As is sometimes the case in life, love bloomed in the back seat of a car, and heartbreak followed soon after. The time was 2004, the car was a Vauxhall Astra—in a shade of red that would, years later, give way to a peeling pink—and in the back seat were me and a copy of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The love was sharp and immediate: suppressed weaponry, hi-tech font, and a hero with night-vision goggles of smouldering green. The heartbreak was predictable, but cast no less a shadow on the months, and years, to come.
First, arriving home and sentencing the PC CD-ROM to an indeterminate term, and without the possibility of parole, in my dad’s laptop—a bible-thick Toshiba, in businesslike blue. Second, the promise of a sumptuous C.G.I. opening movie—busy harbours, busier U.S. Navy SEALS, the supremely rendered plash of dirty water. Finally, a barrage of alarming messages: the white X on a bright-red badge, like a plague cross daubed on a cursed house, accompanied by the peremptory gust of a Windows XP error noise. Then nothing. That game’s title sprang from the scheme of its villain, who spoke the phrase “pandora tomorrow” into an encrypted phone every twenty-four hours, and thus delayed the onset of armageddon. But it felt like a nasty personal joke: the promise of thrills held permanently at bay. Wherever the Toshiba ended up, that disk is likely still entombed within—a gleaming roundel, sizzling like an egg cracked into a hot pan, and hardening into a silver sludge.
Of course, I was a fool. The laptop—while packing a DVD drive, and jewelled with lozenge-like media-player buttons—was not built for the purposes of decamping reality. It was meant for word processors, e-mails, and a little light surfing—humble functions, which would eventually grind to a halt amid a sticky deluge of Dr Pepper. This basic problem, to any reasonably experienced player of PC games, would have been obvious. The trouble was, to be a player of PC games was not a reasonable experience. It required deep reserves of cash, for one thing, along with the nous and the nerve to suggest that those vile blocks under our desks—heavy and humming, the hue of unbrushed teeth—might be retooled in devotion to our leisure.
Even now, it’s tough to shake the notion that, when playing a game on a PC, we are, on some fundamental level, misbehaving—perverting these rightfully bland machines from the course of their true and sensible purpose. When someone, on Twitter, mentioned the absence of Fez on PC, and the game’s creator, Phil Fish, replied, “BOO HOO. PCs are for spreadsheets,” it was clear that, beyond the puckish urge to tease, Fish—who grew up in the grip of Nintendo—had tapped into something deeply felt. To watch a seasoned PC wrangler prognose a game’s ailments—curiously unpanicked, 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” with the word “TRUE,” is to feel the trace of the spreadsheet. Still, the fact remains that Fez, despite Fish’s retort, was brought to PC, where an audience was waiting to lap it up. And one need only head onto YouTube and glance at the sun-brewed pastures of Red Dead Redemption II, as they are filtered through the chambers of an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090, to glean why the wait, and the potential worry, may be worth it. Oh, and the price of that particular graphics card? £1,399. BOO HOO.
Enter the Steam Deck, the portable gaming PC that is releasing, with a pressurised hiss, across the land. The company responsible for this brutish slab of glass and brushed plastic is Valve, who ship it directly to customers. This approach has the disadvantage of being slow, but its upsides are that (a) Valve can cut out scalpers, who like to buy in bulk and hike the price; (b) the company can measure its sales—roughly 6,400 sent out per week, soon set to double—more precisely; and (c) when you do receive your Deck, it displays the address of Valve Corporation. This is not only fitting, given that the shape of the package would suggest that you had ordered a length of pipe, but has the added plus of making you feel implicit in something secret.
This feeling is only heightened when you open it up. The Deck, harboured in a tough case, is sleeved in card, which reads, “Your games are going places.” The inside of the box is furbished with suggestions at where those places might be. “In a hammock” and “on the subway” are joined by more intriguing ideas: “in a test chamber”—naturally—“en un submarine,” “sulla ruota panoramica,” and, best of all, “sur le trône.” Indeed, as is the case with the Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck nestles into those homely nooks—the beds, the sofas, the tops of stairs. No wonder Shigeru Miyamoto described the setting of The Legend of Zelda as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like,” and said that one’s game collection is a “drawer full of playgrounds.” Play has always been inseparably twined to the home. It may be a joy for your games to go places, but the real pleasure is when those places—the submarines, the test chambers, and the miniature gardens—can be folded away into the furniture.
Not that the Switch comparison is all that helpful. Sure, both consoles are to be cradled, with the assistance perhaps of a lap; or to be fixed above one’s chest, with your elbows planted in the mattress like a pair of pitons. But these creatures were designed by very different companies. Whereas Nintendo likes to tuck you into its hardware, fastening the duvet snugly around your neck, Valve, following the example laid forth by its most important game, hands you a crowbar and allows you to pry. Install Windows, access the Epic Game Store and GOG, flip it over and use it to bear cups of steaming tea, or wield it as a means of self-defence—you can do, more or less, as you wish. Those at Valve may well have looked at the panoramica of the portable gaming space, and espied an opportunity for pleasant and fruitful disruption, but they don’t seem desperate to be sur le trône.
So, who are these thousands who have joined the digital queue, eager to put down their deposits—paying for the opportunity to pay? There will be many who are already proud PC owners, itching to break free of their desks. But so, too, will there be many like me: those who have been bruised by PC gaming; those who wish it could be given to them in a friendlier format; those, in other words, who are in need of consolation. That has been my experience, over the last couple of weeks. First, I treated it as though it were a traditional games console. This was due, in part, to Aperture Desk Job, which is free, and which grants you a tour of the Steam Deck’s multifarious functions. The irony—in a game meant to sell you on a portable device—that its hero was enchained, as befits the title, to a desk was both welcome and weirdly fitting.
I have spent much time, in recent 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. Aperture Desk Job was not—like, say, Astro’s Playroom—a tour of games to come, all of them designed with the Steam Deck’s features in mind. It was, in fact, the most entertaining instruction manual ever made, for a gadget whose features are there to assist you in playing games designed for other hardware. As it happens, the romance of PC gaming is remarkably similar for the person that doesn’t have the necessary equipment as it is for the person that does. Both are swept up in the dream of the possible. Hence the lists, scratched down in fevered strokes of biro, of games that I can finally play. Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines. Games that have been kept from me for years. Games that have been shut in a locked box. Love has bloomed again. Pandora comes today!