A Gaming Festival With Heart: Four Days At PAX West

Indies and AAA games stand shoulder to shoulder at the venerable Seattle expo.

From esports finals to E3, there are more events on the gaming calendar than ever before, but PAX West – formerly the Penny Arcade Expo – has done a great job over the years of growing in size and entertainment value without losing sight of what made it special in the first place. We flew out to Seattle this past weekend to see what the organizers had managed to put together this time around.

Games games games!

As you’d imagine, one of the most eye-catching parts of PAX is the exhibitor hall. Whereas E3 is all about cacophonous million-dollar booths fighting to annihilate one another with crazy decibels, PAX West is more laidback and indie-friendly, with fixtures like the Indie Megabooth and DigiPen student games rubbing shoulders with heavy hitters from PlayStation and Xbox.

This year the triple-A end of the scale included Quake Champions, id Software’s exciting new take on the multiplayer PC shooter that launched endless first-person shooter infatuations (not to mention careers). Following Doom’s triumphant revival in 2016, the Bethesda-owned studio is trying to do similar for Quake, taking the core of fast-paced rocket-and-railgun gameplay that it arguably perfected in 1999’s Quake III Arena and wrapping it in modern free-to-play trimmings. The result looks, feels and sounds devilishly moreish, and you’ll want a good pair of cans like the Elite Pro PC Edition to hear those telltale sound effects across the map, so you can avoid taking a rail to the back of the head.

A PAX West attendee checks out PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds on Xbox One X while wearing Turtle Beach's XO THREE headset.

Sony and Microsoft might not have brought the ultra big guns to PAX West to quite the same degree they do for the big industry shows, but there was still room on the floor for curios like tough-as-nails Cuphead with its eye-catching 1930s-inspired visuals, as well as Detroit: Become Human, David Cage’s latest PlayStation parable about what it means to have two legs, two arms and a Netflix account. ARK: Survival Evolved had a big presence, literally, with a giant T-Rex, while Lord of the Rings offshoot Shadow of War was also on hand. Shadow of Mordor was a sleeper hit for Warner Bros and Monolith Productions, so there was quite a buzz around this more expansive successor.

A PAX West attendee plays Shadow of War while using the Turtle Beach Elite Pro headset.

And of course, you can’t forget the streamers and personalities who come out to meet and spend time with their die-hard fans. The Face of Twitch, DrDisRespect, spent Saturday and Sunday streaming from the ASUS ROG booth, while Di3seL and Mae both had their turns streaming from the show floor.

The face of Twitch, DrDisRespect streams live from PAX West while wearing Turtle Beach Elite Pros.



Indie and competitive

The meat of PAX West is often indie titles, and 2017 was no exception, with the Indie Megabooth taking pride of place on the show floor, showcasing 84 games from 82 different developers. (Someone’s obviously been particularly productive!) The level of variety was typically captivating and hard to categorize, but personal favorites included UFO 50 from Spelunky’s Mossmouth and West of Loathing.

The latter also made it into the PAX 10, a group of 10 indie titles given special recognition after review by a panel of industry experts. Other PAX 10 winners included No Heroes Here, a hybrid castle-defence/crafting/platform game, Ship It, a VR puzzle game, and Keyboard Sports, which is a game that uses every single key on your keyboard. Yes, even that one. And that one. And that one. Please stop.

One of the nice things about PAX West is that its competition and tournament areas also embrace indie titles, rather than just focusing on esports heavy-hitters. That meant we got to see people duking it out in Towerfall Ascension, as well as games like Rocket League and more popular fixtures like Smash 4, Mortal Kombat X and even Ridge Racer Vita. Watching people play these games, as opposed to watching G2 Esports win DreamHack Masters or the European League of Legends Championship Series, gives us hope that we too might one day be up on a stage competing for gaming titles.

Speaking of competition, Magic the Gathering had a whole floor, which was pretty amazing to witness. There seemed to be less tabletop gaming at PAX West than last year, to our eyes, but there was still plenty about.

Panels galore

Whereas some events have a few speeches and canned announcements, one of the best things about PAX West is its huge range of panels. This is the sort of place where you can go from listening to Bungie’s Luke Smith reminiscing about developing Destiny 2 to watching members of the Vice Waypoint editorial team goofing off, and then slide into an interesting talk from a newly minted Twitch streamer or a serious industry discussion about trends like Early Access and DLC. There truly is something for everyone, and everything seems to find the audience it deserves, with lots of participation and appreciation.

As you might imagine, the Luke Smith talk was light on big announcements – hardly surprising given that Destiny 2 was due out a few days later – but rich with interesting anecdotes and perspectives on development and the discourse around it. But probably our favorite of the event was The Witcher 10th Anniversary session, where documentary maker Danny O’Dwyer hosted various CD Projekt Red developers and we explored the design of these enduringly successful role-playing games. 10 years seems like a huge amount of time and also no time at all when you consider the scale of their accomplishment.

PAX West attendees enjoy hands on time with Destiny 2 at the Paramont Theater while using Turtle Beach XP SEVEN headsets.

Seattle isn’t the biggest city in the world and PAX West brings tens of thousands of gamers to its overcast streets, so it’s no surprise that events often spill over into outside venues. One of the biggest this year was the Destiny 2 Experience at The Paramount. Each day Bungie had panels running that gave attendees insights into the life and development of a Destiny title, from community managers and cosplay specialists to weapon and audio designers. With the game gone live this week, there was plenty to talk about and a lot of hype. Seattle is Bungie’s home town and Destiny Guardians are a close-knit, surprisingly warm community for a shooter, so at times it felt a bit like a homecoming or a family gathering.

Until next year

All good things come to an end, of course, and after four excellent days of games, gossip and goofing around, the organizers brought down the shutters on another PAX West. This event still has unique character, despite its ever-escalating scale and notoriety, and it’s always one we look out for on the calendar. Don’t worry if you missed out though, because it’s sure to be back this time next year, and in the meantime there’s always PAX East in Boston.