A journey into the world of PC gaming and headcrabs
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, June 14, 2005.
Some parts of this are still pretty accurate, and some are pretty dated, but I think it’s kind of fascinating from a historical perspective. Of the features I identified as PC- or console-specific, a surprising number have crossed over in the modern era, while other differences now manifest in new ways. For context, note that at the time I wrote this Steam was only a platform for Valve games—its role as a general-use PC game store wouldn’t come until later.)
About a month ago I mentioned that I’d gotten a new computer, something that would allow me to finally play PC games that had been released within the last five years. Having dropped a good amount of money on the machine, it was a bit distressing to hear that the next generation of consoles is apparently going to kill PC gaming. After a few seconds, I realized that was silly and PC gaming isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, these proclamations of doom, along with my relative unfamiliarity with commercial PC games, did cause me to pay a bit more attention to just why console and PC games continue to fill different roles that are both still valuable. I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list of how the platforms differ, nor am I going to refute any particular death knells (I direct you to Joe Keiser for the latter). Instead, I’m going to talk about some aspects of PC gaming that I happened to notice in the course of playing Half-Life 2, and why that game seems to make particularly good use of them.
The first thing you’ll notice when sitting down at a PC is that there’s no controller. Hopefully we’re all aware of this if we made it this far into the Internet. To be accurate, there are all sorts of controllers you can plug into a PC, and adapters for the ones you can’t, but most people don’t have these. Most PC games, then, are designed to take advantage of what every player is expected to have: a mouse and keyboard. PC gamers will swear by this setup, but for a long time I didn’t get what was supposed to be so great about it. How could a couple of devices designed to support the windowing paradigm and for text entry be better than a controller that was designed specifically for games?
Now keep in mind that before Half-Life 2, I’d spent almost no time seriously playing any first-person shooter on a PC. So I realized what the big deal was about the mouse pretty much as soon as I started to look around. The sort of pinpoint control and freedom of view that you get in a PC FPS can’t easily be reproduced with an analog stick or two. It’s utterly intuitive, too—despite my aforementioned inexperience, it took me very little time to get used to the control, and I found it to feel perfectly natural. Though it may look different, shooting things in an FPS is actually pretty similar to doing anything else with a mouse—you just point and click. Only instead of opening a new window, something dies.
Recently I’ve taken the time to think about what, exactly is the difference between a mouse and an analog stick (or directional pad), and why each works best for certain types of games. The way I see it, it’s the difference between absolute and relative control (not perfect terms, but they seem the clearest way to describe it). A mouse is based on the concept of absolute control. Say you’re in your windowing system of choice, and want to close a window. You don’t care where the cursor is or how far away the close button is; you just move it to where it needs to go. By varying the speed you move your hand, you can move the cursor a few pixels or across the whole screen in about the same amount of time. FPSes work similarly. If you see a guy you intend to shoot, or just something you feel like looking at, you want your targeting reticle to go immediately to it. The journey isn’t as important as the destination, and the mouse supports this by allowing quick, sudden movement between two distant points. Perhaps it’s better to consider the mouse and the surface under it as one unit—you’re not moving the mouse to make it go in a certain direction; you’re moving it because you want to put it at a certain point on the surface.
The analog stick, then, is all about relative control. While a mouse can end up in a different location after you move it, the stick always returns to its center position. Instead of moving from here to there, you move right or left, up or down. You can only enter a direction, which has to be relative to some position given solely by the game itself. This works great for moving a character around, because walking from place to place doesn’t involve an immediate shift in attention—you still have to navigate whatever lies between where you are and where you want to be. For moving a cursor or aiming, though, it’s less than ideal. You have to be too aware of the target’s direction and distance, and you just can’t get the same movement speed as a mouse while maintaining any sort of control. This is why you always hear people saying that a mouse is superior for FPSes, and I now have to agree. The dual analog plus auto-aiming solution in most modern console FPSes seems to work perfectly well within its constraints, but I don’t see it ever offering quite the same level of control.
What I’m not so keen on is the keyboard. Well, it certainly has its uses—shortcut keys in a strategy or simulation game are always helpful, and it’s essential for interactive fiction, but in a fast-paced action game it seems a bit unwieldy. With the mouse controlling aiming and shooting, the keyboard handles relatively simpler work like moving and reloading, stuff that just requires pushing buttons. It’s for tasks like this that a controller really shines. Controllers are shaped to comfortably fit the hand when gaming, with just enough buttons in known positions to do everything you need. A keyboard, on the other hand, is desiged for typing and has about 101 keys, most of which you’ll never touch during normal gameplay. While it’s perfectly usable once you get used to it, it’s very clear that gaming functions are merely being forced onto a device that was never intended for them. What I think might be best is some sort of controller-half that has an analog stick for movement plus a few other buttons, with a multi-button mouse in the other hand for aiming and anything that the controller doesn’t cover. There is that weird PS2 controller with a trackball in place of the right analog stick, which may well be a step in the right direction.
A Broader Platform
Another important thing about PC games is that you’ve still got the whole PC there, which is capable of doing all sorts of stuff outside of gameplay itself. Now, I like that consoles are focused just on games (never mind the current rhetoric about the PS3 not being a game machine)—it generally nets you a cheap, efficient system that does one thing very well. However, the addition of a general-purpose OS gives developers (and anyone else with the requisite skills) a much broader canvas on which to realize their ideas and extend the gaming experience. Mods are probably the primary example of this. Because PC games are just made up of files installed on your computer, like any other program, it’s relatively simple to download something new off a website and put it in the right place. It does require some extra work on the original developers’ part to make a game easy to mod, but most of the experience takes advantage of things computers have already been doing for years. Another example is digital delivery, the thing that allowed me to purchase and receive Half-Life 2 entirely through the Internet. Really, the whole concept of Valve’s Steam is something that could only realistically be done on a PC. An independent developer wanted one program that would download, update, and organize their present and future games and mods, so they simply wrote the program and put it online. You’re not going to see something like that on a console unless it was built in from the start.
This isn’t to say that consoles will never have these sorts of features; they just tend to lag behind. Online gaming has been available to PCs for a long time, but it’s only been in the past few years that it’s started to become an integral part of console gaming. There’s a bit of digital delivery with the downloadable content for certain games on Xbox Live, but it’s probably going to be a while before we see whole games available for purchase that way. User mods, too, are a ways off, especially with the certification and licensing requirements for console games. The reason for all this is that consoles are supposed to be standardized platforms with specific, built-in features, and don’t just run random third-party software that tries to alter the experience. I think this is ultimately a good thing when it comes to playing games—for one thing, developers can optimize their games far better when the runtime environment is set in stone—but it does mean that consoles will always be a few years behind when it comes to new platform features.
The advantage consoles do have with these features is that their standardization can provide a much more seamless experience. The Xbox 360 guide looks to be a good example of this. Whatever game you’re playing, you can bring up an interface that lets you play a custom soundtrack, do Xbox Live stuff, or whatever else the console can do. You can do this from any game at any time, and the interface is always the same. Something like this isn’t really feasible on a PC, since, for one thing, there’s no good way to distinguish games from any other programs. Even if an OS could somehow provide a consistent online matchmaking system, there’s no guarantee that all games would support it instead of implementing their own solution. What happens on the PC now is that each developer has to create their own system for online play (or whatever other features they want), leading to duplicated effort as well as inconsistent interfaces and quality. In other words, Battle.net may be nice, but it’s only ever going to work for Blizzard games. The PC, as an open platform that’s not dedicated to games, is likely to be stuck doing things this way for the forseeable future. Consoles may not allow for new features as quickly as a PC, but when they do turn up they have the potential to be a lot more consistent and intuitive to use.
Yes, I’m getting to Half-Life 2
I think Half-Life 2 was a particularly good choice for my reintroduction to modern PC gaming. It’s not that Half-Life 2 is a game that could only be done on a PC—there is an Xbox version in the works, after all—but it does take particular advantage of some PC features to do things that just won’t be the same on a console. Even though I prefer consoles for most of my gaming, I definitely think I’m better off having played Half-Life 2 on my computer rather than waiting for the port.
I already mentioned Steam a bit, but it really is a big deal. It isn’t just a program that lists your Valve games, or an auto-updater, or a digital delivery service—it’s one integrated program that manages everything Valve on your computer. Buying Half-Life 2 through Steam didn’t feel like I was just purchasing a game; it felt like I was unlocking a whole gaming platform that could keep me busy for a very long time if I let it. This is partly because I bought the Silver package, which comes with most of the games and official mods Valve has ever made, but even without that there’s all sorts of independent stuff that hooks directly into Steam as well. Steam also hides the whole install/uninstall process by just giving a list of every game I paid for, whether they’re on my computer or not. If I want to play one that’s not installed, I just choose to download it and everything happens automatically in the background. This gives me access to a wide variety of games and mods in a simple and convenient manner, and most certainly won’t be available with the Xbox version of the game. Now, a lot of this isn’t really necessary for a console—there’s little simpler than sticking a disc in the drive and starting the game right away, after all—but the lack of downloadable games and particularly modding will take away a lot of what the PC version has to offer. The Xbox release will probably be a perfectly good version of Half-Life 2 the game, but it won’t capture the whole Half-Life 2 experience, which lets me turn the game into a fantasy adventure or sandbox world if I so desire, and access it all through a single, straightforward interface.
And then there’s the game itself. What I really like about Half-Life 2 is its utter devotion to the illusion it presents. From the moment you start the game until the credits roll, you are Gordon Freeman, and the game does everything it can to make you believe it. The most obvious way it does this is through the perspective—Half-Life 2 remains locked in a first-person view from start to finish, and doesn’t break away just because you get in a vehicle or come to a story sequence. You also always have full control of Gordon, even in what most games would consider cutscenes, unless you’re physically immobilized by some force in the game world (and even then you can still look around). There are no fadeouts to simulate the passage of time, nor are there breaks between levels that find you automatically transported to a new location—when you drive up the coast road to Nova Prospekt, you really see every damn inch of that road. To be accurate, you do get teleported a couple times, but since that involves an actual teleporter that’s an integral part of the storyline, it doesn’t do anything to break suspension of disbelief. You truly experience every moment of Gordon Freeman’s life during the period the game takes place.
This strict adherence to a perspective isn’t something that could only be done on PC, but I think it works particularly well there. Part of it is the use of a mouse—the quick, responsive, and precise control it offers goes a long way toward making the game world feel like a real place that you can move about in as you please. Another important part is simply the position of the screen. People generally sit a lot closer to computer monitors than they do TVs, which for games can mean that the action seems more direct and closer. It’s a subtle difference, but it does matter. For a first-person game, it’s easier to feel that you’re really there, in the midst of everything, when the images are right in front of your eyes instead of across the room. This isn’t to say that console games are necessarily less intense or engaging, but as Joe said, the nature of the experience is just different. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Xbox version measures up in this regard. It’ll still be the same game, but with less responsive view control and a different perspective on the screen, I wonder if the sense of you are really here will be as strong.
By the way, Half-Life 2 is more than just an example of the merits of PC games—it’s also a really good game in its own right. I’m not normally much of a fan of FPSes, but I didn’t stop to think about the genre once I got into it. Like most of my favorite games, HL2 presents a fascinating and exciting world to travel through, which is more important to me than the type of gameplay I actually use to interact with it. The first-person perspective is clearly the best way for Valve to accomplish their goals with the game, and if some soldiers or aliens need to be shot during the course of play, so be it. The immersion isn’t completely perfect, since you can never really forget that the game is pretty heavily scripted, but most of the time that doesn’t really matter since everything is presented so convincingly. There are few other games more dedicated to making you believe that everything you see is real, so if you feel like throwing yourself into a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future for a while, it’s probably worth giving Half-Life 2 a whirl. And if you don’t have a capable PC, the Xbox version will probably be perfectly good, though I do wonder just how much the feel of the game will change in the transition to a console.