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.
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.
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, 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.
- Guacamelee!, by DrinkBox Studios (I played this last year! It's super rad, I swear!)
- Super Time Force, by Capybara Games (See above!)
- The Last of Us, by Naughty Dog (I know it's maybe out of place with the rest of these, but I watched other people play this demo for longer than I'd care to admit.)
- Shovel Knight, by Yacht Club Games
- Go Home Dinosaurs!, by Fire Hose Games
- Luftrausers, by Vlambeer (You really should play Ridiculous Fishing.)
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.