PAX East 2015 is behind us, and what an experience it was. It was my third year in a row going to this particular convention, but my first time going as a representative of Sprites and Dice, which definitely helped set the tone a bit. This was the first year that I wasn't just attending so that I could wander around being dazzled by all the shinies. I needed to talk to people, I needed to learn things, and most importantly, I needed to sift through my experiences and decide what was worth passing on to our readers. As a result, I realized something: pretty toys and flashing lights are wonderful, but people are what really make a convention the amazing experience that it is. Whether it’s just a few seconds to chat with a developer, or hours of live musical performance, it’s that element of human interaction that makes a gaming convention so much more than just a glorified shopping trip. There's a reason why I want to come back, year after year.
As I write, I'm realizing that this is turning into a very long article. Therefore, I've decided to break it up into a day-by-day format. Without further ado:
On Friday, I spent a great deal of my time with people from two different gaming stores: Pandemonium Books & Games, and Battleground Games & Hobbies. There was a very good reason I spent so much time with these stores: the people there were friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable. I don’t bring this up just as a plug for these two stores (although if you’re lucky enough to be near one of them, I highly recommend checking them out), but because they exemplified what makes someplace like PAX East so great for gamers.
Last year, at PAX East 2014, I discovered Pandemonium and learned that they were demoing and running tournaments for a TCG that I had been interested in for some time. Not only did they sit me down and teach me to play, but they got me comfortable enough with the game that I entered a couple of their tournaments. They were so happy to have me compete that they even let me borrow some cards so that I’d have a reasonable chance. That’s not something that I’d expect (or even want) stores to do for every tournament for every game, but it spoke volumes about their willingness to teach and help a new player. I ended up buying many of those cards after the fact, so it was good business for them, too.
An overhead shot of the tabletop area at PAX East.
On a similar note, since my first PAX in 2013, one of my favorite stations has been Battleground’s Dungeons and Dragons Arena. It’s a constant, cycling battle where players pick a character, enter the arena, and fight until they die. Battleground has low-level demo characters available for free, or you can buy anything from a regular fighter to a full-grown dragon at their booth. Granted that makes this a bit of a pay-to-win; but then, the whole point is to get players to buy their merchandise. Since there are no prizes up for grabs and there's no high score kept, it truly doesn't detract from the experience.
What really makes this station stand out (in fact, what makes it impossible not to notice) is the man who runs it, a gentleman by the name of Craig Baker. Each action is described with melodramatic, over-the-top narration. Each round of combat begins with a rousing cry of, “Battleground Arena continues! Huzzah!” Craig's enthusiasm and energy are infectious and seemingly limitless; he keeps a steady stream of people coming and going all weekend.
These are some rather specific examples, but my point is this: these people represent what gaming stores (and anyplace where fans and fanatics gather) can and should be. These are places that are endlessly fun and exciting for those who are already familiar with what's going on, but comfortable and educational for those who aren't. These two stores bend over backwards to make sure that even those who might consider themselves "outsiders" know that they're more than welcome to come over, hang out, learn, and have a great time doing it. If I were to sum up the gaming experience in a single sentence, it would be what I saw from these places: fun and community.
Saturday was my day to indulge in culture, especially in music. I knew that the concert that evening was going to be a blast—that was a given with Bit Brigade and MC Frontalot on the schedule—but I was pleasantly surprised by the ability and energy I saw on display at the MAGfest Jam Space as well.
For a relatively small room tucked away in a far corner of the convention center (with questionable-quality sound equipment), the Jam Space drew some notable talent. I spent a fair amount of time on Saturday rocking with the likes of Mega Ran, Professor Shyguy, and Brentalfloss.
As any music fan knows, there is a world of difference between listening to a musician you like and actually being there hearing them perform; it all comes back to that human connection. It's not just that you're physically closer to them, it's not just that the music's louder and more real when it hasn't been compressed, formatted, and filtered through headphones. It's not even just the opportunity to get down and dance with other nerds. It's knowing that someone you admire is right there holy crap I could literally touch him but I'd get thrown out if I did.
Even beyond that, it's the opportunity to interact with the person on stage, to listen to their banter and maybe throw a little back, if you're lucky. Brentalfloss did one of his (in)famous Mad Lib-style songs with the audience.
Warning: this song may not be suitable for children, the elderly, people with heart conditions, Disney fans, pregnant women, or anyone with an intact frontal lobe (transcript available upon request).
I said earlier that it was a given that the evening concert would be great, and it certainly was. The concert opened with Freezepop, a band which I will admit that I had not heard of before, and which was not really to my taste. That was a matter of personal preference, and many of my friends loved their performance, so I'll leave that particular topic to them.
After Freezepop, Bit Brigade took the stage. Anyone who's read my previous article about Bit Brigade knows that I've had a bit of a nerd-on for them since last year's PAX East, and they certainly did not disappoint this year.
Bit Brigade getting ready to make both gaming and music look easy.
The game this time was the original Metroid, which I found both more and less compelling than last year's selection, which was The Legend of Zelda. Less compelling because I was less familiar with it, therefore less able to see myself running through the game and trying in my head to keep up with Noah McCarthy's playing. I also happen to think that the Legend of Zelda series has some of the greatest music in the video gaming world.
On the other hand, it was a very different experience to see someone blaze through a game that I haven't played to death myself—in fact, it occurred to me as I was watching that I've never even finished it. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know where Samus was going; heck, I didn't even know how it ended. Rather than the thrill of seeing something familiar done exceptionally well, this was the thrill of seeing something new... done exceptionally well.
As always, the other band members kept pace with Noah's breakneck gaming. From iconic themes to five-second-long musical stings, these guys play as hard and fast as any metalhead could want. I was ready to be disappointed by their slow start; the slow, droning bass guitar the star player. As Samus blazed through the first few areas, it occurred to me that maybe Metroid just wasn't quite as well-suited to this type of performance as The Legend of Zelda was. The music's just a bit less dramatic, a little more mood-making, meant to make players feel isolated and distant; not quite as exciting and theatrical as Zelda's.
It's not fair how they are so good at video games AND music.
...Then they got to Norfair, and I ate every one of my words. From the moment Samus went down that elevator to Ridley's domain, until she killed Mother Brain and escaped the exploding planet, it was nonstop face-melting badassery. I had the time of my life, surrounded by friends, rocking out and cheering on Samus as she finished saving the world. Though, with all of that said, I must admit that I have one major problem with Bit Brigade's performances:
It is really hard to headbang and watch a screen at the same time.
The headliner for the evening, which should be no surprise to anyone who's familiar with PAX, was MC Frontalot. I'm not even sure what needs to be said about this man. The self-proclaimed "world's 579th greatest rapper" and one of the earliest pioneers of nerdcore hip-hop, MC Frontalot delivers intricate rhyme schemes, five-syllable words, and off-beat topics that somehow flow together into songs you can't help but dance to. He touches on such ironically popular themes as old text-based RPGs, cosplayers at conventions, and stoop sales.
Which are like garage sales, if you live in Brooklyn, which he does.
MC Frontalot and Penny Arcade seem to be inextricably linked, each spurring the other to ever-greater heights. You can read about their whole history together here. Personally, I will just say this: an MC Frontalot performance is a key part of any PAX experience.
Did they seriously schedule Daylight Savings Time to be the same weekend as PAX East?Come on, people, that's just lousy planning.
Then Sunday reared its head. I've talked a great deal about interacting with other people at conventions, but Sunday reminded me that it’s just as important to pay attention to yourself. Forgetting to take care of yourself is an easy trap to fall into at a convention: days end late and start early, and decent food is expensive and hard to come by. On top of that, energy drinks are passed around like candy, and finding water often seems like more trouble than it’s worth. I know that I’m not the only one who’s run into this problem; I’m not even the only member of Sprites and Dice who has. There’s just so much to see and do at conventions, and taking time out of your schedule to see to your body’s needs can seem like an inexcusable waste.
Zoë just brought me this card. I'm not sure why...
It isn't. Three days of living like that left me completely drained and with a headache that rivaled any hangover. I was so dehydrated and over-caffeinated that I came close to fainting on several occasions. Conventions are amazing, and you’ll want to spend every possible second experiencing as much as possible, but for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster take care of yourself. Carry water with you, get some sleep at night, take a break once in a while, and don’t overdo it on the energy drinks. The fact that we lost an hour of sleep due to Daylight Savings Time made it worse for me, and I'm sure lots of other con-goers. I still got to see some great indie games on Sunday, but I missed out on a lot because I pushed too much too early. We at Sprites and Dice are semi-jokingly discussing the possibility of a “How To Convention” article, mostly focusing on our own mistakes and mishaps and how to avoid them.
That, in a nutshell, was my PAX experience: wonderful people, fantastic artists, and a rather harsh reminder that I’m a person too. As always, I had the time of my life, even with the mishap of Sunday, and I'll be looking forward to my next chance to immerse myself in our wonderful gaming community.
...Say, when's PAX Prime?