While My Controller Gently Weeps
The dark days of an only-child are seldom dappled with droplets of light, and companionship is often reserved for between the hours of 9am and 3pm when enforced social interaction through communal learning is the order of the day. Once those heavy school gates drag closed behind you, however, there is no sibling to run around playing at superheroes with, and so those hours become more about quiet reflection than saving the world from evil mutated tyrants. Your own imagination quickly becomes a means for escape where anything is possible, wandering through mystical lands, surrounded by your trusted companions as you battle monsters in your quest for lost treasure.
The mind being as it is, however, means that sustaining such flights of fancy is more difficult than you’d imagine, as fleeting thoughts of playground politics often filter in to break the concentration, and have the power to rip you from your place of peace like Zeus reaching down for one of his subjects from Mount Olympus – and there is only so much you can do with one Eagle-Eye Action Man in a Spider-Man costume when there’s no-one else around to play the villain.
In 1983, a more permanent doorway to the aforementioned mystical lands was opened when, on my 11th birthday, I was presented with a much larger gift than I’d had in previous years. Hoping that my parents had actually listened to my reasoning when, on being asked if I’d like a Spectrum, I explained that there was a much better machine out there with sharper graphics and a dedicated sound chip, I hurriedly tore back the brightly-coloured gift wrap to reveal the cobalt blue design of an ethereal portal spitting out a bizarre-looking home computer with Tic Tacs for keys – the Oric-1 48k from Tangerine.
From that point on, my post-homework evenings were spent immersed in lands where the safety of the entire planet rested in my hands as an alien horde had to be destroyed before laying waste; or a baseball-capped hero bounced from one level to the next, avoiding corrosive venom from the four-headed Quadnog as he traversed various obstacles in the quest to rescue his kidnapped bride-to-be. In the coming months, however, the superior graphics of the Oric-1 fell somewhat by the wayside as I turned my attention to the sprawling worlds of the text adventure.
In the few years that followed, passing through various systems en-route, I eventually settled on the power-hungry behemoth that was the Amiga, and that was where my allegiance remained, through countless model variations and upgrades. The friends I’d made at high school would huddle together during break to swap cartridges and discuss tactics, enthusing over the grey shoebox they called “The NES”. A standalone box capable of nothing but playing games was, by no means, a new concept, and I fondly remember playing Frogger on a friend’s Atari 2600 and noting how simple the entire process was – no booting up, no manual loading of software… but also no soul. The NES didn’t excite me, nor did any of the games being touted around by the masses, or their fridge-repairing figurehead.
It wasn’t until I was idly wandering past an Electronics Boutique that my head was turned by one of those soulless contraptions – a large black box with stylish vents and a lime-green disc in the centre, reading “XBOX”. The kid playing it, much to the chagrin of his parents (undoubtedly becoming increasingly aware that they’d have to buy one of these to keep him quiet come Christmas) was running around inside some futuristic installation with a bunch of guys wearing angular helmets. It was Halo. Looking like a highly-modernised take on the classic Xybots, I was immediately grabbed by how responsive it appeared to be, and the graphics were certainly not to be sniffed at… and so began my covert affair with this black box. Every time I found myself near a game store, I’d make a beeline for the dark temptress and stare longingly, always holding myself back from committing adultery and breaking the fragile hearts of my PC and Amiga.
Thanks to my love of launch-day tech, my third Philips DVD recorder finally died a death and, with Comet unable to repair or replace it, I found myself with a fistful of vouchers. It was a pivotal day for me and, having just seen Lorna off at the airport after spending the weekend at mine, I reluctantly accepted the vouchers and considered trying out a new brand of DVD recorder but was inexplicably drawn to the gaming aisle where I picked up one of those dreaded consoles along with more games than could reasonably be played by an obsessive such as I. Excited at finally taking the next step, I called Lorna to let her know that I’d now cheated on my computers with a machine I’d been eyeing up for the past two years since its release. Were we in a society where a scarlet “A” would adorn my chest, letting everyone know of my adulterous ways, I’d have worn it with pride.
As much as it pains me to admit it, I changed that day. No longer was I the graphic whore I’d become over the years, nor was I as content messing around in Photoshop or Cakewalk as I was gaming; I’d skulked across the great divide into the unnerving territory of “Console Gamer”… and it was good. Oddly enough, however, the game which had first attracted me to the Xbox quickly fell to the bottom of my ever-increasing pile of games as I never quite got my footing with Halo and found it to be more bland than I’d first expected. Instead, I’d immerse myself in the heavy role-play of Morrowind, or management games such as Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis… which I fell asleep playing one evening, only to be startled from my sleep by a ‘phone call from Lorna… at which point I discovered that a storm had taken down my fences and my T-Rex had rampaged through the park, eating every visitor in sight, along with every other species of dinosaur.
Until just a couple of years ago, my life as a gamer consisted of parking my butt in front of the TV, controller in hand, completely immersed in whatever universe I found myself. This may have been the rolling hills of Criterion’s Paradise City as I tore up the streets in my Knight-Industries-Two-Thousand-A-Like, or the lush green valleys of Cyrodiil, looting any caves and Ayleid ruins I’d find on my way to deliver a package to a guy who, inevitably, had moved on to another location by the time I reached the drop-off point. Either way, one thing was abundantly clear to me… the games I played on my Xbox 360 were all still available on PC and yet I would always pay the £10+ more to have the game on console. As someone for whom money has been an issue for the past three years, it would make sense to opt for the cheaper alternative and buy games at a price where I’d be able to buy four launch titles on PC for the same price as three on Xbox 360, and yet I didn’t. Why?
Convenience. Over the years, my mindset altered – I was once happy to use a machine which would not only allow me to play games, but also work on video editing, graphic design, audio recordings and anything else that I cared to throw at it. Gaming was one part of the whole, serving as a means of escape when workload became too great, and not having to move from my office meant that I could flit in and out of work and play modes in an instant. As the workload grew, however, so too did my hatred for sitting at my desk, trying to squeeze out any fragment of enjoyment. As long as I was sitting at my PC, my mind was thinking about work, and I couldn’t relax enough to play games.
The beauty of the console was that I could leave work behind and lose myself in the solitude of whichever game I opted to play that evening, and being able to go from a cold-start to in-game in a matter of seconds was a god-send for someone who worked as many hours as I did (and still do). There was no waiting, no downloading of new drivers or having to scour the ‘net to find out why a game won’t run under a particular operating system unless you run a launcher… you powered up the machine, put in the game disk, and seconds later were able to forge ahead with the task at hand. I didn’t have to worry about whether other aspects of the machine were pulling down gameplay, such as the video editing software eating up gigabytes of valuable storage space in a heartbeat, or RAM being drained from having been put through the wringer all day as part of a large design project.
My console was clean. It was a gaming system and nothing else.
Over the years, however, something changed. Microsoft introduced several dashboard upgrades and, with each new update, the games became more of an afterthought on the system, overshadowed by the towering social media beasts and other third-party features. Between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the incessant advertising, the Xbox was becoming more like a PC than a games console… except with the PC you have the choice of whether you want a particular piece of software installed, whereas the dash updates weren’t giving us a choice – they were there, and so you had them. Deal with it.
Friends who had also pledged their allegiance to the beautifully-crafted box of tricks from Microsoft were also starting to mutter about how they were feeling less like a gamer whenever they boot up their Xbox, and more like someone tuning in to some bizarre media centre, having to hunt through menus for game-related content that used to grace the home page of their beloved console. Certainly, until Trials Evolution came out on Xbox Live Arcade, it had been almost a year since I even touched the power button; my gaming room with full HD projector remained in darkness and my practically-non-existent gamerscore had the appearance of being in suspended animation. My gaming time had mostly taken place in the lounge, on the Qosmio 505 gaming laptop, even though the room also had two Xbox 360 Elites permanently connected to a pair of large-screen HD TVs. The lure of the console had gone.
It wasn’t until Borderlands 2 came out that I ventured once again into the long-forgotten Xbox territory, buying a copy on PC to enjoy as a graphic whore and on Xbox so I could play with a specific friend (who ended up playing with another of their friends instead, ironically). I played it through to completion, only dipping in to co-op now and again with my trusted Borderlands partner (read: Liability Pete) and I loved it; the graphics were much better than the original game and the UI seemed so much more fluid and intuitive. Could it be that I was happy with the console, yet again? Well, not really, no. In order to properly enjoy playing Borderlands 2 on the Xbox, I did something which I had never done before – I set the box up so that it would boot directly into the game rather than head straight to the dashboard. I couldn’t handle how much it had become vandalised by commercialism, straying away from “this game is out today” to “Hey, do you like The Apprentice? Here’s a song that was featured on last week’s episode by an unknown band that you probably won’t like” or “Tell your friends how much you love Microsoft by tweeting your love here!”.
With Borderlands 2 completed on the Xbox, I turned my eye to the PC version instead. I had my new gaming rig, with the Nvidia 680 ready to go, and my eyes almost exploded with delight when I first saw the PhysX in action. It truly was a sight to behold, and playing a few hours in 3D really reinforced my love for the PC. It was more than that though, it was about choice more than anything else. Sure, I was either sitting in my office with a beast of a rig playing games at their highest possible settings (and beyond, thanks to patches and ini tweaks) or in the lounge with a more-than-capable laptop which didn’t allow for quite as much eye-candy as the desktop, but I was also playing on a system where I was in complete control of everything. If I wanted to install a Twitter or Facebook app, then I could. If I wanted to watch TV on it through BBC iPlayer than that option was there to me… but as a choice. It wasn’t being thrust upon me unnecessarily, tainting my enjoyment by ramming advertisements down my throat… I was back in the driving seat, and it felt good.
This wasn’t my final moment of realisation, however… that had yet to come. With a one-year-old kid and another on the way in June, it would be near impossible for me to make the trip to this year’s E3 even though I already had the pass approved. It was with great sadness that I accepted there just wasn’t enough time to get back from Los Angeles in time for the birth, and it would also be unfair to ask Lorna to look after everything on her own while I lorded it up in LA for the third year in a row. I wasn’t going, and I accepted that. Then it was hinted at that the next Xbox would be revealed at E3, and Lorna said that this was something I shouldn’t miss out on… one of those landmark moments that I should be a party to.
I mulled it over for a few days, and that’s when the realisation set in – I was no longer even interested. The next Xbox may end up being a fantastic piece of kit, and may outshine rival consoles in every conceivable way, but I’d still be at the mercy of the corporate bodies who prefer to push for advertising revenue rather than customer satisfaction. The more I thought about it, the more I resigned myself to the notion that I had indeed come full circle and was back to being someone who avoided consoles in favour of choice and freedom, except this time I was doing so with no guilt. No remorse. If anything, the feeling was that this time I was the one being cheated on by my beloved console.
I haven’t used my Xbox since that day, and doubt I ever will again.
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