2013 PAX East Highlights

Early on Friday morning...
Early on Friday morning…

As I mentioned in my more personal blog, this year’s PAX was rather low-key, a fact I attribute to its position at the dying edge of this console generation and exacerbated slightly by my own lack of a Windows or Linux personal computer. None of that, however, precluded my enjoyment of the weekend, and I thought I’d share my personal convention highlights: the few games, panels, and standout moments which comprised the non-friend-driven highlights of this year’s PAX East.

Panels

Panels are always a bit of a gamble at PAX. Often it’s a high risk, high reward system whereby you sink an hour or two into line-squatting and hope that the hour-long panel pays off. Some people decide up front to skip out on panels altogether, but I like to go for at least one a day.

Of course, you can’t always get into all the panels that look interesting, particularly if they’re anywhere near the same time. I’d have loved a chance to sit in on Cliff Bleszinski’s storytime session but by the time I got onto the show floor on Friday I realized I should have been waiting upstairs in the main theater line from the very beginning rather than the expo line. So after a cursory stumble through the expo hall, I headed upstairs to the next panel I’d wanted to hit, Square-Enix’s Recreating an Icon: The Talent Behind the New Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER.

But seriously. Go get this game. Now.
But seriously. Go get this game. Now.

It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that a panel devoted to a franchise once known for trademark misogynist character animation was comprised entirely of women, from the community management side to animation to lighting to localization. Between the panel and a video featuring author Rhianna Pratchett, a wide scope of topics was touched upon, not least of which being the sexual assault fiasco that erupted prior to the game’s release, the difficulty of the puzzles versus their more organic/accessible (rather than arbitrary/gamey) design, and why the Shanty Town is so darn hard to navigate (it used to be impossible). While hardly the most riveting moment of the weekend, it was a friendly and invigorating start to my PAX, and a good segue back into the gaming world coming off the tail of last week’s marathon rush to 100% campaign completion.

Saturday’s doorbusting didn’t go quite as planned, due to a later-than-it-should-have-been start and having to park in the frigid and tempestuous overflow jetty lot (I instagrammed a picture of the lengthy line waiting behind me for the not-frequent-enough shuttles to bring us warmth). Thankfully the main blip on my radar was an early afternoon panel called Behind the Music of Blockbuster Video Games, which featured a surprisingly robust list of participants (though sadly not all of the ones listed in the app were present; most notably Garry Schyman). Having purchased Jason Graves’ Tomb Raider soundtrack on the drive up to Boston, I was pleased to see he was not one of the dropouts. The discussion itself was pretty varied: each composer’s background, games worked on and their relative success or failure, favorite scenes scored, reactions from non-gamers when they explain what it is they write music for. I’ll be honest: I don’t know a lot about music, and I haven’t played a lot of the games these gentlemen have scored, but hearing the thoughts behind people with the thankless job of making the music of Call of Duty memorable was actually really cool, and means I’ll be opening my ears a little more next time I go down to play something I assume is a little shallow.

Yet it was Sunday’s Gearbox panel which will take the prize for most entertaining (and, crass as it may be, rewarding) panel. While the Tomb Raider line received temporary tattoos which could be worn and flashed in return for a copy of the hardback The Beginning comic that came only with the Best Buy preorder version of the game, and while several lucky attendees of the music panel received a free CD, Gearbox participants were showered with prizes, including a myriad of pins on the way into the theatre, a chocolate coin wrapped in a gold SHiFT Key foil, and colored cards for a chance to win what would later turn out to be a lottery for overstocked Loot Chest swag.

Though anyone up on their gaming news likely already knows that was announced at the panel, the fact that Gearbox chose a fan event to unveil so many new things is strikingly refreshing. A new level cap, new weapon tier, and new playthrough were announced as a forthcoming DLC which would be grandfathered into the already value-packed Season Pass or sold for the reasonable price of $5. The fourth campaign DLC got a sneak peek trailer complete with 100% more Tiny Tina and great Vault Hunter cameos. And a new character, who looks insanely (no pun intended) fun to play, was unveiled, demonstrated in the most hilarious of fashions, followed up with by an even more insane demo reel, and then, just as we were about done with all that, we were told that Gearbox was giving everyone in the room that character for free (so…that’s $10 more saved just for being in the right place at the right time).

Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.
Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.

On top of all the swag, however, the real perk was just how enjoyable the Gearbox crew is. They demonstrate a sincere love for what they do, and even candidly played off the heavily negative response that their recent Aliens: Colonial Marines has received while trying to discuss their ongoing support for it in as succinct and damage-controlling a way as possible. When the panel’s start was delayed due to the need to fill the room, Mikey Neumann ad libbed his way through random audience participation and Randy Pitchford came out to perform a couple card tricks in front of the camera. Maybe there were more enjoyable panels in this weekend’s lineup? But consider me a skeptic.

Games

I’ll be honest. There weren’t too many games that got me excited this year at PAX East. I saw a lot of decent stuff but very few things made me feel like I needed to sit down and try them out. But there were a few that did make me pause (sometimes for excessive periods of time).

The first of these was the impossible-to-miss upcoming MMO from Carbine Studios called Wildstar. I don’t play MMO’s. I don’t have a PC. But after standing there gazing like an idiot up at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of trailers (they had a handful, and I watched them all), I was about ready to go build one. It’s not that the game looks ground-breaking (maybe it is? but i wouldn’t know). It’s not that I was blown away by the graphics or the gameplay possibilities or anything of the sort. It’s just that it looked really fun. It had a great personality. The two ever-battling sides were immediately recognizable and relatable. The various species and specializations distinct and engaging. And yeah, the art, I liked it. It’s not for everyone, it’s a bit exaggerated, but it was perfect for me. I watched a lot of Wildstar and at the end of the day I can honestly say that if I had a PC, I’d definitely be looking to give it a try.

Potentially my favorite game of the show was one I’d seen a blurb about in some magazine a month or so ago and had actually created a note on my phone specifically to remind me to go find out more about it: the gorgeous and inspired Contrast from Montréal-based indie developer Compulsion Games. Part Portal, part Braid, part Bioshock, and bursting with whimsy, the game is easier seen and felt than described. It focuses on a little girl and her mysterious magical friend — whom you control — who possess the ability to transfer at will between her physical form and her shadow — adding a new dimension of depth to devious platforming puzzles as you navigate both obstacles and the shadows they cast. It looks great, it feels great, and, with a completely original score ripe with jazz, it sounds great. After speaking at length with several of the developers I confidently told one that he couldn’t get it on Mac or a console quickly enough. If Contrast were available today I would already have purchased it. Seriously. Go check it out.

The only other developer I made such a bold declaration to was the guy who put me in front of a camera after my twenty-minute (and well-earned, might I add, considering the 2+ hour wait) demo of Supergiant’s newly-announced project, Transistor. Shocked that such a fun experience still had another year of development to go before its projected released, I flat-out told the man “if this were released tomorrow, I would buy it.” Once more inspired by jazz, but of a different bent, Transistor switches up Bastion‘s signature narration by adding a second character but keeping the omnipresent voice. Players control a woman I know only as “Red,” the lovely singer whose voice opened the demo over top a written exposition I was loathe to advance out of fear that advancing it too quickly would make the incredible music end prematurely (seriously, I sat there when the music ended waiting just to make sure it was over). She wanders over to a massive sword-like weapon sticking out of the corpse of a man — led there by the voice that seems to come from within the weapon itself. It seems she has tragically lost her voice — and he, his body.

Transistor looks to be an intriguing blend of action and turn-based RPG, with abilities requiring time to charge and then an attack-mapping system which allows you to freeze the action and carefully plan out your various attacks and even get behind cover, triggering increasingly-impressive combos before the enemies can properly react (but then it’s back to running for cover as you wait for your power to recharge). Supergiant teases a rich world filled with mystery and revelation, and our gruff narrator’s voice screams noir against a tragic cyberpunk world. It’s hard to explain how less than twenty minutes of a nascent game can justify waiting hours on one’s tired feet, but suffice to say, Transistor did just that. Bastion won the company all kinds of respect, and I firmly believe Transistor will outdo its predecessor. Too bad we’ll have to wait a year to find out.

Riot Games

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It’s funny how I always seem to be behind the times when it comes to trends. Everyone has been playing League of Legends for seemingly forever, but not me. I tried it very briefly but that was a mostly failed experiment in dual-booting. Once more a victim of the not-having-a-PC affliction, I turned a blind eye to Riot’s sensational hit and assumed that was that; until of course they announced an open Mac beta and I immediately downloaded it and got a new character too. For those so-inclined, my name is WORDSLING3R, and I have Ashe, Annie, and Twisted Fate. My wallet is terrified of what might happen if I let myself truly embrace this game.

Anyhow, no matter how you feel about MOBA’s, one thing is very clear about League: they have incredible artwork. And it was just my luck that as Friday afternoon began to take its toll on me and I no longer had any clear idea why I was still on the expo floor, I happened upon the tail end of a cosplay show and paused as I was told that three major employees of the company — artists and animators — would be doing a Q&A session while simultaneously designing a new player skin from scratch. I imagine a few others stuck around when that skin turned out to be a beach-themed Leona.

What unfolded before my eyes over the course of three days — because coming back to watch their progress each day became a necessity — was nothing short of magic to my I-can’t-even-draw-stick-figures-properly non-artist eyes. What began as a completely blank .PSD gradually evolved into smudges, rough lines, clear shapes, a woman, and then a colorful, shaded, and shadowed piece of art. And while all this happened on the large screen above the stage, the three presenters — Michael Maurino, Katie Desousa, and Mike Laygo — took turns juggling questions from the audience which leapfrogged all over the place: League lore, design, art, skins, animation, office habits, and working in the gaming industry in general. You got a real sense of passion on both sides of the microphone: people who loved working on this game, and people who loved playing it. And those groups weren’t even slightly mutually exclusive. You hear often of game devs who want nothing to do with the game they work on, but Riot’s employees come across as genuinely enthused, people who can’t wait to actually use the new skins and champions they spend their weeks putting together. It’s a contagious passion: it kept me coming back throughout PAX, and it has me quite ready to really put that open beta to the test. And if they ever release a collector’s artbook of some sort, may God have mercy on my budget.

Cosplay & Conclusion

Somehow, somewhere along the way, some people with extremely misplaced and inflated egos called cosplayers “lame.” But in recent years I’ve been blown away by how ridiculously untrue that is. The talent and dedication that these artists — let’s call a spade a spade — put into their craft is humbling. Sure, there are the few who “didn’t even try,” whose ensemble is more fittingly called homage than cosplay. And yes, there’s the occasional cosplayer (typically, though not always, female) whose outfit seems to have been designed with the specific intent of wearing as little clothing as humanly possible. But aside from the few bad apples, cosplayers are a diverse and talented crowd, and I saw some magnificent displays over the course of my three days. Silly old me decided this year it’d be worth not hauling around my DSLR, so my iPad was made to suffice. It worked well enough, a few blurry or missed shots notwithstanding. For the most part, cosplayers were the only thing I felt worthy of photographing this year. Below is a small gallery consisting of most of the ones I managed to capture.

A handful of fulfilling panels, a smattering of great games, and charming folks to photograph in between. These things are the PAX experience I chose to embrace, and in retrospect I have no regrets. I may not have pulled the largest swag bag, played the most games, or gotten professional grade shots of every cosplayer I wish I’d photographed, but all in all I’d say I did alright. As I said in my earlier blog, PAX is so much more than a gaming convention. But for a gaming convention, it sure was awesome.

Oh, and speaking of swag, my modest haul:

First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^
First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^

“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.