After years in isolation caused by a hardware failure, Charlie Hall is stumbling back into the bright light of PC gaming. In Welcome Back, we will watch as Mr. Hall comes to terms with what he's missed, and how PC gaming has changed since 2005.
For me, Tuesdays are the pinnacle of frustration. It’s as though on occasion Monday needs a day off in the country, and Tuesday sees it as an opportunity to show its merits to the week’s management. I lost a job on a Tuesday, got an awkward letter from a college dean on a Tuesday, my dog died on a Tuesday, and so did my last graphics card.
My laptop had come with a free copy of Half Life 2. It had a burnished, blue metallic finish. It shone with beautiful, bright LEDs. It weighed in at a hefty 8 pounds. It was a dream machine. It tore through HL2, Morrowind, Gothic 2, Doom 3, Far Cry, WoW, Guild Wars, and scoffed at the system specs for niche titles like Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. After years of limping along, I finally had a machine capable of playing the games I could only read about in magazines.
That lasted 2 brief years.
On the Tuesday night in question, as I tried to load into Guild Wars, the screen just went blank. I booted her again and again, then re-imaged the hard drive and started over. I spent at least 4 hours on the phone the next day with tech support. When she hung 30 seconds into 3DMark for the fourth time in a row, I knew it was over. I didn’t have the $300 for a new graphics card, nor was I willing to buy 2-year-old technology. You see, my laptop contained the last of the AGP graphics slots. If I had waited just 6 more months to buy my rig, waited for the next tech refresh, waited for just a little more performance, if only I had waited, it might have made sense to repair her. As a golden age of gaming came to a close, so did my time awash in it.
She was given the cruelest retirement, running Excel around conference tables. Her massive fans screaming, her garish paint job: She was like a drunken flamenco dancer on a Southwest flight. The final bullet in her brain came over lunch, when a Budweiser American Ale poured ponderously into her keyboard. No one wants a bright blue brick of a business laptop that smells like stale Bud as it heats up.
It was a dark time.
A year later, in a fit of passion, I broke down and bought a 360 on the rebound. The number on my Gamercard™ is 4—the number of years I’ve been a subscriber to Xbox Live, the number of years I’ve played amazing games and met amazing people and had excellent experiences. I don’t regret a minute of that time. But I never stopped reading about PC gaming, keeping tabs on it like some might casually glance at the Facebook status of a long-lost love. I never forgot about you, baby.
And so late last year I began to put aside some money—a bonus here, a spare twenty there—and piled up a little war chest all for myself. I weaseled a copy of Windows out of a buddy of mine, found a pair of matching open-box monitors, and just a week before Christmas I pulled the trigger on all the parts and pieces I needed to roll my own rig. After rebates, I bought an entire PC for $460, just a bit more than that old graphics card would have cost me.
During this time I spent away from PC gaming, it seems to me that the technology plateaued. Perhaps it’s the long life of the consoles we’re enjoying right now. Perhaps it’s the economy as a whole, but it seems to me that the technology of just a few years ago is perfectly capable of running today’s games. I don’t have the same agita I had in the days after my last graphics card died, the same regret and remorse for buying the wrong device. I have a PC now, same as any other mid-level gaming rig, and that’s all I need. I’m ready to catch up on all the gaming I missed in the last 6 years, all the mods to titles I’ve played through once or twice already, all the games too small to make it to the living-room's TV screen. And, in addition to this massive back catalog on Steam and the like, I’m confident I can make a passing attempt to run any new game that comes out.
With my one-year old sleeping in the room next to me, and my wife banging away behind me on some photos for her new portrait business, there is a nice sense of community here in my home. My wife is no longer sequestered alone, technically at work, while I watch re-runs of MASH downstairs. My daughter is no longer reduced to the hiss and click of a Sony baby monitor. We're all in the same space, doing important work. It's just that my work is resurrecting Morrowind mods, reskinning S.T.A.L.K.E.R., strapping on an anti-static bracelet, or calling out to LiquidMantis for help out of a jam on the Minecraft server. This feels more like working on a classic car while my wife knits on the porch. After such a long time away, it feels good to be back to my family and to this lifestyle I left so long ago.