Electron Dance
24Dec/10Off

The Mistress

Electron Dance commentmeister Badger Commander posted an essay on his blog about why he doesn’t play PC games. This was a flagrant attempt to cover his ass regarding his play-outside-of-my-gaming-comfort-zone "12 games before Christmas" project which looked dangerously incomplete on 21 December. So rather than make a fuss about it in the opening paragraph of an Electron Dance post, I will discuss something else: my personal journey towards PC gamedom.

The personal computer, an organic, indistinct concept, is still with us while the kerb is littered with dead hardware like the Neo Geo, Sega Saturn and the home computer. Mrs. HM often refers to the PC as my mistress, a statement that has nothing to do with the stains on the keyboard and everything to do with the time I spend away from her. But this state of affairs was not by design.

In the beginning, there was Binatone. And lo, it was black and white and beepy. Then I saw an Atari VCS in London, owned by a friend of my father. It was love at first sight, because at the age of six that's the kind of thing you fall in love with. And lo, the Binatone was replaced by the Atari VCS. Outlaw, featuring two cowboys shooting each other, was my favourite game until the euphoric Adventure turned up.

The family sold off the VCS so we could graduate onto an Atari 800 home computer with the raw power of cassette tape and a 1.79Mhz beast of a processor. My parents hoped it would engage my brain and unlock my inner genius. And thus I am a programmer today, three decades on, rather than the cutting-edge and thought-provoking novelist I wanted to be. A cubicle star was born.

But we also played games. Lots and lots of games. When I saw friends with their home computers I scoffed. The term fanboy did not exist in this era but this was precisely what we all were at school. I’d scoff at Commodore 64 users who had to make do with 16 colours versus the Atari with a palette of 256 colours. I’d scoff at ZX Spectrum owners because the Spectrum had the audio range of an electrocardiogram monitor while I could play digital samples. Scoffing was the only way to be serious about your own machine.

The home computer era was followed by the second rise of the console. Pretty baubles with no real gameplay, I scoffed. Then one day I played Sonic the Hedgehog at a friend’s place, fell head over heels in love and bought a Sega Megadrive. The world of computer video games had moved on and I, for one, was not going to be left behind.

Around 1997, I bought a PC because I had to finish my PhD thesis in my spare time. A few trusty applications like WinEdt and LaTeX were essential for writing it up and managing all those annoying mathematical equations. A few games came with the PC.

I remember a racing game called POD. It was nothing out of the ordinary but it passed the time when I should've been expressing mathematics in LaTeX markup. Someone had installed Doom on one of the computers at work which spurred me on to buy Doom and Doom II. My only other foray into the new 3D FPS genre had been Zero Tolerance on the Megadrive but Doom was just mountains more fun. The PC as a games platform beguiled me, even though I found the Win95 environment slightly alien at the time.

After discovering the sequel to Megadrive favourite Flashback, Fade To Black, was available on PC, I bought it and lost several evenings trying to configure it right. Those bloody death scenes. I could play the game on maximum resolution but as the death scene movies were low-res, every time I died the CRT monitor would go CLUNK, black out for a second – and then finally get around to showing me the last microsecond of the scene. I have never finished Fade To Black, simply because it seemed to lose the charm of its predecessor.

I had joined the PC gaming club as Windows 95 began to usher in DirectX and Plug’N’Play, making the MS-DOS configuration horror story a thing of the past. But as I got used to Quake and the enormous range of demos you could find on magazine cover discs, I flat out refused to participate in a new form of exploitation imposed by the technological mafioso: the 3D graphics card. 3dfx was fleecing people, I scoffed. They were way too expensive when compared to the cost of a PC.

At the house of a fellow postgrad colleague, I saw Half-Life for the first time. My jaw dropped clean off my face and rolled around his carpet leaving bloody trails. I scooped it up then bought a Voodoo 2 card within a week. It was time to move with the times. Fucking hell, Half-Life. That changed things, alright.

Following this, I indulged in a fair bit of HL Deathmatch and Team Fortress Classic, the only time I’ve got into online multiplayer. It was more frustrating than fun, part due to flawedband latency, part due to the infinite armies of total cocks that played online. I recall one painful experience on a TFC Hunted map when the participants stopped playing and used the ingame chat to shout insults at each other. Fucking homo. Fuck you limey does anybody want to play Fuck you fuck fuck fuck shit I say does anybody want to play fuck arseburgers. Have things moved on? I’m too scared to find out.

But it was in Japan that I got into PC gaming, serious-style. Thief: The Dark Project (another game that changed everything about gaming for me), GTA III, Serious Sam, No One Lives Forever, Halo and more. These were good times.

The only cash-dredging fly in the utopian ointment was the ongoing technological arms race. Choose life. Choose a young 3D card with a fat, vein-riddled vertex pipeline. Choose a new 300 MHz processor with an erotic MMX instruction set. Choose more texture RAM for grittier visual pleasures. Choose fucking super-rendered triple-buffered anti-aliased polygon sex on a 1900x1200 pixel display with anisotropic filtering.

As discussed on RPS, this war on the consumer that the consumer encouraged has largely stopped, allowing creativity to flourish. We are partly indebted to the holding pattern of the console hardware market for this.

Now: gaming life on the PC is shocking awesome. I don’t go to shops any more to look like a dirty perv in the PC game corner and yet I have the gaming choice of kings. From indie fare like World of Goo, VVVVVV, Immortal Defense to the big hitters like Far Cry 2, Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space. From the freeware art projects like Passage, Every Day I Dream The Same Dream, Beautiful Escape to the experimentalware of Minecraft, Recettear and AI War. And unless you’re playing something as technologically stunted as Cryostasis, games usually just work.

So I don’t get to kill Colossi or click through an interactive movie based on a Chinese folktale. But there’s only so many gaming hours in a lifetime and the PC has more than enough options to fill them with. At my digital table, I dine well.

Happy Christmas, dear readers.

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The lull in the hardware arms race is the reason I feel comfortable spending money on a new computer instead of a console to catch up with this generation.

    That, and consoles don’t have STALKER. Or mods.

  2. And now that it’s time (in America, at least)…

    Merry Christmas, Joel.

  3. Thank you, kind sir. And a good day to you.

    I used to play a lot of mods, but those were the days before games were cheap and plentiful. Mods, back in The Day, were a way to get free gaming extensions to pricey games. I just don’t play mods so often now (Dear Esther, Korsakovia were the last ones I tried out).

  4. That’s true, I enjoy The Nameless Mod with a touch of shame for not having touched a multitude of other indie games I’ve nabbed over time. But then again, I feel like mods are a must for whenever I get around to Bethesda’s “Experiments in Light & Gamebryo” series.

  5. “…statement that has nothing to do with the stains on the…”

    I thought you said that the article wasn’t going to start with this?

    What are Mods? Are they like DLC that you don’t have to pay for?

    Nice article, I can’t believe that No One Lives Forever still looks that good.

    Merry Christmas!

  6. @BC: Yes I did say that, but on the other hand, I am witty in my self-contradictiness.

    I guess you could call mods “DLC you don’t pay for”.

    If you are serious about asking what a mod is, they are homebrew/fan extensions to commercial games. Many never get finished, and an even smaller percentage are fun. They just don’t seem as relevant now, being so easy to get new games for tiny prices. Aspiring game developers cut their teeth on them, often hoping the mod will be part of a portfolio to showcase their talent. Counter-strike is probably the most famous mod out there…? RPS have a weekly roundup of mod news written by Lewis Denby, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday!

  7. I was not serious about the mod thing, I was playing up to the ‘duh, me stupid console player’ role.

    One I play a little too convincingly it seems.

  8. BC, I suspected as much but I couldn’t pass up another opp to smite your hard-earned Posterous reputation into the ground. Hey, have you heard of Half-Life? =)

    (I read your HL2 coverage last week. A mix of love and hate it seems.)

  9. Man, I don’t look at your site a few days and there are more posts than I have time for! No wonder you haven’t had time for games for two weeks, you’ve been too busy writing!

    Just cause I still love (and own) my first PC. From 1992, a 386 processor with 25 mhz speed (with the turbo button,) 32 megabyte HD, 4 megs of RAM, and the option to use either Dos or Windows 3.0. I eventually upgraded it to a 486 and added a more or less useless CD drive. No burner, just reader… I think 4x speed.

    Good times!

  10. Armand, I’m really quite a late PC gamer but, even so, my first PC is long dead and buried – it was shared with an ex-girlfriend and ended up under her wing, considering I buggered off to Japan for 5 years – but my second PC from Japanese company Sycom Computers lived on for some time. It has since been cannibalised and pieces of it still live on with our new equipment.

    I find it way strange that games that used to run like a dog a decade ago whizz like a dream on my modern PC. I should fire up Halo again one of these days and play it SMOOTH.


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