Despite this being my third year of PAX East attendance, I’m always struck by just how many people show up to this thing. To put it in perspective, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is approximately half a million square feet. In the twelve hours I spent there yesterday, there was not a single moment where I found myself with an abundance of personal space. The “Nerd Mecca” analogy is not hyperbole.
The event also brings all kinds of great characters to the city of Boston. As I hopped on the silver line bus at South Station with a few friends, we found ourselves standing next to a particularly impressive looking Auron from Final Fantasy X. He’d even gone so far as to appropriately tie up his arm. The closer we got to our destination the more N7 paraphernalia seemed to sprout up amongst various clumps of people. We saw Scorpion, Altair, and even some Minecraft Creepers. Had we been equipped with proper beverages, we could have created some spectacular drinking games.
Of course, it wouldn’t be PAX without a strong sense of confusion upon arrival. We got to the center at around 9am and were met with a massive wall of people wandering in seemingly aimless directions. We immediately joined the end of what we perceived to be the largest, most meaningful looking line. I asked a nearby enforcer where we were heading, “To get lanyards and swag bags… and get in to the expo hall, I think.” While myself and my cohorts were interested in obtaining our free loot, we also desperately wanted to make it into the 10:30am keynote, aka “Storytime with Jordan Mechner”. We decided to play it risky, and waited out the first massive line to get our free prizes before making a mad dash through the expo hall to the other end of the center in order to hop in to another massive line. Our swag, by the way, consisted of the typical Magic: The Gathering cards, a free copy of Rift (which I believe is pay to play, oh the irony…), a few other pamphlets, and some kind of origami crab creature… Fortunately, our hustling paid off, and we were able to get seats near the rear of the main theater before the keynote began.
Jordan Mechner is the original developer of the classics Karateka and Prince of Persia. Despite being in his late 40′s, he has a sort of wide-eyed appreciation for discovery much more typical of a person in their 20′s. He is unapologetically soft-spoken, and did not deliver the somewhat expected self-centric nerd pep talk more commonly associated with such keynotes. Instead, he told us his story, no more, no less. It was a fascinating story that can be adequately summed up with this simple message, “Why even attempt to plan things?” Mechner’s life was all about riding the river instead of swimming against the current. From his days in college creating a tragically unpublished game called “Death Bounce” on his Apple 2, through writing a screenplay for Jerry Bruckheimer’s on screen adaptation of Prince of Persia, any time he tried to place himself on a path, it never mattered as much to him as rashly following his emotions. Not that his heart always lead him in the proper directions. He spent several years and nearly all of his money developing a game called The Last Express in the late 90′s, which was ultimately a massive commercial failure. Still, he had no regrets. He would rather lose it all working on what he loved than risk not giving it a try. This is the mark of a true artist.
As Mechner’s quiet, dignified session came to a close, we remained in the theater for the first Q&A session with the minds behind Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins. In stark contrast to Mechner, the two took the stage to ironic gangster rap, and were immediately asked the question “How often do you two touch penises?” Now THAT is the PAX I’ve come to know so well. Mike and Jerry are fantastic human beings. They stand on the stage and respond to just about anything and everything you could possibly imagine. Audience members dish out tragic, heartfelt stories, pranks and tricks, and general questions about life, the universe, and everything. You laugh, you cry, but most of all you have a really good time with a bunch of really wacky people. I’d say that attending at least one of these daily Q&A sessions is absolutely essential if you’re going to the event.
As the session ended, we found ourselves wading through a massive crowd of people funneling towards a nearby escalator to access the rest of the center. While there was a wider staircase available, people weren’t allowed to use it. When traffic finally allowed me to merge onto the narrow pathway of the moving staircase, I was surprised to find Mike Krahulik standing directly behind me. There was no security detail, no private elevator, no red carpet. He just sat on the escalator chatting with everyone about how silly it was that they refused to let people walk down the stairs. It hit me, then, that Mike and Jerry don’t try to preside over PAX, they’re attendees, just like everyone else. In fact, I think they prefer it that way. It’s much more fun.
Having the advantage of knowing our way around Boston, my friends and I were able to avoid the exorbitantly priced convention center food ($7 for a slice of pizza, oof) and instead went elsewhere for lunch. Upon returning, we checked out the classic console freeplay area. I grabbed a copy of TMNT 4: Turtles in Time for the SNES and sat down with a friend for a few minutes of Turtle Power. A few other friends scored a copy of Zombies at my Neighbors and childhood was briefly relived.
We then made our way back to the expo hall for a closer look around. The hall is a massive hub of overstimulating bright lights. As you work your way around it, you being to realized a method to its madness. Some areas emphasize computer hardware, others focus on indie titles, while lager sections are dedicated to the bigger studios. We saw large exhibits on Borderlands 2, Tribes: Ascend, and Aliens: Colonial Marines. Each one felt like a strong companion piece to its predecessors, emphasizing perhaps the all too safe rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I then separated from my group and made my way over to the Kingston HyperX booth, where EG’s InControl was playing Starcraft 2 against members of the crowd while Artosis commentated. There I met with a colorful crew from the Penny Arcade Forums Starcraft 2 community. One of them was apparently an old drinking buddy of Artosis, and we all took a group photo with him.
I then met back up with my group of friends and we made our way to the Naga theater to check out the Extra Credits Q&A panel. Now, I must confess that I went into this panel with absolutely no idea what Extra Credits was (GASP!). Turns out, it’s an absolutely fantastic web series about the complex nature of the modern gaming environment. It is the brainchild of game designer James Portnow, animator Daniel Floyd, and artist Allison Theus. Unfortunately, James was the only one who was actually able to make it to PAX. Fortunately, despite being dead on his feet tired, he was able to improvise a panel of gaming personalities from the audience including employees from PopCap, Minecraft, and other successful-yet-smaller game publishers. The whole event was interesting, but perhaps a bit TOO much of an indie-lovefest. There were numerous questions about the failure of modern AAA titles, which perhaps over-emphasized a lack of quality amongst larger titles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as disappointed with the Mass Effect 3 ending as anyone, but I still appreciate the game as an impressive piece of work.
After that, it was time to check out the classic arcade, a wonderful free-to-play area featuring boxes from the 80′s. I played the original 2 player variant of Mario, some great old racing games, and enjoyed the crowd’s enthusiasm for the nostalgia immensely.
After leaving the arcade, it was determined that it was time to go home, rest, and recharge. PAX East 2012 was off to a strong start.