This weekend, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is host to PAX South 2015, the latest massive video game convention under the international PAX name. The trade show runs from midmorning to midnight on Saturday and ends in the early evening on Sunday with a unique brand of closing ceremonies.
As an attendee on Friday, the convention’s first day, I have a confession to make, one that might seem strange at first glance: despite being at one of the largest video game conventions in the world, I was at PAX for two hours before I put my hands on my first controller.
PAX’s most salient main attraction is the Expo Hall, a huge space filled with fifty-foot tall screens, booming music, and costumed crowds. Here convention goers can (after varying wait times in line), sample games that cannot be played anywhere else: games still in the middle of development or just beyond the cusp of release. And while big industry names are certainly present — Nintendo has a booth featuring its latest high-definition of a classic game: “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” and there are rumors that Texas developers Gearbox will announce the hotly anticipated “Borderlands 3” — a large swath of the Hall is dedicated toward independent games: relatively unknown games made by smaller studios.
“This is the first PAX in San Antonio, so it’s a bit smaller,” said Kelsa Morman, a PAX staffer from Sacramento, California with several PAXs under her belt. “But in a way, that’s good. This way more indie games can be here; they’re my favorite part of the show. PAX is a way to learn about great, small games that you might miss otherwise.”
Beyond the screen-lit booths lies a merchandise section, where convention goers stare with naked lust at $4,800 living room tables custom-crafted to compliment complex board games from Geek Chic. Tabletop games rule the farthest end of the Hall, offering stations where one can try out the most recent developments in this classic genre, or buckle down to compete in old favorites.
Part of the reason I didn’t touch a game for my first few hours at PAX was the sheer amount of booths, people, and events vying for my attention. I was paralyzed by the things I would miss if I dedicated myself to one part of the show, just as I was dazzled by the lights and sound.
Surprisingly, however, it’s quite easy at PAX South to get away from the neon and dubstep for which video game conventions are notorious. The second level of the Convention Center is ruled by quieter, more personable events. In satellite theaters, internet personalities give talks and sign autographs, while industry experts discuss important issues within the world of gaming.
On Saturday, for instance, convention goers can attend “Pixel Poetry,” a panel discussion by game developers and journalists on the place of video games in the arts. On Friday, I attended a small presentation by Bioware, a game development company with a studio in Austin, in which they discussed the challenges of triumphs of their most recent creation: the fantasy epic “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” While “Dragon Age” is a series internationally known and beloved, I felt like, for the hour-long discussion, I had it all to myself.
Those looking for a more social experience can check out the free play areas on the first and second floors. There, attendees take a number and, when it’s their turn, rent a gaming machine and games to play with strangers and friends. In practice, the system works smoothly; it wasn’t long before I was in a pickup game with three other Texas gamers, one from Houston and two from Victoria.
And it’s this concept—gamers coming together to share their hobby with new friends—that undergirds the convention’s signature event: Omegathon. In this weekend-spanning tournament, twenty randomly-selected PAX attendees compete in a variety of video game challenges, the survivors going on to victory or defeat in the final round, which will serve as the last act for the convention on Sunday.
Sitting in on the first round of the competition, I was struck by how well video games, stereotypically an “inside,” “individual” activity, translates to the public realm. The crowd hooted and hollered at the action onscreen, shouting “kangaroo” at the start of every match in playful honor of our Australian host. Behind me in the crowd, I overheard a lesson of sorts, in which an attendee explained to her friend how the game worked. Impressed, the newbie suggested they play it later on in a free play area, where, I do not doubt, they picked up other competitors on the fly.
I won’t use this moment to argue that, with PAX’s diverse and interconnected setup, video games are becoming social. Veteran gamers will know that they always have been. Instead, I will say this: PAX’s diverse and interconnected setup is a heck of a lot of fun.
While passes for Saturday have already sold out, day tickets will be available at the door on Sunday morning. Even if you don’t consider crowds your thing, PAX offers great opportunities to step in and out of the madness as you see fit. If you’re a stranger to video games, attending the conference could serve as a brilliant introduction—even if you don’t pick up a controller for two hours. In any case, the support would be much appreciated; PAX South is a event that, we gamers hope, will become a San Antonio tradition.