Con Diary: PAX West is an Exhausting, Entertaining Ride
PAX West, formerly known as PAX Prime, is one of the largest public gaming conventions in the United States. Created by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic, the convention covers video and tabletop gaming, with demos of some of the most hotly anticipated titles available for play if you’re willing to stand in line for several hours. PAX features AAA titles, but also has a significant amount of indie gaming; the Indie Megabooth hosts some of the most exciting indie games, and the PAX 10 spotlights the cream of the crop–those games that exemplify creativity, fun, and innovation best.
I attended all four days of the convention this year, armed with a backpack full of snacks, hand sanitizer, and not enough sleep.
Friday was the only day I was alone at the convention, and I felt it. I made some friends in the line for the BioWare Mass Effect experience, but, all in all, day one was kind of a quiet, lonely day. My first purchase, unsurprisingly, was a GeekGirlCon sweatshirt because I wore nothing but denim in Seattle’s first autumnal downpour, and I was quietly freezing to death in PAX’s blissfully air-conditioned halls.
A quick tour around the expo hall helped me decide which games I would check out later. As always, the hall is packed, and I didn’t actually get the opportunity to play anything. I took a couple of cards–Tumblestone, an action-puzzle game I demoed at last year’s show, and Burly Men at Sea, which, as far as I could tell from wandering by, involved folklore and pretty graphic design. I was sold immediately.
I headed off to the “How We Find Positivity in Gaming Part 2” panel. I love this kind of thing–my first time at PAX was August 2014, a particularly awful time for the gaming community. While I made some incredible contacts and came away with a good experience, sometimes we need a staunch reminder that gaming can be a positive place despite its penchant for nasty, petulant behavior.
The panel–hosted by Andrew Sullivan, host of the Disconnected Gamer podcast, Craig Kaufman, Program Director at AbleGamers, Stephen Machuga, founder and CEO of Stack-Up.org, and Amy Potter, cofounder of Leaping Tiger–wasn’t quite what I expected. I imagined a discussion of ways to make gaming a positive, inclusive space, but the stories of how games have positively impacted the lives of panelists and audience members made me a little teary. If nothing else, the panel introduced me to some neat organizations and the work they’re doing to use gaming for positive purposes.
After the panel, which I livetweeted here, I picked up the limited edition N7 pin from ThinkGeek, because I am forever at the mercy of collectible pins and hopped into the random line forming outside the BioWare Base, which was decked out in Mass Effect gear. I didn’t have anything planned for an hour or two, which was good, because I spent two and a half hours in line without knowing what it was for. I bonded with my assigned teammate over a mutual love for Mass Effect and fond memories of Wrath of the Lich King-era World of Warcraft. Our bonding was no match for the trials contained within, alas–a series of challenges testing teamwork, code breaking, laser manipulation, and the ability to read a star chart–we only passed one, and were awarded with an “Adept” sticker for our badges.
Later, I headed out to the “Get Your Politics Out of My Games!” panel. Featuring VICE Gaming’s Austin Walker, ZEAL’s Aevee Bee, I Need Diverse Games’ Tanya Depass, and Critical Distance’s Zachary Alexander–some of my favorite voices in the gaming industry–the panel was simply too intelligent, quick, and witty for me to livetweet effectively, though I did my best. At its essence, the panel discussed how games are inherently political, their systems recreating political systems, their causes, and their roots, and games that feel apolitical are simply avoiding rocking the boat. The panelists discussed the politics of games, like This War of Mine, Papers, Please, and Bloodborne, as well as the ways that art and mechanics influence or change the politics of a game, with the example of imagining This War of Mine with Prison Architect’s art style. It’s an incredible discussion, one that hopefully will be archived online at some point–if it is, I will link it here the moment I find it. In the meantime, check out the work of these incredible voices in the industry.
I rounded off the night with a hot Reuben sandwich, dill pickle chips, and a trip to the “Sexy Or Stupid: The Great Video Game Sex Scene Debate.” Again, the panel was not what I expected–rather than a discussion of what sex scenes add to a game, I got a hysterical conversation from panelists Michelle Clough, co-founder and chair of the Romance and Sexuality Special Interest Group for the International Game Developers Association, Chris Avellone, game designer and writer for titles like Fallout: New Vegas and the upcoming Prey, I Need Diverse Games’ Tanya DePass, AJ Glasser of Facebook Games, and Matt Baume of the Sewers of Paris podcast and writer of Defining Marriage. Sex scenes giggled at and dissected included the Fem!Qunari Inquisitor/Sera scene from Dragon Age: Inquisition, this hot mess from God of War 2, the entirety of Robert Yang’s Rinse and Repeat, a snippet of Metal Gear Solid 3, and the single worst sex scene I have ever seen, a clip from Ride to Hell: Retribution.
Saturday was a time to actually check out games. After another quick tour around the expo hall, I settled on Luna from Funomena as my first. I’ll admit that I’m a VR skeptic–I have yet to see a single title that makes me want to shell out several hundred dollars for a peripheral system, especially after my foray into VR at last year’s PAX involved nothing more exciting than cartoon robots throwing junk at me. I watched a few people play with Luna’s gorgeous world, creating a unique terrarium in a sort of stop-motion style, and chatted with someone on the team for a bit, discussing the new, as yet unreleased Oculus controls and Luna’s journey from 2D to virtual reality. I decided I had to at least give VR a shot.
Thankfully, I was impressed. While last year’s demo had left me underwhelmed, Luna played with depth in a way I’ve never seen in a game before–used to searching for things in two dimensions, I struggled a bit to manipulate the controls before realizing I had to actually physically reach out to connect the stars together. That, combined with a skillful use of haptic feedback from the controllers, really sold me on the game. It’s a soothing, beautiful experience in which you manipulate stars into constellations and create little scenes from the objects you gather to aid a little bird on his journey home. The story is a bit loose at the moment, but the technology is sound–while I might not be rushing out to buy an Oculus Rift, Luna, due out for release in spring 2017, is guaranteed a spot on my shelf as soon as I do.
Next up was Open Sorcery, a Twine game from developer Abigail Corfman. It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a good text-based game, and Open Sorcery is exactly that. You play as a magical firewall in a world where science and magic are inextricable, protecting your creators and attempting to achieve sentience, if that’s your goal, through elegantly executed text. Twine is a simple system, but Corfman uses it to great effect; having played a bit with it myself, I was excited to see the randomization and input elements, both of which, with my beginner skills, are quite impressive. Open Sorcery is available for free right now, so check that out and see what magic Twine is capable of.
My last foray into games for the day was a return to Burly Men at Sea by Brain & Brain. The game itself was a side-scrolling adventure game with a unique visual style–I was entranced by the color palette and seamless movement, which felt less like point and click and more like sliding or turning the pages of a book, as you use your mouse to drag the visible area of the game back and forth to expose more. That, combined with the incredible use of layered sound design and a simple, but elegant story–three burly brothers find a mysterious map and seek to find out where it leads–made this an intriguing title. I look forward to its full release September 29.
After that, I headed out to the “Making and Promoting Non-Traditional Characters in Games” panel, which featured Gorgeous Robot’s Miellyn Barrows, BioWare’s Patrick Weekes, Bethesda’s Hilary Shapiro, Date or Die’s Arden Ripley, Adult Swim Games’ Steve Gee, and I Need Diverse Games’ Tanya Depass. The panel, which I couldn’t livetweet due to internet issues, covered characters like Krem and the Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition, their representation, their creation, and the necessity of feedback when creating characters that aren’t like you. This led to an interesting and important discussion of being critical of the things you love–DePass is a Dragon Age fan who critiqued Mother Giselle’s trope-heavy characterization in Inquisition, and Weekes acknowledged that what BioWare can do as a developer is try, listen, learn, and move forward with feedback.
The other panelists discussed the importance of diverse hiring practices, which help developers and writers create diverse characters that aren’t mired in stereotypes. Ripley mentioned that the Date or Die team, all of whom are trans, still worry about the reaction to their deeply flawed characters. “Trans people are people,” Ripley said. “People are messy.”
Sometimes creators will fail–as the panelists pointed out, there are no unproblematic people–but they can use those opportunities to learn, grow, and do better. Game developers and writers benefit from more inclusive hiring practices and listening to and considering the suggestions of their marginalized fans.
Sunday, day three, became chill-out day. I love conventions, but they wear me out; I spent much of Sunday lounging around and snacking, with occasional ventures out to pick up some We Know the Devil pins and a Bull’s Chargers tank top from Sanshee, as well as a Firewatch tank top from Campo Santo. By the way, if you’re looking for merch, I can’t recommend Sanshee or Campo Santo’s stuff highly enough–these are some of the cutest, softest, and most flattering shirts I own.
I didn’t play many games Sunday, mostly out of con-induced exhaustion and lines, but I did get to spend a short amount of time with Old Man’s Journey, one of the PAX 10, from developer Broken Rules. Though my time was brief–the setup for the PAX 10 was painfully small, especially with so many people trying to take a look at the games the convention regards as the best in indie games–it seemed like a sweet little puzzle game. Simple in execution, it was more atmospheric than challenging, and the art style felt rather like a storybook you could manipulate. While I wasn’t completely bowled over, I look forward to checking it out when it releases in 2017.
Next I hit up the “Git Gud, Ally,” panel, hosted by I Need Diverse Games’ Tanya DePass, Xbox designer Bryce Johnson, human centered design and engineering PhD candidate John Porter, and Xbox interaction designer Kathryn Storm. The panel covered the essentials of good allyship, including what makes an effective ally and what doesn’t, including performative behavior and encouragement to interrogate who your allyship serves, you or marginalized people. I livetweeted the panel here, and there’s a full audio recording here if you’d like to listen to the whole thing–I recommend it, because there was a lot of great stuff said by both the panelists and audience, and listening to marginalized people is the most basic step you can take in being a better ally.
We finished off the day with some PC freeplay time with Rocket League and a round each of Cthulhu Fluxx and Quick and Dirty. Cthulhu Fluxx is as fun as any other variation, and Quick And Dirty, while living up to its name, suffered a bit from Cards Against Humanity-itis. I liked it in theory, but it was at its strongest when it wasn’t dirty–throwing in a card that requires you to shout out the most offensive word you can think of that begins with a given letter is just a little too “edgy” for my tastes. I found the answer of Taco Bell to “A place where it’s inappropriate to be naked” a lot funnier, requiring more creativity than busting out a slur to win a round.
By Monday, I realized I didn’t need four days of this con. Yes, it’s fun. Yes, I love the panels and the experience. But few of the AAA games appeal to me, especially because I don’t want to spend hours in line. Instead, I spent Monday hitting up a few more games at the Indie Megabooth.
Thimbleweed Park was my first stop, because every other time I’d passed by it’d been crowded, and I didn’t want to get ushered along by an Enforcer. It’s a cute adventure game in the classic LucasArts style, down to their own unique SCUMM-like system for interaction. The team even features members of the Maniac Mansion crew, giving its puzzles that extra oomph. It’s got sort of a Twin Peaks feel, as you’re lured into the story with a dead body only to discover that’s one of the more mundane mysteries to be found. The demo was solid, though a little heavy on the kitschy jokes; I had fun with it, but kept feeling that the references and silliness were taking away from some of the atmosphere. It’s not a super serious game, so I may be in the minority there, but I’ll pick it up on release nonetheless.
My last, and longest, foray into game demos, was the VR take on classic party game Werewolf called Werewolves Within. The line was atrocious, especially with a three-day buildup of con foot pain, but the game itself was solid. Virtual reality headsets let the less adept liars among us have a bit more fun without worrying about their facial expressions, and the visuals allow for some cool effects–for my first round, I played as a tracker, which meant I could essentially sniff out one side of the gathering and determine whether or not someone on that side was a werewolf. It was a neat feature, though playing with a bunch of strangers with a not-great audio system meant I felt more confused than engrossed. You’d also need a bunch of VR headsets to make this a viable party game, which is not really feasible with the price of virtual reality as it stands; while it’s a cool idea and online play might work, I’ve still yet to discover a VR game that will actually make me want to purchase a system.
PAX is a fun con that feels something like gamer Disneyland, with all the accompanying downfalls. By day four, people are mistaking cologne for proper hygiene. An enforcer not-so-helpfully told me how to use my camera, a DSLR I have owned and operated without male oversight for many years. Several developers chose to ignore speaking to me in favor of speaking with the dude directly beside me. But for all its faults, the passion people have for gaming, especially the developers working hard to make these games happen, reminds me that the games industry doesn’t have to be a continual source of frustration and disappointment. I love games. I love playing games. I love being around people who are passionate about games in a way that’s constructive and loving and encouraging. PAX has that in spades, even if it smells like twelve bottles of AXE body spray and pizza.