PAX East: A “faintly absurd gaming wonderland”
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Thursday, March 21, 2:30 p.m.
Toronto Island Airport
3DS StreetPasses: 3
I’d never been to a big convention before PAX East. The first of several offshoots from the original Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, PAX East is Boston’s annual paean to gaming in all its forms: tabletop, role-playing, and, of course, video games. I decided on a whim last October to buy a three-day pass and reserve a hotel room. I had no idea what to expect.
Friday, March 22, 2 p.m.
Expo Hall, Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC)
3DS StreetPasses: 142
I decided to see the keynote speech by Jazz Jackrabbit (okay, and Gears of War) designer Cliff Bleszinski. To do so, I had to find the end of a line that snaked a quarter of the way around the BCEC, then wait for an hour.
There are lines for nearly everything: lines to get into panel discussions, lines to play games that aren’t out yet, lines to pick up free swag, and especially lines for food and drink. About the only place there wasn’t a line? The women’s bathrooms.
After CliffyB, I hit the show floor. The expo hall, at over 100,000 square feet, is easily the biggest enclosed space I’ve ever been in. The majority of the space is devoted to video games and related paraphernalia.
Sony and Microsoft had neighbouring booths, though neither seemed to acknowledge the impending release of the PS4 or the next Xbox. Ubisoft dominated the north end of the hall with giant banners advertising the likes of Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV. The Riot booth filled up every so often with huge crowds every time a League of Legends match started up on the big screen, commentators in tow.
The south side is all indie games, including The Indie Megabooth. In one corner was Blendo Games with the freelancer-hacking game, Quadrilateral Cowboy. One aisle over and down a few booths is Toronto’s DrinkBox Studios with the recently released Guacamelee!
Elsewhere, a small crowd tries to make sense of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, the sequel to a game where you control an octopus father who’s trying to hide his cephalopod nature from his human family. Listen closely and you’ll hear people at the Spaceteam booth shouting nonsensical commands while frantically shaking iPads.
Supergiant Games, Double Fine, Capybara Games and Iron Galaxy Games all shared a heavily trafficked intersection with the Fangamer merch booth, where you’ll find two of the hottest games on the floor.
On one side is a three-hour line to see Supergiant’s Transistor, the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Bastion. But it’s the huge crowd watching Iron Galaxy’s deceptively simple fighting game, Divekick, that’s making all the noise. PAX volunteers are constantly trying to shove the overflow of rubberneckers out of the aisles and back into the booth. More than once, I heard people say Divekick was their surprise game of the show. It’s hard to think of a better alternative.
Saturday, March 23, 2:50 p.m.
Steel Battalion Room
3DS StreetPasses: 325
You’re constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis at PAX: could the time I’ll spend waiting in this line be better spent elsewhere? Lining up to play games you can buy later this year is good to some, but I wanted games I wouldn’t be able to play elsewhere.
That’s how I went a day and a half before playing my first video game of the show: the 2002 Xbox game Steel Battalion.
The Capcom mech game is a bizarre, but lovable dead end that tried to mix simulator-level realism with console gaming. It cost $200, and you got a game disc, a massive, dual-joystick controller festooned with buttons and toggle switches, and a set of foot pedals. You controlled everything about your giant robot, from walking to firing weapons to engaging the windshield wipers. Console gaming has seen nothing like it since.
An entire room in the console freeplay area was dedicated to Steel Battalion stations. Groups of eight at a time would hop into one of the multiplayer stations for a quick primer on how to control the giant mech, delivered by a PAX Enforcer-slash-drill instructor.
Having your tutorial delivered by a big guy in a utilikilt is the cherry on top to the experience of driving big-ass robots with rail cannons for arms, using the largest joystick rig you’ve ever seen outside of an airplane cockpit.
Dance Freeplay Stage, 11:20 p.m.
3DS StreetPasses: 392
I made a new friend in Boston who shared his PAX philosophy: there’s no wrong way to do PAX.
Some people spend the entire weekend playing in Magic: The Gathering tournaments or board games with friends; others play Counter-Strike matches in the Bring Your Own Computer area. Some people run around catching panels; others wait in line to play upcoming games like Remember Me or watch theatre demos for The Elder Scrolls Online.
Others, like me, have no set plans, and take in a little bit of everything PAX has to offer.
PAX East is full of micro-climes, each with their own little dramas. Waiting by the dance freeplay stage for the shuttle bus back to my hotel, I watch as people in line dance in place, perfectly mimicking whoever’s on stage. A tall guy in a stylish suit and nice pants tries to cajole a shorter woman he’s just danced with to get back on stage for another song.
She’s torn; she’s hanging out with her sister and she’s kind of tired, but even though she’s just met this guy, the two of them just destroyed their last Dance Central 3 song on Expert, and good dancers are hard to come by.
For a second I feel like I’m in a bizarro-land version of a nightclub. And then the shuttle bus arrives to take us back to the hotel.
Sunday, March 24, 2:45 p.m.
A darkened room, BCEC
3DS StreetPasses: 434
The last thing I do at PAX East is a welcome surprise.
Just off one of the main halls on the first floor is a mysterious darkened room with doors flung wide open. There’s no sign to indicate what’s in there, but there’s a small crowd peering into the darkness. Dancing orbs of pink, blue, green and yellow light are the only other clues as to what’s going on, but it’s enough for me: this is Johann Sebastian Joust.
It’s one of the last games I played at PAX. The concept is simple: everyone has a PlayStation Move controller that they must move in concert with the classical music playing in the background. Swing your controller too suddenly and you’re out. Last person standing wins.
It’s basically a structured way to shove, jostle, chase and dance with random strangers. Timid onlookers become predatory players, pouncing on people from behind, staring opponents down, and making ridiculous leaps of faith to knock someone’s controller aside.
It’s the little surprise moments that make PAX what it is. PAX pulls you completely out of the real world for three days into a faintly absurd gaming wonderland.
And when you finally leave, you feel like you’ve left something amazing behind. Only 11 months and three weeks until wonderland returns.