*I'd just like to start here by saying this piece is a bit meandering and far from my finest piece of writing, but it was something on my mind and I just felt like I had to get it out! Cheers!
P.S. Sorry about the title too!
A recent change in my situation has granted me, for the first time in nigh on 20 years, access to a PC capable of running games that demand slightly more horsepower than stock windows solitaire and minesweeper. We are not talking about hardware like a GTX Titan here… No, what I have access to is something entirely more modest (a GTX 670 if you must know…). There are specs that I could list, but the truth is that I wouldn't entirely understand what they all mean. And plus, they do not make for particularly interesting reading. But either way, it's a PC that is able to comfortably run pretty much anything at high to ultra levels that was released prior to 2012 and that is good enough for me.
So, with all this "power" now suddenly at my fingertips, you may think that I would open myself up to the world of modern PC gaming and enjoy all those recent classics that I have either missed or played at sub-standard PS3 levels… games such as…well you know… Euro Truck Simulator 2 (??), Anno 2070… (or god forbid Dota 2!!) . But alas, no!
The era that I decided to dive headfirst into was that weird period between 1999 and 2005… a period in which I had kind of fallen out of love with gaming. Sure, I had a PS2 and I played a good few of the major releases at the time (Devil May Cry, GTA III, Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy X etc.), but in all honesty my engagement with gaming was largely confined to sessions of Pro Evolution after university. This wasn't down to anything as profound as me realizing the futility of gaming or suddenly appreciating how poor much of the writing in these games was… it was simply that I was at university and doing other things with my life.
So when I finally did emerge from my cocoon around 2007 with my purchase of the PS3 and suddenly discovered that gaming coverage on the internet had become, in some cases, actually pretty good, I started to hear about all these much loved and highly regarded game franchises that had completely passed me by. "System Shock you say? Hmmm, isn't that some kind of Doom clone? Civilization? Can't I just play Theme Park?"… I'm obviously exaggerating my ignorance for comical effect here, but you take my point. There was this huge catalogue of games that had built up that I simply had no level of engagement with.
I thought about looking into playing some of these games, but this was a period in which talk of graphics cards and GPU clock speeds had started to become more prevalent on gaming message boards and the whole thing just went right over my head. I wouldn't say I was intimidated by it all, but it just seemed unnecessarily complicated. Why would I bother going to all that trouble when I could just buy a PS3 or 360 and sit down and go? And that way, I wouldn't have to bother with playing with a mouse and keyboard as well… The choice was obvious.
But then fastforward to 2016 and here I am, sitting in front of an ageing but capable Alienware machine with access to a catalogue of tens of thousands of games through Steam. I felt excited… I could sense that I was on the verge of going on some fantastical trip through a kind of lost world. A world in which many of the genre tropes, kinks and pitfalls that we see today were still being worked out. A world in which character models had a distinctly square character and nobody cared. The uncanny valley was still a good few miles down the road yet… I was super happy that I was going to be able to experience it all first hand… Happy, but also slightly apprehensive. Was this lost era of gaming going to be ruined for me by a combination of high expectations and being slightly spoiled by having grown accustomed to the graphical fidelity we have nowadays? Was I going to be able to deal with a mouse and keyboard? Well there was only one way to find out…
The first game I bought was Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition. Bought in one of those fabled Steam sales for a couple of quid, I immediately felt like I was winning. Sure, you might say 2 quid for a game released 16 years ago is a fair price, but having only really experienced the PSN model of pricing, it felt like a steal to me.
* By the way, I should preface this by stating that I played and loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution on the PS3, and also that stealth games are kinda my jam, so the game itself was not completely alien to me. But I was keen to see where the series started regardless.
So, anyway I start up the game and am happy to see that I can run the game on the highest settings! Oh, the "power"! But now that the game is up and running in all its vanilla, mod-less, year 2000 glory, I have to deal with that other big bug bearer of mine… that pesky mouse and keyboard thing.
It may seem a silly thing to be hung up on, but after having played with a controller for over two decades, the idea that I could easily adapt back to WASD seemed almost farcical to me. I genuinely believed it would be a major struggle and that I would, at best, only learn to cope with the control system at a bare minimum level... Five minutes later and the tutorial over, it was like I'd rediscovered my right hand. Movement was so natural that, before I had even reached the foot of the Statue of Liberty, I had stopped having to even think about it. One of the major things that had been keeping me from even attempting to engage with PC games had been swept away before I'd even shot a guy… Ridiculous!
All these stupid qualms about PC gaming now put aside, you may ask how was my overall experience with Deus Ex? It was…good. Of course I was unlikely to be blown away having spent the best part of a decade playing games with much more refined gameplay and graphics, but there was certainly a compelling flow to the game as I went on sneaking missions through air vents and up behind two-bit subway gangsters. I imagine that 16 year old me would have loved the whole section in the neon wonderland of Hong Kong, but as a 32 year old I found it interesting, but ultimately unremarkable.
In fact, without meaning to take anything away from the game, I would go as far as to say that very sentiment sums up my general feelings towards the game overall. I can see how liberating it must have been back in the day to allow the player the freedom to choose their own path of approach, but this is not necessarily something special nowadays. Games like Dishonored and even Deus Ex: HR have done the same thing, and done it better. But that is just a natural form of progress and it shouldn't diminish Deus Ex's status as an all time classic. And that is part of the joy of going on this journey… I am able to appreciate these things without necessarily having to love them.
Now, when I first started writing this piece I seriously considered detailing my thoughts on each of the games I have played on the PC in these past few months. I wanted to share with you my experience in going back to a period with which I had no affinity and talking about what I discovered. However, after a few failed drafts, I found that my experiences largely followed the same basic pattern. It was only with game genres that I had zero experience with that I found I was able to have any real fun beyond a basic level of curiosity (see blog posts on Civilization and Gunpoint). Again, that is not to diminish those games' achievements, it is simply that I have now played more refined versions of those some basic mechanics and that often means that once the curiosity is satiated there is little left to sink your teeth into.
But even if my magical mystery tour into the early 2000s was a bit more flat than I was hoping for, it has certainly taught me that PC gaming is nothing to be scared of. In fact, I can very clearly see how in many ways it is the superior way to play many types of game. I do not plan on chucking the PS4 in the bin any time soon, but I can definitely see myself one day in the future, when the grass is greener and the bank account more flush, buying a proper PC that can run whatever is thrown at it. You may think that dream is pitifully small, but trust me, compared to where I was only six months ago the change in attitude is huge…