Video Games Grow Up, From Mortal Kombat to Mickey Mouse

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With his resume, games legend Warren Spector should have been king of the geeks at Penny Arcade Expo, the nation's largest gaming show. As a lifelong innovator, responsible for forward-thinking games like Wing Commander and Deus Ex, he'd been invited to similar bully pulpits. He'd given state-of-the-virtual-union speeches. Yet even his expertise couldn't prepare him for a direct, surprising look at the modern world of gamers. Only PAX 2010 could afford him that view. For three days, over 67,000 fans flooded downtown Seattle to preview new games, revel in old ones, and immerse themselves in the hobby. Spector, the expo's keynote speaker, had the perspective to see them doing something else, too: evolving.

"If you go back 3-4 years [at PAX], a lot of the stereotype of what a gamer was... was true," Spector said with a chuckle. "Now, I see so many more women and younger people than I expect. And older people. The diversifying audience is really apparent if you just open your eyes and look around at PAX."

So Spector launched the festival by telling fans just that. Standing at a symphony hall's podium, he issued a gruff-sounding decree: "We [gamers] are no longer different. We're no longer special."

Prior PAX keynotes had gone to great lengths to say otherwise, he pointed out, and this year seemed like a good time to cast aside the cheerleading that fans might expect at a geek-out: "Just relax," he insisted to fans. "[Gamers] haven't reached the promised land yet, but we deserve a seat at the cultural table."

The gamers in attendance drove that point home. At the tens of thousands mark, the typical fanboy archetype—out-of-shape, awkward, unfashionable—proved unsustainable at PAX. Rather, the mass resembled an NFL stadium crowd, if the jerseys and facepaint were replaced with ThinkGeek and xkcd T-shirts.

This crowd, too, was here for the big game. From all appearances, that would have been the exhibition hall, filled with four city blocks of playable previews. If video games were made of chocolate, then PAX would look like Wonka's private stash.

Microsoft demonstrated its not-yet-released Kinect rig, a motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360. Sony, in kind, had its own new motion-sensing gizmo, the Move, scattered around the show floor. And every aisle seemed to feature at least one plastic-guitar game, attempting to cash in on the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

But fans at PAX were cool on all of these tacks, instead lining up behind tried-and-true concepts: Halo Reach, the first-person shooter smash from Microsoft; NBA Jam, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Mortal Kombat, the mid-'90s classics attempting HD comebacks; and long-awaited, Seattle-developed sequels with names like Portal 2, Guild Wars 2, and Torchlight 2, each tapping into a diffferent range of the nerd spectrum.

Towering over all of those was PAX's shocker: Duke Nukem Forever. The game's troubled, 13-year-old development history, which reportedly ended with a cancellation over a year ago, earned a Wired obituary last December. Duke's PAX appearance surprised even the fest's staff, and its vulgar, bloody action drew the show's longest lines. (In spite of its sexism and utter stupidity, I'll admit, I enjoyed the thick, bass-heavy action of the 15-minute demo.)

Not every station could match Duke's pizzazz. One in particular didn't even bother hoisting a sign; it settled on a TV and a controller at a white, unlabeled table, and its game didn't come with a title or instructions.

This mystery title, feet from the entrance, turned out to be the world premiere of an arty puzzle game called The Witness, the followup to 2008's art-game smash Braid. Players were expected to figure out how to wander through its 3D world and solve its puzzles, as if the old computer hit Myst had been redone with a touch of dadaism. For three days, this game's creator, Jonathan Blow, hid nearby to watch the crowd discover his game and other, neighboring small-fry titles.

Nearby sat a four-player diamond heist game called Monaco, a festival award winner designed entirely by one person. It looked like a one-man show, what with its simple, pixelated looks, but the award-winning game's teamwork and suspense made it my favorite PAX game. Spy Party attracted tons of onlookers for its experimental two-player experience: On two screens, facing away from each other, a simple house party played out. One person controlled one of the dozens of partygoers, controlling his or her every gesture, and the other player had to guess which of those 3D partygoers was a real person, rather than computer-controlled. Games would play out for 10-15 minutes at a time, and the crowd would look back and forth between screens to see how well the guesser was doing. For a game that takes place at a simple house party, the crowd-watching that resulted had all the drama of a Hitchcock classic.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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