excited players waiting in lines, perusing merchandise, or just playing stuff. PAX seemed bigger in its second year, when it switched to the waterfront convention center. Then last year, it seemed huge. This year looked downright terrifying.

PAX East is for real now. It's one thing to hear the crazy sellout numbers, look at the nutty lineup of panels, and hear the stories. It's another to actually see the seething mass of humanity try desperately not to knock each other over as they attempt to navigate tight spaces with cosplay axes strapped to their backs. These shows are always a strange proposition for someone like me. I'm what one might refer to as "antisocial media," the sort of person who generally prefers the solitary confines of one's personal office, who prefers to interact with the larger world with the kind of measured distance an Internet-focused job allows for. Being in the thick of it gives me no shortage of anxiety. Not for any logical reason, of course. That's just what being around tons of people always does to me. It's something I can handle for a few hours, but once that time runs out, I become a silently shivering mess.

Yet, I know I need to go to things like PAX East. Not just for the information on-hand at these things, but because forcing myself to interact with developers, publishers, and an audience I typically only deal with from afar is crucial to maintaining an understanding of the industry. There's only so much you can learn from Internet commentary, after all. Going to the floor, talking to users from the site, seeing upstart devs hustling at the Indie Mega Booth, meeting up with industry friends I don't get to see nearly enough, it's all vital to maintaining a balanced perspective. I can sit in my little room and scoff at the scads and scads of toeshoed, utilikilt-wearing aggro-nerds who some might assume are the only sorts who go to these things. But in seeing the reality, the diverse array of ages, backgrounds, and creeds that all come together under the banner of games of all shapes and sizes, it takes a good chunk of that embittered sting out of me. I might hate being around people--and, occasionally, feel out right panic toward it--but every time I come to one of these shows, I feel like I come away with a better understanding of what this business is, and who it's for. That strikes me as incredibly important, considering how I've generally made my living over the years.

This year's PAX East in particular was maybe a highlight among all PAXes I've experienced. It wasn't the absolute best show from a content perspective--I only went to a few panels, and the primary games selection on the floor wasn't as strong as in the past--but in terms of audience interaction, inter-industry conversation, and sheer sleep deprivation, this was probably the most enjoyable PAX I've had in ages. Granted, if you saw me on the floor I might not have looked it. By the time I got on the train home yesterday afternoon, the bags under my eyes were so pronounced you could have used them to carry groceries. I assure you, those bags were pleasurably earned.

Saints Row IV looks wonderfully silly, but you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

Interestingly, I didn't get to play a ton of games at PAX East this year. We never go into these shows with a ton of appointments because, well, it's not like we're just going to write a bunch of hands-on previews of what we play. Instead, we tend to take the looser approach of just looking for what seems fun or interesting, and just continually wandering up to those things until we can find an opportunity to play them, or as Patrick is more wont to do, accost the people behind those games for interview purposes. This would generally tend to favor the Indie Megabooth stuff, which doesn't usually consist of two-hour lines followed by a ten-minute, non-playable presentation, as many of the bigger budget games at the show do. I was plenty happy to sit down and see Volition's presentation of Saints Row IV, a game that has only recently been shown at all. But stuff like Watch_Dogs, Elder Scrolls Online, Assassin's Creed IV, and what have you, those are all games that we've seen a decent bit of so far, and will see a hell of a lot more of come E3. With the indie stuff, who knows when or where you might get to see those games again before they come out?Hence why we tend to plant our flag on that side of the floor, versus the one dominated by the larger publishers.

That side, by the way, has practically turned into half the damn floor. This year's Indie Megabooth most definitely justified that "mega" part of the title. It was sprawling, filled with a wide variety of mostly great games that I didn't get to play enough of. Intriguingly, only a few indie booths, like Supergiant Games' Transistor and Iron Galaxy's Divekick, had regularly lengthy lines. For perspective, most of the indie devs only had a couple of kiosks for their games, if they even had more than one. The main indie area was certainly crowded, but it seemed to be more with people conversing than people playing. That's the nature of the indie dev hustle, it seems. You're not just trying to get people to play your games, so much as you're trying to establish an identity that people can latch onto for the long run. And hustle the developers did. I was inundated with flyers, handshakes, and people I maybe sort of possibly recognized asking me to check out their games, or their friends' games. Unlike most places, where I'd treat this sort of behavior with a kind of caustic disdain, I actually took people's advice. I listened, read their literature, and tried to play (or at least go see) as many of their games as I could. In nearly every case, I actually came away pretty impressed.

In order to prevent this piece from becoming (more of) a sprawling mess, I'm going to quickly segue into a list of the things I enjoyed most at PAX East this year, as well as a brief list of apologies for various indiscretions on my behalf at the show.

The Things I Actually Thought to Write Down so I Could Mention Them Later

Transistor, from Supergiant Games -- After sitting down to play it for just a few minutes, I love the direction Supergiant is taking this game. The art style is unquestionably gorgeous, and the gameplay's blend of turn-based strategy and realtime action is the kind of thing I figured out quickly, but kept discovering little things about as I played. All the while, the story unfolds with the same kind of purposely vague narration that kept me hooked on Bastion from beginning-to-end. As I said to a few people at the show who asked, Transistor appears to be Supergiant establishing a style that is entirely their own, while managing to not just make another damn Bastion. I love that, and I can't wait to play more.

Divekick is almost brutally stupid. I absolutely love Divekick.

Divekick, from Iron Galaxy Studios -- We all love Dave Lang, but if I'm honest, I don't think I paid this latest arrival from the Lang Zone enough consideration. In practice, Divekick is an insidiously exciting party game masquerading as some base-level commentary on fighting game bloat. Yes, there are only two buttons: jump and kick. You divekick until you hit your opponent, who immediately falls over. As Lang put it during our panel, every attack does 1,000,000 damage, and every character has 1,000 health. The pace of it is pretty fantastic, and the fact that every character does a slightly different type of dive kick means there's actually something resembling strategy in there. No one that I saw play Divekick left their booth with anything other than a smile on their face, and with good reason.

The existence of DuckTales: Remastered, by WayForward -- I say "The existence of" because I never actually got to try DuckTales at the show. For reasons beyond reason, Capcom decided to make a big fuss about this new version at its panel, then proceeded to only afford it a single kiosk at the publisher's booth. Given that there was never not a long line to play it, I opted to spend my time elsewhere. However, I love that this exists, and am excited to play it. Eventually.

Cards Against Humanity's PAX Packs -- As much as I think PAX-centric humor is...not for me, I am always impressed with the CAH team's ability to take niche subjects and make them as broadly, offensively funny as is humanly possible. These free packs were all over the damn show and every time I found a random card lying somewhere, I laughed. These guys are always funny, and their panel (which just happened to feature Giant Bomb's own Jeff and Ryan) was, according to many I heard from, one of the highlights of the show. I would have gone, but I was eating some very important steak tips. I'm sure they understood.

The guy I saw wearing a utilikilt, toe shoes, and a fedora over his ponytail -- Your existence put a smile on my face. Maybe not for the reasons you intended, but such is life.

Eric Pope's indoctrinating of unwitting panel-goers into the seedy world of dead child star YouTube tribute videos -- Friend of the site and Upright Citizen's Brigade theater manager Pat Baer held a peculiar, but enjoyably ridiculous panel on the Internet and its many questionable videos. It featured Pat, a vaguely interested Ryan Davis, Wired's Chris "I Really Enjoy a Good AIDS Joke" Kohler and Harmonix's Eric Pope. Each person brought some terrible slice of the Internet they loved with them to show to a damn-near full room of unwitting gamers, and Pope's delving into the abject horror that is videos dedicated to dead Poltergeist-star Heather O'Rourke was maybe one of my favorite PAX things of all time. R.I.P. Pope.

Our panel, and everyone who came to it -- As Ryan said on Twitter, I don't know how we will ever top this year's nonsense. We somehow seem to go into each panel with an even more flagrantly dismissive attitude toward planning and thought, and this year's might have been the apex of not-knowing-what-the-fuck-we're-doing-ness in panel form. Granted, much credit is due to the evil geniuses at Harmonix's community team, who crafted one of the finer three-part jokes I've ever seen at a live event such as this. Also, credit to the man who ran up to the panel stage in the middle of someone's sentence and presented Ryan with a vial of his wife's recently lactated breast milk, which he then summarily drank to the audience's horrormusement. I won't ever forget that, no matter how badly I might want to.

Everyone who came up to say hi -- Even if you didn't come to our panel (jerks), know that I was quite glad to meet you. Online personas do so little to inform writers about the types of people who actually read their stuff, and even if it was just a quick hey or a wave, getting to see actual, physical humans who read and (hopefully) enjoy your work is infinitely beneficial to an old loner like me. So really, thank you for that.

I'm So Sorry

To all the developers whose games I could not stop to play. I did stop to watch a lot of people play games, but time and attention-deficit concerns often kept me away from actual controllers. Here are all the games I watched that stood out in my brain.

To the folks at Harmonix, whose panel I had to miss, albeit for the admittedly good cause of hanging out with our fine site moderation staff. I heard their panel, in which they disclosed the secrets behind many of the bizarre mysteries of the industry's hellishly competitive "plastic instruments" period, was quite a hit.

To anyone I missed, ran past, or just forgot to mention. I'm the worst, I know. Remind me about it when you see me next year.

--A

Alex Navarro on Google+
77 Comments
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Edited by Thurbleton

One of these days I'll have to travel across the nation to a Pax East, but now super determined to go to PAX Prime 2013. Alex, thanks again for an awesome recap!

Posted by natetodamax

I'll never forget seeing Ryan do that live, for better or worse.

Posted by ThatIndianGuy7116

@csl316: I'm just waiting for Joe Juba to beat Tyson before Dan does...

Posted by ThatIndianGuy7116

Was there another awkward live email part of the live podcast?

Edited by Draxyle

I refuse to believe in the ponytail, fedora, utility, toe shoes guy.

Pics or it didn't happen.

I'm starting to believe people are just doing it as cosplay at this point for how infamous those items have become.

Posted by AuthenticM

When will this go up on the site ? I can't wait to watch it.

Edited by Needle

Been to PAX East three years in a row now, and I've caught the GB Panel all three times. This year's panel was, by far, the best. Between the infamous breast milk gag, the Harmonix triple-troll, and a surprising lack of awkward questions, it's going to be REALLY HARD to do any better than that. Thanks for the entertainment, Alex & Co.

Posted by Colourful_Hippie

That panel with the internet videos was the fucking worst.

Edited by RadixNegative2

This was my first Pax and I fucking loved it. Being surrounded by that many people who are that into video games was amazing (the cosplayers were especially cool to see). Just the general atmosphere of the whole thing was fantastic.

And yes, the Giant Bomb panel was incredible. Ryan swinging back that milk was the greatest single moment of my life.

Other highlights were the Cards Against Humanity panel, getting to play Transistor and having the crew sign one of the prints I bought, and streetpassing like crazy while waiting in lines.

Edited by patbaer

So I don't have video of Giant Bomb, but I do have my panel that Alex mentioned.

Me, Chris Kohler, Eric Pope, and Ryan Davis.

http://youtu.be/F0_zRpx_4so

Warning: I am super loud in the mix, especially over the videos.

Posted by courage_wolf

Utilikilts have made it to the East coast? God help you poor bastards.

My absolute favorite part of PAX is wandering the show floor and finding games I have never heard of before. Most of the time these are indie games and I get to chat with a developer and find out whats up. This is how I discovered games like Air Mech and Novus Aeterno. There is nothing quite like being introduced to a video game by one of the people making it.

Edited by Sen0r_Awes0me

The Giantbomb panel was sooo great, but had to leave before the ending and meeting most of the crew. Hope to catch the rest some time and maybe ask a better question/bring a bigger box of cannoli NEXT YEAR! ^_^

Edited by TadThuggish

Is there any video of the CAH panel or the Harmonix panel?

Edited by redefaulted

I wish I understood the widely accepted appeal of Divekick, but it just seems dumb to me. Dumb in the same way Minecraft erupted, though. It is possible that I'm not well-experienced in the fighting-game genre that I don't understand the allure? I'm not hating on the game, I'm just wondering if maybe the game will lose it's luster after a couple of years and be merely a dad; or will it become something of a cult-classing that is remembered by our children?

Edited by UncleBenny

@patbaer said:

So I don't have video of Giant Bomb, but I do have my panel that Alex mentioned.

Me, Chris Kohler, Eric Pope, and Ryan Davis.

http://youtu.be/F0_zRpx_4so

Warning: I am super loud in the mix, especially over the videos.

You sir, is an angel

are an angel?

an angel

Posted by dropabombonit

I sympathize with you Alex about large crowds. I live in the UK and London Comic Con is the only big event I have been too and I had to go back to my hotel or a bar/restaurant after a few hours just so that I could be in a place that wasn't crowded. But that said, I loved my time there and would love to get over to the US so that I could go to PAX

Edited by posh

can they really stop making rock band games? to me that's been one of the best things about this generation of consoles. I probably put more hours and money into those rock band games than anything else. I still play it a bunch.

Posted by patbaer

Here's a link to my 404ing It blog, where I have links to every Heather O'Rourke video we showed.

http://404ingit.tumblr.com/post/46350859874/eric-pope-discovered-a-meme-there-are-people-on

Posted by scottygrayskull

Nice writeup! I only went to the first PAX so I don't really have the basis for comparison, but I always thought the troubles there were more with overselling tickets and the utter uselessness of enforcers. Happy to hear the new place keeps getting better and better though.

If you come to PAX Prime I'll definitely say hi! :)

Edited by KaiseR

My wife says "you're welcome for the amusement" as she rolls her eyes, GB. But c'mon, that was the PERFECT opportunity for me to walk up there. You'd just said, and I quote:

“Well, I kinda don’t know what to do anymore. I’m hateful at home, but I don’t really want to bring it here…”

Sure, then you proceeded to talk about working from home…but it was a good opportunity…right?!

Posted by Landmine

Much like you Alex, I am a bit agoraphobic when it comes to large crowds. I get nervous as if everyone is staring directly at me, waiting for me to do something dumb. This has actually stopped me from attending events like PAX and Maker Faire. This year I plan change that, I feel as though I've been depriving myself of knowledge and enjoyment that my hobbies and pastimes have the ability to provide. I'd like to look through my own lens, as oppose to experiencing it through someone else's.

Posted by LegendaryChopChop

I have a pretty good sense of humor and irony, but despite how silly a lot of YouTube tribute videos are — it's kinda fucked that you're practically laughing at the death of a 13 year old girl and people being upset by it.

Posted by RenMcKormack

Signing this article as ~A is the most cold blooded way to sign anything.

I agree RE Divekick. have thought that game was clever since keets showed it at his tourney. Did anyone see if they were going to sell those controllers? They seem vital where, in previous versions, characters were selected on negative edge of the button press (the button coming up)

Posted by slowbird

@legendarychopchop: It's more the fact that people are still creepily obsessed with a child celebrity 20+ years later, and that these creepily obsessed people have no concept of appropriate songs for tribute videos. (Or that they are very good at making parody videos that come across as being sincere in their creepiness.)

Edited by LegendaryChopChop

@slowbird said:

@legendarychopchop: It's more the fact that people are still creepily obsessed with a child celebrity 20+ years later, and that these creepily obsessed people have no concept of appropriate songs for tribute videos. (Or that they are very good at making parody videos that come across as being sincere in their creepiness.)

I don't think it's that creepy. She was in Poltergeist which is a revered horror movie franchise with a huge following, obviously the actress has fans as she became a bit of a cult horror icon in her short life.

But yeah, the Bad Day song was terrible for it and offensive itself to work in the video. I totally get that part, too.