I have a confession to make: I haven’t always had the best computer on the market.
Right now my desktop machine is pretty amazing, but it wasn’t always this way. Many of the computers I’ve owned in my life have been hand-me-downs; I’ve been very lucky. Some I bought online for really not that much (no added cost for dirt encrusted along top). But all have been kept active for far, far longer than they should have been; far, far beyond the point at which they reasonably can be considered to no longer work.
One laptop I inherited was kept powered on by stuffing blu-tac in the back; the battery had long-since failed, and the machine end of the power cable had seen so much action that it lost the ability to stay in its socket. By that point, the letter U on the keyboard had also disappeared; you could still generate the character, but you had to sort of push your finger into the hole and hold it there for a second. Problematic? Yes. But terminal? Never.
I’ve had a fan that sounded like an aeroplane, a disk drive held in place with a colouring pencil, a laptop that spontaneously burst into flame. That one was scary; it wasn’t even on. I’ve deleted core files, then deleted those files mentioned in the ensuing error messages. OK, fine, that was just stupid. I’ve had computers I could swear were capable of independent decision—so flea-ridden, so beleaguered by basic operations that they seemed to begrudge my input, discerning whether in fact to rouse at all. Machines whose efficacy depends on their angle, balanced on a book among an octopus of external drives, the one remnant speaker switched to mono: humming, blinking, precarious.
As is true of all my dependent relationships, I’ve stayed with these devices far beyond the healthy point of “It’s been swell.” Gone, past the point of tears and mania; gone, past the point at which even an ever-loving limb would just rot itself off and call it a day. But I’ve also pushed, for greatness—I have pushed these machines to be better than they are, to play awesome 3D games they never dreamed of in the hepatitic depths of their 256mb of RAM.
I remember—I would have been sixteen when it was released— I remember I used to want Aliens Versus Predator so bad. Back in 2000, those graphics looked real. I saw it in a shop—a physical shop, which sold physical games—and took it to the checkout. I remember how it came, a double CD case embedded at the centre of a giant, gloriously pointless cereal box of packaging, and I remember it cost about a million pounds.
Taking it home, I put the CD in my Windows 98 machine. I ached as the lengthy installation gave me a file-by-file rundown of what was being added to my hard drive, ready at all points to leap forth into my own sci-fi/horror rumspringa. I opened the program—creepy atmospheric music; a real cinematic affair—and waited for the first level to load.
And waited. I must have tried that loading screen literally hundreds of times, essentially just hoping the game would work. I fiddled with specs, I tried patches, I opened files in WordPad and went Shakespeare on their ass. But no luck: this was one of those games that, whirled up on an inferior machine, didn’t even fail, because it wouldn’t even start.
Yet for every game that just says no, there’s another you can inadvisably run on an under-spec machine. These open hearts, generous to a fault, tend to suffer similar effects: they typically lag, to the degree of one frame per several seconds, and they almost always have stuttering audio that makes you want to perforate your eardrums. J-U-US-T FI-N-I-ISH TH-E SE-NT-TE-NC-CE— – – The resulting experience is one of thwarted agency, of dislocation: you want to input in real time, but you can’t get that natural feedback for a good few seconds.
I remember forcing one substandard machine to run the Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood demo, a playable sample which starts with you running down a hill and into an Old West town. I’m a sucker for a cowboy game, and I was looking forward to the dusty, rusted details of this, my own little Westworld. But my experience turned out to be quite different.
There were no textures. I had entered a faceless dreamworld. In slow motion I glided, down an incline in this other dimension—along a smooth, beige surface, between 3D silhouettes of rocks, shrubs, buildings, stuck out against a purple sky. The dust was the one enduring feature, albeit spurting forth in stop motion—more a series of pictures of dust, falling over one at a time, than something recognisable from the known universe.
Its particular detail helped bring everything to an almost-halt as my computer struggled to cope; enemies lunged in millimetric increments and I was ever a half-beat behind myself. Turning my head right took about ten seconds. The game was unplayable—effectively at least—but it was a unique, hallucinogenic experience, an alien world which I and I alone had breached.
This unready gaming is a phenomenon, amid a medium of phenomena, that doesn’t have much of a counterpoint elsewhere; it wouldn’t make sense in films, in books, perhaps because the hardware and the software arrive hand in hand. Nobody plans for this hinterland of gaming, and nobody much talks about it. But it’s host to its own aesthetic, this underbelly of performance, and it’s a beautiful world if you ever get the chance to see it.