For almost every hour of every weekday, I’m staring dry-eyed at some sort of flickering screen; be it the domineering glare of my workplace laptop or the friendly glow of my HDTV, I’m a casualty of eye-strain and optical degradation. By day, I’m a content writer for a leading UK property company. By night, I’m Superslob; a guiltless, misty-eyed zombie losing himself in whatever video game he’s currently infatuated with. It’s a lot of screen-time, lemme tell you. I’m a platform agnostic, with no real allegiance to any console or company, but there’s one format I’ve been neglecting of late: the PC.
Because I’m in in front of a mouse and keyboard all day at work, the idea of PC gaming makes me wretch; why would I spend my evenings hunched with claw-like hands over a desk, my colossal TV beaming colours into my aching retinas, when I just spent 8 hours doing the same thing at work?
Well, because I paid money for it. It was, once upon a time, an absolute beast of a rig. Now it’s a clutter of desktop items and shortcuts to backlogged games. There was a wealth of Steam titles on there – 446, at last count – and I’d miss out on so many classics if I didn’t knuckle up and find a way to enjoy PC gaming.
It looks nice, but don't be fooled - only a maniac would play on one of these things.
Well, I found a way. Or rather, I found a whole new hobby.
Steam may be an absolute garbage fire these days, and Valve may have made it to the top of my shitlist for both the things they’ve done (Steam Greenlight) and the things they haven’t (Half Life 3); but my God, am I ever in love with their controller configuration options. This is perfect for older games which, stubborn in their ways, wouldn’t be seen dead with a Dual Shock plugged into them. I can just plug my pad into the USB, configure the buttons to send keyboard commands, and watch with glee as I perversely force old PC games to jump through controller-shaped hoops. Steam's controller UI is complex at first (it can be downright sloppy, in fact), but with enough time and practice, you can make almost any game feel like a worthy console conversion.
Now, the PC elitists will no doubt string me up for this transgression, doing away with the accuracy of a keyboard and mouse for the sake of those pitiful controllers. But to question why I’d play to ‘inferior’ standards is to miss the point entirely. It’s not just about playing the games.
To me, it’s a whole new game.
Sure, she's no looker. But she makes me so happy.
I’m obsessed with creating the greatest possible gamepad setups for old PC titles. And, because I like to watch the world burn, I’m particularly fond of tackling first-person shooters. My very first attempt at a controller setup was the original F.E.A.R - one of my all-time favourite shooters. Back in university, I managed to rinse the 360 version on the Insane difficulty, so I refused to admit that a controller setup wouldn’t work. Determined, I launched myself head-first into Steam’s controller configuration menu, setting to work on the best damn gamepad setup the game would ever see.
For a first attempt, my F.E.A.R control scheme is one of my proudest. Obviously, the PC version’s extra buttons make for snappier control options; weapon cycling is done with the flick of a mouse wheel, grenade types can be cycled back and forth, and every character action has its own button mapping. Despite my determination, I soon discovered that for all of the game’s commands, there simply weren’t enough buttons on my 360 controller.
It's a challenge. And I love it.
Which is perhaps why my control scheme for F.E.A.R on the PC is utterly glorious. Sure, it took a whole evening; an endless cycle of firing up the game, discovering my latest control scheme sucked, then closing it down and leaping back into the editor - but I got that damn game nailed. There were concessions; I mapped the use and reload key to the same button, but got around potential conflicts by having one work on a press and the other on a hold. It just works.
Following on from F.E.A.R, I made note of the many, many games in my Steam library, noting all of those I’d given up on for their missing gamepad support. Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Call of Cthulhu:Dark Corners of the Earth. Painkiller. I’d play them from the comfort of my sofa or not at all, freeing them from their gross desktop shackles.
"Get down! He's packing face buttons!"
So let’s talk about Steam’s Gamepad editor, bad stuff first. The UI is terrible, and seems to have an awful time matching my monitor’s resolution. The UI is kind of gross. Its explanations for certain features are often so bizarre that they make things more confusing. My advice is to suck it up and get used to it. Just poke around; that’s how I found so many of my literally game-changing options.
Take button holds, for example. The difference between what constitutes a button press or a button hold can be set with an adjustable scale, so a hold could be slightly longer than a tap, or a full three seconds of button pressure according to your preference. You can even have keyboard commands ‘held’ with a simple tap of a button, then released when tapped again – essentially adding a ‘crouch toggle’ option to games that don’t offer one. Mouse look can even be added to thumbsticks, although this is where things get the most finnicky; every game will need different sensitivities, and this means a lot of playtesting.
These are just a few of the options on offer, so let’s cover the one I refuse to use. “Mode Toggle” is both forward-thinking and easy to grasp. I spit in its ugly face.
Let’s say your game switches modes or control schemes at certain points. Maybe your character isn’t on foot anymore, but in a car. Maybe you’ve gone from a first-person shooter to a top-down, twin stick setup. Sometimes, games throw oddball deviations at you that you hadn’t thought to set your control scheme up for. What now?
‘Mode Toggle’ lets you push a button and switch between two separate control schemes on the fly. Great if your game leaves you no other option, but damn-near blasphemous to me. Implementing mode toggle is no better than cheating, and the true control scheme-creator builds a perfect, one-size-fits-all setup for whatever the game throws at them.
This sometimes means I make an utterly gorgeous setup that works right out of the proverbial box. My scheme for Clive Barker’s Undying is absolutely fricking beautiful, son. Sure, it’s helped by the game’s reliance on radial weapon menus (astonishingly forward-thinking for 2001), but this could pass for an upscaled OG Xbox game with my pitch-perfect controls.
Thumbsticks? What arcane trickery is this?!
Sometimes, however, you get a “White Whale”; a game that just doesn’t feel right, whatever you do with your setup. Which brings me to The Suffering.
The first reason that The Suffering on PC can go suck the widest part of an unmentionable appendage is that there is a console version, so Gamepad support should be perfectly straightforward. The second reason it can partake in that aforementioned sucking is that its PC controls are straight up bullshit. The buttons for cycling through grenade types straight-up do not work. You can enter the inventory and select them from there, but it’s a jumble of options and categories that just aren’t great to cycle through mid-combat. You can select weapons via the mouse wheel, but it tends to get snagged on occasion for no discernible reason. You can adjust the speed for the mouse’s X and Y axis, but even at identical values they never seem to match up. Some menus have mouse movement, while others can only be navigated with the keyboard because hey, screw you.
It should almost be impossible to map, but I am so close to getting a great setup for The Suffering. So close. But I must also adjust the controls from within the game itself to approach anything reliable, and like Mode Toggling, I consider this cheating. When I make a control scheme, I want a 1:1 translation between game and gamepad. Having to fiddle with both is like forcing a handshake between two sworn enemies, and you’ve essentially doubled the number of things that could go wrong.
"Right lads, you surround him, I'll hit him in his barely-functioning weapon-select options"
Once I perfect a scheme, I proudly publish it to Steam for others to download; having to add a disclaimer prompting users to adjust their in-game settings… man, that just feels like failure. And so, I soldier on; I’ve made it through three chapters worth of playtesting, and the controls still aren’t right yet. But I’ll get there. I always get there.
And then, once The Suffering’s down, I might just go mad with power. I can’t even play strategy games traditionally, let alone with a gamepad, so maybe we’ll try that next. Maybe I’ll get into World of Warcraft, and fit all manner of spells and emotes into just four face buttons. I love the first Deus Ex, so let’s fit all of its intricate features into an Xbox gamepad. Let’s really stretch ourselves.
Because now, the games aren’t the hobby. Getting inside them, fixing them, and fitting them into the palms of my hands; that’s the true game now.