PAX West—the annual video game convention/opportunity for both Pokémon and Space Marines to hang out in Freeway Park—came and went over Labor Day weekend. If you didn't get a chance to catch any of the action this year, here's a brief recap of the festivities:
There are essentially two ways to do PAX: Get there early and spend the whole day waiting in a series of lines for some hands-on time with the next big titles in console and PC gaming, or float around the convention floor and hover over people who waited in line for some hands-on time with the next big titles in console and PC gaming. Opting for the latter results in very little actual video game playing (arguably the whole point of the convention) but a better way to see the most stuff and avoid idle hours queued up and scrolling through your phone.
There were some definite patters this year, and few of them surprising. Turns out, big futuristic shooters are still popular, with stalwarts in the Gears of War, Destiny, and Halo series making appearances with new or updated titles. Many of these franchises brought dynamic floor displays showing off characters in tank-like armor, laser rifles, et all hovering above roped off monitors with fans lined up to pop off a few head shots. But in terms of gameplay these like titles failed to differentiate from one another in uber-escalated environment of the convention, with the exception of a few fresh newcomers like the real-time strategy game Dropzone and the elegant looking third-person shooter ReCore.
Elsewhere on the floor throwbacks reigned, following a larger trend in popular culture that made Netflix's '80s nostalgia fest Stranger Things such an unmitigated success. In the case of games like Sonic Mania, the past is less an inspiration and more a 1:1 blueprint. After failing to create a worthy "next gen" Sonic game for, well, every generation of consoles since the Genesis, Sega finally decided to just remake the original 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog, complete with the retro side-scrolling graphics plus a few added levels and mechanics. You'd think this sort of rehash would be met with eye rolling, but the response has been enthusiastic across the board, with many claiming that Sonic Mania the first great Sonic game in nearly two decades. Other titles, like the first-person shooter Strafe, opted to recapture the speed and mania of '90s shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein without simply remaking them.
As expected, virtual reality played a part with nearly every major exhibitor, from Xbox and Playstation to developers and publishers like Bethesda. They're stepping further away from novelty of the technology and moving onto the new reality of VR as an immersive gameplay experience, the way controller vibration became the norm in the early 2000s. VR might be the new status quo, but people playing with headsets on—either sitting with a standard controller or flailing about and wielding dual VR controllers—was still a strange sight. Despite the stereotype, video games are often a social activity meant to be played together and/or with an audience. VR is by its nature a distinctly solitary experience, and watching someone play while cut off from their surroundings feels a bit voyeuristic.
The real standout of the weekend wasn't any single game but the community playing them for a living, specifically on Twitch. The live streaming site and recent Amazon purchase—where people broadcast themselves playing video games for thousands of spectators—had major presence on the main floor. With the Twitch phenomenon comes a new type of celebrity: not professional video game players, but professional video game personalities. Their platform had a big fingerprint on the weekend, mainly with the Twitch Partner Lounge, essentially a VIP zone where big time streamers hung out on white couches, peacocked around, and chatted with adoring fans who lined up for a picture. This new hierarchy—the plebeians who play for fun separated from the professionals who play for your entertainment and money—was surreal.
By Labor Day everyone was exhausted. When I asked someone at the Indie Mega Booth—the section of the floor dedicated to small development teams—what post-modern elements could be found in his self-proclaimed "post-modern RPG," he couldn't even get through the spiel and instead just asked I play a demo to see for myself. That's not to say the overall vibe of the floor is a jaded one. On the contrary, PAX West exists as a celebration of both million dollar blockbuster game franchises and self-funded personal projects, with a surprisingly diverse congregation of game developers and gaming fans. It's just...long.
At one point a young man flagged me down after seeing my media badge. He handed me a card and explained that he traveled all the way from Mexico to spread the word about the Kickstarter campaign for his game Broken Reality. "You explore the architecture of the actual internet," he shouted over all the noise. It sounded homespun and ambitious and weird, interactive in a way that reflects our relationship with technology and addresses its history. It sounded like PAX.