My Favorite Parts of PAX East 2020

Puzzle games, podcasting, and a panel!

PAX East 2020 has come and gone, and I’m happy to say it was a pretty great (if tiring!) experience. As a wrap up — or perhaps, a cool down lap — I wanted to highlight a few of my favorite games and experiences of the show.

I purposely only made appointments for things that looked cool to me, and I’m thrilled to say my maybe-selfish plan worked out: I liked everything I played at PAX. I started the show with a crisp 10am Thursday morning meeting with Tom Nook (which we covered in a podcast you can listen to in a few days!), then moved on to Drake Hollow, the new game by The Flame in the Flood developers The Molasses Flood. 

Full disclosure here, I’m friendly with Forrest Dowling, a dev on the project, but I really enjoyed my time with the new action/exploration/crafting adventure. In the demo, I explored islands surrounded by poisonous gas, made friends with little anthropomorphic plant critters (the drakes!) who give off all sorts of buffs and protections, crafted a bunch of cool things to make a base camp of sorts, then defended it in melee combat against a bunch of weirdly cute demon dogs and Twilight Princess-looking faceless monsters. There was a pleasing, polished feel to all the mechanics, and the art and animation (especially from the drakes) looked fantastic. I chatted this all up on our day one wrap up podcast, if you want more Drake content.

On the next day, I got my hands on Sometimes Always Monsters, the sequel to irreverent life sim/RPG Always Sometimes Monsters, a game I reviewed back in 2014. It’s almost an anti-Undertale, a kinda cute, mildly satirical, oddball little game that sees your character down and out in the big city, starting out heartbroken and sometimes homeless. In the new title, you start out successful — happily married, a published author on a book tour with other writers across America, but naturally, things get more complicated from there. The same mechanics and sense of humor apply, as does the delightful 2D open world.

One of the things I loved about the first game was the ability to go into most of the buildings and locales, explore all the myriad interactions and tinker with every corner of the world, something I did heavily in the demo. I even took my wife to a movie theater and watched a cute fake action movie called Father Time, about a time traveling ex-con who goes back to his past to try and… dad his way out of his future.

It’s all good goofy stuff.

kana quest screen

I also played Kana Quest, an adorable puzzle game that also teaches some basic Hiragana. In the game, you have a series of tiles, displaying a Japanese character. Flipping the tile shows the romanized sound — like ni, or ka. You need to match it with other tiles that share one of those sounds: so, with “ni” you could match with another “n” or “i” sound. Once you match all the tiles on the board appropriately, and link them, you beat the stage.

There are thirteen worlds, all done in a gorgeous, understated pixellated style, and all showcasing a new mechanic or gameplay idea. Lead designer Theo Kipen told me the main idea behind the game was to create an educational game where, even if you know all the educational content, you still want to play it because it’s a fun game. That was readily apparent, even on a busy show floor.

The game is out on March 12 on Steam, and later in the year for other platforms.

And yup, I chatted about both of these on the day two podcast!

lizzie from gears of war 5

I also had the immense pleasure of interviewing voice actor and advocate Sarah Elmaleh about her experiences working on games as small and large (her voice credits range from being Lizzie in Gears of War 5, the woman freelancer in Anthem, twins Pamitha and Tamitha in Pyre, and Katie, the player character in Gone Home). Sarah also has a ton of experience working with the union and helping to connect smaller developers to great voice talent, as she did in casting (and directing!) The Red Lantern, which stars Ashly Burch. 

On day three, I saw Moncage, a rad perspective-shifting puzzle game that takes some inspiration from the likes of Monument Valley or Echochrome, but offers more intricate moving parts and challenge. You have a 3D cube displaying various interconnected scenes, and the ability to interact with various elements (helpfully, a button offers instant feedback on what elements are interactive, much like the highlight feature in a point and click adventure game). You need to shift perspectives such that objects in one scene connect meaningfully to objects in the next — like making tracks for a train, or connecting parts of a wheel.

moncage screenshot

It was instantly compelling, and the demo was already more meaty and challenging than my experience with other games of its ilk. I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose several hours to this later this year when it arrives.

Oh, hey we also did a panel on day three! Thanks to everyone who came out and hung out with us. We talked about it all a bit on the day three podcast, among many other things.

Finally, I got to experience SoundSelf, designer Robin Arnott’s deep meditation/vocal game, which you interact with using vocal intonations. I loved the experience, set as it is in the realm of mindfulness and embodiment, but it is perhaps best described on the day four podcast. Steven and I may never be the same again.

danielle in gym

Shout outs must go to the really funky and cute hotel gym that I spent a portion of my mornings in — it had decent equipment, these cute paintings on the walls, and was basically empty every day. You really can’t ask for more than that.

But perhaps the best part of the experience — the reason to look forward to events like this, setting aside the opportunity to play cool things — was the opportunity to hang out and work alongside my teammates in person. We’re a geographically diverse team, you might say, so getting to hang out and podcast in the same room — and share meals and jokes and so many laughs — was a real treat for me.

While I’m sad GDC is a no go this year, I’m glad we got some good face time in Boston. Even if it was really cold for the LA folks.

Ok PAX, that’s it! Thanks for the memories. And the knowledge.