Wednesday, April 20, 2011

PAX East 2011: Roundup, Part 2

Editor’s note: Somehow, a whole lot of time went by between “PAX East 2011: Roundup Part 1” and this post, but that’s only because we’ve been WORKING ON IT THE ENTIRE TIME.

Okay, that’s not exactly true, but there is still much to be said about the weekend. For one thing, there were other people there, some of whom had things to say about other things. There were talks, meetings, gatherings, panels, round-tables, and various other community-minded experiences to be had. Let's talk about those, shall we? We are joined again by our Senior PAX East Correspondents, J.P. Grant and Sarah Elmaleh.

Do you have any thoughts on the panels you attended?

Sarah: Might as well start with people’s inability to ask proper questions. It’s a mainstay of any Q&A, across all fields and interests, so I don’t hold it against PAX or its attendees in particular. It’s just a perennial pain in the ass.

JP: Good Lord. One marvels at the consistency on that front. I mean, I understand being star-struck to some degree, but nothing excuses getting up to the mic to ask Ken Levine a tripartite question about Big Daddies’ genital endowments.

Sarah: Wow. I meant making sure to have—and justify—a question mark at the end of your comment. But that’s...that question is literally improper. I actually remember being surprised at the quality of the questions at last year’s PAX East, surpassing all other Q&As in memory. Particularly on the gender/LGBT front.

In the wake of the PAX controversy, what were your reactions to the gender-related panels, specifically?

Sarah: I bear no disrespect to any of the fun, thoughtful panelists enlisted for duty on the “Females on Female Characters” panel, but halfway through Saturday I found myself wondering whether the inevitable fate of these panels is to reinforce painfully self-evident truths about gender equality and representation. This is such a tiring and tiresome activity—all the more so because it remains necessary. For that reason, I’m still glad I went. I think it’s important that these panels keep coming up, that they’re (hu)manned by capable minds, and that they’re packed full with ardent attendees.

And who knows? Maybe these basic tenets of human dignity are news to some people. But generally speaking? Sorry, this shit is so overdue I’m just not up to clapping, per se. So, the very best/worst we can hope for is to quibble over the particulars, because sorting good, juicy character flaws from sexist character flaws is a case-by-case process. (I know at least one attendee who simply wanted more in-depth analysis of each female character.)

JP: It’s a loaded topic complicated by the necessity of presenting it in bite-sized chunks in a packed convention hall. Don’t you think that kind of lends itself to more superficial discussion? Or, at the least, more imprecise language?

Sarah <3 Garrus*
Sarah: Yeah... AJ Glasser actually sent me into an all-caps Twitter rage with a casual throwaway. There had already been some throwing around of the word “slutty” in a way that made me wince. But when AJ applied said pejorative to her FemShep coming on to Garrus in Mass Effect 2, I was like HOLD UP WHAT.

I think my (RL) boyfriend was a little unnerved by how long and hard I struggled with the decision not to wait for Kaiden in my ME2 playthrough. But I ultimately pursued charmingly, biologically awkward alien love with Garrus, largely because I was just so pleased with the way BioWare represented sex that doesn’t project an insta-future of marriage/babies/picket fences. In games we have plenty of empty and/or demeaning sex, and some sex borne of ULTIMATE TRUE MEGA LOVE—and I guess I’d been craving something in the middle.

JP: Preach on, sister.

Sarah: Just you sit tight, parishioner boy! Look: I understand an epic tale deserves an epic romance. But there is such a thing as sex between two friends or even acquaintances as an expression of attraction, affection, and yes, respect, and I was very, very happy to see it portrayed. (Setting aside the fact that “reach vs. flexibility” is the hottest and most popular innuendo this side of... I can’t think of any other great videogame innuendos. Commenters?)

JP: Well, DUH. Duke Nukem Forever hasn’t come out yet. I’m pretty sure there’s, like, an innuendo meter in that shit.

Sarah: But only one classy setting: HELLA HIGH. Speaking of that game...

JP: Let me guess. Booth babes.

Sarah: Sigh. I just wish I could be comfortable in the knowledge that all the booth babes out there brought the same level of passion and interest in games as everyone else on the show floor. I’m open to and encouraged by the possibility that some do (although I also know some people—women and men—who take strong issue with the objectification aspect on its own). I’m just guessing what really sticks in our craw is that we all care, so flipping much—consumers and devs and PR people alike—and here are these suspected outsiders. As Alli Thresher of Harmonix pointed out, their presence has undermined her own, as a female developer. Men have come up to chat at her booth, and assumed it wasn’t also her game, that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

JP: Although the booth babe presence at this event wasn’t quite as pervasive as I’ve seen elsewhere, it was still disheartening. I also suspect it speaks to a certain desperation in games marketing. With development budgets skyrocketing and the secondary market cutting into publisher revenue, it’s no wonder companies are nervous about moving units. And in that kind of atmosphere, maybe we’re just seeing “any press is good press” in action.

Sarah: Your biz-side analysis is hot. Can you say “skyrocketing budgets,” “secondary market cutting into publisher revenue” and “moving units” again? You done been objectified.

JP: Whoa. Really? That’s what it feels like? I actually...kinda like that. Thank you?

Sarah: You’re welcome. Wait. What?

What were the highlights of the panels you attended?

Sarah: Stephen Totilo and N’Gai Croal’s Canon Fodder (though I missed most of this year’s round because the dang convention center was so huge, took me ages to get a lanyard and get oriented.) What is Canon Fodder? It’s an actually enjoyable application of gamification (/spits twice).

They generate a Top 10 list of the best games of all time, and send it to one developer at a time. Each of them has the option to replace a game on the list, in that same ranked position, or swap one game’s position with another. Of course, what’s compelling about this evolving list isn’t necessarily the titles that make it on or don’t (and it’s always in a weird, surprising state because it changes one precious move at a time). What’s compelling are the developers’ justifications for their moves. I’m very interested in the criteria by which we judge games’ lasting greatness—impact, execution, vision, etc.—and Canon Fodder provides this playful way of advocating and contesting those criteria through examples.

Highlight of this year’s panel? Notch replaced Tetris, I think at #2, with Dungeon Master II. Crowd response was satisfyingly impassioned.

JP: It’s funny you should mention that panel. At the “Three Moves Ahead” brunch Sunday morning, I met two guys who walked me through how Canon Fodder works and gave me a really fun recap over pancakes and coffee. I could see their excitement as they reviewed each move and debated its merits. In a way it was almost better than going to the panel myself, because it was such a kick to watch these guys rehash the arguments in this friendly, bantering way. That ended up being one of my favorite PAX East moments—it sort of encapsulated the kind of playfulness and passion the convention inspires at its best.

Sarah: The “Interactive Dialogue as Gameplay” panel was another standout—mainly for the reminder that developers and consumers alike buy this idea at all. Dan Tanguay of Vicarious Visions defined the concept as dialogue that expresses goals, the means to achieve them, rules, consequences, a possibility space to reflect them. And I was like, “Yeah. Dialogue can have all that. And that sounds like gameplay to me.”

Why should I be surprised? Dialogue used in this manner usually means there is some kind of story at work. And I follow some very intelligent, vocal people who denounce storytelling in games altogether (Hi, Simon!). As a voiceover artist and a lover of many (admittedly, often shitty) game stories, this argument makes me a little sad. However, it was eye-opening to realize/remember that people like Simon, vocal as they are, are the besieged—not me and my ilk. It’s probably much more important to support their arguments for all the points I agree with (increased procedural literacy? yes) than to get defensive. That being said, I think Tanguay’s very simple, very apparent definition of interactive dialogue as gameplay makes a compelling case for its place in games.

Also, interactive fiction writer Aaron Reed mentioned a game in which your only control is a “sarcasm dial.” I would play that game SO HARD.

JP: You mean, with the dial turned up to...wait for it...

Sarah: Eleven?

JP: Dammit, what happened to waiting for it?

Speaking of waiting, I’m really glad I got in line early for the Irrational Games panel on Building Worlds. Ken Levine, Nate Wells, Shawn Robertson, and Stephen Alexander discussed the creation of Columbia, their floating city setting for BioShock Infinite, in front of a packed house. There’s a good recap over on Irrational’s site—by far the most interesting event I attended all weekend.

I’m sure I’m not alone in arguing the original BioShock is the Huckleberry Finn of videogames; the underwater city of Rapture, like the Mississippi River of Twain’s novel, is really the star character. It was fascinating to hear the designers talk about the cultural, historical, and artistic precedents they’re drawing on in creating Columbia. The image of a city in the clouds was inspired in part by science-fiction art of the early twentieth century—a style that fit perfectly with the optimistic philosophy of American exceptionalism so common at that time, when revolutions in technology were leading to rapid social change and the U.S. was taking its place on the world stage.

There were a number of terrific takeaways from the panel, but two stick in my mind. The first is that great games make conscious thematic use of their art style. For example, Irrational’s initial mockup for Columbia—

—was far too dark and European for the narrative they were trying to convey. The architecture felt too foreign for a nationalist American setting, and the color palette was too gloomy for a city founded on the idea of exceptionalism. Subsequent drafts painted Columbia in brighter colors, emphasizing the natural light of the sun and mixing different elements of architecture to give the city a feeling of history. It was remarkable to hear how focused the team was on creating consistency between the theme and the visuals.

The second idea that emerged was centered around something Ken Levine said: “If you can make people believe the small details, you can make them believe in the world.” Ken was talking about using in-game objects for environmental storytelling—something the team accomplished masterfully in BioShock—but I think it’s a wonderful creative philosophy in any medium.

Sarah: With you there, brother.

JP: So in the case of Infinite, the team has to figure out the logic of city life in Columbia. In a city of floating buildings, how do you transport cargo? How do people get around? Once an infrastructure is invented (in this case, Columbia’s skylines), how do you integrate that infrastructure into gameplay to make the experience visceral and fun for the player? How do you use visual cues and movement to draw the player’s attention and lead her through the environment while not taking away her sense of agency? And most of all, how do you convey a consistent vision of this fictional space you’ve created? It was a treat to be let into Irrational’s creative process on that level.

Sarah: Yeah I bet, since their creative process operates at that level.

JP: Did you have any moments like that?

Sarah: There was this great eureka moment in the humor-in-games panel when the panelists hit on the magical relationship between writer/creator and player. So much game humor—when it isn’t monologuing jokes—is based on an ability to psychically predict and counter each other’s intentions. For example, we all instinctively push what we think are the limits of the game’s internal realism, just to see what will happen—and when the designer has pre-imagined these attempts there’s the opportunity for humor. Brian Murphy of Dorkly/College Humor called out the element of discovery, literally moments that reward player exploration and persistence. One panelist described the creative process as more akin to improv with an imaginary partner, featuring generous give and take, than stand up, with absolute control in the hands of the writer: “Let the player give the punchline.” I love improv, so this was music to my ears.

I also personally find the idea of give and take the most appealing way of seeing designer/player relationships on a larger level, as opposed to philosophies that privilege either the player or the designer as the seat of meaning.

JP: Dude. That was deep.


*Image of Garrus presented as evidence of Sarah's love for Garrus—a Christmas present, commissioned by her boyfriend from artist Veronica Fish (, @moduslotus).
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