A Sordid, Tawdry Affair (And Its Sequel)


Ship like this, be with you 'til the day you die.
'Cause it's a deathtrap.
– Malcolm Reynolds, Zoë Washburne, Firefly

A year ago I was my 360’s bitch.

That console is tantalizing in ways I’m not sure words can express. I love the curve of the case, the wink of that green, staring eye. Even the software sings to me, with those arched blades and the effortless connectivity. She lets me game without pretense, without effort. Slip a game from the shelf, close the tray, and off we go to fabulous places like Tamriel, Pinata Island, Normandy, or the planet Sera.

I’ve found the pendulum swings both ways. My love for the PC, a love I thought I’d lost, is once again burning bright. I’m trading in 360 games just so that I won’t feel guilty about rebuying them for my new crush. It’s a dirty cycle, the result of sorrow begetting unhealthy actions and self-recrimination.

I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I was a boy my first love was the boxy grey and black of a Nintendo Entertainment System. Right around the time of my first kiss, I found what love really meant: Doom II, MechWarrior 2, and Diablo. I’ve used WASD and a mouse to get through almost every important gaming moment. The twist at the end of Knights of the Old Republic and my first few fumbling steps in EverQuest’s Norrath were late-night joys I shared only with the lidless eye of my ancient CRT. Even Final Fantasy VII – for many a defining console experience - was for me just another wise PC purchase.

The greatest hits from the Xbox paraded proudly across my desktop. I owned a PS2 but, with the notable exception of standouts like Ico, it never held any sort of deep appeal. Then came Microsoft’s jumpstart of the ‘next gen’ of entertainment hardware. At the point the 360 hit retail shelves I’d been writing about games as part of my day job for the better part of a year. I felt obligated to myself, to the people reading me, to write about the new system.

It was unlike anything I’d ever encountered before. The sound of the blades slipping across each other as you move from left to right, the feeling of connection as I look up to see that respected friends have logged on, the graphical presentation of Call of Duty 2: all re-defining experiences.

CoD2 was an especially impactful title. In that game the Xbox 360 concretized the horrors of war for me. Never before had I stood in a ruined city and really felt it. Playing on the PC I would have been in control, but removed from the moment by digital artifacting. On the 360, I could almost smell the cordite in the air. My own inept fumbling with the thumbsticks mimicked (in my mind) the panicked movements of a scared Russian soldier. I was there.

From that auspicious introduction our relationship only grew closer. Graphical powerhouses like Gears of War, Crackdown, and Splinter Cell:Double Agent changed my views on console gaming. Uno and Lumines rekindled my love for smaller experiences via the platform. Two games that I’d rate as among my favorites evar sprang to life as 360-only titles: Viva Pinata and Mass Effect.

The long nights spent caring for my little paper-mache critters left me a long way from that faithful keyboard. The PC became a workhorse, nothing more than my portal to work or whatever virtual world I was inhabiting at the time. Early last year, I wasn’t even really playing MMOs. I was writing about them, thinking about them, but my game time was spent with my hands wrapped firmly around a controller. At my lowest point I actually repurchased Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to play on the 360, because my PC just couldn’t handle the load Tamriel represented.

I enjoyed it, but I felt shamed. My sad old gaming rig had done so much for me, and I was leaving it to rot. Many long months passed, seasons changed, and the only reason I sat down to my PC was to put in few hours of work. For every decision there are consequences, and every week I spent ignoring my roots another mark was made on my karmic tally stick.

Early October of last year, that marker was claimed in a conflagration of bad decision-making and burning PC parts. The dangers of Microsoft Vista have been outlined on many places across the internet, but rarely do they describe the literal physical danger the operating system can pose. Tired of my PC sitting quiescent, staring accusingly from my wooden hutch, I upgraded from XP to Vista Home. I couldn’t tell you precisely what I was thinking. Perhaps a slick user interface may have won me back, tempting me away from the 360’s curves. Maybe I just wanted to spend some time with the old girl.

Not 48 hours after a hair-raising installation process I detected the odor of burning, melting circuitry. I shut her down, but I was too late. One weak stab at the power button couldn’t undo months of neglect and hurt feelings.

A friend, an electrical engineer, laid it out for me. Coldly. Clinically. From a technical standpoint, the OS’s weak driver support had resulted in an imbalance in power that caused my circulation fan to die. The dead fan overheated the inside of the case, causing (among other things) my power supply to overload and my motherboard to fail.

In layman’s terms, I had released the magic smoke. Vista had killed my girl.

I was miserable, bereft. My deepest gaming love had been sitting ignored for months while I happily fraternized with my console. I turned my attention to it for a brief span and managed to snuff out the patient companion seated beneath my desk. My misery turned to anguish as the full impact of my stupidity hit home. Like a recovering smoker I’d been only dipping into Massive games just long enough to satisfy my mental addiction and social obligations. With my PC dead, that closed the doors to Azeroth, Paragon City, Norrath, Middle-earth, and all the other beautiful lands I’d grown accustomed to visiting.

It’s amazing how much you want to play an MMO when you can’t. Online gaming has been my obsession, my life’s work, since long before World of Warcraft came out. Those shuttered doors hurt. The silent, accusatory look of the girl on the Guild Wars box spoke volumes.

With a headshake, a heavy heart, and a long look at my bank balance, I sat down in late November to order a replacement. That’s when I learned a pro tip: Don’t order a new PC when you’re still mourning the old one. Several ‘free upgrades’, limited promotions, and holiday sales later I delivered a Brobdingnagian PC order into Dell.com’s waiting hands. You could almost hear the processing system chortle to itself. I settled in to wait with my shame, a resolve to stay away from consoles, and some trashy novels set in the D&D Eberron setting.

The wait lasted for a month and a half, an eternity. It was unbearable, and my anticipation for my new rig grew as every day passed. What arrived at my doorstep in early January was awe inspiring. I looked at the box. “Wow, there sure must be a lot of foam packaging in there,” I thought. There was very little foam packaging. I’d been so busy customizing the innards I’d ignored the small part of the screen that gave a description of physical dimensions. I now have a case almost two and a half feet tall and 8 inches wide sitting off to the side of my desk. It’s so large that fitting it back underneath my hutch is impossible. While I’ve grown to like it, there is a definite presence in the room now. It scares small dogs.

Even more noteworthy: that presence has come to dominate my gaming. The pendulum has swung back. As winter has thawed to spring PC gaming has regained prominence in my life. MMOs of all size and shape, Crysis, Supreme Commander, they’ve all welcomed me back into the fold with a loving embrace. In a grim mockery of my past actions I’ve even gone out to sell 360 versions of games, only to repurchase them for the PC. Both BioShock and Call of Duty 4 appear on my gamertag, but will never again be updated. My lurking grey PC behemoth is too jealous to allow that.

And so I find myself again in the throes of a gaming affair. My new PC and I are very happy, thank you. My wife (the girl from the Diablo days again) claims we make a lovely couple. I value my time with my PC so much that she has, on more than one occasion, threatened to “pull the plug” on our cybernetic relationship. I assume she’s speaking metaphorically.

The only thing that mars this period of still-slightly-newlywed bliss is the thought that this could happen all over again. If I’ve learned anything in the last year it’s that love can be fleeting, and I can be damned fickle. For now, the thought that I’d leave my PC again for that gaudy contraption in the living room is a remote possibility. But wave the right game in my direction, release an MMO that’s console-only - drop Mass Effect 2 into my tray - and my tune might change overnight. I’m still young. There’s still time for me to change. But in the near future, I’m going to keep an eye out for new “opportunities.”

Isn’t Sony talking about LittleBigPlanet coming out this year?

Comments

Nice, moving article.

But who is the author, though? I must have missed an inagurual announcement about Michael Zenke joining the ranks of the front-pagers? If so, congratulations on a damn fine first piece. If not -- I am a doofus who isn't paying the proper attention.

Great article. I've completely given up on the PC as a gaming platform myself. I sit with it all day working, so prefer the couch, the big screen and the wireless controller for gaming.

The magic smoke escaped my Xbox last week. Oh, the irony!

Nice article. I've had a not dissimilar trajectory recently. Ever since I got the 360 about 18 months ago I've been spending more and more time on it, to the point where there were months where I didn't even turn on the PC (I use a mac for daily use). Now I'm finding my PC is a bit long in the tooth, but I'm coming back to it recently for the sorts of experiences I don't find on consoles and that I've felt like I've been missing - primarily in the strategy and RPG spaces.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Nice, moving article.

But who is the author, though? I must have missed an inagurual announcement about Michael Zenke joining the ranks of the front-pagers? If so, congratulations on a damn fine first piece. If not -- I am a doofus who isn't paying the proper attention.

You're not wrong, we figured an article is the best hello there is. Michael is a good friend who's been on the podcast and may be most notable for his work at games.slashdot.org and massively.com. We're very pleased that he'll be contributing once in a while!

I'm expecting weekly contributions of similar awesomeness. Anything less will be punished with flogging.

The amazing thing to me about these love affairs is the level of guilt I apply to them. I feel genuine sadness and anxiety when I realize I haven't given love to one of my silicon babies.

Not as pleased as I am to be here! Thanks for the kind comments, commenters!

I built my latest computer in a CM Stacker 832.
The case is massive. Much like you, I embrace the size of it. I embrace the fans, the whir as I turn it on. My computer is no mere box, it is my artisan crafted box of aluminum and silicon, thriving upon the challenges of overclocking, or the latest app.
I've never been a console person. My family has never owned one. The games I grew up playing and still play are those I can play on a desktop.

rabbit wrote:

The amazing thing to me about these love affairs is the level of guilt I apply to them. I feel genuine sadness and anxiety when I realize I haven't given love to one of my silicon babies.

My Kindle is getting lots of love still.

My kindle probably gets more consistent love than anything but my iPhone.

I was until a few years ago a hardcore PC gamer. It was really the introduction of Tony Hawk on the gamecube that was the beginning of the end.

Ha ha, wow, nice article man.

Nice read. I bought my 360 in October last year (I think) while it was a passionate affair initially I find that my eyes are becoming open to the things that I first fell for on the PC. I always believed that for financial reasons I was a one system man, but I'm finding that one doesn't fulfill all my needs as a gamer.

I am a gaming polygamist, while I know I'm not alone this was a major realisation for me.

Brilliant article.

... that is all.

Great article! Seems like every site i goto gets invaded by Zenke. That's not really a bad thing either. Keep up the good work.

Michael Zenke wrote:

Vista had killed my girl.

Still staying with XP pro. Nobody's getting to my girl!!

Excellent article. It brightened an otherwise dreary day.

Michael Zenke wrote:

there is a definite presence in the room now. It scares small dogs.

I wish I had a desktop like that!!

Good but would've been better if it hadn't started with a Firefly quote.

Welcome, Zonk!

Seriously, drivers killed your PC?

Great article!
I need me an imposing behemoth of a PC.

Nice article.

I have had similar experiences with my 360 and PC. I love them both, but I assembled my PC with my own hands after meticulously selecting every component. When my PC fails I repair it myself. It is not just a gaming rig, it is the quietly beating heart of my music studio. Such a bond transcends the convenience of Xbox LIVE, console-exclusive AAA games and a fixed hardware platform that never requires a new video card to run new games properly. But those things are nice too.

This is the case that I used for my latest build. The thing is massive. And super-easy to work in, and well-cooled.

Good but would've been better if it hadn't started with a Firefly quote.

Are we going to have a problem?

Seriously, drivers killed your PC?

Yeah - for reals, unfortunately. My stupid fault. My engi friend was *impressed*. The inside of that power supply was super, super melty.

Michael Zenke wrote:

Yeah - for reals, unfortunately. My stupid fault. My engi friend was *impressed*. The inside of that power supply was super, super melty.

Could it have just been a failed power supply and the Vista thing was a coincidence? It wasn't an Antec SmartPower 450W was it?

Great article. Although I was never a big PC gamer, I completely agree with all the stuff about the 360. I guess my fallback love would be portables. Haven't really drifted back that direction yet, though. So far the 360 has held me.

Thanks especially for the stuff about Call of Duty 2. I played Call of Duty 4 recently and without a doubt it was the single most engaging SP experience I've ever had. I really mean that. More than my beloved Crackdown or Mass Effect or Viva Pinata. It was cinematic and beautiful. Often beautiful in really awful ways. Like walking slowly through Chernobyl or "the event" that happens in the Middle East. So so excellent.

I've wondered, then, if Call of Duty 2 was similar. I'd buy it in a heartbeat if it was.

Podunk wrote:

Could it have just been a failed power supply and the Vista thing was a coincidence?

Probably, but let's blame Vista, all the cool kids are doing it.

Funny thing though, it makes sense to see your PC as a "girl" the very same way ships are referred to as female. Yet I've always seen my PC rig as a "guy". He's my buddy, my friend in battle. Much like a pet, but PC years go faster than dog years: the poor fellow is about to hit the 5 year mark and already has had so many fixes, patches.

I'm sticking to XP until I hear one decent review of Windows 7.

Hobbes2099 wrote:

Funny thing though, it makes sense to see your PC as a "girl" the very same way ships are referred to as female. Yet I've always seen my PC rig as a "guy". He's my buddy, my friend in battle. Much like a pet, but PC years go faster than dog years: the poor fellow is about to hit the 5 year mark and already has had so many fixes, patches.

My rig is firmly asexual... and that's the way it's going to stay! No double entendres, batting for the other team or her satisfying my needs for me...

there is a definite presence in the room now. It scares small dogs.

I actually have a massive Antec tower that is sitting empty next to my current gaming rig. I can't bring myself to get rid of it. I call it "The Monolith." There's nothing but junk parts in it right now, and I really like the case my current stuff is in, but damn if I can't throw away good computer parts.

Welcome back to the PC fold by the the way!.....one of us...one of us...one of us..........

Fantastic article. I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks my gaming devices get jealous of each other!

On a side note, Vista drivers killed your PC? Much like Podunk, I assembled my own computer from carefully selected parts and it frightens me to think drivers could break it. Yikes.

"Seriously, drivers killed your PC?"

I really doubt it. I used to repair PC's for a living and I think your "electrical engineer" friend is leading you astray or at least being lazy.

First, being an electrical engineer doesn't qualify you to diagnose the cause of a PC's death being software drivers.
Second, an "imbalance of power" shouldn't cause a fan to die and even if it did, your power supply should have it's very own cooling solution that is not dependent on the internal circulation of the case itself such that even if your case had no fans, the power supply should be able to cool itself.
Third, if the machine melted down and the motherboard was fried, there would be no real ability to find out the problem which can only be done by reproducing and documenting the error. I suppose it's technically possible if you had an exactly identical system with all identical components and your friend was able to reproduce the system frying error, but I highly doubt that is the case. More likely your friend simply took the easy/trendy way out, blame Vista.

Odds are good a component simply failed (as components are wont to due, particularly during/after major upgrades), probably the powersupply, but it could have been anything. Most failures are related to moving parts and heat, power supplies tend to have both.

But yeah, I'm sure vista is the culprit.

Other than that silly nonsense, I really enjoyed the article. Keep them coming.

Superb article. I recently went on a similar journey and sold my year-old Wii to a deserving 14-year old. The only regret is that there are no more rambunctious Raving Rabbid sessions.

she has, on more than one occasion, threatened to “pull the plug” on our cybernetic relationship. I assume she’s speaking metaphorically.

So... has there been any plug pulling?