This weekend I had the lucky opportunity to attend Australia’s biggest gaming convention. (I think it’s the biggest. If there is a bigger one, lemme know, cause I want to go to there!)
By the way, I have never been to a PAX convention before, although I have attended Comicons and Star Wars Celebrations in the past (and in the future!) I don’t usually concentrate on the gaming areas of these venues, but having a whole event just for gaming is something to behold! If you aren’t familiar with the brand, PAX (the name stems from Penny Arcade Expo) has been running events since 2004 and currently holds gaming festivals in five American cities and in Melbourne, Australia each year. The convention is a celebration of all things gaming: PC and console games from industry giants and small independents, tabletop strategy and RPGs, board games, card games and trading systems, and all the paraphernalia of the kagillion-dollar industry that surrounds gaming life. There are panels compiled of gamers, game developers, fans, celebrities, writers, cosplayers, media, and more. The whole environment is upbeat and enthusiastic and people really come to play. And you can play! You get to try games you may not have had the chance to try, like Destiny 2, or games that have not even come out yet and are still in development. In some cases, the developer is there on site to answer questions and teach you to play the game they made, which is an extra-special treat! You can compete or watch tournaments of blockbusters and niche favourites and, for tabletop enthusiasts or the RPG-curious, you can find ad hoc tabletop groups (there is a library for free physical game check-out!) as well as tutorial sessions from organized play groups such as the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League.
Overview of the Melbourne Convention Centre area
Dueling Kylo Ren
Okay, I didn’t duel that guy there, I think he might have been able to take me. But I did manage to get some good lightsaber strikes in on his augmented reality version. The Lenovo Jedi Challenges game uses augmented reality technology to allow you to fight a large-as-life Kylo or Darth Vader with a “real” lightsaber. I have to say it sure feels real! They gave me a headset, earphones, and a lightsaber hilt and then told me which button to push to ignite it (as if I need them to tell me that!) The feeling when I pushed that button was remarkable. The sound and sensation were convincing and I felt such a thrill! Then next thing you know, there was a tall, angry Kylo bearing down on me and I had to parry and thrust my way to victory. I was really into it, as my convention-buddy, Aaron, can attest to. I got my Rey stance and grip set and then I was lunging and moving around and maybe squealing a little bit. Jedi Challenges will be out next week at $200USD/$300AUD which, if you have the money and Jedi aspirations, seems like a fun splurge. You can find all the details, including the other game modes included at the official site. Here is a link to a 10-second clip from Lenovo but I don’t feel it even does the game justice.
Seeing all the Tabletop Goodness
I am only just now getting interested in tabletop roleplaying games. I remember back when I dated my first nerd (I had only dated “cool” guys before that) and he and his friends were into D&D (and also Magic: The Gathering and video games and comics) and I, the Star Wars fan, used to tease him without irony about how dorky that was. Well, I like to think that I have grown as a person since then. I recently started playing the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG with a group of friends and it has opened my eyes to how fun this type of gaming can be. (Years ago I came to terms that I was a nerd all along.) Last week I purchased an online RPG (more on that in an upcoming post) and so the pump was primed for me coming into the massive tabletop area of PAX AUS. There were so many games being played, sold, and enthused about!
I went to a “D&D for Dummies” panel (which was a/ led by six women, and b/ totally full to capacity) and I tried to do a “Learn to Play D&D” session but they were all booked up. I guess I am not the only one getting into the scene! (I blame Stranger Things.) I also came across a crowd-funded augmented reality(AR) app for tabletops called Ardent RPG that looks to me like it could add zest to pencil and paper RP campaigns. You can click the link to see what the app does but basically you scan stuff with the app to make AR holos and things that you can see on your phone screen. I was wearing my AR Archer shirt that day and I think I caught the app creator off-guard when I told him to point the phone at my chest!
Playing Indie Games and Chatting With Devs
One of the cool things about the PAX floor is that there are a lot of smaller game development companies represented. Here in Melbourne, there was an emphasis on Australian games and that’s really special to me as a temporary Aussie! My favourite of these that I got to try was Spryke, featuring an adorable mechanical platforming fish! I chatted with the creator, Dave, and he gave me personal lessons as I dove into this addictive game.
Another appealing game coming from an Australian company in 2018 is the watercolour world of Paperbark, a short story where you explore beautifully drawn Australian bush as a lazy wombat. It’s like walking through a picture book. Paperbark trailer here.
Thinking about Bigger Topics in Gaming: The Moral Decision Making Panel
I had a tough decision to make about which panel to attend at 11am on Saturday but I feel like I made the right choice. But was it the moral choice and what does it mean? I am being silly but this panel was about exactly that– which decisions we make and why and what it says about us in-game and out. The panelists discussed how “gamifying” ethical decisions can force players to choose answers based on alignment-related rewards or identity (choosing Dark Side options in Star Wars: The Old Republic to gain affection from your companion, or picking the good guy answers because your Mass Effect character has gone the Paragon pathway, for example). Former Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider (now of Beamdog) says this can make it harder to play a morally organic character (I am paraphrasing) and play the way you might make decisions in real life. He confided that the Dragon Age system uses the same underlying decision mechanics but it is not visible to the player in the same way. Another panelist added that identity (Hawke) can still play a strong role in that franchise even if choices aren’t overtly tied to reward or progression. Saf Davidson talked about how difficult moral decisions and their outcomes can sometimes feel overwhelming to the player both in-game and even out of game. She spoke about The Beginner’s Guide, which had a deep effect on her. Another panelist, a PhD candidate, told a moving story of a modern day moral failure she witnessed on a train and related it back to moral decision making in games. The panel was thought-provoking and I would have been happy if it were two hours long instead of one. As a note, I actually selected that panel because I made Saf’s acquaintance through a collaborative Star Wars blogging project we both participate in, Blog Squadron, and I wanted a chance to meet her in person!
Playing Games I Might Otherwise Not Get to Play
Since I don’t have a console and I also don’t play a lot of single-player titles, I miss some great games that are out there. During PAX AUS, I finally spent a few minutes trying an Assassin’s Creed game (Origins) and the upcoming PS4 exclusive, Detroit Become Human. The later was recommended by my friend Kid Lee as one of his top five games out of PAX East. The graphics are startlingly realistic and the gameplay was designed around increasing your probability of success (reflected in percentages as you are actively engaged in your mission) and making the right decisions for a good outcome. One misstep could derail an otherwise flawless session. (Oops!) The setting is a future Earth where very human-appearing androids are gaining sentience, which sounds like a trope, but there are some novel ideas in here, believe me.
Here is a cute tweet from one of the actors in the game in response to my photo from the booth 😀
Screenshots as Art
As a habitual screenshotter with the full hard drive to prove it, I am always thrilled to see other people’s amazing photos from games. The graphics and art in games are things of beauty and, more and more, players can move freely around open worlds to take unique and artistic shots of characters, creatures, landscapes, and battles. But I did not know until now that some games actually have photo modes built in that allow you to take your screenshot art to the next level. Horizon Zero Dawn has this feature and they ran a photography contest, getting back some stunning art as entries. Drew Taylor curated some amazing in-game photographs in a gallery exhibition at the convention and hosted a panel that included one of the top competition winners, a professional photographer, and the Principal game Designer of the studio Guerrilla Games. They gave tips for unleashing your creativity whether you are a seasoned real world photographer or a complete novice. It was really inspiring both from a creative perspective and from the point of view of legitimizing game art and gamers’ artistic expression of the medium. Here is a link from Kotaku showing some other community photos from the game. The shots below are with my camera phone across a panel room, so they don’t bring out the beauty of the art.
I have to be honest, I had no idea what most of the costumes were, but they were fantastic! There were lots of costumes, particularly on Saturday.
I’d like to give a million thanks to my convention buddie and actual native Aussie, Darth Brundle, who showed me around like a patient, gracious host and who took all those pictures of me being totally silly and embarrassing at PAX AUS!