The Steam Deck is a new handheld console made by Valve, coming out later this year, in December. Only, weighing 669 grams, at 29.8 centimetres across, and crammed with a 40 watt-hour battery, it doesn’t seem awfully handheld. In one video, aimed at developers, Erik Peterson (who introduced himself, with a hint of the door-to-door salesman, as “Erik from Valve”), described the machine as “really just a PC.” Indeed, its bulk likely has much to do with air flow—with cooling the indigestion of its innards as it chews through AAA games. Looking at the Steam Deck, I feel we might do well to preemptively plaster our forearms, the better to fend off bouts of carpal tunnel; and, given that it boasts gyro control, perhaps one of those fuzzy Velcro cuffs that calm the flareup of tennis elbow.
We should also, however, congratulate Valve, for coming up with the best console name, handheld or otherwise, since the Dreamcast. The Steam Deck. It evokes those lively scenes, from Titanic, in which the lower classes shovelled coal and danced on tables, ducking the boring dinners above, where the rich sat around, refusing to thaw, tearing holes in each other’s hulls with dry wit. Plus, considering the thing weighs twice as much as the base-model Nintendo Switch, I’ll bet you could smash a bottle of champagne on it no problem. Beyond its name, the hardware offers a number of nifty features. It’s armed with heat-seeking analogue sticks, which sense when your thumbs are resting on them. It has two track pads (suck on that, Sony). And the seven-inch screen is, apparently, an “optically bonded LCD for enhanced readability”: good news for those who, squinting at microscopic text on the Switch, have attempted to bond the LCD to their optics manually.
In terms of firepower, the Steam Deck packs an AMD Zen 2 CPU, with an RDNA 2 GPU—both are used in the new Xboxes, albeit in beefier capacity, with double the number of cores. There will be three Decks available, the principal difference between them being storage space: 64GB for £349, 256GB for £459, and 512GB for £569. Gabe Newell, in an interview with IGN, described the pricing as “painful” but “critical.” To which the obvious question is: critical for what? What is it that Newell is after? Wearing breezy white cotton, a beard that resembled a spinney of trimmed cloud, and a downpour of dark-grey hair, the man resembled a gathering storm, and, sure enough, he showered us with questions. “For us it’s really, ‘How does the press react?’ ‘What are they saying about it?’ ‘What are they saying about it a year later?’ ‘What’s the perception?’ You know, ‘What are gamers saying?’”
What gamers will be saying, I suspect, will depend on what gamers are after. One glance at the Steam Deck and it’s pretty clear that Valve are looking longingly at the space occupied by the Switch. But what space is that? For me, these last few days, it has been the bed, propped up on one aching arm while peering down at Hyrule from the soft firmament of my duvet. It has been the kitchen, standing near a steaming kettle and riding a raptor with crayon-bright feathers. And, just today, it has been the top of the stairs, in the shaded cool of the hallway, cracking puzzles in a volcano dungeon—while dodging the molten mid-July outside.
The Switch—even the Lite model—has never been a true portable, on account of the required planning; if you wish to play on the go, you need, at the very least, a case, a bag, and a full battery. It isn’t like the Nintendo DS, say, whose pleasures could be folded into a jacket pocket without being cramped, and unfurled at a moment’s notice, should a nook of time present itself. The Switch is a dream for those who like to snatch at space, to find the nooks that don’t present themselves—the odd realms, beyond the sofa, if not the front door, that must be seized and filled with play. In theory, though six centimetres and 372 grams less portable than the Switch, the Steam Deck could offer an alternative machine for these sorts of places—perhaps with the support of a knee.
“Maybe a better way to think about it is that it’s a small PC with a controller attached, as opposed to a gaming console.” So says Lawrence Yang, a designer at Valve who spoke to IGN, suggesting, perhaps, a target market: potential PC players who don’t have the patience, money, or interest required to solder together a gaming PC of their own—who need, in the deepest sense, consoling. Perhaps the Deck will succeed where the Steam Machine failed; if it does, as odd as it may seem, it may come down to the look of the thing. Not only is it, in our post-Switch era, easy to grasp (conceptually, at any rate), but it also has a certain look to it. It took me a while to work out what the Deck reminds me of. Then it hit me: It bears a trace—with its rubbery shell of business-meaning black, and a bottom edge that slopes softly off into the palm—of the Neo Geo Pocket.
Against all odds, I find myself wanting one; my weakness for hardware—the more outlandish the better—has prevailed. I’m having flashbacks to the PSP: a machine for dreamers, which promised console gaming in the hand, delivered it in flickers, and failed to beat the DS. The Steam Deck promises PC gaming in the hands, on the stairs, in the hallway or the kitchen, and, should you so desire, on a desk—the Deck can be plugged into a monitor and played like the PC it really is. “Our assumption is, you know, these are long-term decisions that we’re making about how we can contribute to the health and the vitality of this ecosystem,” said Newell. “And we’re always going to be successful, as long as that’s continuing to happen.” Time will tell. And I wonder if the Steam Deck could, like the Switch, become an essential part of the way I play games. After long periods of play, it may be painful, but will it be critical?