It’s all Valve’s fault. I blame Valve for all of it.
It was five-thirty. I was just about to leave the office when a friend’s Facebook status reminded me that the Steam sale was on, but was due to end that day. That update was to be the casually-thrown cigarette butt that hit the touchpaper that sent the whole firework factory up.
I was planning on saving money this month, and I hadn’t touched my aging PC for serious gaming since I finished Episode 2 in late 2007. But within a couple of hours, the resulting chain of events was to make me an obsessed PC gamer again. It was a messy and frenzied experience, and one which I didn’t come through entirely unscathed, but it was one that desperately needed to happen. Here’s how it all went down.
Twenty minutes after reading that status post I was hurtling through my front door, whipping out my wallet with one hand, switching on my rig with the other, and taking off my coat via a strange jiggling shimmy motion. There was no time for dignified motor control. There were games to be had.
The sale was ending soon very soon. My machine booted in 30 seconds, as it always has (it may have been neglected in attention, but it’s always been looked after in terms of file organisation), but then horror! The twitchy wireless connection wouldn’t say hello to the internet. Despite being RIGHT NEXT TO the router. Despite my laptop and 360 never having any problems connecting FROM A DIFFERENT ROOM. Head in hands. F*cking PCs.
Several unplugs, replugs, WEP keys and connection wizards later, we were in business, but with literally seconds to go. It was do or die. C’mon Steam, don’t fail me now. With the voice of a ghostly Gabe Newell echoing words of inspiration into my ear, Obi-Wan style, I fired my two purchases into the exhaust outlet of Steam’s checkout, yanked back on the stick, and pulled out, collapsing back into my seat as the galaxy-shaking retail explosion went off below me. F*cking PCs.
An hour later, I had summoned the strength to return.
It was gaming time, but first I had to take a proper look around Steam. It looked completely different to how it had last time I saw it (yeah, it had been that long), and I needed to plough its new furrows and find out what new treats were available in the store.
Suddenly I remembered what a really open platform can do. If you read my recent-ish article on the matter, you’ll know that I’m all about the full spectrum of games as a medium, with less care than most for flavour-of-the-month cool. I’d been conditioned over my last couple of PC-shy years to think that XBLA and PSN had me covered for the more experimental stuff. Pah.
Take away the platform holder and then you get a really healthy spread of game design. Not just that, but you get a really healthy spread of game design at insanely low prices, sale or not. That kid in that sweet shop. That’s who I was. Only with genre tabs instead of sugary jars. Already I was working out a monthly rationing system for purchases. A ban would just be unrealistic. This stuff was now vital, and had to be worked into my budget like electricity, water and food.
That decided, I started playing. First up was my newly-bought copy of Penumbra, Frictional Games’ storming little first-person adventure/survival horror. After years of drifting unwittingly away from PC gaming, it was refreshing like an ice-cold waterfall after a week in a warm mud bath.
A subtle and brief tutorial that hinted at things rather than pushing me around in a pram. A brutal, multi-pronged challenge that expected me to think creatively or die from the get-go. A narrative unafraid to take its time, with no fear of using, like, lots of words and stuff. Gratuitous physics going off everywhere, just because they could. But most blessed of all, most beautifully blessed of all, the mouse!
Oh sweet digital rodent, how I had missed your ultra-quick, razor-sharp, 180-spin-on-a-ha’penny-with-a-flick-of-the-wrist-ways! Screw motion control ‘innovations’. Penumbra’s focus on physics-driven, object-manipulating environmental exploration was the best possible reintroduction imaginable to the original daddy of 1:1 physical interaction.
‘HO HO HO HO!’, I cackled, as I threw planks and bounced ladders off walls with supreme tactility. ‘HO HO HO HO HO HO!’. Then I realised I probably looked a bit nuts and moved on.
Next: It all goes so wrong. But also, oh so right.