“So, how was PAX?”

You talk to someone on their way into the Penny Arcade Expo, and they’re bound to ask what you’re looking forward to, what you’re expecting, what you’re hoping for. It’s speculative. It’s optimistic. And it’s naive.

A day or two into the convention and the questions change. What have you seen? What are you still trying to get into? Which panels did you attend? How did that go? And at some point, depending how kindred in spirit you are, the question becomes So how would you rate this PAX? Have you felt a little…disappointed? Lonely? There’s nothing really t– exactly!

When I tell people I’m going to PAX and they ask me what that is, my response is “the Penny Arcade Expo.” I may explain a little about the webcomic I don’t even usually read, but typically I let it stand at “it’s a video game convention.” The implication being that you go to PAX because you love games, because you want to play and see and maybe even buy or win some games. And that’s true. But I realized this year that if that were the only thing PAX had going for it, I would probably never go to a PAX again.

PAX is freaking lonely.

I’m not going to beat around that bush. It just is. You go to a convention center packed with 80,000+ people by yourself, and spend a lot of time walking past groups of friends and a ton of adorable couples and even a lot of attractive singles, and depending on how distracted you are the subject of how you’re not with anyone else will pass your mind rather frequently. You drive through the city, unpack your trunk in a parking garage and trek two blocks with your suitcase to the hotel where you check into your room alone and lay down in a large bed alone and stare at the ceiling alone and at some point you ask yourself why you paid several hundred dollars to be reminded of that fact.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I had a couple friend groups I had a chance to meet up with, maybe even spend the day with. But these were pre-existing groups. They were people who had already sort of planned to be together. I was welcome to join them, but I hadn’t been part of the agenda setting. Third wheel or fifth, I was still an accessory. Welcome, for sure, but hardly a make-or-break aspect of a group. And it bears noting that what we wanted from the convention differed enough that had I chosen to be with them, I’d have traded the loneliness in exchange for missing out on the majority of the things I actually was interested in seeing.

As I said earlier, it depends on how distracted you are. And PAX can be sensory overload, full of things to divert your attention from real life for a few days. That’s what it is supposed to be, I think: a carnival which is so new and refreshing and exciting that you don’t have time to reflect on it until after the fact. But this year was a little low on the thrill factor, and based on my discussions with people throughout the weekend I don’t seem to be alone in feeling that. My official explanation can be summed up in two characters: E3. More specifically, this E3.

PAX suffers from an odd calendar hazard, as it falls a mere month or two prior to the largest media video game event of the year. Many huge games are announced at E3 and because of that, they do not appear at shows prior. While some announcements have been, and increasingly are made at PAX, the industry as a whole usually leaves the big news for May. Which is fine, it’s nothing new to PAX East, but consider what 2013’s Electronic Entertainment Expo promises: the unveiling of the Playstation 4 and, most likely, of the next Microsoft console. If both of those come out for the holidays, then the games are already well under way. Typically holiday games might have a showing at PAX East (many did last year, for example). But when the games coming out later this year are on a console that has not officially been announced or shown, those games are going to be missing from the show floor. And so the show floor lacked a certain pizazz it usually musters, and will undoubtedly return to mustering in future years. That’s not PAX’s fault. But it’s a reality nonetheless. There were few killer apps in the expo hall this year.

On the one hand, this is great, because it frees you of the typical exasperation of not being able to choose which mammoth three-hour lines you’re willing to forgo a meal for in the name of seeing or playing a must-have unreleased title. Most of this year’s biggest games were already announced or even already released; even potentially thrilling booths like Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs had material similar enough to what was already available via other press events that it was hard to come by a solid “you have got to wait on that line” recommendation (and keep in mind that may be the most exciting title for the next generation that we know about right now).

Added to this famine you have my unique problem of not owning a PC, which disqualified something like half the show floor from my radar — not because the games didn’t look good, but because you can only commit so much time to salivating over games you will need to drop a thousand dollars or so to even consider being able to play them. I also don’t play tabletop games, partly because I’ve never been the biggest fan of non-digital gaming, and partly because I live in the middle of nowhere, my job is remote contract work, and my church has no real ministry for young adults so I pretty much have no in-person social circles I could set up a D&D night with even if I wanted to.

So…yeah, I had a lot of time to wander around and just think, and it got lonely. A little depressing.

And then boom! someone I know walks around the corner. And my face lights up. And my pity party is disbanded. And the next ten or fifteen minutes are a glorious reminder that the reason you spend several hundred dollars to get lost in a sea of one-way convoluted streets in a city that hates your home state is because you love these people that you’ve only seen once or twice or maybe never in person, and here they are, and you’re hugging them and shaking their hand and they’re also really happy to see you.

Was I getting depressing? Well sorry. That’s just the way it works. You feel a weight that seems like it’s going to carry on the whole weekend but then in an instant it is gone because good grief, PAX is awesome and there’s no other convention like it. And you never know who you’re going to see, or when.

I’m following a friend to check out this one booth he heard was worth looking at (Supergiant, btw, and yes it was definitely worth it, but that’s a different blog) and a girl tries to hand me a promo card and I recognize her and say Tracie? and then there’s a laugh and a hug and a “maybe I’ll catch you later” and then off we go.

I’m wandering around the Ubisoft booth looking for a Fragdoll who actually knows who I am and instead I find Cliff Bleszinski and his lovely wife Lauren just standing there chatting with random fans because hey, they’re gamers, and this is a gaming convention. (Cliff had nice thoughts, btw)

I am looking at the behemoth poster of the new Marvel MMO and someone almost walks directly into me. Oh hey Jimmy, I’d heard you were here somewhere!

I’ve just hung up talking to my future roommate about apartments in Ohio and I look over my tumblr dash at the coat check line and oh hey, did Amelia just walk by? And I send out a tweet and a few minutes later we’re talking about how funny it is that we just happened to have crossed paths on the one day she’s there.

At a booth. At a party. Here’s my friend! Here’s my girlfriend! Wait, I follow you on Twitter! Hey, haven’t we liked each other’s Instagram photos? Do you remember when we played Ghost Recon all those years back? Oh, so that’s what you look like!

Or maybe it’s the people you didn’t know at all. I lost track of which side of the convention center the food was on and accidentally went one floor, two halls, and a bridge in the opposite direction — just in time to cross paths with two lovely Borderlands 2 cosplayers of whom I was lucky enough to snag a couple blurry pictures before they escaped into the madness of the expo hall. While waiting to order food I uploaded the pictures to tumblr and commented on how I wished I’d had a chance to speak to them…less than 24 hours later we’ve exchanged messages on two social media platforms and I know their names and where they’re from and we’re hoping to actually say hi at a future convention.

So people ask what’s PAX, and I say it’s a gaming convention, but it’s not, at least, that’s not what makes it matter, not for an introvert like me whose solidarity with a fanbase isn’t enough to make him strike up a conversation with the stranger behind him in line no matter how lonely he may be feeling. I don’t do PAX because I want to meet people who love the same things I love. I do PAX because there are people I love hanging out with and even though we only get to do it for a little bit of time once or twice a year at most, at least we do get to hang out. And sometimes that list of people expands. Sometimes it contracts. This year I missed a lot of folks who made last year special, but a few people made this year special who played no role in PAX’s prior.

So did you have a good time in Boston?

Half the time, no. Half the time I was extraordinarily lonely and wondering why I’d spent so much money to feel alone.

But the other half of the time I was blissful, grinning and laughing like an idiot.

And the latter outweighs the former. It’s the part I’ll remember, the part that will have me cursing under my breath when my academic schedule inevitably precludes far more PAX’s than it permits, the part that will shout “shut up and take my money” the moment an opportunity arises for me to go again, and see the people who bring a light to this wallflower’s life that he tends to miss for the rest of the year.

People want to know about the games, the swag, the panels. I’ll talk about those later because sure, why not. But first and foremost, PAX is people. And this year, PAX once more was great.

Any Other Way

The dream of our reunion makes me crazy just to think, how so very far away you are; my heart begins to sink. Today’s the day you’re leaving and tomorrow you’ll be gone. You’re in my heart and on my mind; I will bring you along. Everything sucks when you’re gone. ~MxPx

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Online Becomes IRL

To those who’ve never really met me outside of the context of me already being with friends, it may come as a surprise that I am really bad at the whole interacting with people thing. Too nervous to kick off my PAX weekend with introductions, I ironically opted for a panel about “Online Communities and ‘Real Life’ Relationships,” wondering about the online/IRL relationship divide: how do people feel about it? Does crossing it tend to enrich relationships or make them really weird? Is physically meeting online friends and acquaintances generally a positive experience?

It’s not so much that I didn’t know the answers; after all, my fondness for the 2005 Seattle trip has never really waned. But my experience two years ago had maybe muddied the waters a bit, and I needed to be reminded why it was I had been looking forward to this weekend so much for so long. Some people come to Boston for games. Some come for swag. I had come for friendship.

Of course, I’m still — as Scott Pilgrim was once described — chronically enfeebled around people I don’t know well. It wasn’t until Ashlee came over and asked if I wanted to try out Trials Evolution that I managed some half-baked liaison into a greeting. She laughed and asked why I didn’t just say so — I guess that’s a question you could ask me a lot. Too nervous to initiate most conversations, I try to play off my awkwardness under guise of intentionality. When Michelle had given me the same Trials spiel and I introduced myself, she too wondered why I hadn’t cut her off  earlier and I just said it was good practice for her. It might not have been completely true, but at least it was good for a laugh.

A few hours later Dave — thankfully less enfeebled than I — introduced himself. We talked for a bit and then I ended up following him around for the better part of the afternoon. We discussed the community and our history over an extraordinarily overpriced lunch, then met up with two of his H2O friends. It would be with these three people that I’d bump into Amber who, after excitedly showing us the Twitch booth she’d designed immediately demanded to know if we were all hooked up properly for the weekend’s parties. Moments later I was inside the Twitch back area giving my contact information and receiving VIP access to Saturday night’s Estate bash.

And I guess that moment right there came to epitomize what was so wonderful about the weekend for me. In the relationships panel the games industry was jokingly referred to as incestuous, but it proved to be absolutely true. Even if you didn’t directly know someone, chances are you shared a good mutual friend. Suddenly the weekend’s course didn’t depend on what one or two buds had in mind but whatever the overarching collective of people you were in touch with wanted to be doing. And if I wasn’t interested in checking out this panel or that game? No big deal. We’d end up back together before long.

It also helped to have the Ubisoft booth as a center of gravity. No matter where I ran off to, I always found myself coming back, circling closer each time as I met more people and had lengthier conversations. The order of introductions gets hazy, but in addition to Ashlee, Michelle, and Dave I ended up spending my weekend at the booth getting to know Tunesha, Anne-Marie and her husband, Krystal, Jimmy, Melonie, Marcus, Chase, Andrien, Edelita, and Kim.

A Splash of Activism

Saturday was spent panel-hopping. In the morning I attended Irrational’s “Making a Monster,” where I received an awesome Bioshock Infinite poster while learning a bit more — especially regarding sound — about the game I’ve been most looking forward to since its unveiling. The free cupcake — in celebration of the company’s fifteenth anniversary — served as a quick lunch as I ran off to what would prove to be the best panel of the weekend.

Over the past several months the community member I’ve probably had the most interaction with is Ashlee, likely because she’s one of few who actually plays Gears. She, Grace, Jen, and Jon run Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a website dedicated to comically handling the overwhelming harassment that women experience when playing video games online. This was the base purpose of “N00dz or GTFO,” a panel comprised of Grace, Jenny (from Not in the Kitchen Anymore — a similar site which uses her audio clips instead of text submissions), Elisa (the academic angle), and Morgan (founder, among other things, of the Fragdolls).

The panel itself was as entertaining as it was eye-opening. As people were seated, a slideshow displayed a variety of messages the panelists have received. It was intriguing for me, as one familiar with the sites, to see and hear the reactions of people for whom this was the first real exposure. Most posts welcomed laughter due to being misspelled, malformed, and generally pathetic. But some — notably one inviting its recipient to die of breast cancer — sent momentary silence and chills through the room.

“N00dz or GTFO” touched on a variety of issues, but its overarching message was pretty straightforward: sexual (and other) harassment is a huge problem that pervades gaming communities. As gamers we should demand the tools to combat it. As humans we should demand a community that actually uses those tools. It’s all well and good to laugh off random penis jokes, but when girls are afraid to even use a headset because it’ll open the door to death threats it’s time to stop laughing and take a stand. I encourage you to check out both FUoS and NitKA (and I’ll link to the video as soon as it’s online so you can watch the best panel of PAX for yourself).

Saturday night provided a new slew of introductions. I spent the evening worrying about whether I could dress well enough to get into the club, which translated into a long and awesome digital (later personal) reunion with Brooke. While waiting outside and hoping I was doing it right I actually got to say hi to and shake hands with Nikole Zivalich. Once inside I ended up meeting and talking with Grace, Jenny, Elisa, & Katy. For my first club/party experience, Saturday night was hugely rewarding.

Sunday morning I made a point of seeing the Assassin’s Creed III demo, and finally met Lanai after months of chilling in her Twitch channel. After a group lunch packed around a small table upstairs a handful of us wandered the show floor picking up swag and watching people play. Andrew recorded as Marcus, Rick, and I hopped up on the Rock Band stage and did a rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then most people went off to try their hand at indie games and I went to watch the AC3 demo one more time. The next hour and a half was spent back in familiar Ubi territory, challenging (and losing to) Tunesha and Ashlee in Trials and trying out the rest of the games for the first time. As the end quickly approached I had a few more chats and introductions and then left to watch from above as the expo was rapidly dismantled.

Providence

By Sunday night there weren’t too many more people to meet. I had yet, for whatever reason, to introduce myself to Ali, and I’d actually sent a tweet expressing as much. As Sunday afternoon became evening, and evening rushed towards night, I still had no idea what the night would hold and I was beginning to think it might hold nothing but a long drive back to Upton without dinner. I was texting back and forth with Dave and neither of us was sure whether the community members were doing anything as a group. All we knew for sure was that there was a PMS/H2O party at the Hard Rock Cafe that had been going on for over an hour, and we weren’t clear on who was there.

Eventually that didn’t matter. I met him at the Westin and we walked down to my car. One convoluted trip through South Boston later, and I was parallel parking for the first time in years as he went in to see if we were at the right Hard Rock.

The private room holding the party was half the size of the total dining space of the restaurant, or so it seemed, and it was densely packed with plenty of faces familiar and strange. Krystal directed me towards a seat that had a purse hanging off the back of it and told me not to worry about taking it because she was pretty sure “Ali’s done.”

God has a funny way of doing things, really. So many times this weekend I couldn’t help thinking about timing — how if I had or hadn’t been somewhere at such a time, something else wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t been so worked up over dinner and not getting into The Estate on Saturday, I’d have already been inside when Nikole and her friends showed up, and I probably wouldn’t have talked to Brooke as much. Had I split with Dave when he went searching for his H2O friends, I’d have never even gotten the VIP invite.

And had Dave and I showed up earlier or later on Sunday, I wouldn’t have had such a convenient, albeit awkward, conversation-starter with the one person I still wanted to say hello to. Ali finished a round of pool and came back. I awkwardly said hello and told her she was welcome to have it back, but she was happy to simply share the seat of the person sitting next to me.

After a couple minutes, I turned to her and said, “You know, when I thought of the first thing I would say to you, it was more like “Hey, I like your blog,” not “Hey, sorry I stole your seat.”” She laughed, leaned her head on my shoulder for a moment, and said “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And that, that right there, sums up the whole of my weekend. Panic and stress and uncertainty led to me not doing some things or doing them later than I planned to, but the way it all turned out was so much better than I ever might have guessed or aimed for.

The night unfolded much according to the same principle. I’d planned on heading back to hang out with Ryan for the night but couldn’t get in touch with him, so instead I ended up just staying in Boston. Had I left, I’d not have been there for the Catfacts and general laughter as we overstayed our Hard Rock welcome. Had I worried more about getting towed I’d have left before the Omni Parker House interlude, the stroll to 7-11 and subsequent conversation with DJ Xyanyde and Vinx.

Most importantly, I’d never have made it to the library.

I’m firmly convinced that the two or three hours spent in that small book-lined annex of the Hilton lobby fundamentally changed my life. It certainly put a lot of things in my mind into place. It put ghosts to rest. More than anything, it solidified beyond doubt the fact that this random smattering of nerds from around the world is more than a community; it’s a family. Like any family we’ve had our black sheep (just look at me). We’ve had our infighting. We’ve lost siblings and adopted others. We have prodigals and stalwart faithfuls. But beyond all the love and the hate and the laughing and crying (and then the trolling that feeds off the crying, followed by more laughing) we have an intangible bond that ensures we’ll still be here in another seven years looking fondly back on our history.

It’s sad to think that it may be six months, a year, maybe longer until I can see all of these wonderful people again, but for now I have this weekend to cherish and the joyful prospect of what the future holds. And you know what?

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

PAX East 2012: Assassin’s Creed 3

On Sunday, amidst the swarming show floor of the third annual PAX East exhibition hall, I had the pleasure of sitting in on Ubisoft’s closed-door Assassin’s Creed III demonstration. Twice. For those who couldn’t make it to Boston this year (or who were too overwhelmed by the ever-intimidating line leading into the black box), here’s a walkthrough of the demo and some quick thoughts on what lies ahead for the popular franchise.

The Demo

After a brief introduction by creative director Alex Hutchinson (who provides the voiceover for the ten-minute demonstration), we are transported via animus to June 17, 1775. Location: Bunker Hill, Massachusetts.

A gorgeous New England landscape can be seen over the shoulders of a figure on horseback bearing the familiar trappings of the Assassin Order. As he dismounts and approaches the tattered array of blue-uniformed soldiers, we notice blue tails of fabric swaying beneath his white cloak. The assassin slides through the colonial ranks as a colonel — perhaps William Prescott — rallies his men into battle: “…and above all, do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

Hutchinson takes a moment to familiarize new viewers with the game’s new ancestral hero Connor Kenway with a faster, smoother version of the video released several weeks ago, dispelling for good the rumors that Connor lacks a hidden blade before returning to the battle lines and showing, for the first time, the sheer scale of battle that Assassin’s Creed III plans on offering gamers this fall.

Across an open valley we see a steep hill virtually covered with red-coated troops lining up and unleashing cloud after cloud of white musket smoke. Deviating from the crowded streets of past games in the franchise, Ubisoft needed to up the ante for NPC populations. Whereas previously an Assassin’s Creed game featured a cap of a couple hundred onscreen characters, AC3 boasts a mind-blowing two thousand to 2500. It’s visually impressive and psychologically daunting, and as gameplay resumes one suddenly realizes that any one of those thousands of soldiers is armed with a potentially lethal musket that could be pointed in Connor’s direction.

The target — British Major John Pitcairn — is nestled safely atop the distant hill and beyond all those guns. Given the choice between the assault and stealth paths up the mountain (provided intuitively, not via intrusive UI) the demo opts for the latter, and after carefully timing his runs between, over, and under cover (new motion mechanics allow for seamless environment traversal) and dodging a few stray cannonballs (read: new reactionary animations are in full effect here), Connor is vaulting into the branches at the base of the hill.

Those concerned that the parkour elements of previous installments would transfer sloppily or seem forced in a natural environment can rest easy: a handful of new animations ensure that whether hopping or swinging from branch to branch or hugging a narrow trunk while easing around to the other side, tree traveling looks natural and convincing.

Eventually Connor happens upon a group of seven redcoats heading towards the front lines on a dirt trail. The demo opts for an ambush, and a slick new weapon-selection UI pops up from which the rope dart — a new and immediately likable weapon — is selected and subsequently hurled towards the unfortunate British point man.

What follows is a flurry of action that, if not for the manufactured pauses of the demonstration, unfolds with almost shocking speed and accuracy. Connor hooks his first target and uses him as a counterweight to swing down from the tree in which he’s hiding only to land right behind his victim’s not-quite-sure-what’s-happening companion. One throat-slash later and Connor is brandishing victim number two as a human shield to absorb the shots from the five remaining soldiers who have — like the well-trained infantry they are — lined up to take aim at the intruder.

Hutchinson comically points out the still-dangling feet of the first victim as Connor drops his meatshield and rushes the now-reloading group, using his tomahawk, hidden blade, and pistol — and the enemies’ own bayonets and muskets — to rapidly dispatch all five of them. The camera dynamically zooms to catch the action as it unfolds, backing out in time to aid Connor in countering each new and unfortunate attacker.

Then it’s back up into the trees — painstakingly designed to reflect the reality of New England woodland’s lack of uniformity — wherein the game exhibits a newfound and impressive degree of verticality. Seasoned tree-climbers will recognize the “okay, I got to this point, where now?” pause as getting to the nearby cliffside becomes a puzzle in itself.

The cliff is a welcome change from the contrived climbing limitations of most buildings in prior games. Hutchinson highlights the wide variety of fissures and jutting edges which players can choose from while scaling rock surfaces, and Connor occasionally has to use both hands to achieve proper thrust as he climbs towards the British encampment.

Cresting feels an achievement in itself, but rather than celebrate Connor must quickly seek cover as a nearby officer rides by. We are thus introduced to stealth areas — dark or heavily-foliaged areas in which Connor can move and wait undetected. Feeling both more natural and realistic than arbitrary hay bales and inexplicably-effective benches, hiding in the bushes affords an opportunity to assess the situation in the camp and plot a course for Pitcairn, who is idling on horseback beyond the tents and meandering soldiers.

We are given the last bit of info from Hutchinson as Connor waits for the guards to turn their backs: Assassin’s Creed III will feature a far more fluid assassination system, allowing for constant motion and banishing forever the awkward vulnerability incurred when assassinating part of a larger group.

The remainder of the demo is pure action. Connor breaks from the brush and beelines for two soldiers in the middle of the camp. The game slows just enough for the impact of Connor’s weapons to be felt, and he’s immediately back to full speed, rolling to his feet in time to vault off a rock and swing his tomahawk towards Pitcairn’s throat as the animus collapses out and the game’s logo tauntingly leaves us wondering what follows.

Looking Forward

Full disclosure requires pointing out that I am an unabashed fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Though each game has had its minor flaws, I consider the series as a whole the most consistent and enjoyable of this console generation. Though it continues to run the risk of sequel fatigue, I have personally yet to feel that Desmond and his ancestors have outstayed their welcome.

My immediate reaction to the PAX demonstration was one of awe. The game’s sheer scale — especially character generation specs — is daunting. AC3‘s HUD is reinvented from the ground up to put more focus on action and less on navigation, shining with polish and pleasing in its minimalism. Everything moves so much smoother and faster than anticipated, and seeing that the tree-climbing is not, in fact, contrived put to rest one of my greatest fears for the decision to take so much of the game beyond city limits.

Much about Assassin’s Creed III remains unknown, and it’s still impossible to tell whether other aspects of the game will live up to the thrill of this weekend’s guided demonstration. Some little details — mechanical enemy behavior, for example — will hopefully (and likely) be ironed out over the next six months, and the faithfulness of 18th century Boston and New York will, I’m sure, be up for much scrutiny as I daresay more of Ubisoft’s demographic have walked those cities than, say, Constantinople.

Nevertheless if the size of the preorder line outside of the demo booth (which at times rivaled the size of the line for the demo itself) is any indication, seeing how good this game already looks leaves little reason for doubting that Ubisoft has on its hands a major contender for 2012 Game of the Year.


Special thanks to Spectra for providing access to the media assets used in this article.