Above: I didn't photograph any of the panels, so here, have a picture of a Modern Warfare cosplayer on a Vectrex.
PAX is a feel-good event, there's no doubt about it, and I'll have more to say about the good vibes in later posts. Tucked among the warm fuzzies were some thought-provoking panels, which covered a wide range of topics and featured real talk from sharp minds. I caught as many as I could, although not as many as I would have liked, and came away impressed. I've often thought that the way to get people to take video games seriously is to take them seriously ourselves. While all of the panels left room for levity, they also consisted of earnest dialogue between people who have progressed past the point of asking whether the conversation is worth having.
I hit up as many journalism panels as I could, starting with "Journalists vs. Developers: The Ultimate Grudge Match." The panel nearly lived up to its billing, with Harmonix's John Drake deploying one M-rated word after another as he excoriated the worst excesses of game reviewers. I had to wonder what he was so mad about. It's hard to think of a developer that consistently gets better reviews than Harmonix does. (Valve, maybe.) I also appreciated Chris Kohler's candor about the limitations of game reviewers, which can be hard for any of us to admit.
The next day started with a huge line for "Kotaku vs. Croal: In Search of the Best Games Ever." Stephen Totilo and N'Gai Croal presented a game they'd created, called "Canon Fodder," which passed a list of the top 10 games of all time through the hands of one game developer after another, until they'd molded it into perfect shape. You can read about their ongoing efforts at Kotaku.
During the panel, Chris Dahlen tweeted that the audience participation made it the perfect panel, and I'd agree with the sentiment. Beloved games were removed from the list to jeers from the crowd, and new ones were added to hearty applause.
(I wish only that I'd had the guts to make the case against The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in the top spot. I have such a vendetta against that game.)
The last journalism panel I caught was on Sunday, when I attended "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism..." with Kyle Orland, Susan Arendt, Lev Grossman, Gus Mastrapa, and Chris Grant. This was one for the aspiring writers at the convention, as Kyle kicked off by asking how many in the crowd wanted to write about games, how many currently did, and how many were getting paid to do so. The number of hands shrank each time.
I asked a question about whether we serve our readers by reporting press releases as news, and I think I saw actual steam shoot from Chris Grant's ears. He gave a reasonable response, which might have been better than I deserved, although I'd still maintain that I have trouble finding the original content that sites like Joystiq and Kotaku do well (like this!) amid the grinding gears of the hype machine.
Sadly, I was thwarted in my attempts to catch the "Death of Print" panel, featuring Chris Dahlen, Russ Pitts, Julian Murdoch, Jeff Green, and John Davison. It was held immediately after another panel I attended in the same room, at the end of which they cleared us all out for the massive line that had formed outside. I imagine it will be made available online somewhere. I had planned to go to others, as well, but exhaustion and poor time management took their toll.
Finally, there were the Penny Arcade panels, which I had expected would be so packed that I wasn't planning to try to go. But the main stage at Hynes has a balcony that nobody seemed to know or care about, and it turned out to be easy to stroll in and find a seat, sometimes a decent one, without much trouble. I attended all three, and they took basically the same form: Gabe and Tycho onstage, taking questions. Their rapport translates well to the live setting, which is surprising from two guys who take anti-anxiety medication. In their position, I'm sure I'd have been breathing into a paper bag instead of talking trash about Duke Nukem deathmatches.
The middle panel was the "Create a Strip," during which Tycho did most of the talking, and Gabe spent most of his time drawing Monday's strip, with his desktop displayed on two massive monitors. It was impressive. During the Winter Olympics, I found myself explaining to people that while I wasn't enamored of events like curling or cross-country skiing per se, I'm always fascinated to watch the best people in the world excel at something. Watching Gabe draw and color Monday's strip felt like that. His pen moved with grace and ease, even as the perfectionist in him would veto one attempt after another at drawing, say, a character's left eye. He even found the time to sneak in some dick jokes, which you could even argue is the lifeblood of Penny Arcade.
The PA panels were also the scenes of some of the convention's most enduring moments, but that's a subject for another post.