I spent my Labor Day weekend mostly at the Washington State Convention Center, wherein I was surrounded by motley and colorful crowds. Men with goatees and fedoras abounded, as did girls with candy-pink and Smurf-blue hair. Countless enthusiastic fans were dressed as either David Tennant or Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor. Last weekend downtown Seattle played host to the Northwest’s biggest geek party: the Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming convention spawned by Internet’s most successful web comic.
PAX is not like other conventions. The geek culture at PAX is very much of the inclusive sort, and is defined first and foremost by enthusiasm and curiosity. That sort of fandom stands in stark contrast to the corpulent, cynical, self-satisfied strain of fandom most exemplified by Kevin Smith. With its pointed ban on booth babes, panels on queer gaming and preventing online harassment, and its list of recommended indie games, PAX seems to constantly go out of its way to say “We’re the good geeks. We’re not going to insult your gender during a Modern Warfare match. We just want to play Bananagrams.” And, for the most part, it pulls off the neat trick of being absolutely huge yet still seeming cuddly and inclusive.
PAX certainly had its fair share of corporate behemoths- the new Assasin’s Creed and God of War games both had massive booths, each with similarly gigantic queues of eager fans ready to play ten or so minutes of the new games. A blue-and-cobalt structure in the center of the expo hall touted a new entry into the Metal Gear series, a game horribly/wonderfully titled Metal Gear Rising: Revengence, and Harmonix was doing something that looked like Rock Band, but with fewer buttons and more racecars.
The titanic set pieces, though, seemed incidental to the core of PAX. At any other dork fiesta, the towering statue of God of War’s Kratos would be a centerpiece of the proceedings. PAX, though, isn’t really about announcements from game companies or huge press events. It’s not E3, and it’s definitely not the San Diego Comic Con. PAX, more than anything else, is a gaming convention that’s all about actually playing games.
The best moments I had at PAX were the ones where I was discovering new games. I tried Smallworld for the first time and a Penny Arcade-themed card game. I sat down and tried out Star Trek Catan (which I now covet) and played an iOS game with monkeys. I discovered River Raid from 1982, the first ever video game made by a female developer, and flailed like an idiot in front of a motion-controlled version of Fruit Ninja. I also happened upon X-Men pinball and Junior Pac-Man in a retro arcade set up in part by Portland’s own Ground Kontrol. When I met a friend for lunch on Sunday I asked him his PAX was and he said (happily) “I played a lot of D&D.”
PAX offers panels, certainly, and a major highlight is seeing the guys who make Penny Arcade actually make Penny Arcade. On Saturday morning Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins scripted and drew a comic (specifically, this one) in front of a live audience. Holkins is naturally funny, but probably had the script already written in his head hours before the two of them went on stage. However, seeing a skilled cartoonist like Krahulik do his thing was nothing short of impressive. Krahulik has been cartooning for a long time, and is obviously an artist who is very much at ease with his tools and process. Seeing him sketch, ink, color, and layout a comic in a space less than an hour was kind of mind-boggling and a testament to his talent.
The evenings of PAX were dominated by music programming, feturing concerts from (among others) Megaman-themed pseudo 80s band The Protomen, nerd rapper MC Frontalot, and Jonathan Coulton. I managed to catch Coulton’s show, which was excellent, and was both impressed and perplexed that he chose to cover Bad Company’s Feel Like Making Love as his closer. Her pretty much killed it, and I walked out with confused feelings, as I had just enjoyed a Bad Company song, something I did not think the laws of the Universe allowed for.
PAX gets to have it both ways. It gets to be a juggernaut where Sony and Microsoft shamelessly shill their new products to endless lines of adoring fans, yet somehow it does not seem to be just a loud exercise in mere commerce. If it were a comic book show, it would be some odd hybrid of the San Diego Comic Con and the Stumptown Comics Fest- huge, but with ample room for the smaller players. It is, very probably, the only convention that I would ever bother leaving town for, the kind of place where you can say to a group of strangers "Hey, do any of you guys want to play Ticket to Ride?" and get a roomful of enthusiastic assents.