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?


Happened to my PC too. Now I just have a laptop that can play a few older games. My 360 is my main piece of hardware though.