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I’m back from PAX: exhausted, a bit overwhelmed, and very happy with how it went.

I’m not much for consumer conventions: the crowds, the hype, the expense; it’s tough to escape the feeling of walking inside a giant hamster wheel of marketing ploys, helping it turn by the simple fact of your attendance. Despite this uneasiness, I attended PAX Prime this year because Carol Stabile, a colleague and frequent collaborator at the University of Oregon, invited me to speak on a panel. I accepted her invitation, and I’m very glad I did so.

Our panel was titled, “Women Own: A Conversation with Researchers, Professionals, and Gamers.” My co-panelists included Marlo Huang, VP and Media Director at Liquid Advertising; Staci Tucker, a Masters candidate at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication; Brittany Aubert, producer at 5th Cell; and Mara Williams, a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Carol, who is the head of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at UO, served as moderator.

This was just about the finest panel one could hope for. I spoke first, specifically about the lack of diversity in the game industry, particularly along gender lines, that is apparent in the 2005 IGDA survey. My co-panelists turned these (let me be frank:) depressing numbers into an honest, nuanced discussion of political fantasies and hard realities. Our audience asked thoughtful questions, and (hopefully) we all got rid of the post-feminist taste that the “Myth of the Girl Gamer” panel left in our mouths.

The show was, on the whole, totally overwhelming. Let me put it this way: there was an Ewok in the Back to the Future DeLorean. Just let that sink in for a moment. At least I didn’t hear it say, “GREAT SCOTT!”

Basically, I think I survived because of the amazing people at The Triple Door, who gave us the full-on rock star treatment for three consecutive evenings. A doorman at our hotel (the excellent Olympic Fairmont) pointed us in the direction of The Triple Door when I asked where a thirsty group of socially exhausted introverts might purchase a tasty beverage. A few blocks later, we spotted the place. It had a sign in the window that said, “We [heart] PAX; ask us how!” So when we were seated, I showed the waitress my PAX badge, and much to our surprise and delight she informed us that we would enjoy the benefits of happy hour whenever we so desired. (On-demand happy hour meant the difference between paying $3 vs. $9 per cocktail, which is, y’know, significant.) On a return trip later in the weekend, our group included a minor, yet we were too many to fit into the minor-friendly booth seating. The solution should be obvious: they gave us a private suite for as long as we wanted. So yeah, I love The Triple Door forever.

We enjoyed Khaira Arby & Her Band on Thursday night, who were so stunningly good that I don’t have much to say other than, “Give them a listen.”

Oh yeah, and there were a few games at PAX.

I don’t have a lot to say about the big names that showed on the expo floor. Many of them are probably very good games, but that doesn’t make them interesting. Epic Mickey, for instance, has a lot of the industry excited, and may be coming along very well, but I can’t understand why anyone would brave lines and crowds to play it. The bottom line is that an expo floor is a very difficult place to show a game: it’s loud, it’s distracting, the player is exhausted, the handler is exhausted, etc. etc.

In this situation, being good isn’t enough: a game has got to be interesting. So here’s a short list of the games that I found interesting:

  • Super Meat Boy: This is my game of the show. It hits you hard, it hits you fast, and it lets you hit back. The constant crowd can attest to the fact that it is fun to watch, and I’m happy to report that actually playing is fun on a whole different level. Its visceral simplicity helps you jump right into the nuanced complexity of ultra-tuned control and dead-aim design. Simply put: SMB has sticky friction, and that puts it in elite company.
  • Shibuya: A falling block puzzler for Apple’s iDevices. This isn’t a genre that I care to play, but the design here is tight. Gaming on touchscreen devices presents particular design challenges. Most iDevice games don’t do a good job solving those problems. Shibuya does, and that’s enough to make it special.
  • Battleblock Theater: The Behemoth’s platformer divides players into teams, and the teams compete. Customization keeps the experience dynamic, while shifting win conditions allow different skill sets to shine. It’s got a way to go, so I don’t want to draw too many conclusions other than: it was fun from several different angles.
  • Solace: From the game’s website: “Solace is an interactive aesthetic experience utilizing dynamic audio and bullet hell overtones to provide a unique perspective on the five stages of grief.” Visually, it immediately reminded me of Ikaruga, which is a good thing; but it quickly distinguished itself as unique in the bullet-hell world. That Solace manages to innovate on the bullet-hell model is an astounding achievement. Indeed, the last time anyone breathed fresh air into a top-down shooter was when Treasure gave us Ikaruga in 2001. My hat is off to the fine people at One Man Down. To top it off: this game is a free download.

Good show, PAX. Let’s do it again next year.

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