Thursday, April 8, 2010

PAX East Recap - Part 3

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2]

For those of you just tuning in--specifically, those of you who are delinquents that have flagrantly disregarded the hyperlinks above to the first two installments of this story that you're jumping into--I'm attending a panel featuring some of the biggest names in interactive fiction. Well, not right now I'm not, but at this point in my story I am.

The panelists are explaining their most memorable wow moments while playing a text adventure; Steve Meretzky (Planetfall) is up next. Nathaniel shifts his speaking into the past tense to make things easier. Once again, I apologize for any errors in my retelling, as well as the very dark photo of the panelists:

Steve talked about playing Zork II and reaching a point where you can summon a demon that will grant you one wish, allowing you to do absolutely anything. That's pretty wowtastic if you ask me. For the life of me, I cannot clearly remember what was said by Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages), and I get this sneaking suspicion that I've mixed up who said what for two of the other responses, so I'll cover those ones next, and then finish up with the responses I do remember for certain. It's tough when you don't bring a pen and paper to an event you're not expecting to be a reporter for!

On Bring Your Child to Work Day, 9-year-old Andrew Plotkin (Spider and Web) got to visit his father's office and try out Colossal Cave Adventure. Andrew's father talked about the game after work, and how he couldn't get past the troll bridge puzzle; his son offered up a solution, which he tried out the next day--and it worked. Wow. A similar story, which I may or may not be mixing up with the one I just mentioned, came from Dave Lebling (Zork), whose wow moment also happened at a young age, when he solved the first major puzzle of Colossal Cave Adventure entirely on his own. So you can see where I might be getting confused, but they were good stories.

Brian Moriarty played Strange Odyssey, enjoyed it, but thought it could be better. Then a spiffy new murder mystery interactive adventure showed up called Deadline, and just by picking it up off the shelf, he could tell: wow, this is it. The teensy bit I think I remember about Nick Montfort's story also had the bit about him playing a text adventure and thinking it could have been better... but that's about as far as I recall, which doesn't make for a good wow moment.

Don Woods (Colossal Cave Adventure) was playing Haunted House and got to a tricky puzzle where he needed to get an object from one room into another room via a passageway that wasn't big enough for the object to fit through. After finding something that would allow him to solve that puzzle, he began to think about how he could use that same solution on other objects in the game that really didn't need to be moved around. (Vague responses are great for avoiding puzzle spoilers!)

So, he went to the top floor of the house, grabbed the comfortable mattress from a bedroom there, and brought it down to the dungeon below the house. He finagled the mattress into the prison cell in the dungeon, took a screenshot of the new description of the room, and sent it off to the designer of the game, saying something to the effect of, "I really like the new accommodations for the prisoners down here." The designer responded back, saying, "How did you do that!?"

Wow, indeed.

Though a few of the things I'll mentioning in a little while absolutely give it a run for its money, I have to say that the Get Lamp screening and panel was hands-down the most enjoyable part of the convention for me. It is exactly what I was hoping to find at PAX East.

I was also hoping to find--and meet--one of my heroes.

To be clear, I don't really have many heroes. People are flawed, and it's a rare thing to find someone I can call a hero who lives up to my rigid expectations of what that prestigious term really means. My greatest heroes are the ones who have shaped the way I live and inspired me to do more with my life. One of the special guests at the convention was a sort of hero, and I didn't realize it until I got to meet him.

We may have missed our chance to see Wil Wheaton, but we were not going to miss Bill Amend, the self-proclaimed "Dead-Tree Dinosaur Cartoonist" who draws FoxTrot, a comic strip that has been a staple for me since I was little. Calvin & Hobbes struck a serious chord with me, and when that came to an end, I needed something that would make me laugh and tell a good story week after week--that something was FoxTrot, and it's been a staple of my breakfast table reading ever since.

For the record, his name is officially pronounced "AH-mend," not "uh-MEND," as I had previously hoped.

To ensure that we wouldn't be turned away a mere six people from the door, we arrived at the convention center a little more than an hour before Bill Amend's panel.

Imagine our surprise when the security guard told us the convention center wasn't open yet. The convention center would open in one hour... exactly when Bill Amend's panel was supposed to start.


We almost began to wander around downtown Boston when I thought to ask a red-shirted Enforcer if there was anywhere to line up for Bill Amend. He pointed us to the Queue Room, the place where, when we were first let into the convention on Friday afternoon, we had to weave around in a tremendous line to actually get to where the fun stuff was.

Imagine our surprise when there was already a substantial line in place. A quintuple-thick line that spanned the entire length of at least one wall.

Funny side note: On the first day, they had video screens set up in the Queue Room that displayed whatever messages people were texting to the official PAX message board, and one of the texts I saw was: "Achievement Unlocked: Queuing."

Needless to say, our chances of getting to see anything we really wanted to were looking pretty slim. My girlfriend was already starting to chant a little mantra of "We won't get in to see Bill Amend" so that she wouldn't be devastated again. Not a great way to start off a day.

We noticed there were two distinct lines, and we really didn't want to be accidentally standing in the line for playtesting Mighty Bomb Jack. After an inordinate amount of time searching for an Enforcer to ask, I discovered that one line was for Bill Amend; the other was for general admission.

And after sitting in the correct line for maybe 20 minutes or so, the back half of the line was asked to relocate to the general admission line so that the Bill Amend line wouldn't get too long. Don't worry; you're all still in line for Bill Amend.


Astoundingly, they did not forget about us, and after waiting in line for a full 30 minutes later than the panel was supposed to start, we finally were seated in the place we wanted to be, for the speaker we wanted to hear, in seats that were bafflingly great, considering we only showed up a mere 90 minutes ahead of time.

Bill Amend, as it turns out, is just a guy. No crazy-huge ego, no off-the-wall personality traits, no fireworks and laser shows as he entered... He's just a guy who draws a comic strip, plays World of Warcraft, and loves geek culture. He told us some stories, he talked about his website and some FoxTrot Flash games he made, he showed us some geeky strips he's drawn, and he answered some of our questions. It was as though a few people said, "Hey, tell us about FoxTrot," and then a few hundred people started eavesdropping on the conversation. All very low-key.

As it turns out, Bill Amend was a physics major in college, and it seems that a few other cartoonists/animators, such as Mike Judge (King of the Hill), were also physics majors. Strangely enough, the progression from physics major to cartoonist isn't so "out there"; for Bill, cartooning is somewhat similar to working out a physics solution: he knows where he wants the characters to go, but he needs to work out exactly how he's going to draw them to get to that point.

It might not have been the most whiz-bang must-see panel at the convention, but it was nice to hear him speak, and it was interesting to hear some behind-the-scenes stories from a fandom that doesn't come with director's commentary and bonus interviews. What happened next, however, was pretty darn whiz-bang and must-see.

For behold, there were two lines for us to stand in.

Any and all plans we had of attending other panels evaporated when we heard that Wil Wheaton and Bill Amend would be meeting people and signing autographs.

By this point, the PAX East staff had finally gotten the hang of planning and crowd control; two very neat and very clearly designated lines were formed for Wil and Bill. For as many logistical problems as there were at this convention, I give the organizers credit for continuously improving throughout the course of the con. Organized lines are very important here, because even two minutes of confusion would have precluded the possibility of me meeting Bill Amend, who took a break just after I got to speak with him.

First, however, I got in line with my girlfriend to see Wil Wheaton. And standing in line for half the afternoon gave me a lot of time to think about why I was even standing in those lines in the first place.

Star Trek was one of my biggest influences growing up, and Wil Wheaton helped to make Next Generation the kind of meaningful entertainment that it still is. Reading FoxTrot at breakfast before going off to school was part of my routine for years and years, so in a way, Bill Amend is directly responsible for nearly a decade of putting me in a good mood before heading off to school. These are two guys who have been making a positive impact on my life since I was little, and there's no way I'd miss a chance to meet them, thank them, and ask them that once-in-a-lifetime question that you'll never get to ask again.

I was thinking about that, you see: Being able to say that I met Wil Wheaton and Bill Amend is pretty cool, but the story essentially stops there. Hooray, neat experience to have under your belt, life goes on. But if these are people who have made an impact on your life, in whatever form, then meeting them is an opportunity for an impact that's much bigger than, "Ooh! I met a famous person!" At least, that's my take.

After who-knows-how-long standing in line, it was finally my turn to step up and meet Wil Wheaton, who would not be shaking any hands today due to health concerns, instead offering the Iron Guard Salute. Wil was wearing this great t-shirt with a picture of Wil wearing this great t-shirt with a picture of Wil wearing this great t-shirt with... well, you get the picture. It was a great t-shirt.

"I don't mean to alarm you," I said, "but you've got Wil Wheatons on your shirt."

A chuckle. Good; he's still got a sense of humor after meeting 1.5 bazillion fans. Then he stood there expectantly--as though I were supposed to ask him a question. Maybe that's what all the standing in line was about.

And, after all that time to stew it over, I blew it.

See, back when the new Star Trek movie came out, I had this grand idea for a blog post where I'd write fan mail to all the Star Trek cast members from every series, asking them what they thought of the film and the direction of the franchise. For one thing, I'm a big enough Star Trek dork that I'd write everyone fan mail just for the heck of it, but I thought it would be doubly awesome to possibly get enough responses to cobble together a post revealing how everyone involved in Star Trek felt about the movie, and not just the actors whose characters were being recast.

By talking directly to Wil Wheaton, I could save a stamp.

It wasn't a bad question to ask him, and he gave me a meaningful answer--in short, he loved the new movie and was excited to see Star Trek become relevant again for a younger generation--but I felt like he'd probably already answered that one a bunch. Either that, or he was just feeling a little drained from meeting 1.5 bazillion fans. The other sure-fire question I asked--"Do you have any fun behind-the-scenes Star Trek stories?"--was already answered the book he wrote, Memories of the Future, which he was selling and signing right there. Oops.

I'm just overanalyzing this because I always swore I'd treat celebrities just like any other person (should I ever get a chance to meet another one), and I feel like I was seeing Wil as more of a celebrity or a symbol of Star Trek than a person. Fortunately, Wil Wheaton doesn't have that air of celebrity about him; he truly is just a geek. I went up there to meet Wesley Crusher, but I ended up meeting Wil Wheaton, the geek blogger who did that cool thing once, and I'm all the better for it.

Of course, meeting him and getting him to autograph his book wasn't enough for me. I decided to go for something outrageous: I asked Wil Wheaton if he'd be willing to pose for a picture while holding up a sign for this very blog.

(I'm the guy on the left.)

That is something I could only get at PAX East. As simple and silly as the request may have been, it meant a lot to me. Heck, I'd be elated to get a picture of any one of you, our loyal readers, holding a "HOORAY FOR EXFANDING YOUR HORIZONS" sign.

Go on, now.

I pondered my brief exchange with Wil Wheaton as I waited in line to meet Bill Amend, and to tell you the truth, I didn't think for a second about what I'd ask Bill Amend.

Because I had nothing to ask.

I was standing in line to meet the guy who draws one of my two favorite comic strips, and to thank him for drawing one of my two favorite comic strips. No gushing fanboyism, no secret agenda, just honest feedback about how much I've enjoyed FoxTrot over the years, phrased in such a way that there was actual substance to what I was saying. Bill was very humble and gracious, and I left with a signed comic and a gradually growing feeling that I had just met one of the heroes I didn't quite realize I had.

I also left with a great picture:

(I'm the guy on the right.)

The funny thing is that, for both Wil and Bill, when I mentioned the blog and started the pitch for them to hold that sign, I sensed that they both thought I was going to ask them to write a guest post or leave a comment or become a Follower or something... and when I got to the part where they would hold up this stupid sign, I could see a little wave of relief wash over their face, followed by the same mini-chuckle-sigh conveying, "Well, gee, if that's all you want, then sure!"

Seriously, I got the exact same reaction from both of them.

Wil Wheaton was a very cool guy to meet, regardless of his role in Star Trek. Even with my woefully patchy memory, Get Lamp was a memorable experience that appealed to me as a retro gamer, movie enthusiast, amateur/wannabe game designer, and storyteller. Bill Amend made me appreciate FoxTrot even more than I already did, and I got a chance to personally thank him for keeping me and my friends and family laughing all these years.

At last, the good of the convention was far outweighing the not-so-good.

For a little while.

[Recap to be concluded, for real this time, this weekend. Really. I promise.]


zharth said...

To switch fandoms, I am reminded of the time I met the band Ten Years After (minus frontman Alvin Lee), who played at (the original) Woodstock. It was a small venue (where I met them, not Woodstock :p), so the fans got to hang out with the band after the show. I happened to mention that I hosted a radio show at college, and the band actually suggested to me that I should interview them or get them on the show some time. And I was the one who was overwhelmed! I don't know if they were serious or just joking (they sounded sincere), but we never did make plans to do anything.

I'm not really into celebrity worship, myself. Celebrity admiration is understandable, but just because I like some things a person has done in their life, doesn't necessarily mean I'd get much out of actually meeting them on a personal level. (Granted, I'm kind of antisocial, so that should be taken in context). And autographs don't mean a whole lot to me - they're actually somewhat impersonal, in fact. But anyway, having a chance to meet someone you admire is still a cool experience.

P.S. I always thought it was "uh-MEND", too. So, you're saying it's like "almond", more or less?

Flashman85 said...

Wow! Judging from what I heard at the Get Lamp panel with the interactive fiction gurus, I suspect that a lot of people who are not universally famous are surprisingly open to doing interviews and such, especially if they themselves are not wrapped up in their fame.

I feel the same way about autographs; I've got an autographed picture of James "Scotty" Doohan on my shelf, but I bought it to get the Star Trek: Of Gods and Men DVD--I never met him. It's neat to have on display, but it's not so meaningful without a story behind it.

And yes, it's pronounced like "Bill Almond." Which made it impossible to communicate with anyone at the convention, because whichever way I pronounced the name was not the same way that the person I was talking to did.