A hurricane of pure video-game bliss is set to pummel Boston this weekend, as thousands of gamers converge on the Hynes Convention Center for the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). For the gaming convention's first foray to the East Coast, PAX has amassed a mighty stockpile of geek icons, among them Saturday-night-concert headliner Jonathan Coulton, who exploded into the consciousness of Internet nerderati in 2006 with his programmer anthem "Code Monkey." Coulton specializes in simultaneously sweet, absurd, heartbreaking ditties written from the perspective of such difficult-to-empathize-with characters as zombies and giant squids. In "Still Alive," the closing song to Valve Corporation's smash action/puzzle game Portal, he immortalizes the chirrupy passive-aggressive rantings of a murderous artificial intelligence named GLaDOS. Last week, en route to the next gig on his six-date tour with They Might Be Giants, he took a few minutes to chat about PAX, bionic body mods, and Portal 2.
WHAT CAN NEWBIES EXPECT AT PAX? It's one of those things that could have easily become a trade show, but the people who run it are really intent on making sure that it is for the fans and for people who love gaming. So it's just sort of an awesome time for people to hang out and look at crazy people in crazy costumes and also to just play some games. . . . They do this huge rock concert for thousands of people, and it's a really exciting, thrilling thing to be part of a community that's so intensely focused in this one physical space instead of dispersed across the entire Internet.
HOW DID YOU GET HOOKED UP WITH VALVE? I did a show in Seattle, and afterward, a couple of people came up and introduced themselves and said they worked at Valve. And they said, "You should come talk to us. Come hang out in the office and meet some people." So I got to play an early version of Portal before it was finished, and [game writer] Erik Wolpaw said, "I've always wanted to have a video-game moment where it sort of devolved into a musical-theater number." So we kicked that around, and as it turns out, the best way to deal with that is to sort of put it at the end, as a little coda to the game when you finish it. And I was just thrilled with the way it turned out, thrilled with the way it was received.
ARE YOU INVOLVED IN PORTAL 2? Yes, I believe it's been announced, so I can say that they have asked me to do more music for Portal 2. And I'm very much looking forward to working with them again.
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE TROUBADOUR FORPOPULAR SCIENCE? Well, like all good jobs, that one happened because of a poker game at a futurist convention. I was at a thing called PopTech, and one of those nights I found myself at a poker game with several people, some of them being editors from Popular Science. Somebody said, over a glass of whiskey, "You should be our contributing troubadour and write an official song for our magazine." And the next day, when we were all sober, it still made sense. And then one of the first things we did was, they asked me to write a five-song album [Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms] to go with one of the issues of their magazine. It was all about the future of the body and the way technology would transform body-related medicine — pharmaceuticals, artificial muscles, DNA scanning, all this stuff.