Thursday, October 7, 2010

Misty Antialiased Mem'ries

When I was in college, there was this brief period during which I smoked cigarettes. It was senior year and I was a burnt-out cliché of a music student, spiritually exhausted after four years of super-competitive jazz in the Miami heat. I was also a bit depressed, and as anyone who's smoked can tell you, cigarettes are awesome when you're depressed. The moment I graduated I was outta there - I packed my car an headed off to San Francisco without looking back. I also stopped smoking immediately and never lit up again.

A few years later, comfortable in my new life on the West Coast, I found myself thinking back to school. I thought about the friends I'd made and how I missed the times we had; I thought about all the great ensembles I got to play in, about our senior-year house and our obsession with Fuzion Frenzy... and then I was overcome with this memory of sitting in my car on Bird Road, waiting in traffic with the window down, smoking a cigarette in the scorching heat. It wasn't what you'd call a "fond" memory, but damn was it potent.

Memory is weird like that. It's not always the pleasant things to which our brains ascribe nostalgia; in fact, often times the opposite is true. I was reminded of this last week when, after a long hiatus, I started to play PC games again.

I should clarify - by "PC" I merely mean "Personal Computer." At this point in my life I'm a total Machead, so the games I've been playing have been on a MacBook Pro. When the school where I teach (a Mac-centric laptop school) gave me an upgrade a few months ago, I realized that with its speedy processor, Nvidia chipset and 4GB of RAM, I finally had a laptop capable of playing some bona-fide Computer Games.

A month and a half later and Steam has its lovely, terrifying claws deep in my hide. I've got Portal, Half-Life 2, Penumbra, I'm checking out Amnesia: Dark Descent and I'm so happy to finally get to play the "real" version of Team Fortress 2. Yesterday I bought the full version of Left 4 Dead 2 for just $6.79, just a bit less money than the Sacrifice add-on alone costs on the Xbox 360. I've also been playing the hell out of Minecraft and have gotten Windows XP running in Parallels entirely for the purpose of finally playing Planescape: Torment.

And with PC gaming comes PC tweaking. Each time I boot up Portal or TF2, I head into my video settings, clicking away to achieve that holy performance grail that seems forever out of reach. I bump up my Texture Detail, play the game a bit and gauge my framerate, then head back into the settings and bump it back down, upping Shader Detail instead. I'm constantly researching how to adjust these features to affect performance - do I go for Bilinear Filtering, or Trilinear? Trilinear seems to be the Source Engine's "recommended" setting, but Bilinear doesn't make and appreciable difference, and performance matters, so... [toggles button]

It's even more intense with Planescape: Torment. Since I'm running the game via Parallels, I have a huge number of variables in my signal chain - should I close all Mac programs? I'm getting a lot of clippy noise when I run the game, is that due to graphics processing getting in the way of the audio? Or is the glitching caused by the fact that I'm running audio through my Pro Tools rig via Digi CoreAudio? I've got Parallels Tools installed, but although it makes the in-game mouse-trail go away, it also messes up the audio. How do I remove Parallels Tools? Okay, I have to do it through XP's add/remove programs, but it doesn't work every time so I have to try it, cancel, re-install, and then do it again, and then it works...

Time passes... now I'm modding the game to run in HD and in order to do that I need to first install the widescreen mod, then the UI mod, then the tweaks... but I can only do it once, since it corrupts my save-games. It turns out the sweet spot is 1280x800, which will run on my laptop monitor and looks nice zoomed in on my big desk monitor... but to zoom it in I have to run it in a window and use the Mac's accessibility zoom... and I already had it set to 1920x1200 so goodbye save games! This time I'll re-spec my Nameless One to have a higher Wisdom...

It's such a headache, such a balancing act! Jesus, it's ridiculous! For three years I've been console-only, three years of burnished, buffed, fully-optimized playing experiences. Now I seem to spend more time adjusting my shit than I do actually playing the games!

But here's the thing: I'm kinda loving every minute of it. I have missed this more than I even knew - I've missed tweaking my system, obsessing over a game's performance, re-playing sections to see whether 4x antialiaising is a luxury that my video card can afford. I've missed the thrill that comes from getting an arbitrary combination of resolutions and settings to finally kill that audio bug.

When I moved to San Francisco, I never would've guessed that I'd find myself longing for the hot, nicotine-infused wretchedness of my final year in Miami, but long for it I did. Memory, well... memory is weird like that.

It turns out I've missed PC gaming, warts and all. In fact, I think maybe I've missed the warts the most.
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