Saturday, April 3, 2010

PAX East Recap - Part 2

[Continued from Part 1]

Sleeping in was about the only thing that went according to plan on Friday.

Maybe I exaggerate a little, but it certainly felt that way for a while. For my part, getting ready for the convention was easy: get dressed in civilian clothes, pretend like I'm Guybrush Threepwood and cram as many useful items into my cargo pants as possible, eat a food, walk out the door, and shower. In that order.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, brought a costume. PAX East is a convention, you see, and any excuse for her to whip up a costume is a good one. Unlike Halloween costumes, convention costumes have a tendency to be unbearably hot, awkward to walk around in, and obviously out-of-place anywhere other than in the convention center or on the stage of a Boy George concert; furthermore, people will stop you every five feet if you're wearing a particularly-well designed costume and/or are cosplaying as someone or something well-loved, such as a Game Boy, a DDR pad, or the Weighted Companion Cube from Portal.

In short, wearing a costume is almost guaranteed to make a significant impact on your convention experience. In this case, my girlfriend's costume affected both her and me: the costume effectively rendered her mostly blind. Being the nice boyfriend and really cool guy that I am, I agreed to be her seeing eye dawg.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Luckily I didn't need to guide her the whole time, as the blindfoldy part of the costume was removable, but if you go to the trouble of making a costume by hand, you'd better darn well make the most of it and wear it for as long as possible. Thus, I found myself trying to sync up my plans with her plans a bit more than I might have otherwise done.

First lesson from PAX East: Go alone. Or, go with a group of people who really won't care if you ditch them. This wasn't even an issue at Otakon because, even though I went with friends, we all came and went as we pleased, crossed paths from time to time, and occasionally coordinated going to the same video or restaurant together, often at a moment's notice. PAX East, though... we had to structure absolutely everything for going as a couple to work. And when plans fell through, things got very ugly.

Leaving the apartment took longer than expected. We stopped briefly to grab something to eat. We had to wait a while for the first subway train to arrive. (There was no way I'd dare to drive to the convention center; I'd accidentally end up in Maine before finding my way back to the apartment.) We took a few wrong turns out of the subway station on the way to the convention center. The line to get in moved at a dead snail's pace for no apparent reason--they weren't even signing people in at the door; you could just walk in and start roaming about the convention. People were blocking the hallway, gawking at footage of some new video game, as we rushed to the main auditorium so we could hear Wil Wheaton's keynote speech, which started in 15 minutes.

So many little delays.

Wil Wheaton's keynote address was all about feeling at home amongst fellow gamers who don't need to explain their geeky tendencies to one another. At least, that's what I've gathered from other people; standing a mere six people away from the door to the auditorium, our hopes and dreams were cut to shreds when they closed the doors and turned people away, saying there was no more room.

Six people from the door. All because I stopped to buy that burrito. Or because we ambled to the train station when we should have sauntered. Or because we paused a moment to admire some guy's really neat woven hat that looked like Mega Man's helmet. So many little delays.

Six people from the door.

In another day or two, I would learn from someone who had been there for the keynote that there were at least ten completely open seats behind him.

I turned to one of the Enforcers--the red-shirted convention volunteers responsible for everything running smoothly--and asked him if there was an auxiliary room where we could at least watch the keynote on a television or projector screen.

What? No plan for overflow? The kickoff focal event of the entire convention, featuring a guest that virtually everyone would want to see, and you don't have an overflow room? And you knew a month ago that the convention was totally and utterly sold out, to the point where you stated on your website that people without passes shouldn't even bother because they WOULD NOT get in?


I was disappointed about missing Wil Wheaton, but I was upset about the situation that caused us to miss him, especially the parts where it wasn't my fault. My girlfriend, on the other hand, necessitated the invention of a new word for the kind of emotions she was barely holding in.

We were in Boston because of Wil Wheaton. Today, there would be no Wil Wheaton.

The weekend was shot.

The one saving grace was that there was another panel she had really wanted to see which conflicted with the keynote. Holding her hand as much to guide her as to keep her from breaking down, I led us to one of the smaller theaters, all of which had gaming-themed names such as "Wyvern Theater" and "Manticore Theater." Nice touch. That, and the floor plans of the convention center displayed here and there, labeled as "WORLD MAP" and drawn partially in the style of old video game maps.

Of course, none of that mattered when we got to the other auditorium and found that there was no room there, either.

Clearly, there would be no joy in Mudville today.

Her costume hid her emotions well, but my girlfriend was on that razor-thin boundary between collapsing into an inconsolable, tearful heap in the corner, and going all Super Saiyan Giga Crush Black Mage and razing the convention center.

And on that note, we started to stroll around PAX East.

We walked past a lot of empty rooms and bean bag corners that would eventually be populated with gamers, but in the meantime, PAX East was just one lonely hallway after another. Things were set up so that certain kinds of games were all congregated in the same spot, but the problem was that getting from, say, the board games area to the video games area, required a great deal of walking through places that had absolutely nothing for you to do.

In other words, you didn't come to PAX East to browse. You found what you were looking for, and you stayed there.

Had I been alone, I might have dawdled in the video games section. Freeplay rooms for systems of every kind, including a huge room with rows upon rows of PCs with flatscreen monitors, and rooms with everything from the PlayStation 3 all the way back to the Atari 2600, and everything in-between. Perhaps best of all, there was a mini-arcade set up with pinball machines and classic games such as Pac-Man Jr., Dragon's Lair, and the original Pong, which had a functional screen but refused to let me play for some reason. Sad, but still cool.

The tabletop gaming section had perhaps the best setup of the entire convention. One long hallway with table after table of vendors selling fancy German board games, Steve Jackson games, Magic cards, D&D books and miniatures, and so on... and plenty of rooms to play in! Best of all, there was a board game library where you could borrow a game, playtest it with your friends, and then choose to buy it from one of the vendors, many of whom were demoing their games. I'd argue that tabletop gamers got the best end of the deal at PAX East, because there was no shortage of new games and no shortage of fresh blood for the games you've already played.

After a good long while of wandering around, we got in line for the next panel we wanted to see, "Design an RPG in an Hour." The full title for this panel should have been, "Stand in Line for Half an Hour, then Design an RPG in an Hour." At Otakon, at least in my experience, it was unheard of to stand in line for more than 20 minutes except for the absolute most popular panels, so it rubbed me the wrong way that we should stand in line for half an hour to get into something that was only of moderately high interest to me.

However, we would not have a repeat of the keynote speech. We would see all of the panels we wanted to see, because we would get in line early. Which, in so doing, made it impossible to attend all the panels we had planned for, because 30 minutes between the end of one panel and the start of another simply was not enough time to get from one auditorium to the other and trust that our waiting in line would pay off.

So we waited in line, and I had wisely brought along my Game Boy Advance SP in my Cargo Pants of Holding, knowing full well that we would be waiting in line at some point, and that I would most likely be wearing pants then.

We got into the panel with somewhat decent seats in the back of the room, but if we had waited another five or ten minutes to line up, we might not have gotten in. For a panel that was supposed to rely on audience participation for idea generation, there were a lot of people to call on.

The first half-hour was fun; we were called on to give different elements we'd like to see in a tabletop RPG, and we whittled those down to a manageable list, and then we moved on to generate more and more specific ideas about driving conflicts and character types and character attributes. Though I had no hand in any part of the design process, I can proudly say that I was there to watch the birth of Scoop!, a game about talking dinosaur investigative journalists who use their intelligence and moxie to dig up the hottest stories in a world where humans might soon be extinct. The best part was when we were asked for a subtitle for the game, at which point an audience member instantly won every Internet ever by suggesting, "Scoop!: Cold-Blooded Journalism."

I mentioned that the first half-hour of the panel was fun; after a while, once we got into the more technical aspects of a game we wouldn't actually be creating, it felt a little more like work than fun, especially when we had to work out fine details with an entire room full of people with differing opinions. Still, it was enjoyable.

This is where my memory starts to break down, as the times between panels were spent wandering, taking pictures of the surprisingly few people who came in costume, and trying to find anything to buy. Aside from Board Game Alley and the official PAX merch booth, there was no place to buy swag. This was a geek convention! I went to Otakon--I knew there should be a Dealers' Room with table after table of t-shirts and vintage merchandise and hard-to-find specialty items, and maybe even an Artists' Alley where you could finally get that Star Wars/EarthBound crossover poster you've always wanted.

Try the Expo Hall, they said. The Expo Hall was home to all sorts of soon-to-be-released video games that you could playtest, along with a handful of merchandise tables located wherever the heck there was room. All I wanted was a t-shirt relating to some video game I love and a bagful of retro games. Here! Look! I am waving money around! Someone, please take my money, I beg you!

How on Earth can a gaming convention not sell video games???

Deflated, I started to make my way out of the Expo Hall--I really had little interest in playing any of these newfangled games for systems I didn't own, especially the ones that looked like Flash games I could just as easily play online. The one that I wanted to play, but refused to stand in line for (once I recognized that the crowd of people against that nondescript wall was actually a queue for the game) was Red Dead Redemption, a game with beautiful cowboys.

Wait; let me rephrase that.

"A beautiful game with realistic-looking cowboys and awesome-looking Western-style action." There, that's mostly better. Anyhow, it's prettier than any of the pre-1998 games I play, and the promotional art is rather eye-catching, in a poke-your-eye-out-with-that-revolver sort of way.

Anyshowdown, shortly before I made my final approach to the exit of the Expo Hall, I passed a table that was not there before. Like Harry Potter's Room of Requirement, this was a video game table that appeared when I needed it most. NES, Game Boy/Color, N64... and three for $10. I started waving my money at the kindly vendor, who accused me of stealing a Game Boy game. I'd have to be in a pretty desperate situation to be caught stealing Yoda Stories, though--almost all of the games were truly bargain-bin quality, the kind of old games you always saw in the Game Genie cheat code booklet yet could never find in any store, probably because the store owners burned any shipment that accidentally came in.

I picked up the likes of Solar Jetman, Time Lord, and Rocket Ranger on a whim, basing my purchase solely on the cartridge art and the fact that I had heard of Solar Jetman once. The Game Boy and N64 games were slightly more reputable, including Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Gargoyle's Quest, but for the time being, these games will serve solely as padding for my Backloggery until I ever get caught up on side projects so I can once again spend my free time playing games that aren't in slow motion.

Satisfied enough by my purchases, I left the Expo Hall in a good mood, and met up with a rather large group to go out to dinner at one of the 7.5 million Irish Pubs (TM) peppering the Boston landscape. A few of my friends from high school and college were in attendance at PAX East with their friends, so making joint dinner plans was a great way to hang out with lots of people at once.

Dinner was very good, and by this point my girlfriend's mood had greatly improved, but we were both still cautious about showing up too late to get seated for a panel we wanted to see. The next mark on our agenda, a screening of the text adventure documentary Get Lamp (named for that one time in that one game where you type the command GET LAMP to get ye lamp), was high on my list.

Though I haven't played a lot of interactive fiction--in the common usage, text-only adventure games such as Zork and Thy Dungeonman--I have a deep respect for the medium. The nonexistent graphics are only as limited as one's imagination, and a text parser with a rich vocabulary can give you more options for interacting with a game than any amount of button combos ever could. Plus, I'm fairly certain that text adventures have influenced videogaming in more ways than anyone might initially suspect.

Get Lamp tells the tale of the rise, fall, and gradual return of interactive fiction through a series of interviews with folks who have been deeply involved in the medium, whether as designers, reporters, players, or even people with a PhD in Interactive Fiction. Seriously. The full documentary is several hours long, so we watched selected clips that still told a complete narrative, and the whole production was so fascinating to me that I might actually order a copy of Get Lamp, which I'll get around to watching as soon as I finish Solar Jetman.

The video alone was reason enough to attend the panel, but... well, there was a panel for this panel. Lemme throw a few names at you: Steve Meretzky, Nick Montfort, Andrew Plotkin, Brian Moriarty, Dave Lebling, and Don Woods. The vast majority of people will just look at that list of names and blink a few times, saying, "...So?" However, for the people who recognize any of those names, I expect the proper response to be something more like, "WHOA."

Steve Meretzky of Planetfall and the text-adventure adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Nick Montfort, author of Twisty Little Passages? Andrew Plotkin, highly influential in the homebrew interactive fiction scene? Brian Moriarty of Beyond Zork and the highly acclaimed Trinity? Dave Lebling of Zork I, II, and III? Don Woods, the co-developer of Colossal Cave Adventure? If any of these names is ringing a bell, you should be super-excited about this.

This was the kind of event I came to the convention to see. These were six guys who pioneered, popularized, and perpetuated an entire genre--an entire medium, even! How could I pass up an opportunity to be there?

...And how could I pass up an opportunity to interview them all with but a single question?

Q&A time. Get them to notice you. Good; now think of something profound. Make that one proton torpedo count, Luke.

"This is a question for everybody: Many of the video games I've played have had a wow moment, a moment where something totally surprises me, blows me away, or is so memorable that it's stuck with me ever since. For example, in Zork, my wow moment was discovering that I could YELL and SHOUT and EAT MYSELF and my entire inventory and do all sorts of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with solving the game, but are incredibly fun to play around with. Whether it was a particular puzzle solution or a specific location in a game or what have you, what was your biggest wow moment in playing interactive fiction?"

BLAM! The Death Star EXPLODES.

I'll recount this as best I can, because I am notoriously bad at paraphrasing, and I admit that I am unfamiliar with most of the games the panelists mentioned. My apologies for any errors or misrepresentations.

Jason Scott, the panel moderator and person responsible for Get Lamp, started off with a story about playing around with a teleportation spell in Sorcerer. The spell allows you to teleport to the location of any person you name, so naturally, Jason teleported to an underwater diver (where he promptly drowned) and to a person on the top of a mountain (from which he fell to his doom immediately after appearing there). Playing around with the spell a little more, he tried out something that makes perfect sense in a medium known for Easter eggs--he tried to teleport to the game's creator, Steve Meretzky.

He instantly appeared in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was promptly hit by a car.

Whoops! I mean, uh, wow.

[Story and con recap will conclude tomorrow!]


zharth said...

Tomorrow, indeed! :p

Flashman85 said...

Yeah, remember that little discussion we just had about plans falling apart? Oh, well.