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Friday, August 29, 2008

PAX Day One - Megathread

posted by on August 29 at 19:15 PM

7:00 p.m.: What’s a guy to do as keynote speaker at a gaming convention? Out himself, of course. Doesn’t seem like a big stretch for Ken Levine, the creative director of last year’s arty blockbuster Bioshock. Uh, he makes games. Epic games with long scripts about underwater empires and the crazed 1920s mobsters who love them. Geek? SHOCKER.

Sorry, my photos from the keynote were awful. To make up for it, here’s a short video:

But like Wil Wheaton’s call-to-geek-arms speech last year, Levine took today’s opportunity to recount his own reluctant descent into comics, D&D, and all matter of video games. It was a late ’70s story straight out of TV show Freaks & Geeks: “When my parents rolled for my character, they didn’t get any 18s,” he said, and the crowd roared for the D&D joke. The rest of his upbringing story was Spiderman, an Atari 2600 as a Channukah gift, salivating over comic book heroines, getting in a tizzy over Logan’s Run, and publicly hiding his nerdiness for fear of retribution. It took an accidental stumble into a D&D posse for the guy to finally accept his lot (“I was worried I’d walked into some Gygax-ian gingerbread house”).

It wasn’t as exhilirating and shameless a speech as Wheaton’s from last year, but it didn’t mince words, either: “What brings us together at PAX is, we’re a giant bunch of fucking nerds.” This, and his series of witty in-jokes, elicited roars from the crowd. It’s almost disconcerting the way the mass cheered and clapped—for a brief moment, it felt like they were a tiny pack of right-wing, gun-loving nuts trapped in San Francisco. But, to be fair, it wasn’t quite that extreme. And the opportunity to let your social guard down and applaud/grin along is too thick to pass up—so what if the PAX scene was a bit jubilant? Besides, Levine’s story of childhood ostracization was touching even outside the corridors of geekdom—anybody can identify with being on the outside to some extent.

Penny Arcade’s creators followed this keynote with their annual Q&A session. Funny, certainly, though this is where the crowd began to fragment. No biggie for creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. Like they’ve said all along, this is a gaming expo, not a comic strip expo. The authors are happy merely being a conduit through which their brethren may gather.

And now, for the rest of the evening, I’m off to do just that. To sit down when I see an open chair at a fighting game booth. To make friends with DS-wielding Tetris addicts. To see if somebody will teach me what the heck is new in D&D 4th Edition. And, seriously, to make a friend or two. (I’m always on the lookout for a gaming posse.) Tomorrow is a busier “official” day; lots of panels with industry folks about the modern state of games development. I look forward to reporting the heck out of that. Until then, geeks ahoy.

2:55 p.m.: A few hours in, I can already proclaim the winner of the PAX 10 indie competition: The Maw. You run around like a 3D Mario game, but the only thing you can do is use an electric leash and lug around this stupidly goofy blob-thing (or the things that you want to feed it). The joy here is in the lively main character, pumped full of quirks and personality. The total product is charming, hilarious, and pleasing to figure out as a game. And only eight people made it. That’s, like, 1/50th of the people who made Halo 2.5 3. The Maw should see release on Xbox Live soon. I look forward to raving about it.

Not that the rest of the PAX 10 is a snore. Turns out the one-man team making Sushi Bar Samurai is a hometown native, and his title probably best embodies the spirit of this off-kilter competition. I love the concept—you are a sushi chef in the afterlife, and you assemble souls’ “final meals.” It’s the perfect kind of challenge for challenge-averse gamers; you can very simply arrange sushi rolls, or you can come up with recipe combos. It starts off ridiculously simple, but the presentation lulls you into enjoying the game’s virtual bonsai arrangements. Of raw fish.

Other PAX 10 dandies, my fest experience so far, and big names like Gears of War 2:

(Jump to read the entire rest of the day’s coverage.)

Project Aftermath: Ever play Cannon Fodder? It’s a classic top-down army game where you send little squads of dudes through jungles and enemy forces. This title ramps that style up a little bit but keeps the whole squad-based concept simple. Immediately satisfying, and it appears to be the deepest game of the PAX 10.

Polarity: Apparently, three entrants for the competition made games about magnetism. This one’s the best of the three—a side-scroller in which you have to switch between (+) and (-) magnetism to bounce around and wander through the world. The few puzzles showcased here are promising; not sure if the full game keeps it up, though.

The Amazing Brain Train: Really great edutainment. Not for me, but the 15 mini-games in this are perfect for kids and nicely made.

There are five other games in the PAX 10. Someone else on the Internet will bother to describe them, I’m sure.

This convention center is absolutely packed. I think I’m going to need a few hours to really grasp the sheer audience growth since last year’s fest. So far, though, the crowd is having a blast nerding out and being incredibly friendly about it.

As far as the big-name games, my brain is already mush, so I’m going to bullet-point this coverage. This stuff is more for the hardcore gamers, but I’ll try to be brief.

Gears of War 2: For this demo, people could only do multiplayer fights in a “king of the hill” mode. When I asked a Microsoft rep next to me for some info on new twists in the game, he merely told me to move my character to “the hill” to win. Thanks, dude. This feels exactly the same as GOW1, but I only got five minutes with it. I skipped the rest of the Microsoft demos for now.

Nintendo’s booth: Wii Music is fucking embarrassing. You strum your stupid remote in the air to the rhythm, and the resulting MIDI music is pretty much punishment for engaging in this foolish activity. I hope someone breaks the demo rigs for this game to save everyone the pain.

But I had fun with other Nintendo titles—I’ve already played through Rhythm Heaven, Nintendo’s music game for the DS, and this American translation didn’t dilute the original Japanese verion’s oddity, so that bodes well. There’s a Sonic the Hedgehog RPG coming for the DS as well, and its developers at Bioware showed me a surprisingly decent demo. I thought this game was going to be a childish beating, but so far, it’s tolerably cute and has Bioware’s trademark dialogue polish.

Oh, and there’s a Jamie Oliver cooking game coming for the DS. Dunno if the game comes with its own goddamned garden or not.

Sony: Resistance 2 is not a Halo killer. I don’t mean to say the PS3 first-person shooter sets itself apart from the other big boys; I mean to say that it is the exact opposite of fun. However, LittleBigPlanet looks so unbelievably fun. It may not be worth shelling out $400 for a new gaming system, but its simplicity, design, looks, and personality are definitely making my wallet whimper.

I didn’t see any PSPs on the showroom floor. Maybe they’re still loading.

Legendary: This Xbox 360 first-person shooter doesn’t reinvent any wheels. You have guns. You shoot at humans and beasts. But boy, does it feel satisfying. If you are attending PAX, do yourself a favor and shack up at this booth for a while. It’s in the back and was severely undernoticed this morning.

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe: Hey, Jonah—rent, don’t buy. The severity and oomph are as good as I’d expected from this ridiculous fighting game, but the controls are rigid. Unless Midway’s got some last-minute polish coming, I can’t imagine playing this for more than three days.

I will post photos after I get some damned food.

10:30 a.m.: Already this early in the morning, gamers have turned the Convention Center into their sanctuary. Every corner and wall at PAX08 has folks lining up for speeches, waiting to try unreleased titles, or even sacking out in beanbags—but even now, before the action officially begins, these people are playing something. DS. PSP. Deck of Magic cards. I haven’t seen any elaborate German board games yet, but a PAX competition for the niche passion is scheduled for the afternoon. Yes, it’s that kind of show.


As much as I wanted to sack out with the crowd, I had to rush to the PAX 10 panel. This is possibly the best part of the Expo—a contest run by Penny Arcade’s creators and peers to pick out the best current indie video game. That means one man’s basement hobby will soon have prizes and accolades to carry into taking on the relative boredom of retail gaming (or at least having first dibs on Booth Babes).

Early morning panel, and the gaming bloggers asking questions hadn’t sipped their Bawls yet, so it wasn’t too exciting. But the contestants shared complaints about Microsoft’s Xbox Live certification process for small developers (“I see why they have to have it, but I also see how it bites people in the ass”) and hopes that even if each game doesn’t win, the makers will still benefit. Not just the press; the one-man dev team behind the game Sushi Bar Samurai has set his demo PCs to record every single thing PAX attendees do when they play. Where’d they get stuck? Where’d they take too long? I bet that guy can’t wait until next week to comb through… metrics.

I’m heading to the main exhibition hall for two hours of game time before the rest of the attendees get their shot. I have gotten an explicit request to try the forthcoming Gears of War 2. Through tears of pain and hard labor, I grudgingly oblige.

RSS icon Comments


3 hours 15 minutes till i'm there!

Posted by Bellevue Ave | August 29, 2008 11:58 AM

I read that at least 50,000 people are expected to attend this year. Sounds like PAX is turning into a pretty decent convention for Seattle.

Posted by pragmatic | August 29, 2008 12:29 PM

why is this the top post on a newsfilled/somewhat historical day?

Posted by michael strangeways | August 29, 2008 1:09 PM

@3 Because video games are more interesting than politics.

Posted by N | August 29, 2008 1:11 PM

@3 Michael Strageways

Maybe because everyone and their uncle is covering the same damn thing (including The Stranger), while PAX is an important local story. On of the more unusual things about the Slog is that it has a regional identity.

Posted by John Galt | August 29, 2008 1:26 PM

@3 Michael Strageways

Maybe because everyone and their uncle is covering the same damn thing (including The Stranger), while PAX is an important local story. On of the more unusual things about the Slog is that it has a regional identity.

Posted by John Galt | August 29, 2008 1:27 PM

Was The Conduit up and running at the Wii booth yet? If so, how was it?

Posted by stinkbug | August 29, 2008 3:49 PM

A Sonic RPG makes me gleeful.

Posted by Abby | August 29, 2008 3:55 PM

FWIW, the Project Aftermath link is incorrect. The URL is:

Looks pretty sweet, too.

Posted by Chris B | August 29, 2008 3:55 PM

Post what's important: pictures of nerds in costumes.

Posted by Jessica | August 29, 2008 4:12 PM

@7: I actually got so hungry, I logged out before typing my thoughts out on that. Will update with thoughts on it... so far, I'm decidedly mixed.

Posted by Sam M. | August 29, 2008 4:54 PM

You know, this keeps up with the annual year over year growth, and PAX is going to be the new San Diego Comic Con.

The more it grows the more the press will cover it, and it will like San Diego turn into a positive feedback loop. Five years from now or less, we'll have 100,000+ people descending on Seattle for gaming goodness each summer.

Posted by Joe | August 29, 2008 8:56 PM

Hey the man behind this wanted me to go ahead and promote my own 'coverage' of PAX 08.

Hopefully if you like this, you'll enjoy my work too.

Posted by Drew Kuminski | August 29, 2008 11:03 PM

My boyfriend's STILL at pax.
Could someone tell him to come home?

Posted by horny | August 29, 2008 11:28 PM

ummmm...ok so i cook for real (as do thousands of people in this city do), and that jamie oliver DS game?

steaming. pile. of. shit.

thats all for now

Posted by St. Davus | August 30, 2008 4:54 AM

Ken Levine's speech was great with the exception of blaming women for the downfall of his D&D group. Oh, you lost your friends because they were spending all their time with their girlfriends? Well join the club. I've lost both male and female friends to new relationships. During a new relationship all they want to do is fuck, and they can't do that when you're around.

Also, I'm sure that the women didn't realize they were being treated differently when they played D&D. If they'd never played before, why would they? It's not our fault that some men turn into quivering idiots in our presence.

I had a boyfriend that got me into playing D&D in high school, and after we broke up I kept playing. My high school RPG club (Feudal Endeavors) didn't think I or any other women that joined ruined their group. We just made it more fun.

The Women in the Gaming Industry panel was also scheduled at the same time as the keynote speech, so a lot of women had to choose between them. I'd already seen the Women in the Gaming Industry panel 2 years ago at PAX, but there were a lot of first timers this year that were torn between the two. There were a lot of women at PAX, and when I asked them what brought them there, they all had the same response - "video games." Female gamers are no longer the exception, but when the media covers events like E3 the only women they show are the booth babes. (By the way, Gabe and Tycho were not pleased that some companies used booth babes this year and are going to reinforce the policy with the exhibitors.)

Posted by ay1ene | September 1, 2008 2:00 PM

@16: I asked Jerry and Mike directly about the booth babe surprise; they'd previously told me booth babes were forbidden from PAX, yet they showed up this year. Mike and Jerry were fucking pissed. Way to go, Saints Row 2...

Posted by Sam M. | September 1, 2008 7:50 PM

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