Depending on what you play and which titles are in your library, the Steam Deck is either the future for portable gaming or an expensive brick that can barely run many of the games promoted as verified. Or you might fall somewhere in the middle as a person who just wants to play Steam games away from home on a portable computer that doesn’t look like it was designed by edgelords. Gaming laptops are just too cool to exist, which is why companies are required by law to add glowing logos of dragons and shit.
After spending a few weeks with the Steam Deck – including while traveling – I can confidently tell you that the Steam Deck… is fine. It’s not bad by any means! I’ve found myself picking it up and playing it more than I thought I would. And while it’s heavy, the system is surprisingly comfortable if you’ve got arm rests or cartoon Popeye-type muscles. The screen is good. There are video games available that I’ve spent almost two decades buying. It is a Steam Deck.
A lot of the complaints about the Steam Deck center around the fact that it’s not a particularly fast computer. Or, rather, not a particularly fast gaming computer. Valve may have overplayed its compatibility. Some older games play like shit. Some newer games look like shit. Even verified games can take hours of effort to figure out. For example, the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is incredibly weird to play on the Deck. It feels like both the Steam Deck and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion don’t know why anybody would want to play Elder Scrolls: Oblivion on a Steam Deck.
That said, there’s something oddly charming about how weird the Steam Deck can be. Unlike playing on a traditional console, you can play with settings and get deep into the guts of a game to get it to work. There’s a charm to seeing that the Street Fighter Collection isn’t compatible with the device and then giving it a try anyway – only to find it only works by inexplicably shrinking the resolution of the games.
It’s also helped me appreciate playing a game on low settings. This isn’t a joke. It’s actually kind of nice.
One of the first games I loaded on the Steam Deck was The Quarry. I had already read the game ran terribly on the Steam Deck, which made me only more curious. I felt that if I could just adjust one setting or fix one little thing, it would miraculously run as well as it does on a PS5.
Obviously, I was wrong. Reducing The Quarry to even the lowest settings makes it a mixed bag at best. Some scenes run with smooth 30fps-ish frame rates. Some scenes feel like a slideshow. But at the very least, messing with the settings and trying turning off different elements (as well as switching between a whole two resolution options) made it possible to just squeeze out a few extra frames.
And I love it.
The Quarry runs better on my home gaming computer. It looks a thousand times better. It sounds better. It plays better. Quick Time Events aren’t missed due to choppy camera work. Environments are easier to read for objects and clues. Characters don’t forget to move their mouths every so often when they talk. But I’ve still played far more of The Quarry on the Steam Deck than at home.
Nor is it because I’ve been traveling. Shit, I hate traveling. I barely do it. But part of what made the Nintendo Switch work for me was its pick up and go quality. It’s on your coffee table. You don’t need to change your HDMI settings. You don’t need to get the sound bar going. You can just put it in your hands and it’s already powered on. The Steam Deck has the same quality.
Of course, like the Nintendo Switch, this means that almost all triple-A titles are compromised in some form or another. But it’s just easier to pick up and turn on a sleeping Steam Deck than to go to my office/ bedroom/ storage unit and switch on a computer. This is a dumb distinction. We’re talking about a five meter difference in walking. The laziness wins.
There’s a charm to having the games run as barebones as possible. I was thrilled The Quarry was more playable than some folks had complained. The fact it ran weird at times added a charm to it – like me and the Steam Deck were both trying our best to get through a 2022 next gen game. Without worrying about ray tracing or hitting 60fps at 4K, it becomes… a game. Within a few hours, I forgot that I was playing on settings made for a Gateway Computer from 1997. I was just playing.
The same goes for Cyberpunk 2077. First of all, it runs far better on the Steam Deck than it has any right to; it just happens to also accurately look like it’s running on a portable computer. But somehow this too made me more willing to push through. When I knew that my best possible options for graphics were bad, I didn’t need to worry I was experiencing the game ‘wrong’. Because I knew I was experiencing the game in a less than optimal situation so – fuck it – might as well enjoy the game.
Perhaps this weird relief comes from an anxiety around the newest and best. Like many stupid industries, this stupid industry is driven by money and hype. If you’re not playing the hottest new game on the hottest new console (or with the hottest new graphics card), you’re not playing the way it was ‘intended’. Hell, we all obsessively watch graphics comparison videos to be sure we get the right version of the game.
Which makes sense! If you’re putting down $60 or $70 or fucking $80 for a deluxe edition of a game that doesn’t really tell you what’s deluxe about it, you want it to be the best bang for your buck. I’ve made buying decisions off graphics comparison videos because I’m allergic to forming my own opinions before getting permission from strangers.
But I’m finding that I’m getting more bang for my buck when I can just pick up my gaming PC and play wherever whenever. Without the pressure of enjoying the game ‘the right way’, I’m ironically able to enjoy the game. Which I know is stupid, but I can’t control the way my brain does this shit.
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