A Rambling Post About PAX East 2013

Each step further away from the Boston Convention and Expo Center feels like another mile closer to the real world. I can feel that same old sensation growing in my chest as the crowd of geeks around begins to thin and dissipate into the greater Boston area; it is a sense that echoes something close to bereavement. Later, sitting at Boston South Station is an eerie scene as geeks, subdued and quiet, huddle at tables or on the floor each group isolated and alone as if with the closing of another PAX East they lack the willingness to look around a meet the gazes of their compatriots; perhaps  they are afraid to see the loss mirrored there.

As usually it takes me a solid 24 hours before I can turn around and confront the memories of the past weekend. Three days of nerd heaven full of laughs, games, music, and all around good times. PAX (in its Eastern incarnation) is something quite special, yes I’m romanticizing a little bit here, but there is something about the sense of community, as Cliffy B. noted during his “storytime,” that allows us to revel in who we are in a way that the rest of the world never seems to understand. That is what PAX (and any conventions one chooses to attend for any slice of fandom you can name) is all about: an unburdening from the concerns of the outside world.

Mike, Jerry, Khoo and their army of Enforcers have this convention down to as close to a science as one can. While PAX lacks the grassroots charm (and occasional grunginess) of Magfest its organization never seems to impede on the sense of community and fun; like a good game PAX’s rules and organization aid play rather than hinder it. This, being my fifth PAX (Seattle in 2007-2008 and Boston in 2010-2011), I changed things up a little bit attending fewer panels in the whole and trying to get a better sampling of the Expo Hall and Tabletop areas.

Friday’s Storytime with Cliffy B was a nice change, intimate if a bit rambling but notable in that Cliffy B’s personal story is sort of a microcosm of each attendee there. I saw more than a few people, myself and my friends included, nodding at Cliff’s recollections of growing up and his experiences with games of all varieties. Storytime sequed into the first of the weekend’s Q and A sessions with Mike and Jerry, creators of Penny Arcade. As usually both were funny and seemed genuinely interested in being up on stage and talking to fans. Jerry was the harder read since he was wearing a Fruit Fucker costume as part of a stretch goal from Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter last year. As the afternoon wore on I spend some considerable time on Expo floor in the rather substantial indie games section starting with the PAX East Indie Showcase titles.  I got to play some but not all. Little Chomp is sort of like a combination of Angry Birds and a platformer in which you must fling a caterpillar through an obstacle course to collect fruit and butterflies.  Major Magnet is a physics platformer that borrows a bit from sonic but was both addictive and enjoyable. Saturday Morning RPG was the most difficult to get a grip on as the demo was from the multiplayer section of the game.  It borrows a bit from the JRPG genre but tugs on the nostalgia strings of 80s and 90s cartoons to fuel your attacks and powers. I missed Time Surfer (which my friend described as impossible), Spaceteam (more on this later), and Third Eye Crime (looks really neat and is a pathfinding puzzle game about a telepathic art thief).

The Friday night concerts were mostly a blast. Opening act Video Game Orchestra once again put on a stellar show (again only utilizing a small group of musicians) complete with could only be described as a guitar solo circle jerk:

I was excited to see Those Who Fight on stage again, but their set was dampened (or perhaps over-amplified) by poor sound levels.  The Protomen closed the night. The highlight of the Protos set was seeing two of my friends, having never heard the band, really get a kick out of frontman Raul Panther III and the band’s operatic, 70s-tastic vibe.

Saturday started out with some solid gaming where me and my friends played some D&D Next (which I’ve played before). Low-level PCs still feel a bit overpowered to start but the ease and simplicity of the system makes it a synch to pick up and play. There is still tons of work to be done but at its core there is a pretty tight system in place. A friend of mine also picked up Dungeon! While at the con and we all had an 8 player game of that which was pretty entertaining. I also got a chance to stop by the Jamspace on Saturday. It’s a bit surreal as stepping off the convention center floor and into the Jamspace feels a bit like I’m stepping out of PAX and into Magfest. I had wanted to catch Armcannon’s set there but the Jamspace shows were running a bit late and I only got to see Lords of Thunder. Lords of Thunder plays some pretty hardcore video game metal but tends to take the less travelled route by choosing games less covered by other bands like the titular Lords of Thunder, Twisted Metal 2, Doom, and Lufia.

The Saturday night concerts were huge featuring new guy Sam Hart, MC Frontalot, Jonathan Coulton, and closing act Paul and Storm. Sam Hart was a lot better than I expected. There was some debate amongst friends as to whether he was ironic or serious; I feel like the former but you should go have a listen and decide for yourself.

Front put on a great show as usual and while I still miss Gaby/GMinor7, Vic-20 is a damned fine replacement. The highlight of Front’s set was definitely the new remix of Goth Girls which might be better than the original.  Jonathan Coulton was spectacular as usual and his band, and his skill with the guitar, has been getting better and better the more he plays. Paul and Storm (or Storm and Paul depending on when in the performance you asked) closed the night. This was another great show by these two and their ability to stay light on their feet and interact with the audience is their greatest asset as a live action. I regret not getting to hear any Randy Newman bits but ending the night with The Captain’s Wife’s Lament is about as perfect as you can get.

Sunday our group of eight was down to 8 as me and my friend Rick decided to take the redeye train back from Boston. We spent some considerable time on the Expo Floor in the morning. I seriously enjoyed PWN: Combat Hacking for iPad, it feels sort of like a stripped down version of the hacking mini-game from Deus Ex: Human Revolution blended into a fighting game, addictive and entertaining and easily worth the $1.99 I dropped in the App store. Sunday flew by at lightning speed and before long we were standing near the main stage once more for the final round of the Omegathon. The game chosen this time was Indie Showcase darling Spaceteam. Imagine if someone took the frantic mini-games of Wario Ware and applied them to a touch screen, now imagine if Wario Ware were cooperative and the only way you knew which game to play was if the person standing next you were shouting it. With four players franticly racing the clock and shouting out commands to one another Spaceteam looked like an absolute blast. Unfortunately the seeming presence of multiple devices emitting wifi, cellular data, and Bluetooth signals made the competition a bit difficult as the game crashed or lost connection between players countless times. After a valiant attempt by the Omeganauts (complete in space jumpsuits) and the members of the Penny Arcade team drafted onto their side the competition was called a draw and it was decided that both teams of Omeganauts were winners!

And like that PAX East 2013 was over. As streamers and confetti exploded from the stage we made our way out and into the harsh cold of a Boston “spring.” It was, as usual, a great time. As usual, I felt like only had the barest sampling of the PAX experience. I look forward to whenever I get to go again (I think the plan might be to go every other year) and will definitely miss it while I’m gone. Goodbye PAX, see you when I see you!

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