The Fear is Gone: My PC Is My Next-Gen Console

There was a moment on Sunday when I thought the PC gamers had been hiding something from me.

They'd been telling me that PC gaming wasn't the complicated hobby that it used to be, that it was more streamlined and less of a pain. They'd told me that I didn't need to be an auto mechanic if I didn't want to be, that I could just drive without ever flipping up the hood.

And yet there I was trying to be a PC gamer on Sunday and having a tough time of it. I was feeling stymied yet again. I was having what I now hope are my last doubts, because today I've just about run out of excuses to fear PC gaming. And I'm beginning to wonder what the point of a gaming console is in these modern times of December 2012.

My problem on Sunday was maddeningly simple. I'd plugged my computer—a gaming laptop (yes, yes, I know)—into my surround sound system, which was plugged into my TV. And… the image of my computer's desktop on my TV was cropped. I could barely see Windows' bottom toolbar. In X-Com Enemy Unknown I couldn't read the full names of my troops. In Far Cry 3 my peripheral vision was hemmed in.

This problem shouldn't have existed, I thought.

What's on my computer screen should have been on my TV screen. My computer was plugged into my TV set-up through one simple HDMI wire. If this was a console, it would have just worked.

You not only can't tell me that my consoles are better than my PC; you can't tell me that the concept of a gaming console has much on the PC any more. Unless we're talking about price.

I started Googling to find a solution. I Tweeted about my problem. I called colleague Kirk Hamilton. And what do you know? A lot of people seemed to know about this. A lot of people seemed to have the same problem. A lot of people seemed to know that, yeah, PC gaming still has weird issues that turn things that should work into conundrums that force you to consider, oh, maybe I'll just play this game without being able to see all of it.

I felt tricked. PC gaming, I feared, was as much a hassle as ever.

My problem on Sunday was an echo of my problems with PC gaming of old. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the computers I had were almost immediately obsolete. I'd go to the store and read far too much fine print on the spines of game boxes. Sure, I had a PC, but it didn't mean I could play the PC games I wanted to play. I hated this. I was in college and then just out of college and couldn't afford to keep up with ever-changing standards for graphics cards, sound cards and whatever else. My drivers never seemed to be up to date and I hated the hassle of trying to figure out how to update them or what to do when even updating them didn't seem to enable me to run games on computers that should have been able to run them.

Other than to play the occasional indie, I bailed out of PC gaming for many years. I returned this past summer.

In September, I got myself a gaming laptop (yes, yes, I know, but it's a powerful one). I installed Steam and started downloading games through my press account. These games started updating themselves, snatching whatever files they needed, installing Direct X and god knows what else. I was trusting Steam and it was making my return to PC gaming a cinch.

Then the fall came and I reverted to playing games on consoles. I played some Xbox 360 and some PlayStation 3. I rediscovered my 3DS and spent a lot of time on the Wii U.

At an event for BioShock Infinite just two weeks ago, I was given the chance to play the first four hours of the game on PS3, Xbox 360 or PC. A PR person there was nudging me toward PC. I figured I'd play the game on something I was more familiar with, more comfortable with. I'd like to play it on console, I said. That's when I realized that the anxiety was creeping back.

So, since then, I've tried playing games on my PC. I plugged the thing into my TV to even try Steam's Big Picture mode and more or less turn my gaming laptop into a glorified console. This would be my return to PC gaming via the shallow end of the pool. I'd play it safe by playing games in a manner I've played them so often before: on my TV, controller in my hands.

I was loving it.

I was beginning to doubt that I'd care much about console gaming again, because, well, I'll get to all of my revelations and excitement about PC gaming in a moment.

Let me tell you how the Sunday problem was resolved. The folks on Twitter and Kirk Hamilton were only able to guess solutions. Check your NVidia control panel? Tried that. The "display" options aren't in there, for some reason. Maybe it's the Bose surround system? Nope. I saw the same cropped display when I plugged directly into the TV. Maybe it's your TV? Yeah, it was the TV. It was "overscanning" my PC's video signal, whatever that means. I had to tell it to stop doing that. I then shared that advice:

Problem solved. Xcom and Far Cry 3 have looked wonderfully un-cropped since then.

And that brings me to a tune that I didn't expect to be singing when 2012 began. It goes like this:

  • PC gaming makes my consoles look like a joke. This isn't because Far Cry 3 or some other game looks so much better on my PC, but because the interconnectedness of modern games feels so much more appropriate for a system like the PC. I didn't expect I'd ever say this, but…
  • I'm finding that PC gaming is giving me more peace of mind as a gamer. The inevitable bugginess of modern games is patched immediately on PC, not left in some long certification queue by a console creator. By gaming on PC, I feel a step closer to the makers of the game; I don't feel the intermediating influence or obstruction of a Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. And I feel I have access to a suite of features—mod support among them—that the developers actually considered part of the game's complete experience. I also feel like I'm no longer unable to get to some of the most interesting and unexpected games being made.
  • I don't mind peeking under the hood a little. I'm not completely comfortable with worrying about whether I should keep my "Vegetation" on "Very High" or my "Geometry" on "Ultra," but if I have to spend a half an hour on a Sunday monkeying with my TV in order to get these games running on a TV and another 10 minutes finding the Windows setting that spits my game audio out in 5.1, it's worth it, because…
  • PC gaming is making my life easier. Whatever streamlining of my gaming life that the Nintendo 64 or PS2 gave me back of the day is now being trumped by a single device that is holding a couple dozen games I'm excited to play (no discs!), that's updating them constantly (man, Steam's great, huh?) and that, thanks to Big Picture, lets them run just fine on my TV but can also run them on a laptop if I don't feel like using the TV or the TV is being used by someone else (shades of the Wii U!). Caveat: Uplay on PC does indeed seem kind of dumb.

Do I sound born again?

Do I have the zealotry of the prodigal son re-converted?

I suspect I might be blind to the pitfalls ahead of me. I figure that my gaming laptop won't keep pace with seven years' worth of ever-improving games the way my Xbox 360 has. I am sure there will be a moment when I again yearn for a Microsoft or Sony to slow down the rate of patching on a new game. Right now, however, you can't convince me that a 100-friend-limited Xbox 360 that requires me to swap discs almost any time I want to play a major new game and that won't allow a single mod is giving me a better gaming set-up in my living room than my PC. You can argue that something unique might be going on in the Wii U, since it is built for two-screen gaming, but you can't tell me that the PlayStation 3 has anything on my PC other than a batch of very cool Sony-published games.

You not only can't tell me that my consoles are better than my PC; you can't tell me that the concept of a gaming console has much on the PC any more. Unless we're talking about price. I did pay $1700 for my PC. But then again, I bought a laptop. Yes, yes, I know.

Last night, I merrily played some games on my TV using a standard game controller. A console wasn't even involved. I finally have no problem with that.

As 2012 fades, my fear of PC gaming is gone. Did you hear about those next-gen consoles? I think I have one. Had it since September.