Originally published September 17, 2009 on Game and Player.
When August rolls around I tend to get excited for reasons that even my own family finds strange, and that is saying something. It is usually later, in that brief moment before the Penny Arcade Expo, that I experience sudden outbursts of giggling just at the thought that in a few days I will be in Seattle and experiencing the ultimate gaming festival in North America.
I wrote many drafts for this article, and I should say that when you have gone to this convention for many years, it becomes difficult to stand outside the experience and recount it for what it is in total. It has become a part of my life that I cannot do without, so how do I put that kind of experience into terms for someone else without sounding completely nuts?
Nestled deeply within every part of this show is something you won’t find anywhere else — camaraderie. In the time I have spent attending the Penny Arcade Expo, I have learned that there are certain folks that are open to the experience as a first-timer. But you don’t have to be a certain type of gamer to enjoy yourself at PAX. Between panels, concerts and the exhibition hall, it is certainly capable of pleasing any fan of conventions and/or games. But nestled deeply within every part of this show is something you won’t find anywhere else — camaraderie.
As you enter the lobby, you find the frills of a downtown mall complete with shops, cafes and even a pleasant fountain. On any ordinary day, you might expect the place to be somewhat quiet, but during the Penny Arcade Expo it is transformed into an unearthly gateway to LAN party heaven. Young adults clothed in the latest T-shirt fads stand and sit where space will allow them, either enjoying a quick snack during a break between panels or just chatting with friends.
In PAX 10, ten independent games are selected by a panel of judges — the Disneyland of games. The low din of the lobby is just enough to feed the excitement as you walk towards that enormous escalator. It tirelessly carries PAX goers up to the main level that houses the Exhibition Hall, Main Theater and Band Land. This floor tends to be where most attendees spend their time — especially in the great Queue Room, a large, empty space specifically designed to hold lines for the headlining panels and concerts. This year the Queue Room featured Get In Line Games, which provides plenty of trivia and silliness to entertain the unfortunate ones who showed up without a Nintendo DS.
As I was fed through the main doors and into the independent games area, my eyes opened wide and I felt the butterflies forming. I quickly scanned the room, immediately noticing the TMNT bus and then the giant PAX 10 banner that was hung in the very center of the room. The PAX 10 is technically new, but definitely a necessary fixture. Ten independent games are selected by a panel of judges to share in the spotlight at the Penny Arcade Expo, and here they were surrounded by some very big names in independent game development. Hothead Games, Twisted Pixel, and The Behemoth — it was Disneyland of indie games.
PAX is all pleasure, not an ounce of business. As I made my way over the Skybridge, which is basically a giant room that connects two sides of the convention center, I couldn’t help but notice Astro Gaming, whose booth was smack in the middle of the bridge. In their booth they demoed their A40 headsets along with the Mythic maps for Halo 3, which I admired briefly as I was then very suddenly accosted with discs for free games by two ladies.
And so into the Exhibition Hall I wandered, expecting to see most of what I saw at the Electronics Entertainment Expo. And I did, except it had that special PAX twist. Nearly every game of interest to any gamer out there was physically playable, just like at E3, but at PAX you could see that these folks had been waiting months to play and they enjoyed this moment to its fullest. PAX is all pleasure, not an ounce of business.
So what if we lost the game? Everyone watching chuckled just the same, extremely eager to get in on the action. Many games that I found to be the highlight of PAX were Left 4 Dead 2, Scribblenauts, Jumpgate Evolution, Diablo III, and Star Craft II. In fact I must say my favorite gaming moment was when all but one teammate had been downed in Left 4 Dead 2. The one standing was beginning to revive me when I saw, not very far off in the distance, a new zombie type — the Charger — heading straight for us. I screamed, “No, get the Charger!” only to watch with horror as they ignored it. We found ourselves quite dead, but laughing extremely hard. So what if we didn’t last? Everyone watching chuckled just the same, extremely eager to get in on the action. Just knowing for that small moment that we were all brought together by this tragic, but unavoidable experience warmed my heart in ways nothing else can.
And that is really the best way I can describe what I love the most about PAX. Generally speaking, everyone is there for the same reason you are, to celebrate a particular level of fanaticism for gaming. And everyone just shows up to be therebecause they know there will always be these special moments to share with friends and strangers alike. It is really quite beautiful.
The pain arching up my legs is well worth watching the audience Rickroll JoCo. One other event that stands out in my mind is from the Saturday evening concert. Every year I stand for several hours with my concert buddy while we dance and sing to Freezepop, Paul and Storm, and then finally Jonathan Coulton. The pain arching up my legs is well worth watching the audience Rickroll JoCo or hear his song “My Monkey” but with those words replaced with “Wil Wheaton.”
To say that Jonathan Coulton belongs at PAX is really an understatement. Everyone knew from his first performance that he was meant to be held up in the ranks of the other PAX celebrities. He is like the fifth element in a world of nerdity, whose balance is kept in check by the other elements: Tycho, Gabe, Wil, and MC Frontalot.
At PAX, there will always be those special moments that geeks around the world will speak of for years to come, and to witness this hilarity in person makes you realize that these guys are a bunch of nerds, just like us. From Wil Wheaton, Secretary of Geek Affairs, presenting Jonathan Coulton with the Presidential d20 of Geekdom, to MC Frontalot getting in line to ask Wil a question during his panel, or even just sitting in a QA panel and watching Gabe smell a perfumed business card for 10 minutes while Tycho discusses coffee pressing tips with an attendee, it is hard to just pass this event off as just another convention or the next E3.
PAX is what it is, and people gravitate to it for the same reason — to be all we can be, as gamers and nerds alike, and embracing what makes our culture so unique without fear of judgment or ridicule. That is why PAX is our home away from home.