Around October every year, Australia’s gaming community starts congregating in Melbourne. Following the developer-centric Melbourne International Games Week comes Australia’s largest, most popular gaming and culture convention – Penny Arcade Expo.

Having grown out of the popular webcomic into an expo, and subsequently being imported from the US a number of years ago, PAX Australia has only gone from strength to strength.

Proudly encompassing all things nerd – from video games to cosplay to comics to tabletop games to tech – PAX Australia is three days of crowds and pressed bodies and excited energy, with just enough room to catch your breath before heading back into the utopia of popular geekery. This year’s packed to capacity show in the Melbourne Convention Centre drew likeminded individuals from all around the country to hang out with friends new and old, while also discovering a plethora of goodies to fill the suitcases home.

While many of the major game publishers were there – Ubisoft, Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, Bandai Namco – the lineup of unreleased triple-A playable titles was a little scant. Probably due to having release windows either too early or too late for PAX, the publishers instead relied upon the recent large releases. Mario Odyssey occupied the floor at Nintendo, while Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Origins and South Park: The Fractured But Whole supported Far Cry 5’s playable demo. Sony and Xbox both focused on their new hardware demos, with plenty of indie games and some fan favourite triple-A titles designed to test the new console tech on display.

My personal highlight of the big companies was Bandai Namco, who had the adorable Ghibli-esque JRPG Ni No Kuni 2 playable, as well as upcoming vampire Dark Souls-like Code Vein. Ni No Kuni 2 is both charming and beautiful, while Code Vein is flashy and tough and thankfully less hokey-anime than I had first feared from early trailers,

Also in attendance were the major gaming tech companies. Acer, Razer, Alienware, Thermaltake, Coolermaster, LG, HP, Asus, ROG, Logitech, MSI, Nvidia, AMD, Audia Technica, Astro – all the names were there representing the hardware scene and hawking their wares on the show floor. The sheer number of hardware stalls was overwhelming – not least because of the frequent giveaways publicised at maximum volume, and drawing large crowds.

Scattered between the large publishers and the hardware booths were smaller merch booths, selling smaller nerd ephemera, such as shirts or pins or comic books or figurines. Packed out but somehow more subdued and respected, booths such as Sanshee or King’s Comics were popular for slightly more obscure goods.

Forever the most anticipated part of PAX is the diverse indie games section, and this year did not disappoint. Whoever organised the booth layout this year was some kind of eldritch genius, seeming to have more games on display than ever before, while simultaneously making the area feel more spacious and having a higher volume interested visitors. The area was always wall to wall with keen-eyed players, trying their hand at whatever caught their eye. Passionate developers mixed it with absorbed players, joyfully sharing in the raw creativity on show.

Of all the wonderful games on display, a handful captured me and stuck in my mind:

Projection – a 2D platformer with a beautiful gold and silhouette aesthetic where light and shadow alters how platforms perform.

Sinner – Sacrifice for Redemption – an action RPG best described as a Dark Souls-like boss rush, although that cliché doesn’t do it nearly enough justice.

Elden – Path of the Forgotten – a top-down creepy horror experience with a contemplative and tense atmosphere.

The Eyes of Ara – a 3D point and click adventure game set in a mysterious castle in the vein of both Myst and The Room.

City of Brass – a timed 3D rogue-lite loot-em-up positioning you as a thief in an Arabian Nights inspired city of the undead.

Kana Quest – a tile-swapping game that mixes matching mechanics with the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, teaching you the fundamentals of how the Japanese language is pronounced

Odd Gods – an isometric RPG reminiscent of classic Fallout in mechanics, with a time travelling sci-fi twist.

The Gardens Between – a gorgeous puzzle adventure game that strings together surreal vignettes of isolated islands, controlled solely via passive time manipulation.

The talk of the indie game section was Rumu. Sydney’s Robot House was showing the charming game that puts players in the shoes of a lonely robotic vacuum cleaner in a quiet house. A top-down point and click adventure by way of Gone Home’s environment-driven sentimentality, Rumu looks touching and gently affecting, questioning the nature of AI and sentience.

Also getting a lot of buzz was Winter’s Wake, by Josh “Cheeseness” Bush. On the surface, Winter’s Wake is a classic text adventure similar to Zork. Except, it has 3D controls. The player has to navigate a world wholly described by text using standard first person 3D controls, with some point and click thrown in for good measure. It’s a perplexing mixture of mechanics that works really strangely well.

Ever busier than indie games was the tabletop section, where attendees could chill out over a tabletop game, either borrowing one from the library of games available or using their own games brought from home or bought from the many booths selling their tabletop wares.

And there were many booths selling tabletop wares. From large stores that specialise in card and board games, to small independent sellers with their own games on sale, there was something for tabletop beginners and veterans alike.

New this year was the almost secretive addition of the Blushbox exhibit. Secreted away in a quiet room on the second floor of the panel wing, this 18+ exhibit displayed a range of adult only sex positive games, like Luxuria Superbia and Genital Jousting – the latter of which was played with real dildo joysticks.

The Diversity Lounge was back again this year, providing a relaxing space for people to experience a supportive, diverse atmosphere. On hand were LGBTQI+ information and support services, as well as a number of in-development tabletop games about queer issues and sexuality.

And of course there were PAX panels. This year featured a somewhat subdued panel lineup, with seemingly fewer panels on a more focused array of topics. It felt like there were few new topics on offer this year, with the most notable new addition being the large number of speedrunning shows, which had their own dedicated space on the show floor. Another new addition revolved around player-generated content – specifically photo mode in games. One of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s lead designers, Tim Stobo, sat on a number of photo mode panels, talking specifically about how Guerrilla approached in-game photography.

This went hand-in-hand with the Horizon: Zero Dawn art exhibition, which featured some gorgeous in-game captures from the game in an art gallery setting, hidden away in a quiet corner of the conference hall wing.

Despite the continued commitment to diversity and the delightfully high proportion of women panellists, it was a little disappointing to see only a few people of colour on the panel lineups. Overall, the panels felt like a step backwards from previous years in content and organisation, however it feels like a slight stumble along the path rather than the beginning of a backwards slide.

Which is a little like the entirety of the show, honestly. It felt familiar, and friendly, and inclusive, and caring. But it didn’t feel particularly fresh this year. Understandably, there is a limit to improvement in these kinds of events, and I don’t think PAX Australia has hit that limit just yet. PAX Australia is far from stagnating, and, despite a few small hiccups, it still clearly takes the prime spot as convention of the year.

PAX Australia is still the pop culture event of the year.