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.

That level of intrigue boosted the presence of other "indie" games—a term to describe self-funded titles made by small teams—in the busy exhibition hall. The PAX 10 collection presented the fest producers' favorite new indies, including the show's sleeper smash hit, Retro City Rampage, which satirized Grand Theft Auto from an 8-bit point of view. (Imagine driving a stolen car through the picturesque, retro wilderness of The Legend of Zelda, for starters.) Even Microsoft hosted an booth's worth of indie games, including the hair-pullingly difficult Super Meat Boy and the adorable Ilomilo.

But to know PAX is to understand how small a percentage that exhibition hall made up.I struggled with an abundance of choices. Because I couldn't say no to any of them, I slept for 16 hours the night after PAX.

I played whatever board game I pleased (and discovered fun diversions like Red November and Small World). I attended panels whose "discussions" typically devolved into roars of laughter. I flopped into a beanbag lounge to challenge strangers to versus matches of Tetris. I watched my favorite band of the summer, Brooklyn's Anamanaguchi, perform a symphony hall concert with a Nintendo Entertainment System as its lead singer. And I skipped out on PAX's boozy parties to play games all night with thousands of like-minded nerds (some of whom have already become real-life friends).

My choices paid off. I had a blast. And as I made sense of PAX's aftermath, I kept thinking back to keynote speaker Warren Spector's design philosophy: "play style matters." His obsession with choices—with making video games that are thick with consequences, chains of events, and a causality that has the feeling of real-life—has paid off.

But he's still grappling with a huge choice from last year: to reveal his lifelong obsession in the form of a new video game, one that his old fans are still furrowing their brows about.

An industry legend responsible for epic games about dystopias, space combat, and medieval virtue, Spector surprised the industry last year when he revealed his newest project: a Mickey Mouse video game. For the family-friendly Wii. He insisted it was still his style of game, showing off art and design samples with a dark palette and bizarre characters, but his hardcore fans recoiled.

They knew nothing of Spector's lifelong love affair with all things Disney—that he grew up collecting reel-to-reels of classic cartoons, that he knew about every obscure Disney character ever created, or that he very nearly became a Disney designer, also known as an Imagineer, in the '80s before taking a gig as a video game maker instead.

"I always wanted to build a theme park attraction," he said, "and now, I'm kinda getting to do it virtually." To some extent, that's why Spector came to PAX: to speak directly to the gaming nation, and to tell them that Disney's Epic Mickey, set for release in a few months, is his dream game (and should be theirs, too).

"They have this cloistered view of what games can and should be. I want them to broaden it. I wanted the opportunity to tell them, don't be afraid of games becoming more mainstream. It is a good thing. It will give you some place to go when... when you outgrow adolescent power fantasies, you're going to want some place to go, because you're not going to stop playing games. The available choices are going to narrow, narrow, narrow, given the content constraints that you're imposing on developers with your dollars. I wanted [gamers] to open their minds to new ideas."

As our conversation continued, Spector, a self-described "academic goober," rattled off two discrete lists, each answering a different question of mine. The first was a smattering of hopes about the games of the future. Better artificial intelligence. Better stories for multiplayer games. Worlds that react realistically to what players do.

The second list was all of the innovations that Walt Disney, his idol, brought to American cinema. First feature-length cartoon. First film to employ stereo sound. First use of robotics in a film.

Both lists came off his tongue briskly, minutes apart from each other, but their similarity was striking. I'm not sure he noticed. Spector's keynote speech touched on the notion of his industry reaching a "golden age" of acceptance and popularity. And he's watched that growth from its inception. After decades of work crafting adventurous games, in which players must pick from choices and possible outcomes, Spector is ready to spring his concepts on the larger gaming world.

Disney Epic Mickey's colorful take on consequences, through a paintbrush mechanic that allows gamers to draw and erase entire worlds, is one means of doing so. Allying himself with his idol, Walt Disney, in front of PAX's cheering crowd of thousands, is another.

This year, at this festival, he's proudly clutching a to-do list—a series of gaming innovation dreams—with a Walt-like grasp.

"I keep telling everybody I meet, any part of the business or outside, ideas are so easy," Spector said. "Ideas are nothing. Execution is everything. I have over 300 game concepts on my hard drive right now... With all of the problems we still have to solve in video games, I could keep busy for the next 100 years."

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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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