Notes from PAX Prime 2011

Kevin Nguyen and Nick Martens explore this year’s Penny Arcade Expo, the country’s biggest videogame convention, and find droids, dweebs, and ineffective armor.

My first thought is, “What the fuck is Firefall?” Entering the Seattle Convention Center, one would think that PAX was showcasing a single game. And even though the name Firefall is branded everywhere, I keep accidentally referring to it as some combination of “Fireball” and “Fallout.”

It just goes to show that there’s no amount of marketing money that could make me care about this game, but god knows the Firefall folks will try anyway. The escalators are lined with Firefall ads, a huge Firefall banner sweeps across the third-floor entrance, and even outside the Convention Center, streets are lined with Firefall flags; in the exhibition hall, Firefall has the largest and most elaborate booth (complete with fog machines), and outside the hall, whatever the hell this is:

Photo by Nick Lynch-Jonely

Photo by Nick Lynch-Jonely

I was overwhelmed by Firefox Firefall marketing to the point of apathy. I still couldn’t tell you much about the game. It looks futuristic, there are guns, and sexy soldier women only need armor to cover their right leg. —KN

PAX coaxes a diverse ecology of dweebs, dorks, and other nerds out from the substrata of social isolation they normally inhabit. Among the least likely to possess energetic, extroverted personalities are the players of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games — merely being present amongst a convention’s surging sea of humanity is challenge enough for them.

So, the film crew could have chosen a better target to ambush. Four gamers, adorned in various intensities of geek couture, stand facing a flat-screen, playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, an upcoming MMORPG. From behind them sounds a billowing voice, brimming with phony enthusiasm:

“Who’s playing some games!?”

The gamers turn and freeze. They’re likely too smart to comprehend such a dumb question, but a pair of them answers in the only appropriate way.

“Woooooo!” their mouths say, but their eyes speak only panic.

The interviewer carries on, apparently pleased by the direction of the conversation. Judging by the expressions of the four nerds with lights and cameras in their faces, he’s the only one. —NM

On the second floor are tabletop game rooms, quiet areas reserved for people to play boardgames. There’s an impressive library where you can check out board games for free, as long as you return them by 1:30 a.m. We try a couple new games.

I realize that playing a board game is a much-needed break from being overstimulated by, well, all of PAX. In the tabletop game rooms, there are no TVs, no music, no flashing lights, no cosplay, no advertisements, no Firefall statues — just nerds, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company. —KN

Photo by Shawn McClung

Photo by Shawn McClung

Near the end of the day — with my wits fried; legs sore; and cynicism for the ultra-corporate, lowest-common-denominator pandering that pervades the show at a record high — something unexpected happens. A promotion for a game makes me turn my head, stop, and smile.

C-3PO and R2-D2 are standing at an intersection near the Microsoft booth. Not only do their costumes look perfect, but the actor in the 3PO suit knows his moves. With his knees locked straight and elbows at right angles, he twists at the hip and jerks his head back and forth — a perfect imitation of the droid’s panic-stricken mannerisms. (R2 doesn’t do much because he is almost certainly empty, but then, he doesn’t need to.)

A woman from the crowd approaches for a picture. She throws her arms around 3PO and goes in for a kiss. He jerks his head back, flails his arms out, and deadpans for the camera.

I laugh. I can’t help myself. Neither can anyone in the crowd gathered around the scene. The reaction is as warm and genuine, devoid of the sarcastic snipes fired from the fringes that you’d get from other groups gawking at such spectacles. Because, to our naive and childish delight, we are interacting with the most delightful characters from the singular cultural object that lies at the heart of the greater cultural movement for which PAX is a beacon. Star Wars is as close to a bible as we nerds have, and we’re witnessing a pair of apostles in the flesh. We are powerless to resist. —NM

I get a text from my friend Maré about a Minecraft after-party:

Hey dude! There’s some Minecraft thing tonight at a club called Trinity?? It’s a club. Could be weird.

About ten minutes later:

Oh it’s terrrrible. Don’t come here.

Later, Maré explains by tweet:

We tried to get into a Minecraft party. VIP list or $50 cover (couldn’t get in). Now at a bar with $2 PBR.


Photo by Shawn McClung

Photo by Shawn McClung

I’m at PAX for one reason: Spelunky. After sinking dozens of hours into the treasure hunting, retro-styled action platformer this year, its rigorous, unforgiving mechanics convinced me that it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. Its creator, Derek Yu, is currently at work on a new version for the Xbox, which he’s demoing at the show.

Yu’s booth sits at the far end of the exhibit hall, but that doesn’t stop me from dragging five people who have never heard of Spelunky back there the second we set foot inside the convention center. I try out the game, which makes me happy, but only on co-op with two people who have never played the original. Even though they’re my friends and their mere presence at the booth is indulging me more than I deserve, the experience is… slightly frustrating. We hand the controllers over before I’m satisfied, and I leave half my mind behind as we walk away. The rest of the day, all I really want to do is go back for more.

So, when the day wanes and the rest of my group occupies themselves at the Nintendo exhibit, I sneak off.

When I return to the Spelunky booth, I only have to wait for a minute or two to get what I want: an open station with no one behind me in line. I dive into the game and revel in it — jumping, climbing, and throwing bombs like a kid with an overactive imagination in a jungle gym. My old habits start to adapt to the new game, and I’m working on my first good run of the day when Derek Yu asks me if I want to play with him.

He looks at me, he and two others crowded around the booth’s second screen with controllers in their hands.


I hadn’t played the deathmatch mode yet. I choose a character (a purple pirate), the game deposits us in a level, and the countdown begins.

Shit, I think. Somehow, at a videogame convention, I worry about looking uncool.

Chaos fills the stage and two characters die before I can even orient myself. Then I realize the guy who made the game is hunting me with a shotgun. But he drops it for a different weapon, presumably to obliterate me in a more interesting way. I grab the shotgun, he freezes me into a block of ice, but before he finishes me off, the ghost of a dead player blows on Derek’s character, giving me enough time to thaw myself. (I should mention here that deathmatch mode is exactly as awesome as it sounds.)

I pull the trigger and win the round. The game cuts to a score screen, and my purple pirate rises one notch above the rest.

Derek goes on to win the whole match, but still. —NM