E3 might be the holy grail of gaming conventions, but the PAX (short for Penny Arcade Expo) suite of conventions are definitely a solid runner-up. They’re the grail blessed by one of Jesus’ cooler, more laid-back cousins; the con that we unwashed masses actually have a chance at getting into. Not that our tickets came easy – pre-registration sold out within an hour of opening, and it was only through perseverance, luck, and a whole lot of stalking that my boyfriend and I managed two three-day passes for the event.
And so, we happily drove into the frozen depths of hell to experience for the first time one of gaming’s most anticipated yearly events. We experienced some inconveniences – including, but not limited to, lacerating my hands on the demon ice that now rules the city of Boston, and nearly being run down in the streets within twenty-four hours of arrival – but overall, it was an incredible event, and worth my bloodloss.
5. FREE STUFF! FREE STUFF INTO YOUR LIFE!!
A travelling trivia team asked me a question about classic ’80s arcade games and gave me three hats for answering. That’s more hats than I can use by at least one or two.
Have you ever thought that there was a hole in your life? Perhaps you were considering filling it with charity work, higher education, or carnal pleasures of the flesh. PAX East would like to help you fill it with as much free shit as you can stuff into a sack and drag out the door.
Nearly every company with a booth in the Expo hall has barrels of T-shirts, hats, bags, buttons, trading cards, free game skins, license plates, and more, all being thrown by the fistful at passers-by by booth staffers. Get there early to snatch the goods fast – nerds love free stuff, even if they’ve already got more thermoses than they know what to do with. You’ll even score some free stuff with your purchases, if you’re lucky. The inimitable Fangamer handed out free tokens with purchase to play at their at-booth capsule machines for free pins and badges, and just as many other booths handed out complimentary bags, buttons, beta tokens for upcoming games, and most importantly for any congoer, free water bottles. We haunted the expo floor for three days straight, and didn’t manage to snag even half of the free swag available. Though that’s maybe for the best, since I’ve now got more monogrammed bags than I know what to do with.
4. The Hottest New Tech, up Close and Gruesomely Personal.
PAX isn’t just about the games themselves – you’ll find dozens of software and hardware companies dotting the Expo floor, eager to show you their latest tech (and potentially sell it to you at some steep discounts). The perennial favorite Oculus Rift virtual reality system had lines stretching around the booth, and the attendees who braved the wait got to experience the next big thing in gaming while seated in pristine white leather armchairs. Elaborate and mind-bogglingly expensive PC gaming builds are displayed under red lights, against a backdrop of throbbing techno music – I imagine if I stuffed a few singles into their fans, they’d start hurling their underwear.
High-end video cards and laptops were being raffled off by the hour, discount vouchers were handed off with surveys, and with the general atmosphere of the convention, I’m sure I could have found a wandering team or two with baskets full of free RAM and jellybeans.
3. They Set up Tents and a Wooden Trailer Selling Pickles and Jerky, So You Can Monster-Hunt Deep Immersion-Style.
But I don’t get an adorable talking cat to carry my things?! I WANT A REFUND IMMEDIATELY.
There’s a certain attention to design and detail that really impressed me with some of the booths, and they deserve mention for their creativity – Monster Hunter‘s tent-setup caught my eye despite never having played the game, and got my boyfriend to download the game the minute we got back to the hotel. Arenanet‘s setup had con-goers at computers in the midst of a deep jungle, in the shadows of an ancient castle.
Even the booths that didn’t go the extra mile in buying imported Indian silk throw pillows and building an onsite castle had a sleek professional design and friendly, knowledgeable staff that you couldn’t help chatting up. They were excited about their work, and it showed. And their enthusiasm wasn’t limited to those on the same level as them as regards skill and knowledge – I’m something of a card game newbie (in that I’ve never played a card game in my life), and the attendants at the Ascension booth were only too happy to sit down with me at a demo table and coach me. It was definitely a different experience than I’ve had at any other convention, and one that made me excited to see what the next booth had waiting for me.
2. Indies, Indies, Everywhere.
PAX East 2015 seemed to be the year of the indie. While AAA titles had no shortage of attention and lines to sample the goods, indie titles easily took up the lion’s share of the booths at the convention, and it was a candy land for anyone who wanted a sneak peek into the titles that would take the upcoming year or two by storm.
I’m always interested in what smaller studios have to offer, and PAX did not disappoint. Current big indie titles like Shovel Knight and Don’t Starve had booths drawing crowds that nearly rivaled their AAA brethren, and even the tiniest, least-known titles and development teams always had a modest crowd of wandering con-goers. Several titles caught my eye, including the stylish turn-based stealth strategy game Invisible, Inc. (the latest from Klei Entertainment, also responsible for the aforementioned Don’t Starve), as well as the hilarious Cosmosum, which can only be described as “Hungry Hungry Hippos, But With Black Holes, and In Space”.
However, the title that most caught my eye was We Happy Few, a survival horror title by Compulsion Games. Set in a retro-futuristic 1960s England, it sees the player character awaken in a city straight out of a nightmare – its inhabitants are all very, very happy people, and expect you to be as happy as them…or they’ll beat the smiles into you. The frantic stealth and emphasis on blending in makes it a refreshing entry into the survival horror genre, which too often is interpreted by developers as the “SHOOT SOME ZOMBIES DO IT NOW BE A RAMBO ZOMBIE-SHOOTER MAN” genre. The crafting system will please any fans of H1Z1, and the aesthetics are reminiscent of Bioshock at its finest. I had the pleasure of speaking to the art and tech directors of the game, who were all too happy to discuss with me the game’s direction, the excitement and challenges they were facing in development, and why digital funding and distribution has made it easier – and harder – than ever to be an indie developer.
1. Game Companies Are Making Baby Steps to Salvage Gaming’s Good Name.
Breathing new life into the brown-gray shooter genre, one hot-pink hairdo at a time.
However, where certain “fans” have failed the community, companies are trying to step in to build bridges. Blizzard Entertainment’s panel on Friday boasted about recent development on their latest project, Overwatch. Among the new characters announced for their first foray into the multiplayer shooter genre is Zarya, a tank character explicitly designed to cater to requests for more body diversity in female characters. “We’re listening, and we’re trying hard,” said Blizzard at the panel. One female character with ripped arms and stylish shaved pink hairdo may not be a cure-all for the deep-seated issues in the gaming community, but if an AAA company like Blizzard Entertainment makes an effort to cut the path, smaller companies may find it easier to follow suit.
It doesn’t stop there as far as bridge-building efforts go – panels addressing online bullying and the exclusion and harassment of female fans were hotly attended by PAX-goers, and just as sternly monitored to ensure civility. There was no lack of panels dedicating to discussing diversity, with lines for talks on accessibility and disability in gaming, and transgender representation in gaming media stretching down the halls. As for my own personal experience? The only time I felt uncomfortable in my skin was when my feet started bleeding from my latest loop around the expo floor. It puts the current events in the nerd community in perspective, and gives a bit of hope to a rather hopelessly grim situation. It shows that the greater nerd culture does want to move forward and toward greater inclusivity, and just needs companies to give them the means to do so.
So were there any negatives? Well…
3. So Much to Do, So Little Time.
If you’re going to have fun at PAX, you’re going to have to wait. And wait…and wait…and wait. Lines for hyped titles like Overwatch and Splatoon were rarely, if ever, under four to five hours long, if they were even accepting new line members at all. With the expo floor itself only open from 10AM to 6PM, it was a hard choice – jump in line to see the next big thing before anyone else, or have the freedom to see everything else the floor has to offer? And that’s before the matter of panels, guest autographs, and wild nerd parties come in. Unfortunately, you’re going to miss something you desperately wanted to see, and there’s not a thing you can do about it except weep brokenly into your mountains of free loot. Alas.
Send help, or maybe a shovel.
2. It Was Crowded – and in Breaking News, the Ocean Is a Touch Damp.
Step One: Buy stilts. Step Two: Use the stilts to navigate the expo floor while fleeing security.
It wasn’t news to me that the convention was going to be crowded. I’ve had plenty of experience with big conventions before. I’m a yearly attendee of Otakon, the East Coast’s largest anime convention, and the crowds there barely faze me. “So what if there are going to be tens of thousands more attendees at this convention?” I thought to myself, blithely ignorant of what would await. “The convention center is massive, and I’ve only heard good things about the event’s crowd management abilities. It’ll be fine.”
…yeah, it was crowded, and nothing about that is ever a positive when you’re trying to traipse through the floor in full costume. Every time I saw a gaggle of clueless attendees standing in the middle of the expo floor blocking traffic, I had to repress the urge to close my eyes, walk forward, and windmill my fists until I cleared a path. Good luck trying to keep in contact with your con pals, or Tweet your latest finding to the poor souls who couldn’t make it to the convention – the airways are so clogged that screaming into tin cans is the more reasonable method of communication. The expo floor was the place to be for everyone, and there was no avoiding being smashed between thousands of bodies reeking of con funk, but that doesn’t mean I had to enjoy the experience. In any event, it made the 20-degree weather outdoors feel like blessed relief.
1. Boston Wants You Dead, But at Least I Found Crispy M&Ms in a Bus Station CVS.
Pretzel M&Ms may have stolen your bag color, but they can never take your freedom.
I know, right? Boston may be languishing in the depths of the Fimbulvetr that heralds the end of days, and may have motorists that actively want you dead, but I haven’t found crispy M&Ms since I was in middle school!
I’m not sure how to properly describe the traffic situation in Boston. We could start by pointing out that the streets were designed by someone insane; or rather, several thousand insane people over the course of Boston’s illustrious tea-chucking history. We could point out that the drivers of Boston have absolutely no regard for the lives of others, or even their own lives, and will careen into intersections at full-speed off badly-marked side-streets.
We could, also, point out that the pedestrians are little better, and will walk bravely into the streets without so much a glance at what’s coming at them (it’s usually a car). That doesn’t quite describe the situation to its fullest, however. Here’s a helpful illustrative tip: cook some spaghetti, then scoop up the boiling noodles with your hand. Hurl the noodles at the nearest wall while screaming in pain and rage. The resulting mess in your kitchen resembles a map of Boston’s roads, and now that you have to be driven to the hospital for your burn wounds, you no longer have to go to Boston. You’re welcome.
I rarely enjoy winter-based cons to their fullest – as a cosplayer, nothing kills my mood faster than having to haul props through icy streets while my feet scrabble for purchase on the cobblestone. While I can’t say this con has single-handedly changed my mind on winter events (because the weather did, in fact, make me operate single-handedly for most of the weekend), with the amazing events, dazzling tech, and exciting guests, it’s definitely a con I’d return to, no questions asked.
Did you attend PAX, and want to discuss things that I missed? (Give me a break: the Oculus line had a five-hour wait time…) Did you not attend PAX, and want to vent your jealousy at me?
I can only play rhythm games with my feet and my main source of nutrients derives from seasonal candy. When not surfing the adrenaline rush of hurling my controller through the TV screen, I enjoy anime/manga and cosplay. I spend most of my free time being rejected by my cats.