This past weekend, I traveled to far-off Seattle for the first time to attend PAX, a massive video game festival in its 15th year. I attended as a guest of my friends The Returners, a magnificent video game band from here in Austin, Texas. It’s been my pleasure to accompany the band to a number of their shows in the past couple of months as a +1 guest, lending a hand by driving, lugging gear, selling merch, and doing odd jobs as they need doing.

But while road trips to San Antonio, Houston, and the odd stops in-between were fun, PAX was a whole different beast: a massive event with over 50,000 attendees that’s spawned other major conventions across the country (and in Australia!) PAX is about as big as the big leagues get.

Friday

As a late addition to the group, my travel plans were my own to create, so I chose to travel separately from the band and arrive considerably earlier, giving me a little time to wander around a city I’d never been to before. Waking up at 4 AM on a Friday morning, I got most of my sleep for the night on the plane ride, showing up in the middle of the morning in a cool, damp Seattle.

I took a long rail ride from the airport into the north part of the city. Riding the rail was definitely the way to go: aside from being only $3, I got to see the whole spread of the city out my railcar window: the suburbs, the industrial parks, the slums, and the gorgeous forested hillsides. Seattle is a very pretty city!

Arriving downtown with only a backpack to worry about, I caught a ride (using Lyft, which was a panacea on this trip) to a neighborhood called Capitol Hill, where a coworker had recommended that I breakfast at the Coastal Kitchen. I greedily gobbled up pancakes and oysters as I watched natives pass on by. Even without much sleep, I was electrified by being in a new place for the first time.

Another Lyft took me past downtown to the harbor, which unfortunately was under quite a bit of construction, making the views a little more cramped than they’d otherwise be. Seattle is a hilly town – not so drastically steep in elevation as, say, San Francisco, but built with a little more architectural inclination toward verticality. Many shops have a completely different shop at a different street level right beneath them, and shop interiors regularly had staircases in surprising places. The harbor itself was beautifully grey – as one friend called it, “perfect for angst.”

In the harbor, I stopped in at the Seattle Aquarium, a pleasant tourist destination with many specimens from the sea around the Pacific Northwest and distant Hawai’i. While the aquarium didn’t have any single standout exhibit, it did have a vibrant collection of creatures: pictures are forthcoming as part of my amateur photography collection here at the blog! For now, here is a fat ol’ northern seal.

From here, I wandered into Pike Place Market, easily one of the top tourist destinations in Seattle. Imagine an apartment building cut in half, open to the air – now fill the building with a farmer’s market, souvenir shops, bakeries, restaraunts, cafes, and other attractions, taking up spots in winding hallways, cubby holes, and massed around the tops and bottoms of stairs. This is the sprawl that is Pike Place, a charmingly vertical destination with something to offer everyone – including a workout! There were a lot of steps to climb, especially with a long weekend’s supplies hanging off my back! I stopped for an espresso to regain my strength.

Making my way to more even footing, I wandered up and down 1st Street, into Chinatown and back, and eventually made my way towards downtown until finally the hour had come for me to meet up with the band, who’d arrived with their things.

By now I was good and ready for a rest, so we checked into our hotel – the Crowne Plaza, conveniently right around the corner from the convention center were the main bulk of PAX was being held. I had an early dinner and passed out, eager to be fully rested for more adventures tomorrow!

Saturday

This was the view from the 6th floor “Bandland” merch area, ahead of the doors opening for PAX on Saturday morning. Huge numbers of fans – some in costumes, others wearing simply shirts and jackets reflecting their favorite franchises, all of them excited – were lined up out the door, eager to come in. My “performer” badge permitted me to strut right in and up to where the band’s material was already set up and waiting.

Bandland was less crowded than much of the actual expo areas, but it was staffed expertly by PAX’s volunteer “Enforcers,” who supplied the green room and took care of whatever needed taking care of. The Returners shared bandland with many of the other performers from that weekend: our own booth butted up next to Freezepop, who I knew and adored from days rocking out in Guitar Hero at FIEA. Not much further away were the other bands slated for the Returners’ Sunday night show: Bit Brigade, a speedrun-inspired band from Atlanta that I’d seen previously at MAGFest, and The Protomen, one of my all-time favorite groups of performers.

Curiously, there were a couple of humorists at the far end of the band tables, one of them being Kris Straub, a phenomenally talented and hugely funny cartoonist whose work I’ve admired from afar for years. I grabbed an opportunity before the hordes arrived to shake his hand and buy a couple of his books that I didn’t yet own: volumes one and two of Broodhollow, a creepy-yet-cute mystery story.

With the Returners’ booth well-staffed for the moment, I decided to set off and see what I could see of the convention itself. PAX covers more than seven buildings in the downtown Seattle area: In fact, its influence extended to the streets itself, with Mad Max themed cars (and armored maniacs) roving around.

Across the street from the main convention center, a monstous arm smashed a cop car, themed for a Magic the Gathering release timed to occur with PAX. If ever there was a way to get me interested in the card game again, this might be it…

Still, there was plenty to see just in the main expo hall, although I admit, I was taken in by so much of it that I neglected to take many pictures. More than two floors of the convention center were filled with booths big and small, dedicated to card games, board games, video games, and tabletop games. In fact, one of my first stops took me to a D&D outlet that had an old old Dark Sun booklet for pretty cheap!

The main expo hall was full of the kind of massive booths that I’d seen before at E3: the size of small buildings, these pavilions were dedicated to an entire game or franchise, and invited players to play early demos and buy shirts related to the game at hand. Unlike a lot of my previous convention experiences, I was largely uninterested in the big next-gen titles that were available: my interests leaned much more towards the smaller, independent games being created by small teams in untouched genres, like wartime propaganda, metro transportation, and amorphous fungal platforming. There were an outstanding number of small titles available to see, many of which I’d been following online since they were first revealed.

I also unexpectedly ran into my friends Ron and Shana! Hi guys!

After a quick lunch at a sub shop, I took the time to wander to the press area at the nearby Sheraton, where I crashed a demo being run by my old friends at n-Space! They’ve been developing a D&D game, Sword Coast Legends, and I was delighted to get my hands on it – and to touch base with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

I stopped by the board game building a bit later to poke my nose into an ongoing game of Watch the Skies, a SIX HOUR affair where dozens of players compete and collaborate in teams representing the nations of the world as they wrestle with the sudden appearance of aliens over Earth! While I’m glad that I didn’t give up six hours of my day at PAX to play this particular game, I’m very eager to play (or organize!) such an event sometime in the future.

I was glad to sit down for a bit after so much wandering, which was just fine because I was needed at the merch table while the band was interviewed! After a long evening of hawking shirts and CDs, we set out into the night to try and find dinner, only to get soaked by a Seattle downpour! I was soaked so thoroughly to the bone that I headed back to the hotel to dry off before I caught a cold!

Sunday

The day of the concert! I woke up and headed immediately back to Pike Place Market to visit another recommended spot: Piroshky Piroshky, a staple of the district, famous for its meat-stuffed Russian pastries! I bought a bevy of the treats and hauled them to the convention center, stuffing the band, our neighbors, and the other nearby volunteers full of savory breakfast.

I spent most of the rest of the day managing the booth, allowing the others a chance to wander the convention floor and see what PAX had to offer. I found myself wishing I’d worn a costume or at least a costume accessory to the show – such things caught the eyes of many passers-by! Lesson learned for next time.

I managed to get away briefly to meet a new friend – my friend Paolo had created a prototype card game that I’d been very fond of in recent months, and his co-creator Steve was running a demo at PAX! I stopped by the board game building once again to introduce myself, observe a game in-progress, and gawk at how far the game has come. The game, No Benefits, is a hilarious pastiche of life in a work week in a job that you hate and will do anything not to succeed at.

With a day spent generating hype for the show, it was with great anticipation that we loaded up all of the merch (and I do mean all: two suitcases full of rolled shirts and hoodies, and another duffel loaded with hundreds of CDs) and helped the volunteers escort the goods to Benaroya Hall (a destination I told customers about for two days straight, but still have difficulty saying.) With the band focusing on the sound-checking their gear – not a little bit of which was rented! – I took charge of the merch, coordinating table, presentation, and paths of entry (so that eager fans didn’t unnecessarily crowd past my peripheral!)

Before long, the doors opened, and the crowd poured in. I and the other plus-ones – Diana’s cousin Marc, and Lobos’s fiance Diana – took our places in the exclusive balcony seating and cheered our hearts out as our friends came on stage.

Needless to say, they put on an absolutely amazing performance, each of them shining brightly and supporting one another in front of a crowd of a thousand cheering fans.

I sprinted to the lobby as they began their grand finale – a rock’n’roll rendition of the theme from Phantom of the Opera – ready for a flood of fans to arrive. To my relief, only a few direhards arrived as soon as the show was over: many more held their seats for the follow-up performances of Bit Brigade and the Protomen, both whom put on spectacular shows.

Once the music was done, the lobby was swarmed, and Returners CDs and shirts began flying off the shelves. It was all we could do to keep thanking people – and taking their money – while trying to coordinate shirt sizes and band signatures en masse.

All in all, it was a terrifically successful night.

Monday

What to say about Monday? I slept as late as I dared and spent an hour with the band at the convention center, selling a couple more albums and packing to go our separate ways. Once again, I was flying across the country on a separate pair of jets than the rest, but we trotted over to the rail station together. I spotted Zoe Quinn, a developer who I’ve long admired, standing on a sidewalk right as we rushed by! I stopped to shake her hand. She’s amazing.

We bid our farewells at the airport and I settled in for a long, long flight back to Texas. It was well past bedtime before I got home and went to bed, ready to return to the real world.

PAX was an extraordinary trip. I was quite taken with the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and hope to see more of it. Even better, I got to see some of my best friends put on the best show of their lives, and get cheered on by a jam-packed symphony hall. I can only hope that I get to continue sharing in their adventures!