PAX East, a three-day-long festival of everything game related, returned to Boston for the third time, this year at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC). PAX is a gaming convention started by webcomic Penny Arcade (PA) founders Mike Krahulik (known as “Gabe” in his comic alter-ego) and Jerry Holkins (“Tycho”) in 2004. The show is meant to cater to gamers of all types — handheld, console, PC, and table top. Originally held in Seattle, PAX has also come to Boston for the past three years in the form of “PAX East”, and recently booked the annual event at BCEC until 2023.
The center piece of the show is the giant exhibition hall, which has hundreds of developers from around the country, ranging from the behemoth Xbox booth to the small Boston Indie Showcase with games from local developers. The exhibition hall was always flooded with people, and the constant bustle to it all is really what gives PAX so much of its energy. Besides the show floor, there was a variety of console free-play rooms, classic arcade games, and tournaments, along with a number of panels and workshops for con-goers to attend.
With the massive amount of events going on, one of the extremely useful things that helped us get navigate the weekend was a handy app called “guidebook,” the official app of PAX East. The app included the panel list for the entire show and the ability to build your own schedule (with notifications!), and also included maps, an FAQ, and a twitter feed of everything #PAX, along with an assortment of other PAX specific options. The result was incredibly helpful — while wandering around the convention floor, a 30 minute reminder to go to a panel is valuable.
One of the really great things about PAX is the incredible sense of community that pervades the entire weekend. The ads for the con often show a gamer with the caption “Come Home” — and it truly feels that way. People are very friendly throughout the entire show; willing to help you take a photo, give directions, compliment your costume or video-game-related T-shirt, or just chat affably with you in an hour-long line. This communal sense really comes through during the large panels, and especially things like the keynote address, the Q&A’s with Tycho and Gabe, and the concerts, which were all highlights of the show.
The keynote address
PAX opened with a keynote address by the creator of the hit game series Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner. Mechner told the audience of his introduction to the gaming world, and his rise from a kid who liked playing video games in arcades to programming them and eventually striking a deal with Jerry Bruckheimer, ending with one of his games being adapted for the big screen (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time).
He spoke of his relationship with his Apple II computer, for which he saved up for years and was the first computer he ever programmed with. Though he created games for years, his “moment of clarity” didn’t come until he realized that a game could tell a story, he said. Once he realized that video games didn’t have to just be about racking up more points than the previous person, he conceived an idea for a different type of game. His first breakthrough came in 1984 with Karateka — a karate sidescroller where the main character is trying to save a princess. After this project, he worked singly on Prince of Persia for three years, which he initially intended as a pure platformer.
But when the game was finished, there was something missing. Others told him it needed enemies to be interesting. Yet his computer lacked the memory (he had only 48 kb available) to actually render enemies due to the complexity of the basic platformer. Instead, he rehashed the careful animations of the Prince and made them black to create the shadow prince — one of the most memorable parts of the entire game.
“The reason I did it was because I had no memory,” Mechner said. “Technical constraints make us creative,” he explained, “It’s amazing what people can do with strict forms.”
Indeed, it seemed that this provided a theme for the rest of the show. The attendees were reminded by everyone from Mechner to the chiptune panelists to the indie developers of the importance of working with what you’re given, and making the best of what you have.
Q&A panels with Gabe and Tycho
Krahulik (“Gabe”) and Holkins (“Tycho”) host two Q&A panels every PAX, one on Friday and one on Sunday, where the two creators just take questions from the audience. Historically, these panels have been one of my favorite events — not only because they are hysterical, but because they really emphasize the community feel that links the entire show together. Everyone laughs at the same jokes that have appeared in the comic strip for the past year as well as bond over the number of very touching stories that come out of attendees thanking the two authors for their charity, Child’s Play, which works to distribute video games to children in hospitals.
“We offer a hug delivery service,” Tycho said to an emotional fan after she relayed a story about how helpful Child’s Play is.
Krahulik also took the opportunity to announce that Child’s Play is expanding to cover women’s shelters as well as hospitals.
“They are children’s shelters as well,” he explained.
Midway through the first Q&A, a man approached the microphone and began to recite a poem — a marriage proposal!
“Oh shit, it just got real,” exclaimed Holkins, as he realized what was happening. As the poem finished, the audience erupted into cheers, and the fan rushed happily back to his seat with the well wishes of nearly 3,000 people.
The chemistry between the two creators is truly hilarious. When one fan asked if the two would consider bringing back the Penny Arcade podcast, which stopped last year, Holkins said yes. Krahulik had immediately said no, and looked at Holkins in surprise.
“We need to talk about a page, and being on the same one,” Krahulik said firmly.
During the first Q&A, a group of pranksters presented each of the two creators with a sealed potato, and required the creators to carry for the rest of the show as a safety monitoring device, a joke referencing Valve’s bestselling first-person puzzler Portal 2.
“Son of a bitch, I have to wear this potato all weekend,” complained Holkins. The two creators did in fact wear their potatoes the entire show, and the pranksters returned to the Q&A on Sunday to inform them that their safety was indeed secure, at least for the next 12.5 minutes.
“Remember, your safety is our second priority,” they assured sweetly.
When asked how the two reconcile being an adult while still playing so many video games, Krahulik explained that it was not unusual — what constitutes playing and a game has just changed from the traditional definition. A father 60 years ago may have played catch with his son, or chess, but the game of the day today is electronic.
“That phase is over,” Holkins added, “when you put toys away and weep into a glass of room temperature liquor” for most of your middle age.
At a media-only panel with the creators on Sunday morning, Holkins mentioned that PAX has become “an annual affair now, outside of our control.”
The two expressed their desire to one day just be an attendee at PAX, and not have to worry about any of the administrative details. This is the show they want to go to, they explained, and it would be nice to one day just enjoy it.
When asked what distinguishes PAX from other conventions and what enhances the community feel, the co-creators mentioned the focus on merchandise at other shows can be distracting.
“The shopping aspect exists” at PAX, Holkins said, “but it’s not the focus.” While the existence of a dealer room can be cool, it will “alter the show culturally.”
In addition, they spoke about that it is like to be a figure on the internet, and how they take their roles in the gaming community.
Krahulik spoke about his frustration that when he says on the blog that he enjoys certain games, he is accused of being paid by the company to say so. Just because you like a game by a big company, he said, doesn’t mean they have you in their pocket.
“I spent 10 years shitting in EA’s mouth,” Holkins added, which makes the accusations even more ridiculous.
“My first job is to tell people about video games,” Krahulik said, explaining that the he takes this very seriously — even when it means potentially hurting friends on a development team by recommending against their game.
During the panel Holkins also expounded on the amount of writing he is doing for PA’s third video game, which Krahulik is no longer participating in. Holkins is writing the story for the entire game.
“A video game is a pop culture product you can write for,” he said. In the mid 20th century, he said, writers would do comic books since that was the newest medium for expression. Video games are similar, he said, they are like a “modern comic, in exactly the same way,” in that you can write for one of the newest mediums of expression.
Despite this being my third PAX, it was my first time attending the Friday and Saturday night concerts. On Friday night we stayed only long enough for the first two acts — the rap and chiptunes group Supercommuter, and the rock group Minibosses, which covers popular video game tunes. After them was Metroid Metal, a rock band that covers songs from Nintendo’s Metroid series (and whose guitarist later ran the chiptunes panel) and Protomen, a rock band that focuses largely on the Mega Man.
On Saturday night, we were in line over an hour early for the 8:30 p.m. concerts. The queue looped around the convention center, hugging the walls; the enforcers (the people who volunteer to run the show) had us crowding against the corners in a giant, organized mob. Every few minutes random bursts of song exploded from the people around us and was quickly taken up by the surrounding crowd in line — selections ranged from “Sweet Caroline” to “Stand by Me” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
When we finally reached the concert, it was packed. The main theater holds around 3,000 people, and every inch of the venue was crammed.
The evening opened with the Video Game Orchestra (VGO), a group that has been featured at Anime Boston and PAX in recent years that creates contemporary arrangements of video game music. They played a number of pieces from games including Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Street Fighter, and F-Zero. One highlight was the Super Mario theme played by a solo flautist who was simultaneously beatboxing. VGO also had a surprise guest performance by Jonathan Coulton, the composer of the famous Portal ending song “Still Alive,” which had the entire audience singing along.
VGO was followed by comedy music duo Paul and Storm, who opened their act asking if there were any nerds out in the audience.
“We are going to pander the shit out of you,” they said to cheers, and immediately proceeded to open with a song bemoaning the slow output of popular fantasy writer George R. R. Martin, of A Game of Thrones fame. The piece also included a brief a capella version of the HBO show’s theme. A couple funny songs, and a brief parody Ted Talk later about how humor is just walking the line of funny vs. tastelessness, Paul got a text from Wil Wheaton with an ASCII penis that he shared with the audience. He then encouraged the entire crowd to tweet some variant of 3===D @wilwheaton. A moment later, Wheaton’s twitter was flooded, and the audience roared in approval.
The acclaimed Portal composer Jonathan Coulton was definitely the climax of the concert — from his second rendition of “Still Alive” to a number of his other works, he had the entire audience gleefully singing along. For his performance of “Re: Your Brains,” a song from Left4Dead 2, he had the audience sing “all we want to do is eat your brains” while pretending to be a zombie. Coulton started his performance with a zendrum, a MIDI-controller percussion instrument, and a song about a pants. Coulton also played other fan favorites, from “Want You Gone” (from Portal 2) to “Code Monkey,” and left the stage to rousing applause.
Most of the audience left after Coulton ended his performance close to midnight, when nerd rapper MC Frontalot took the stage. Frontalot, who is a self-proclaimed nerdcore rapper — the first in the world — has performed at almost every PAX since 2004. Unfortunately, we were unable to stay for his entire performance due to the insane exhaustion we were feeling from the day’s activities.
Each PAX, a momentous competition is held — the Omegathon. A multi-stage tournament with a group of randomly selected attendees each placed in pairs, players must compete in a variety of different games to win. PAX East 2012 featured X-men as the first round, Zip-It for the second, and Dance Central 2 for the third. With Holkin’s narration for each of the events, it made the competition truly a spectacle worth watching.
As is tradition, the final round of the Omegathon made up the closing ceremonies of PAX East. In early March, Gabe left the PA blogs with one hint as to the mysterious final round.
“We had custom equipment built,” he wrote, “Chew on that for a bit.”
So what was it?
Created in Canada in the late 1800s, Crokinole is a tabletop game similar to shuffleboard, in which players flick small wooden discs into discrete point regions. Two teams of two play each other, with teammates sitting across the board, and players can attempt to knock the opposing teams’ pieces off the board.
Initially, the game did not seem like it would captivate nearly 3,000 people in a crowded room on a Sunday night. But after the demo with the two creators playing along with two of the PA team and the first few minutes of the real Omegathon, something changed.
With the coupling of Holkin’s hilarious narration with the energy in the crowd, crokinole went from a simple board game to an intense spectator sport. For nearly two hours, the entire audience was captivated. Cries of “PORK BUNNSSSS” (the handle of one of the players) resounded throughout the hall, and every move and flick was met with cries, boos, or cheers.
This final round of the Omegathon was the moment in which I most felt the coming together of the nerd subculture. During a quiet, intense moment when an “omeganaut” was about to take a nearly impossible looking shot, a single voice from the crowd cried “He’s turned off his targeting system!” and the entire audience (including Krahulik and Holkins) laughed at the reference. Similar moments peppered the entire evening; I almost felt as if my nerd knowledge was being put to the test.
The game was intense, and over 30 minutes after the event was supposed to end, two omeganuts emerged victorious — earning a free trip to Germany for Gamescom.
It was then that we left PAX, exhausted, but exhilarated. Filing out of the BCEC with thousands of other attendees, all I could think of was how long it would be until the next PAX East.
When I got home, ready to pass out from the epicness of the weekend, I noticed that on the PA site, Holkins wrote, “Before I collapse, I want to thank the Enforcers, without whom the show could not exist, and the attendees, both for their attendance, and for making the Omegathon’s final round — Crokinole, for God’s sake, literally a piece of fucking wood — a true spectacle.”