Sep 272011
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The sun is setting on the first day of PAX [Part 1] [Part 2], but the night is still ahead. There will be music, and haunted bubble toilets. The adventure – much like this write-up – never ends.


PAX 2011

PAX 2011: That's So PAX

When we last left our intrepid duo, the Main Hall was closing. The geek exodus had begun.

PAX Day 1: The thinning crowds in the Expo Center.

About 20,000 people less than there had been 15 minutes before.

On the left you can see the booth for Prototype 2. The first game had this infamous comic which, of course, was something of a focal point for the game while actually at Penny Arcade Expo. So at that booth they had a mock up of a helicopter and yes, you could get your picture taken karate kicking it (or hugging it, if you prefer, which I did see someone do).

PAX Day 1: The stream of people leaving the Expo Center at the close of the first day.

Hey, did you guys know Firefall was at PAX?

What you can’t see in this picture is the full-length Firefall stickers on the glass of the escalators. You are not escaping this convention without some goddamned acknowledgement of Firefall.

We drug ourselves to the hotel room, definitely feeling the many uninterrupted hours of walking and standing and waiting and walking some more. Was it all worth it?

PAX Day 1: Was it worth it, Past Me?

Past Me says it was TOTALLY worth it.

Now it was decision time. The concert was a couple hours away, but the line at the main theater was already beginning to form. For myself, I decided to pass. I’ve done enough of these now to know that if I don’t pace myself I’m completely miserable by Sunday. Given that I had no major attachment to any of the performers that night, I chose to stay in the room, get some good sleep and come back swinging in the morning. But Mike, for whom video game music is a seriously huge deal, decided to go. With my Twitter feed reporting that the line was filling quickly, he inhaled a peanut butter sandwich and dashed off. I was left with a big comfy bed, cable TV, and – although I didn’t know it at the time – my own exciting adventure.

But first, Mike is going to tell you all about the concert.

I left Nikki at the hotel and went to the main theater, which was just down the road from where we were staying. The concerts were held in the Paramount Theater as opposed to Benaroya Hall like last year. On the plus side, this means that the significant draft that had me freezing last year at Benaroya was nowhere to be found. But the acoustics of the Paramount left something to be desired — more on that in a bit.

PAX Day 1: The Paramount Theater for the first night concerts.

Paramount Theater: just another place at PAX where you are constantly surrounded by people and their portable electronics.

On card for the first night were Video Game Orchestra [VGO], MC Frontalot, Metroid Metal and the Minibosses. I’ve seen Frontalot at previous PAXes, caught Metroid Metal last year and knew about the Minibosses because, well, if you’re a follower of arranged game music they’re a group you just know about. Despite what I felt was an awkward technical-difficulty-laden performance last year, I had hoped Anamanaguchi would return for PAX 2011, but such was not the case.

VGO, a completely new experience for me, was the opening group and possibly the most impressive of the night.

PAX Day 1: VGO kicks off the first night's concert.

Video Game Orchestra, featuring awesome logo, and at least one super-excited front-row fan.

Their style is rock orchestral arrangements of existing game music. During any given song, the rock side would be represented by a drummer, electric guitarist and bassist (and saxophone in one song), the orchestra side was represented by two violins, viola, cello and flute, and somewhere in the middle were concordant keyboardist and piano players. Their pieces ranged from a big band take on Super Mario Brothers to a hard rock arrangement of God of War, a jazz rendition of Metal Gear Solid, and even a somewhat eerie piano solo of the opening track to Legend of Mana. This last was remarkable because, judging from the people nearby, I don’t think a lot of gamers recognized what was being played, but it captivated everyone.

PAX 2011: VGO on stage.

VGO in full swing. Yes, they have a balding, tanktop-wearing flutist and a mohawked violin player. Got a problem with that?

The frontman for VGO spoke with an obvious Japanese accent and, combined with the sound setup, that made it occasionally hard to understand him, but there was no misunderstanding their talent. I bought their album later (sadly, it doesn’t have everything they played at PAX, but still a great purchase.)

PAX Day 1: A wild Frontalot appears!

MC Frontalot makes his entrance, to the giddy glee of his keyboard player.

MC Frontalot was up next and this was the low point of the concert for me. I like Frontalot’s sound, and his geek rhythmic flow is something to behold, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. The muddled sound coming out of the speaker setup combined with echo in the theater made it impossible for me to follow what was being sung in any of the songs that I didn’t already know a lot (of which he played zero.) And I’m not as huge a follower of rap as some people are, but my thought has always been that words are kind of important in that style. So, while his on-stage persona was great, I got little out of his musical performance.

What’s always a great aspect of these concerts though is seeing the different groups interact with each other and play together. Toward the end of his set, Frontalot called out for VGO.

PAX Day 1: Frontalot and VGO.

Frontalot brings out the string section of VGO to co-op on a special song. Too bad I don't know what it was.

Adding the strings made for an interesting new mix, as you might expect since Frontalot’s primary instruments otherwise are drums, one keyboard and an electric guitar. Including VGO definitely added another layer to the music. It would’ve been nice to hear this without the sound problems that plagued his act.

Of course one style that works well with blaring speakers and massive reverb is metal, and Metroid Metal delivered it. Like last year, they put up quite a show.

PAX Day 1: Metroid Metal doing what they do best.

Metroid Metal killing it. They pretty much did this the whole time, which worked fine.

Unlike last year, the music they played did not include a lot from the original Metroid or Super Metroid. I think they focused more on pieces from Metroid Prime, Prime 2 and The Other M. Since I haven’t played these games much, the emotional attachment to the music wasn’t as strong as last year’s. It still had that hook — but not enough for me to buy an album this time.

Rounding out the evening was the Minibosses, one of the progenital game music cover bands. The style here is straight rock arrangement of old-school video game music; no chiptune accompaniment as you might see with Anamanaguchi, no “classy” keyboard/piano accompaniment as you might expect for games that make heavy use of synthesized sound — just a straight up, “here’s what this would sound like if you converted it into rock music which, hey look, we just did!”

PAX Day 1: The Minibosses

The Minibosses. This is the best picture I got, but it wasn't about what you saw, it was about what you heard: sweet gaming rock.

At this point in the evening it had gone midnight and I was pretty tired, so I can’t remember all the music they played. I remember Super Mario Bros. 2, Kid Icarus and, surprisingly, Tecmo Bowl. They took audience requests (although they did not play a widely-shouted-for Rygar.) Toward the end of the set, members of Metroid Metal could be seen off to the side of the stage giving the “We’re not worthy!” bow in deference to one of the groups whose pioneering into the field more than 10 years ago paved the way for many current groups. I bought their album (Brass) later on.

All in all, the musical experience was good, but suffered for the sound provided in the Theater. Frontalot’s performance was the worst-hit by this and, sandwiched between three other instrumental groups, seemed out of place as well. But would I do it again? Hell yes, and will next year too.

After Mike left, I peeled of my shoes and got about the very important task of relaxing. I caught up on all the online stuff I wasn’t able to following during the day because AT&T hates me, deeply and personally. I did this from the extreme comfort of my large hotel bed while the TV was on. I don’t know to what, simply that it was on one of the great many channels I do not get at home; pretty much the only time I watch cable is when I’m in a hotel room, so it’s like I get a few brief hours every year to catch up on all the interesting stuff out there. I too feasted upon our peanut butter bounty, and marveled that feet could hurt so, so much.

Then later I flipped channels and, as seems to happen every year, I found a show that I had never seen before but which caught and held my attention: True Blood. I came in partway through an episode, and I don’t entirely remember what was going on, but I think it had something to do with the vampires having to chain themselves up and lock themselves away because some witches were going to make them walk into the sunlight or something. It’s all a bit of a hazy lumpy mess to be honest, because HBO played three or four episodes in a row and I was really tired as I laid in my big comfy bed with my big comfy pillows and watched every single last one.

Does anybody else ever have this thing where they so strongly identify an actor or actress with a role that when they step out of that role, your brain rebels for a while? Right, so Anna Paquin is apparently in True Blood.

A LOT of Anna Paquin is in True Blood.

I know she’s done tons of other stuff, but Anna Paquin is Rogue to me. And while movie-Rogue isn’t exactly the best Rogue to ever Rogue, she’s still a Rogue and I take that to heart. It was then a hell of a shock when I’m suddenly seeing SO MUCH MORE OF ROGUE THAN I EVER WANTED TO SEE. “Oh hey it’s Rogue yay! ‘Sookie’, really? The world needs 100% less ‘Sookie’ in it. Hey, neat, she knows vampires. Pretty well it seems. I think she’s … What are you– No no no. I don’t want to– They’re not going to– OH GOD ROGUE NO MY EYES.”

So that was a thing. I won’t necessarily say that True Blood was a good show (I don’t know that I watched it enough to judge that), but it was extremely entertaining and engrossing in that soapy Dark Shadows way.

Once HBO finally decided to move to something else, I switched off the light and got about sleep. It was somewhere between 11 and midnight I think, and with a hellishly early alarm set, I’d technically meant to be out a couple hours ago. Sleep came fast.

There was a sound. A very odd, repeating sound.

At first I ignored it, thinking it was just Mike returning from the concert. He’s a considerate guy, so I knew he’d be quiet as soon as he could. But the sound wasn’t stopping.

I crawled a bit further toward consciousness. “Mike?” I said. It probably sounded more like “aiii?” No answer. I repeated it with a few more consonants. Still nothing. The sound – a kind of wet gurgling blorp – continued.

I cracked open an eye to see that less than half an hour had passed. Just enough to get into that really good sleep. Of course. I fumbled for my glasses with that numb spastic thrashing that accompanies a limb that isn’t yet as awake as you are.

Yes, that’s definitely a blorp and it’s coming from the bathroom. What the what?

I rolled out of bed, my vertigo combining with the pitch blackness of the room to make the journey less a walk across the floor and more a treacherous crab fisherman stumble. Only a few bruises later and I flicked on the bathroom lights.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected to see, but I feel confident it wasn’t a tower of bubbles vomiting out of the toilet.

The noise was a constant presence. Now that I was closer it sounded like a deep throaty rumble followed by a wet belch, like the toilet was my dog with a belly full of grass that no longer wanted to be full of grass. I’m not going to lie, I stood there gaping at it for a few moments, slack jawed and stupid. The bubbles almost completely obscured the toilet, and while they hadn’t yet hit the floor, it was as stable as a Jenga tower in its final few moves and every bit as inevitable.

I flushed the toilet. Right then, I couldn’t think what else to do. Water drained from the bowl – at least I assume so – but there was no effect otherwise. The bubbles continued their relentless invasion. What’s more, I noticed that the stopper in the sink was beginning to rattle, and the same bowel-grumblings could be heard echoing from the drain. What was even more strange about it all was how clean everything smelled. If it had smelled bad I think it would’ve made more sense, but this was like being hugged by a very large, very enthusiastic bar of Ivory and my brain couldn’t parse it. Having been hauled violently from consciousness mere moments ago, the whole bizarre sensory assault was deeply unnerving.

I called the front desk, voice still slurring from sleep. “Yeah, hi, this is room [whatever it was]. I, uhm. So I woke up and my toilet is kind of overflowing. With bubbles. And it’s probably going to start hitting the floor any second now.”

“Oh dear! I am so sorry for the inconvenience. Let me send someone up right away.”

On reflection, I don’t think she understood more than “toilet flooding”. And if she did, I guarantee you that what I said was in no way relayed to the guy from maintenance.

I hovered by the door to the bathroom, unsure of what else to do. This is a pretty swanky hotel so the bathroom itself is about the size of a small bedroom, and is thankfully all tile. That worked in the bathroom’s favour as, shortly after hanging up the phone, the situation became dire.

The bubbles didn’t stop, and now they were bringing water along for the ride. The toilet was breached. Everything was escaping in a ring of waterfalls. I grabbed a towel and tried to create a dam between the bathroom and the entrance way. The flow wasn’t too strong yet and it seemed to help. I bolstered my defenses with another towel.

I’m not sure how much time actually passed but it seemed like forever. I wandered back into the main part of the hotel room, wondering if I should call for an update when someone jacked up the volume on hell’s sound system and pumped it directly into my ear drum.

I can’t really call it a doorbell, unless that doorbell was hooked up to an airhorn wired into your nervous system. This was, without a doubt, the most abrupt nerve-shattering sound I had ever heard. I jumped a good three feet off the ground and then very literally began to run in quick flustered circles around the room. I thought it was the phone, I thought it was the alarm, I thought it was the door. I thought all of these things all at once and my body tried desperately to get to each one at the same time. All of this while my heart is pounding in my ears and the only thing I want in the entire world is to not hear that sound ever, ever again.

I settle on phone. I pick it up. I am wrong.

Again the sound pierces my brain. I suddenly, intimately, understand everything about behavioural conditioning as I know I will never again in my entire life pick up a hotel phone receiver. I fall over myself trying to reach the door. I don’t check to see who it is. I don’t care. It could be Ted Bundy and so long as I never have to hear that sound again I am okay with that.

It’s the maintenance guy. He says something into his walkie-talkie. I don’t know what; I am deaf and shaken. “You have an overflowing toilet?” he asks, sounding bored. “Something like that,” I reply, and sweep my arm to the bathroom like a game show hostess revealing a new set of kitchen appliances.

He just kind of makes a tiny “oh!” sound.

“What happened here?” His voice holds no accusation, just wonder.

“I have no idea. I was asleep and the noise woke me up. I came in and … this.”

He gingerly steps into the bathroom. The first thing he does is flush the toilet. I feel a small thrill of validation. It doesn’t do anything more for him than it did for me however, and he gets back on his walkie talkie.

By now the shot of adrenaline from the Hell Sound is wearing off, and I’m left shaky and even more exhausted. I fall back into the main room and sit on the edge of the bed. The maintenance guy tells me that he’s getting someone else up to look at this and apologizes again for the inconvenience. I just nod and mutter.

A parade of maintenance people come through my room, each more bewildered than the last. Nobody seems to have any idea what happened, nobody has ever seen this before. Finally the bubbles and water stop flowing, though certainly not through direct action. The party was simply over and all the bubbles went home. All that was left was a dude with a mop and apologies so profuse that I was afraid he was going to lap up the water with his tongue for a second there. I assured him it was fine, and dozed uncomfortably on the bed until he announced he was done and he was leaving and they were all so so so so very very very sorry for the inconvenience.

The toilet was still. The bathroom stank of clean. The whole ordeal had taken about an hour.

I switched off the lights and crawled back into bed. To my surprise, sleep returned easily enough. Some indeterminate point later another sound jerked me awake, but this one was Mike returning from the concert.

“how uz it?” I asked thickly.

“Good,” he said. “Go back to sleep, we’ll talk tomorrow.”

“‘kay. watch out f’r toilet bubbles.”


But sleep was rushing back to claim me. We swapped stories the next morning. Mine was better.

Next! Day Two of PAX, where people scream, dice roll, cassette tapes are metal, and I get really pissed at OnLive.

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