Progress and Upgrades


Technology is a vicious game. Its march forward is unrelenting, unforgiving and unstoppable. The irony is, as PC gamers, we embrace technology as the bedrock foundation of our hobby-obsession, and yet sooner or later nearly all of us will end up being steamrolled by it. Sometimes – most times, to be honest – we get to see it coming. Quake will play just fine without a Voodoo card if you don’t mind some pretty craptastic visuals; Wing Commander 2 runs perfectly well without a Sound Blaster, as long as you can live without digitized speech. The changes come at you slowly, giving you time to bob and weave and play your games while you ponder whether or not you’re still interested enough in all this nonsense to bother.

But it’s not always so gentle. Sometimes technology likes to throw a sucker-punch, just to keep you on your toes. And when this happens, you’re faced with a much harsher choice: You can lay down your dime for whatever new piece of gee-whiz you need for that latest and greatest game that just hit the shelf, or you can throw your hands up in disgust and despair and walk away from it all.

Naturally, when this happens we’ll complain. We’ll piss and moan about the injustice of it all. We’ll tell anyone within earshot how our current equipment is perfectly viable and would probably run this new game just fine if only someone had bothered to take that little bit of extra time to make it work. And then we’ll hang our heads submissively and pull out our wallets. It’s a bit like the five stages of grief, except for our particular slice of subculture it’s cyclical: No matter how many times we reach the final step, the first step is waiting in the wings for a chance to start the whole mess over again.

Some people think that’s half the fun, of course, a sort of sick meta-game in which we indulge an inner need to fight a perverse and unwinnable battle against the forces that conspire to turn our beloved games against us via the very technology that drives them. I used to be part of that crowd, not only able to gleefully rattle off every little detail about my system specs but also fully cognizant of what it all meant, but I found that after a certain number of years – quite a few of them, admittedly – my passion for the silicon waned. Things like clock multipliers and fill rates and gigaflops became not only unimportant but uninteresting, and the day I realized I didn’t care how many pipelines my video card had as long as it would run my damned game properly was a more profound experience than I would have expected.

Microsoft is making a go of bringing console-style simplicity to the PC with its Games For Windows initiative, but the results thus far are middling at best. The game selection is still relatively tiny, retail partners haven’t been overwhelmingly enthusiastic with their support and there seems to be a good bit of suspicion that the whole deal is just another half-assed money-making scheme from Microsoft that’s doomed to failure. (MPC standard, anyone?) And while the Games For Windows stamp is meant to eliminate confusion over system specifications, in truth it’s just a new way of defining them: Not even the spewing fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia can define the GFW standard with any degree of completion, and a trip to Microsoft’s own Games For Windows site offers nothing more than vague market-speak and a “Game Advisor” that refuses to run on any non-Internet Explorer browser. Generously put, it fails to inspire confidence.

Consoles, meanwhile, become more and more computer-like with each new generation. The Xbox 360 is, for all intents and purposes, a streamlined and highly specialized PC, and the PlayStation 3 can match it pound for pound in technological prowess. As they become increasingly computer-like in their functionality, and as efforts to make PC gaming more appealing to the non-technocratic masses continue to flounder, the death of PC gaming as mainstream entertainment appears to grow nearer every day.

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A little Big Daddy is sitting on my shelf, looking out at me from its cellophane prison with a disturbing deca-ocular stare. I’m not letting him out until I can play his game, and I won’t be able to play his game until I spring for a new video card, so he may be stuck in there for a good while yet. It’s difficult to read much emotion in the creature’s caged and armor-plated face, but I imagine he’s gazing at me with no small amount of impatience, perhaps tinged with bewilderment. No doubt his imaginary little mutant brain is occupied with thoughts like, “What the hell’s going on over there? Why am I still in this stupid box?” Or, as the pasty-faced kid at EB who has no idea just how perilously close he came to getting the Big Daddy treatment himself said to me, “Shoulda bought an Xbox.”

Maybe he has a point. As the games become more important and the hardware less so, maybe the simplest path to Rapture really is the best one. If I’d just stop worrying and learn to love the Box, the little big guy could finally be set free and I’d get to see first-hand what all the hullabaloo is about. It certainly makes sense. So why do I, and the PC crowd at large, struggle against it? Why not just get in line like everyone else? If there’s a convenient and popular and less-expensive way to get some game on, why not take it?

I can think of only one reason: We like it. We like the feeling of standing firm in the face of worsening odds. We like the smug self-satisfaction we get from the knowledge that no matter how many buttons are added to the standard game controller, we’ll always have more. We’re fighting the good fight here. It may not make much sense, but maybe that’s because the ugly truth is that there’s not much sense to make of it beyond the fact that being an avid PC gamer means being a little bit of a masochist, too. For us, in some warped little place in the backwoods of our minds, losing is winning.

Which isn’t to say we wouldn’t rather see the trend reversed. A PC renaissance would be a wonderful thing, especially if it came at the expense of the consoles. We’d laugh and celebrate and stick our fingers in the faces of the button-mashers while bellowing forth Nelson-esque cries of “HA HA!” and most of us would probably turn out to be far worse winners than we are losers. But until that magic day arrives, in spite of all the noise we make to the contrary, things are really OK the way they are. We can adjust to growing system requirements; we can lay down the coin for upgrades we need even if we aren’t convinced we really need them; we can take our lumps as they come. We’ve done this before, and we’ll do it again. We’re a little crazy that way.

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