A First-timer’s Perspective on PAX East

Boston is a compact city. In sections, the sidewalk narrows to a point where it can only handle the width of one person. Rising and falling highways were built around factories and roadside walls that narrowly avoid them. 

Historic sections of the city remain intact, with very little commercial development and enough red brick to fool you into thinking you’re standing on a London street. But Boston’s major hub of commerce is much more modular than its heavily residential neighborhoods. The sight from bridges crossing the city’s rivers is often a sea of glass towers recently risen from in an already crowded skyline.

I didn’t visit Boston for the architecture, or the history. No, I was there for PAX East. 

Attending this convention felt like a long time coming. The first time I saw the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center was in the Indie Game: The Movie, with a monologue from mutton-chopped former game dev Phil Fish and footage of a line reaching far out the building on a grey New England morning. In that scene, people milled about the convention floor, waiting to play games while the scrutinous eyes of developers were fixed on their demos, peering just over people’s shoulders, taking notes for patches. 

Signage outside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center

I knew that PAX was something I’d like to go to, but the trip from Northeast Ohio to Boston isn’t shortnine and a half hours by car, at least, and direct flights cost a pretty pennyand driving to the east coast in late February sounded as fun as scrubbing grout with a toothbrush. 

After canceling a booked PAX East trip in 2019, I can gladly report that I made it to the convention in 2020. I’m slouched in an office chair, still under the effects of being on my feet for several days, recalling everything I sawand smelled. 

PAX East is the major video game convention on the eastern seaboard. The PAX event branding has garnered enough of a following to warrant expos on the west coast, Texas, and even in Australia. It’s a step up in scale and presentation to any convention or trade show I’d ever been to prior—for video games or otherwise. I have my fingers crossed, hoping that one day there will be a PAX Central. 

On the days of the show, public transit was dotted with people wearing lanyards with their PAX badges visible. You wouldn’t need to check the train routes, because you could safely follow the waves of cosplayers to the show. Even on the flights in and out of Boston, it was clear who was there for PAX. 

Walking the few blocks from the train station to the convention center, huge signage flashing “PAX East 2020” greeted you, followed by ads for The Last of Us: Part II (despite Sony’s absence this year) and Final Fantasy XIV

Through security, into the lobby, and on the slow descent of the escalator to the show floor, you get an idea of just how large that space is. I was struck by the sight of suspended banners, booths, and neon signs, many bearing logos I’d only seen on game cases, in advertisements, and in E3 streams. 

Even with Sony pulling out this year with fears of Coronavirus, the show floor was still an immense maze of booths and people. At a dead sprint, with no obstructions, it would take me at least a couple of minutes to get from one end to the exhibition hall to the other. Organizers managed to pack hundreds of tables and displays into that space and still could accommodate tens of thousands of attendees. The crowd was a cavalcade of nerd culture T-shirts and cosplayers. 

What I played

When you reduce your intentions of why you want to attend an event like PAX East down to the mechanics of the event it makes you reflect on all the resources and time you’ve put forward to go. I wanted to go to PAX to see new and upcoming video games and to have the chance to play them. I didn’t do this for my job. It’s not like I live in Boston. I dropped the money on the flight, passes, and housing to attend. Was it worth it? Hell yes, it was. 

As much as it was about playing new games, PAX is also about the spectacle surrounding those games. The first booth I noticed when entering the show floor was Nintendo’s, because the company made its allotted space into a literal beachfront straight out of Animal Crossing. They mounted projectors to the rafters above the booth, and made it look like you were standing in a gentle tide. The game’s starting tent was pitched at the entrance of the booth and a bridge over a creek took you to the front of the iconic Animal Crossing house. People waited in packed lines to take pictures with Isabelle, Tom Nook, and K.K. Slider from open to close every day. 

Nintendo’s booth for Animal Crossing: New Horizons

My girlfriend and I somehow found an opening for the Animal Crossing: New Horizons demo line late on Friday. With less than an hour left in the expo hall, we checked the line on a whim, and we managed to be in the last group permitted to play the demo that day. Ideally, we would have had several hours to just sit and wander the island at our leisure, but instead, for the 15 minutes we had, booth workers were paired with three attendees and gave a guided tour of the game. 

Everything looked downright gorgeous. It’s been a while since we had an Animal Crossing on a home console (Animal Crossing: City Folk on Wii), so seeing the landscape we’ve come to know in previous titles rendered in this level of detail on screens of this size was like biting into a refreshing dessert. Every texture in New Horizons, that I saw, was pleasant to look at. The sand sparkled in the setting sunlight; the museum is immense and really showcases the creatures donated there; Tom Nook’s fur looked like a plush doll waiting to be squeezed. 

In the short time I spent with it, it was hard to keep track of everything new that’s coming to the game, and I don’t want to spoil any major details for anyone. Even as a concise preview that didn’t necessarily represent the game’s actual play cycle, it was wildly exciting to inhabit that space. 

My second favorite booth in terms of its presentation was from publisher Annapurna Interactive’s forthcoming title The Pathless. Annapurna is responsible for publishing games like Sayonara Wild Hearts, Outer Wilds and Donut Countyand those are just from the last couple of years. The Pathless booth looked like a forest, with large tree trunks extending upward and a canopy of mossy leaves, with televisions and PS4s set in the trees. The game is being developed by Giant Squid, the people behind the gorgeous sea exploration game, Abzu

The Pathless is a departure from Abzu’s omnidirectional scuba diving mechanics, focusing on the fast-paced movements of a bow-wielding character and their companion eagle. In the demo, the camera pulls back on a large stone bridge over a hilly wooded region filled with tall pines, abandoned structures, and distant towers. Floating targets populate the world and highlight themselves as you approach, honing in on each, firing an arrow, and with each landed hit, refilling a stamina bar. That stamina represents how much you can dash, and combining that momentum with hitting targets in succession lets you tear across the landscape. At points of traversal, you leap with the assistance of your eagle, flying higher and gliding over treetops and up to mountain ledges. 

It’s unclear by the demo what the goal of the game is. At one point, you’re forced into a swirling red and black cloud that’s inhabited by a horned creature. Your eagle is immobilized by this environment and you have to stealthily rescue it, avoiding the beast’s gaze. When you climb those towers, you’re awarded with square stones that you insert into slots in said towers. I filled every slot in one, but nothing appeared to happen. Then with the targets you hit, you receive gemstones that will be spent on upgrades like how high your eagle can fly. 

Oh, and did I mention you recharge your eagle’s flying ability by petting it? 

Even without a general sense of what I was supposed to do, the mechanics of The Pathless were incredibly satisfying, navigating the landscape by stringing together dashes, successfully hitting targets, and gliding. The world itself is beautiful and lush, as you’d expect from the folks behind Abzu. Probably my favorite part of the demo was leaping from towers and gliding slowly back down to the forest below. And I was told that the full game will have sections with higher altitudes, so I’m looking forward to traversing those set pieces. 

Finji banner at PAX East

Game publisher Finji secured a little alley for itself on the show flooron one side of the street, a row of televisions and long ottomans, and a merch table on the other. Finji earned my seal of approval after publishing Night in the Woods, my favorite game of 2017. I got my hands on the demo for the upcoming action adventure game, Tunic. It’s an isometric Legend of Zelda-inspired dungeon crawler with visuals that shouldn’t be humanly possible from a one-person development team. 

The lighting in this game is unreal. I can’t think of a more convincing example of light passing through a canopy of trees in games anywhere. You play as a fox wearing an olive green tunic. In the demo, you’re supposed to immediately enter a room and pick up a stick to fend off the bouncing slimes the initially encounter, but I somehow skipped that and ended up skill rolling until I found the sword. You fight armored goblin-like creatures, spiders and tall cloaked figures carrying pistols. A lot of the encounters are pretty tough, too. The demo ended with a boss fight that annihilated me in like 15 seconds. I’m waiting for final reviews to come out making comparisons to Dark Souls, but a whole lot cuter. It feels like water we’ve tread before, but in a shiny new package. Who knows what the final game will hold? 

Another dungeon crawler I played isn’t so much a dungeon crawler as it is an allegory for the trials of entry-level corporate employment. Going Under from developers Aggro Crab puts you in the shoes of an intern on their first day at the game’s version of a multinational, Fortune 500 company. Your task on your first day of work is to take the elevator down into the depths of the office building and fight goblins. 

But these aren’t Dungeons & Dragons goblins, clad in tunics—they’re clearly office-working goblins, with full corporate uniforms and everything. You aren’t given any real reason to do so, you just need to, and you fight these goblins with whatever you can get your hands on. That included: a potted plant, a club, a stool, a traffic cone, a dolly, a sword, and I think a clipboard. You swing or hurl any number of found items at your foes, each with a life bar similar to the weapons from Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Out of everything I played at PAX East, Going Under was by far the funniest. To give you a taste of what you’re in for, follow Aggro Crab on Twitter. You won’t regret it. 

DoubleFine’s large attraction at PAX East was a closed door demo of Psychonauts 2, but since I haven’t played the first game in that series, I instead chose to play something at their booth that didn’t have a line: Knights and Bikes.

This is the one game out of the few I spent time with that’s actually already been released. But I’ve been curious about Knights and Bikes since its announcement. The game is made by former Media Molecule employees, and I spent a lot of time with the first two LittleBigPlanet games. It’s an RPG about two young girls living on an impoverished island. They occupy their time with tasks like feeding the wild geese in their community.

Now, I didn’t technically play this game, but I spent a while watching somebody else play. Other: Her Loving Embrace is a game I pledged to on Kickstarter. It’s another entry in the recent creation of titles inspired by the Mother or EarthBound series. Undertale was a great gameI didn’t fall into the depths of its fandom like a lot of people did, but I liked the game well enough. My hope is that Other won’t be typecast as an Undertale clone, because it offers a lot more in the visuals department. The player models in battle sequences are very bright and well-detailed pixel art. 

Where Earthbound is an RPG, Other is an action RPG. There are turn-based battle sequences, but during attack and defense phases, a window opens and you control the involved character as they appear in the overworld—this time swinging an axe or punching the enemy for an allotted amount of time. In defense, you avoid enemy attacks with platforming. 

The section I watched required a lot of environmental puzzles to advance, which I’m a fan of. Other is still some ways off to being released, but it’s a new title worth keeping an eye out for. 

Closing thoughts

PAX East can be sensory overload. I can try to describe just how jam packed that show is, but unless you go and see it for yourself, you won’t fully understand it. It was everything I hoped it would be. Getting to peel back the curtain a little bit and play games in the audience of their developers is a lot different than doing it from the comfort of your couch. What I wrote here is just a fraction of what I saw, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. 

With the uncertainty the future holds for events like PAX and E3, given the spread of Coronavirus, my hope is that conventions like this will still be able to safely take place, because PAX reinvigorated my desire to visit beautiful virtual spaces and not fall back into the same gaming habits.

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