MAGFest 12 (2014) — Con Lang Syne, or There’s Cold in Them There Hills

It would appear that my dealings last year with MAGFest really lit a fire under the asses of the Anime Jam Session staff, because I wasn’t going at it alone this year. That didn’t exactly mean things were going smoothly, though. I don’t know if I was told earlier and had just simply forgotten about it, but being told we were going back to National Harbor in Maryland for the Music and Gaming Festival came as a bit of a shock. “We are?” I had asked. “Well alright then; aside from a dining experience that made me never want to support anything associated with the Washington Nationals even by the slightest connection, I actually enjoyed my experience last year.” But—again—either I had been told and forgotten or just simply wasn’t clued in enough; imagine the look of surprise on my face when I raised the question, “When is it?”

I had just left 2013 in my proverbial dust when 2014 came right up to me and went, “Happy New Year! You’ve got a big convention weekend in the first weekend of January.” This isn’t a condemnation, obviously; I very much like going to conventions, taking pictures, visiting panels, and doing a whole wealth of other convention related things. And speaking of wealth, the day before leaving for the con was the last big holiday paycheck I’d collect, thanks to racking up all sorts of overtime…and that’s not even counting the last-minute shift switching I had to do to get the weekend off (I apologize for anyone listening to the special drunken edition of the podcast, because my claims of having off New Year’s Eve and Day are now retroactively incorrect).

In any event, I got the scheduling reworked the way I needed, and Thursday afternoon saw me taking off for the D.C. area, charging down the highways despite many, many, many warnings of white death falling upon the northeast (translation: it’s supposed to snow more than a little bit). I didn’t see flake one until well into the evening, and that’s when I was already at dinner; more on that in a second. The Gaylord National hotel is just as I remember it: A-shaped floor plans, beautiful lobbies with gaudy Christmas decorations—don’t these people know Christmas is over?—the promise of an on-ice show that same weekend which no doubt must confuse people here for it and seeing con goers in their cosplays and geek-related paraphernalia, and exorbitant prices on everything in the building. The room was packed to the brim, as my contact for said room doesn’t have a problem with putting as many people as possible into a room. Nothing I haven’t experienced before. The only major concern with this was, of course, room keys. Only people whose names were on the bill for the room could go down to the lobby and get additional keys, and they weren’t around for most of Thursday. So the ones we had had to be passed around and carefully watched. Once I was settled, I started asking around for somewhere to get dinner. I wasn’t even going to think about the hotel’s restaurants, as their prices were tantamount to highway robbery. The Cadillac Ranch came highly recommended, as the prices were decent and the appetizers were filling, as long as you were willing to sit at the bar. I did, and I’m glad I did; aside from running into old acquaintances, I got to meet an Ash Ketchum cosplayer, who, much to my surprise, turned out to be a guy named Emile, a.k.a. ChuggaaConroy of the Runaway Guys. He was incredibly chill to hang out with, and he, I, and the two others he was with, spent plenty of time eating, bullshitting and playing Pokémon X/Y on their 3DSes. I had mine, but I dumbly left it in the room.

As I’ve said in previous reports that take me to the D.C. area, the Gaylord National hotel is, as expected, a very nice, beautiful hotel. That said, everything in the area is expensive as fuck-all. I didn’t make the same mistake last year, staying well the hell away from National Pastime. The restaurants in the area were serviceable, with me (inadvertently) having a bunch of my meals at the Cadillac Ranch bar and grill. I got lucky Thursday and Friday nights, taking advantage of the appetizer special at the bar both times. Still didn’t stop me from spending almost $20 during those meals (but that have more to do with my propensity to tip generously).

That night, among my meandering around the convention area, I checked out the “Auditions for the Worst Movie Ever” panel. Before that I had a rather serendipitous run-in with one Jon St. John, king of MAGFest and all around awesome guy to hang out with. He was hanging out in the lobby talking to people, and I briefly spoke with him; he remembered who I was, new beard and all. Funnily enough, I told him I was heading to a panel of his that was supposed to start soon. His response: “…I’m in a panel?” Apparently since the panel was being held at midnight on the first day, it generated a little bit of confusion. But in any event, we all made it to the panel in time. The script of the “movie” was based around the “horrors” of video games. Naturally it’s intentionally badly written, with insane dialogue, cliched actors, wooden delivery, all the hallmarks of shitty movies. The panel was hosted by, among others, king of MAGFest Jon St. John, and Linkara. Everyone involved was getting into the performance. Before the panel started, people who wanted to participate got to put their names in a hat, whereupon they would randomly draw them to come up and read from the scripts for their characters. However, if you corpsed, flubbed a line, stuttered, or did anything like that, you were out, you’d be replaced, and they’d try the scene all over again. The night was unquestionably stolen by a guy dressed up as a Muppet alien—the ones who go “Yep-yep-yep-yep-yep-yep-yep-yep” or “Nope-nope-nope-nope-nope-nope” constantly. Another guy proposed to his girlfriend with Jon leading in with the voice of Duke Nukem. She accepted (cue the “YES!” chant). I got called up to perform as well, except that I got a look at the “prizes” they were offering—signed copies of bad movies on DVD—and I kinda lost my concentration, stumbling through the line and dropping out early. Seriously; as much as I appreciate the value of autographed memorabilia (at least if it’s autographed by someone who worked on it in some way), I’m not going to want a DVD on my shelf that I’m not going to or never have watched, autographed or not, and I’m definitely not going to sully my collection with such hallmarks of cinematic futility like Big Momma’s House 3, Green Lantern, and Green Hornet.

Friday started out a little better, at least I hoped it had. I got to one of the restaurants in the hotel for the breakfast buffet. They had plenty to eat, but their prices were based on what type of food you had—if you ate just the a la carte stuff, you didn’t pay as much if you ate any of the hot food (eggs, breakfast meats, etc.) and not as much if you went to the omelet maker. And guess when you learned of this? About halfway through your first plate when the check came in! Needless to say, this felt like highway robbery, and I highly recommend avoiding the buffet if at all possible. Doesn’t help its case that the prices went up from the last time I was there…

I didn’t waste much time after that getting right into the thick of things, going to a panel entitled “The Magic of Games: a Promise to Future Generations.” The panel was run by one James Portnow, who argued that, among other things, games are more of an art than they are a pastime—though the pastime elements are still very widely available—and that the video game industry outgrew the movie industry in roughly 20 years. He talked about his most memorable experience as a kid, one that really turned him into a gamer. He was on line at a trade show at a Nintendo event, Nintendo World’s Fair. He was the only kid lining up to play a very specific game—one that rewarded your victory against the first major boss by building a bridge to new lands, effectively opening up the world. And that as he crossed that bridge, he saw the screen depicting his party setting out on adventure. He was talking about the original Final Fantasy game. It was a very moving story. He also railed in part against the school system in this country, lambasting the fact that we still rely on a style of schooling based on 19th century Prussia that’s concerned with churning out more/better factory workers and/or clerks than actually educating anyone. He’s not exactly wrong.

I wasn’t hungry thanks to breakfast, so I didn’t get any lunch; instead I went straight to another panel, “Video Game Name That Tune X”. If you remember the old game show Name That Tune, well that’s where the idea came from. The panel was run by X-Strike Studios, the same people who gave the world River City Rumble. Good looking out, fellas! They had a handful of contestants on stage, guessing video game songs sorted into numerous categories based on the games themselves, subject matter, mood, etc. The winner from each of the two initial rounds got to play for the championship in the last round, the infamous “bidding war” round; i.e. “I can name that tune in X notes.” Only here, it was seconds of a track. First to five points won. It started civilly enough, but soon devolved into a pissing contest as to who could run their opponent down to the one and half-second windows. The final round was won in spectacular style by a guy cosplaying as the featureless border inspector, the protagonist of Papers, Please. He correctly called out the opening to Skyrim after hearing LESS than half a second of the track. Suffice to say he got a standing ovation.

Speaking of Papers, Please, you’re probably wondering what, if anything, I cosplayed as for the con. The answer: nothing really. You may have noted from my Facebook page a post in which I make it sound like I got a parcel from the Order of the Ezic Star. Turns out, I did have a cosplay lined up, that of an Ezic messenger. I tried making his featureless face out of a piece of black card-stock paper tied around my face, with a section cut out for the nose and the aforementioned Ezic star drawn on in silver marker. It sucked because I couldn’t see out of it—the little eye holes I made couldn’t be too big without giving away the look, in my view—it was held on with string tied around my head, which was very uncomfortable, and after about fifteen minutes of sweating, the “mask” started to fall apart. So I decided “fuck it” and ripped it off. Maybe next time I cosplay I’ll have figured out a more stable solution.

It was after that that I came across one of the weirdest and most surreal panels of the con: “Why Captain N: the Game Master: is a Masterpiece.” Beforehand, he talked about the double-standard of Young Justice being canceled because preteen girls were taking an interest in it (to say nothing of it having terrible merchandise, but that’s not the point), and that if My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was given the same scrutiny, it’d be gone three episodes into the first season. Back on topic, he made some points that the show vindicated the hero’s actions, as there were several times where Kevin talked about playing and replaying games to learn from his mistakes, and not just be instantly awesome at them. He also praises Lana, who isn’t content to be the typical distressed princess and takes a more proactive role in leading the N-Team. Objectively these are all very good points, but he also did attribute a lot of the weirder elements of the show to the fact that it was made in the 80s and cocaine may or may not have been involved.

As well presented as the panel was, I’m not entirely sure whether or not it was a satire…

I also checked out the pool again, and while it was nice as always, I’ve covered it in previous cons held at the Gaylord, so I’ll skip it. I will say that the “arcade” in the hotel near the pool is still exactly the same as the last time I was there.

Throughout my time at MAGFest, I was in and out of the massive game/dealers’ room, which took up a big chunk of warehouse-like floor space on the bottom floor. The initial little corner of it was for the artists and the dealers, but the rest was far and away taken up by the gaming (as to be expected from a gaming convention). Not only were there the standard TV setups with all sorts of consoles playing any number of games you could imagine, as well as games run on projectors and shone on the walls or kiosks with white sheets hanging off them, but there were bona fide arcade cabinets and pinball tables also in plentiful supply, all of which turned to free play (a few old cabinets required opening the coin catch and flicking the little switch that triggers adding credits, but the effect was the same. Tournaments were also run throughout the weekend, but I only participated in one, and on Saturday.

I did a fair bit of gaming and tooling around the convention area, snapping up photos and the like throughout the convention center as well as the city. I would’ve explored more of National Harbor more, but my name wasn’t technically on the room list (i.e. I didn’t actually reserve the room), so I couldn’t “go in and out” of the hotel’s parking lot as I liked without having to pay and get another ticket on reentry. The system is deeply flawed, to say the least.

It wasn’t until later that evening when I attended a voice acting panel, this time helmed by Jon St. John, Arin Hanson a.k.a. Egoraptor, Matt Mercer, Wes Johnson, and voice acting’s favorite married couple, John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain. It was called “Voice-a-Palooza” and it was two hours of them firing off lines written and submitted by the audience, while recreating other scenes in their characters’ voices. Highlights of this panel included Egoraptor and St. John’s dueling Duke Nukem voices, McLain singing absolutely profane lines in an operatic voice—complete with standing ovation, and I’m legitimately surprised no one threw roses at the woman’s spot on the table—and a reenacting of scenes from The Big Lebowski with St. John as The Dude and Lowrie’s Sniper as Mr. Lebowski.

The rest of the evening passed without incident, leading into Saturday. I didn’t make the same mistake of going to the buffet again, instead taking a chance on the little coffee shop directly across from it. A breakfast sandwich and some juice was enough to suffice, especially given the alternatives (although they got my original order wrong; I’m guessing they ran out of breakfast meats to put on it). I was eager to get up, get ready and get on with the convention, as early Saturday morning, there was a panel I very much wanted to attend: “Is Good Writing Important for Game Design?” Friends of mine will know exactly why such a panel appeals to me. Now I could easily just go with “Short answer: yes; long answer: fuck yes” for a description/retort to this panel and be done with it (as apropos as it is). It wasn’t so much a panel as it was a discussion; it wasn’t actually run by any panelist. We all gathered in a room to discuss not just the benefits of good writing for video games, but our own stories of how good—and bad—writing moved us, even in cases such as Mass Effect 3’s ending which got everyone pissed off. It was also worth noting that the chairs were still arranged in rows for most of the discussion. It wasn’t until I personally got tired of craning my head around to see who was talking that I decided to turn my chair towards everyone else…which made everyone else rearrange their chairs spontaneously in a circle. I’m a trendsetter like that.

There was more gaming throughout the day, as well as more picture taking, but what I was especially looking forward to was the Pokémon Puzzle League tournament that afternoon. It’s one of my favorite N64 games, as well as a favorite Pokémon game, even if it is just an odd Panel De Pon / Tetris Attack reskin. I was all set to compete, and…crashed and burned in the first round. My luck sucks.

The rest of the day was much ado about nothing until I got to the “Creating Audio for the 8- and 16-bit Generation” hosted by Tommy Tallarico, a man who we at Anime Jam Session specifically wanted to interview. I had heard some complaints from other people at the con that Tallarico came off as a massive asshole. Given my experience with his panel and the interview, I…didn’t quite understand what they were getting at. He was incredibly cool by my accounts, and his stories about working to produce music and his difficulties therein were enjoyable. It should’ve come as a sort of sign when Nintendo’s method of making music involved sending a sound byte to them, only for them to return it in their preferred “.sol” format. Aside from Video Games Live, his biggest joy came from the work he did on the game Earthworm Jim, which was, as he describes it, a dozen programmers trying to make each other laugh. Of course, it wasn’t just them laughing when the final product came out.

The big panel I and about half of the Saturday crowd wanted to see was “Atop the Fourth Wall Live!” at midnight, hosted by That Guy with the Glasses mainstay Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug. I had to get there over an hour before, not just to get a good seat, but knowing that panels like this would result in lines wrapping all the way down the very long hallways of the hotel/convention center. I managed to get a spot a few feet from the door, but thankfully I didn’t have to sit there and be bored and/or do nothing that whole time. I had my 3DS with me, obviously, and there were plenty of cosplayers wandering around near the line…including a Snowflame cosplayer who absolutely stole the show. Once we were inside, Linkara told us he was filming the panel for his special “live” edition of AT4W…and by that he meant it would show up on his website once it was all finished. He also gave us a sneak peak of his latest episode, set to debut on Monday and already saved on his computer: Marville 6-7, the last two issues in a miniseries that ended up driving him mad(der than usual). And as usual for his live events, he got everyone to sing along to his show’s opening theme, “The Ballad of Linkara”.

The next morning everyone in the room got all packed and parted ways. The suitcase holding service by the hotel was much better put together from previous conventions, which had a huge unused room to store everyone’s luggage, separated by what floor you stayed on. Aside from getting the aforementioned Tallarico interview—and he was incredibly chill with setting it up for me, I got a sound byte of Linkara plugging the VOG Network. I had asked him the night before once his panel was over how he felt about doing plugs like that, and he simply told me to come to the “Internet Personality Meet-n-Greet” panel the next day. I did, and he was amicable enough to perform the plug. And he didn’t think of me as too weird or unsettling (at least I hope not…). Aside from that, I got the Tallarico interview, which went much better than I thought it would considering I had only my own personal digital camera to work with, as well as borrowing the tripod of a guy who interviewed him before me. Also, I was taller than the guy by about a head and a half. That much look odd on camera…

There was nothing left for me to do after that, so I packed up the car and headed out. My biggest fear was getting extorted by the hotel for parking there the whole weekend. But as I pulled up to the exit, I saw a concierge from the hotel…and sweet, sweet salvation. He was asking people if they prepaid or had a room key. I still had mine, and he directed me to the center lane. It was automated. I swiped my key card. The gate opened. And after blinking once or twice, I sped through the gate so fast you’d think I was trying to hit 88mph before getting to the highways.

This was one of my better experiences with the Gaylord hotel, as well as National Harbor as a whole. I’ve started to like MAGFest, and I estimated that they were able to get more of the floorspace for their con this time around. The only thing I really didn’t like was that I had to go at it alone, not knowing that my associates were going to be hampered by bad weather. I certainly don’t blame them for it, obviously; I rather like cons when I can spend them with people I know and am friends with. Aside from the overcharging at the buffet and some of the restaurants in town, I didn’t stretch my budget too thin, and had done minimal damage to my wallet. So all in all, MAGFest 12 was great. If their trend of using a different video game franchise as a design theme continues, I can only imagine what they’ll use for 13.

I hope it’s a Pokémon theme, that way the badges can look like…well, actual badges. I’ve got an image in my head of the MAGFest logo done in the blue and yellow of the Pokémon logo and it’s not going anywhere at the moment.

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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