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Picks of PAX 2019

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Australia’s largest video and tabletop gaming festival was back in town for Melbourne International Games Week 2019. Publishers, developers and gamers all joined together to check out the latest releases and celebrate gaming culture at its best.   

For many Australian gamers, including our staff, this is the biggest event of the year. Here’s what they saw (and loved).

First up, games programmer Caitlin Cronin gives us her picks. 

David Gaider’s keynote speech 

If you’re a fan of great videogame storytelling, smart writing and well-thought-out characters, then chances are you’ve probably heard of David Gaider. A Bioware alumni, he has worked on a whole slew of incredibly influential RPG titles including Baldur's Gate 2: The Shadows of Amn, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age. Alongside Melbourne-based developer Liam Esler, Gaider has recently announced the opening of new Melbourne studio, Summerfall Studios. Summerfall’s first game Chorus is in development and has been described as part RPG, part musical – a combo I can’t wait to see in action!

David opened proceedings with a keynote speech that was equally funny, heartfelt and insightful. He spoke honestly about his journey in the games industry, including his start at Bioware, accidentally becoming the “romance guy”, and making the difficult decision to move on to something new. His keynote set the tone for my PAX this year and I can’t wait to see more from him and Summerfall Studios in future.

Heavenly Bodies

Heavenly Bodies by 2pt Interactive caught me by delightful surprise. Played either solo or as two player co-op, the game takes place in a space station where you control an astronaut attempting to complete what I shall dub “space tasks”. Floating around in zero gravity, you can control each of your arms, grab with your hands and kick your legs – all to varying levels of success. My friend and I spent the entire demo time laughing as we took turns at being either productive (opening hatches, pulling levers and using equipment) or floating uselessly in the wrong direction and yelling support to each other as we tumbled around. We were eventually blown out of an airlock and I watched my poor astronaut cling desperately to a pole while my friend dangled helplessly at the end of a lifeline. Equal parts pure joy and frustration, this game has me itching to play again.

The community

I say it each PAX, but the absolute highlight for me is the festival’s energy, vibe and sense of community. We have an amazing videogame scene in Melbourne, but as someone who tends to play solo it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the community around you. I love seeing different people come together to celebrate games and be a part of the atmosphere. It’s wonderful to walk around at PAX alongside all the cosplay, geeky shirts, table-top players, retro players and speedrunners, soaking up the enthusiasm in the air. It’s what keeps me coming back. 

Caitlin Cronin is the brains behind the ACMI Women and Non-Binary Gamer Club. In 2018, she was named as one of Australia's most influential women in games by Trade Media. You can follow her on Twitter @ccandherpc.

Curator and programmer Arieh Offman shares his highlights: 

PAX Rising

As I exit the queue hall with its huge sound, its light show and blockbuster AAA trailers, it’ always deeply satisfying to emerge into the realm of PAX Rising and its DIY sensibilities, local flavor and quirky hidden gems.  

There were several standouts to me this year. Firstly, it’ great to see the progression of ACMI Audience Lab alumni Ghost Pattern with the heartfelt narrative of Wayward Strand, DragonBear Studios with the multiplayer fantasy madness of Chaos Tavern, and Little Reaper Games’ addictive platformer Little Reaper

But the one that has really stuck with me is 2D side scrolling point-and-click puzzle game The Rewinder. Based on traditional Chinese mythology and folklore, the game has you take the role of an afterlife detective, helping the souls and spirits of the recently deceased find rebirth in the living world. It has a gorgeous retro pixel aesthetic and the rewind mechanic makes for some challenging puzzle construction. Scheduled for release in 2020, it’s now on my wishlist. 

Screenshot from Rewinder by Misty Mountain Studios

Speedrunning

Speedrunning is a strange and wonderful beast. For the uninitiated, it involves players practicing one game (or a selection of games) tirelessly until they can complete them in times that would seem impossible to the average bear. The tactics they use are fascinating. Sometimes it’s the runner’s skill alone that makes for fast play, but some players speed things up by exploiting glitches in the games themselves, or even by playing non-English versions of the game to shave time off the in-game dialogue. Record times can come down to a matter of milliseconds. Usually the runners will commentate while completing a run, highlighting their techniques and tricks for knocking seconds off their times.

This year at PAX, Australian Speedruns organised their biannual Speedrunning Marathon and raised over $7,000 for children’s charity Child’s Play. I particularly enjoyed DaMidget2000’s amazing Any%* run of Kingdom Hearts, including his bonus goal of hitting the glitched cutscene at the end. Watch it here.

* “Any%” refers to a speedrun with any percentage of additional game content completed, as opposed to 100%, which is where you must complete the game and all additional challenges.

Classic Gaming @ PAX

As someone who is approaching their fourth decade in the gaming world, I can’t pass up the nostalgic joy of the retro gaming section. Curated and setup by the crew at Weird and Retro, this year’s selection held many delights for the old and the old-at-heart. I was particularly excited to see the somewhat rare Nintendo 64DD on display – a short-lived disk drive expansion for their classic console. I also felt pangs of nostalgia at the collection of big-box PC games. While I love the ease of downloading a game without having to leave the house, I miss the days when the packing and extras that came with a game were part of the overall experience. With a wide selection of pinballs on freeplay and classic consoles with classic titles, I easily killed a few hours here.

 Arieh Offman is a nerd for all things videogame and screen culture. After teaching art and game development in secondary schools for a decade, he now curates the videogames section of ACMI's new exhibition, and produces the Audience Lab program of beta-testing in the museum.

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