There’s a loose cable dangling inside the case of my PC. I hear it batting against the spinning CPU fan. It’s been that way ever since I built the thing. It’s fine. The computer works, and runs games as well as any of the new consoles. Except when, sometimes, it fails to boot, freezes as the Windows logo fades into view and forces me to cut the power and try again. That’s fine too. For me, running games on a PC is a glorious succession of bodge jobs – running drivers that are a little too fresh for your hardware, pushing ever-aging components further and further, clinging to the cutting edge in spite of growing systemic instability. The PC is for tinkering, for breaking things and fixing them, for the kinds of experiments that risk turning a grand’s worth of high technology into an inanimate (if exquisitely cyberpunk) footrest.
The Steam Controller takes that spirit of frontiersmanship and runs with it. The design, with those distinctive trackpads and tiny buttons, is pretty alien, but then so is its whole philosophy. You see, you know where you stand with an Xbox 360 controller. There’s something reassuring about the heft and growl of its vibration motors. The buttons click with certainty. It’s just good, solid hardware. With the Steam Controller, there’s a lot more software between your fingers and your in-game character. At first, everything felt wrong to me. Cameras didn’t move like I’d imagined. The trackpads felt weird and unintuitive. I tried to play a first person shooter, and caught myself more than once looking wistfully to my discarded Xbox 360 controller, wondering if she’d take me back. This new controller seemed a lot more self-conscious.
I’d wager that at this point, most people who use the Steam Controller come to a crossroads. Either they surrender, putting the controller back in its box and giving it as a Christmas gift to a cousin they don’t like, or they discover the configuration menus and do what shut-ins with computers do best – they tinker.
And there’s so much to tinker with. Pages upon pages of menus, submenus, input schemes, grids, joystick gate shapes, key bindings, dead zones, sliders, sensitivity settings. You can set the trackpad to work as an emulated stick, or a mouse, or even a set of buttons. Anything can be configured to react in any way. If you’re a masochist, you can set the triggers to press the Windows key on a half-pull. And sitting intently, my face leant into the screen, fiddling through dense menus controlling vaguely defined functions, I felt it. The catnip at the heart of PC gaming, the reason people whine intolerably when a new game release has its graphics options locked down. I felt in control of the machinery around me, free to mess with levers and dials in search of the perfect setup, even if it meant breaking things in the process.
Valve themselves seem to be indulging in this. New features are added almost weekly, and updates to both Steam and the controller itself change things wildly, often unlocking features that surprise you entirely, but which usually open up the controller in some way to further customization. Just this week, they released an update that lets you christen your controller with a name, as well as change the sounds it makes when it switches on or off. I have it set to play the victory music from Team Fortress 2, via an adorable series of haptic beeps.
I get that for most people, the combination of drastic rolling updates and granular configuration isn’t half the fun, it’s a frustrating roadblock. But for me, it was a cool trade-off, like the people in Deus Ex who’ve been outfitted with robot legs which have in turn given them some kind of dystopian future disease. What’s using a PC without a serious bout of techno-lung to go with it?
I found the controller to embody everything about the computer – personal, malleable, intimate, and a little unstable. Which is why I found the Steam Link such a surprise.
Bleary eyed and hungover, stood in Hamleys and surrounded by children, wishing the cashier would stop trying to make conversation, I hadn’t only bought the controller. I like cool technology magic tricks, like getting your internet through your electrical plug sockets or using your phone to track your sleep cycles. The Link, which lets you control your PC desktop via your television screen thanks to some clever video streaming, very much scratches that itch.
In essence, the Steam Link takes the bad-postured, behind-closed-doors home office world of PC gaming and transplants it into the living room for all to see. And maybe the Steam Link makes complete sense for those that keep their PCs slick and clean, with films neatly alphabetized and categorized in one place, a hard drive dedicated to games and a tasteful desktop background.
But my PC is too much of a PC. When you turn on my Steam Link, you can almost feel the tangle of wires flood into the living room. My desktop, now projected wholesale onto the big telly, is a messy spread of discarded folders, text files hinting at half-finished poems and stories, an Audacity project guarding a mothballed podcast, all there for flatmates to gawp at. And even though the tiny Steam Link sits aside the communal consoles, in the spirit of shared ownership, there’s no sense that my flatmates could just switch it on for a round of Nidhogg. Want to use my PC? You need to know what security prompts to say ‘no’ to (so it doesn’t freeze), or which executable files to avoid clicking on (they’re old, broken, and will do nothing while still taking up all the memory). Oh, and you need to be able to use my weird new controller that’s set up to my own personal tastes. I assure you now that those tastes are obtuse and impenetrable.
It’s not that it doesn’t work. It’s definitely been cool to get You Don’t Know Jack or Rocket League up on the TV screen, with a room full of people smiling, jostling one another on the couch, having a giggle. It’s like being transported back to 2007, and we’re the affluent 20-somethings being used to advertise the Nintendo Wii. Except that here, I find myself apologizing for the mess. I’m sorry, ignore the unmade bed. Let me just throw these notes into a folder for you. Make some space to sit. I need to save this Ableton project – no, it’s not ready to listen to just yet. Let’s just play a game. Processes that feel normal and comfortable hunched over the desktop become “sorry, just a moment” in the living room.
I like the Steam Link, and I like the Steam Controller. But whereas the controller celebrates the personal, messy, workaround soul of PC gaming, the Link exposes it to onlookers. I don’t know whether that’s something I’m entirely comfortable with. Who knows – maybe having all these guests around will inspire me to tidy the place up a little?