Dead To Me

by Wardog

Wardog mourns PC gaming.
I couple of semi-related events have taken place recently to inspire something of a personal epiphany in relation to my gaming life.

The first was the release of The Witcher - which I actually pre-ordered and then bought on the day it came out with the same trembling and eager desperation a dying man in a desert would reach for a bottle of water. For those not getting the picture: even half decent cRPGs are as rare as diamond dust these days. Anyway, The Witcher is fabulous and I love it with passion and devotion. But what's significantly less fabulous is the fact that I have to play it with a book at the ready so I have something to do during the loading screens. To give the game credit, I am playing it on a machine that brushes perilously close to the minimum specs and the loading screens aren't insane in the way that, for example, Mark of Chaos's loading screens are insane (loading screens for the loading screens I ask you) but they're still extensive. And gaming should not be a multi-tasking operation. As the guy who sounds (and looks) scarily like Dan has already said far more wittily than I can be bothered to, I shouldn't have to do something else for entertainment while playing a game. Nor is it an insignificant amount of time. I know I'm a swift reader but I've read the following books exclusively while playing the The Witcher: The Last Wish, The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Indiscretion, half of Rebecca's Tale and The Mirador. And I'm only on Act 2.

Now that's about playing The Witcher. It should also be noted that it took me about six hours to get the damn thing to run at all. Not since the days of games arriving on 12 floppies and requiring a boot disc have I sweated and cursed to such a degree over a game. The bulk of the problems, as ever, lay with the graphics. I can only presume The Witcher is a natural optimist because it automatically started itself with full scale graphical bells and whistles, shadows, water mapping, you fucking name it. Naturally, this gave my computer all kinds of heart attacks and instigated the kind of catastrophic full system crash that required me to do a complete repair of the still palpitating Windows. This was followed was the usual Gameplay Versus Graphics hokey-cokey in which you minutely alter each of the seventy buttons and sliders in order to get the appropriate compromise between the game looking like arse and playing like arse.

This was, again, complicated by the fact that every time I changed anything, even by a hairsbreadth, I'd have to exit and restart the game, occasionally via a system-stuttering crash. Finally, just when I'd managed to get that sorted, The Witcher discovered various background programmes I had running (anti-virus, anti-spyware packages, the usual stuff) and took to crashing in hissy-fitty earnest. So The Witcher essentially runs, and by runs I think I mean limps, in the equivalent of a quiet padded cell in a completely uninhabited part of my computer. It doesn't exactly feel stable or safe. I keep expecting it to try and set the house on fire.

The second epiphany-inspiring event was that Dan and I pooled our resources and bought a second hand PS2 for what basically amounted to No Money, or least No Money if you happen to exist, as we do, on a grown up's salary and a teenager's hobbies. I know this might seem a little mad considering the PS2 has surrendered its console crown to the next generation. But since I don't really identify as a console gamer and therefore didn't want to spend very much money on either the console itself or its games, it was the perfect choice. The PS2 has an impressive and extensive back catalogue, most of which can be picked up for a sneeze in any second hand game store. Or, err, borrowed off our friends. Ahem.

I haven't really paid much attention to consoles since I left home, leaving my 8 bit NES and my battered PS1 in the hands of my father, so I'd forgotten how fucking amazing they are. I don't mean the games as such - not that they aren't fun - I mean the fact that if you fancy playing a game, you can turn on your console and you can *gasp* play the game. Just like that. And when you want to stop playing the game, you can turn off your console. Again, just like that. There's never any question that the game won't run, it doesn't take ten minutes at either end to boot up and power down, you don't require extra, on-the-side amusements to keep you sane through the waiting processes that seem to be accepted as a necessary part of the experience and you don't have to download half a gig of patches to make the game even remotely stable or playable. As an ex-devoted PC gamer, I can't even begin to tell you how amazing it feels to walk into a shop, see a game I quite fancy playing and buy the thing without having to spend five intense, anxious minutes analysing the spec requirements and wondering if I can muff it.

My computer is about two years old. She was hot stuff when I bought her and she ought to be in her prime but the sort of games the PC gaming industry are consistently producing have rendered her pretty much past it. In fact, she was middle-aged and fading after about half a year, which is shockingly disproportionate to the amount of cold hard cash I forked over for her. If she was a desktop, then she'd be upgradeable but, even then, since she would need new graphics, more RAM and probably a better processor to even have a hope of catching up, the cost of an upgrade would probably amount to half the cost of a new machine anyway. She's just about capable of playing system-eaters like Oblivion and Neverwinter Nights 2 but it's usually at the cost of making these beautiful games look shite. And, quite frankly, I'm sick of it. Once, just once, I'd like to play a game with the water options turned on. I want shadows. I want skies. I want reflections. It's not that I play games specifically for graphical wows, it's just that if those are included as part of the package I want to be able to experience them. It's the equivalent of buying a first class ticket and being told you can't actually sit in the first class cabin but here are the complimentary peanuts.

I keep thinking things are going to slow down and stabilise but they never do. And despite the fact that most people who play PC games (except for parents-basement teenagers and game reviewers) probably have middle to low end machines, games are always designed to use the very latest technological advancements. I can see why this happens as it's a sure fire way to make your game look amazing and get noticed and perhaps someday I'll be rich enough not to care. But the fact remains that it's pretty much killed PC gaming for me. This is a very personal conclusion, it does not have wider implications. I don't believe PC Gaming is dead or about to be supplanted by console gaming. The fact remains that there are some games - strategy games, for the most part, like Civilisation Roman Numeral, Age of Empires, Heroes of Might and Magic, Historical Period Total War and certain types of old school RPGs - that are best, and possibly only, played on a PC. And, although I've whinged about patching, internet available custom made content has the power to transform games are merely mediocre into something far greater than themselves. Neverwinter Nights I springs to mind and, to a large extent, Oblivion which only really became a rewarding experience for me when I had modded it out of all recognition. But, in spite of this, the fact remains that I have neither the money nor the inclination to cling frantically to the bucking bronto of PC Gaming. I'm just too tired.

I'll finish The Witcher (and probably a pile of books I might otherwise not have got round to) and I have an impressive backlist of cRPGs that may be worth re-visiting at some point, especially considering they are now old enough to actually play well on my computer, but the only games on the horizon that even remotely interest me are Bioware's much anticipated Dragon Age and Ubisoft's Assassins Creed. Both are evidently going to be system-guzzlers (the speculative specs for the latter are actually double my computer's capabilities) but I see myself at a crossroads here. In order to play two games, I can fork out 1000+ for a brand new shiny computer that will be at its peak for six months. Or I can mess around joyfully with the PS2 until the Christmas frenzy has died down and then cough up a mere 200 for an Xbox 360 or PS3, safe in the knowledge that either will last me at least until the next generation of consoles emerges and probably even further, while suffering no depreciation of capability or quality in the meantime.

I say cross roads. There's only really one sensible direction to travel.

And I have to wonder what the fuck the PC gaming industry thinks its doing.

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