As is sometimes the case in life, love blossomed in the back seat of a car, and heartbreak soon followed. It was 2004, the car was a Vauxhall Astra – in a shade of red that years later would give way to a chipped pink – and in the back seat was me and a copy of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The love was crisp and immediate: weapons removed, high-tech typeface, and a hero with smoldering green night-vision goggles. The grief was predictable, but nonetheless cast a shadow over the months and years to come.
First, arriving home and sentencing the PC CD-ROM to an indeterminate, non-eligable sentence in my dad’s laptop – a bible-thick Toshiba, in business blue. Second, the promise of a sumptuous CGI opening film – busy ports, busier US Navy SEALS, the supremely rendered lapping of dirty water. Finally, a deluge of alarming messages: the white X on a bright red badge, like a plague cross tagged on a cursed house, accompanied by the peremptory burst of a Windows XP error noise. Then nothing. The title of this game was born from the scheme of its villain, who spoke the phrase “pandora tomorrow” into an encrypted telephone every twenty-four hours, and thus delayed the start of armageddon. But it sounded like a dirty personal joke: the promise of thrills held permanently at bay. Wherever the Toshiba ended up, that disc is probably still buried inside – a shiny cockade, sizzling like an egg cracked in a hot skillet and hardening into a silvery slime.
Of course, I was a fool. The laptop – while packing a DVD drive and adorned with diamond-shaped media player buttons – wasn’t designed with the intention of shifting reality. It was intended for word processing, email and a bit of light browsing – humble functions, which would eventually come to a halt in the middle of a sticky deluge of Dr Pepper. This basic problem, to any reasonably experienced player of PC games, would have been obvious. The problem was that being a PC game player was not a reasonable experience. It required large reserves of cash, on the one hand, and the common sense and courage to suggest that those vile blocks under our desks – heavy and buzzing, the hue of unbrushed teeth – could be rearranged in devotion to our hobbies.
Even now, it’s hard to get rid of the idea that when we play a game on a PC, we’re misbehaving, on some fundamental level, by diverting these legitimately bland machines from the course of their real, sensible purpose. . When someone on Twitter mentioned the lack of Fez on PC, and the game’s creator, Phil Fish, replied, “BOO HOO. PCs are for spreadsheets,” it was clear that beyond the urge to tease, Fish – who grew up under Nintendo’s thumb – had tapped into something deeply felt. To watch a seasoned PC wrangler prognosticate a game’s ills – curiously without panicking, even intrigued by the challenge – and prescribe a trip to the dark pane of its data files, there to scroll to a specified column and replace the word “FALSE” by the word “TRUE” is to feel the trace of the spreadsheet. There is always that Fezdespite Fish’s retort, has been brought to PC, where an audience was waiting to find out. And just go to YouTube and take a look at the sunny pastures of Red Dead Redemption II, as they’re filtered through the chambers of an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090, to understand why the wait and potential worry is worth it. Oh, and the price of this particular graphics card? £1,399. BOOOOOO.
Enter the Steam Deck, the portable gaming PC that unleashes, with a hiss under pressure, across the land. The company responsible for this brutal slab of glass and brushed plastic is Valve, which ships it directly to customers. This approach has the downside of being slow, but its advantages are that (a) Valve can weed out resellers, who like to buy in bulk and raise the price; (b) the company can measure its sales – approximately 6,400 shipments per week, which should soon double – more precisely; and (c) when you receive your Deck, it displays the address of Valve Corporation, which is not only appropriate, given that the shape of the packaging would suggest that you ordered a length of pipe, but has l added benefit of making you feel involved in something secret.
This feeling is only heightened when you open it. The Deck, housed in a hard case, is wrapped with a card, which reads: “Your games go ahead”. The inside of the box comes with suggestions on where to locate these places. “In a hammock” and “in the subway” are joined by more intriguing ideas: “in a test chamber” – naturally – “in a submarine”, “sulla ruota panoramic” and, even better, “on the throne “. “Indeed, as is the case with the Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck nestles in those welcoming nooks – the beds, the sofas, the top of the stairs. No wonder Shigeru Miyamoto described the setting of The Legend of Zelda as “a miniature garden that you can put in a drawer and revisit whenever you want”, and said that his collection of games is a “drawer full of playgrounds”. The game has always been inseparably linked to the house. It might be a joy for your games to go places, but the real fun is when those places – submarines, test chambers, and miniature gardens – can be tucked into furniture.
Not that the Switch comparison is very helpful. Of course, the two consoles must be cradled, with the help perhaps of a lathe; or to fix above his chest, the elbows planted in the mattress like a pair of pegs. But these creatures were designed by very different companies. While Nintendo likes to put you in its gear, tying the snug duvet around your neck, Valve, following the example set by its most prominent game, hands you a crowbar and lets you pry. Install Windows, go to the Epic Game Store and GOG, flip it over and use it to carry steaming cups of tea, or use it for self-defense – you can do, more or less, as you wish. Those at Valve may have watched the panning of the portable gaming space and spotted an opportunity for pleasant and fruitful disruption, but they don’t seem desperate to be on the throne.
So who are these thousands of people who have joined the digital queue, eager to deposit their deposits – paying for the opportunity to pay? There will be many who are already proud PC owners, eager to break free from their desks. But there will also be many like me: those who have been bruised by PC gaming; those who wish could be given to them in a more user-friendly format; those, in other words, who need consolation. This has been my experience, over the past two weeks. First, I treated it like it was a traditional game console. This was due, in part, to Opening office job, which is free and allows you to discover the multiple functions of the Steam Deck. The irony – in a game meant to sell you on a portable device – that its hero was chained, as befits the title, to a desk was both welcome and oddly appropriate.
I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days at my desk. Not playing the Steam Deck but rather engaged in the far superior activity of Planning to play on the Steam Deck. Opening office job was not – like, say, Astro’s Playroom— a tour of upcoming games, all designed with Steam Deck functionality in mind. It was, in fact, the most entertaining instruction manual ever, for a gadget whose features are there to help you play games designed for other hardware. It turns out that the romance of PC gaming is remarkably similar for the person who doesn’t have the gear as it is for the person who does. Both are carried away in the dream of the possible. Hence the lists, drawn with feverish pen strokes, of games I can finally play. Thief: The Dark Project, System shock, HARLER, Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines. Games that have been hidden from me for years. Games that have been locked in a locked box. Love has blossomed again. Pandora arrives today!