It was just past 9 on a Friday night. The baby was asleep. My wife was turning in early. Finally, I had a chance to pop in the copy of Tomb Raider that a friend had lent to me. Not to go all sitcom-dad on you, but I was practically giddy to have a couple of hours to myself. I poured a drink and fired up the PS3.
"The latest update data has been found."
Okay. Fair enough. We're six and a half years into this thing. I'm used to it by now. And, as PlayStation 3 patches go, this wasn't a bad one.
At the title screen, the display glitched in an ominous way I've seen before. But I thought it might have been intentional. Maybe Tomb Raider attempts some Kojima-style breaking of the fourth wall.
Nope. I made it as far as inverting the Y-axis -- inverted being the one true Y-axis -- and then the PlayStation beeped and the screen went black. I tried to restart it, but it wouldn't power on. I couldn't even eject the disc, which, remember, I had borrowed from a friend.
The gaming situation is less than optimal in the Krpata household right now. The Xbox 360 has been out of commission since last fall thanks to, let's say, an incident involving the collision of a gamepad with a wall. With the PS3 out of the picture, that leaves a mid-range PC that is starting to show its age.
In the past, when I was reviewing games on the regular, I replaced hardware as needed. It paid for itself, and was a tax write-off. These days, circumstances are different. To replace a console is a big investment. And with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right around the corner, it seems counterproductive to replace a current-gen system, especially since they're still charging three hundred goddamn dollars are you kidding me for a new PlayStation 3. Better to grab a Blu-ray player with wi-fi for under a hundo, and get 90% of what I was using the PS3 for anyway.
All this has gotten me thinking about game consoles in the big picture: what they're for, how we use them, and whether we even need them anymore.
Obviously, the console manufacturers have been wondering the same things. They're trying to make themselves indispensable with carrots (new features, more powerful hardware) and with sticks (no used games). They're trying to become all-in-one entertainment solutions, which not coincidentally allow you to make all your entertainment purchases directly through them. But the tighter they try to keep consumers in their grasp, the more we want to escape.
Let me make an observation: I've already had to repair or replace each console from the current generation, but my 15-year-old Super Nintendo works just fine. (And my saved games are still intact on my Super Metroid cartridge!) Of course today's consoles can do a lot more than my SNES ever could. But what is reliability worth?
Even when modern systems work, they don't work. The PlayStation 3's system updates and pre-installs are the stuff of legend at this point (and I thought it was interesting that Sony reps made a point of assuring us that the PS4 will handle these things in the background). The Wii's vaunted motion controls were so bad that even a game like Skyward Sword, which required an additional peripheral to function at all, included a manual override for all the times it got messed up. I guess the Xbox 360 pretty much did what it was supposed to, provided your console didn't RRoD or you didn't get a Kinect.
You can't just own a console anymore; now, you have to manage it. It takes three separate subscriptions to watch the new season of Arrested Development on your Xbox. On the PS3 you can subscribe to a monthly service, the PlayStation Network, in order to sometimes be able to pay less for other things you can buy. I don't even know what the hell you need to do with Nintendo's online service, but in fairness, I don't think Nintendo does either. The PC used to be better about this, but I was just trying to figure out how I could take advantage of an Amazon sale on BioShock 2 to install it on Steam so I could buy "Minerva's Den" from Games for Windows Live, and ultimately decided that five bucks was still too much to spend to deal with that. Sorry, Steve.
I haven't been a foot soldier for one console maker or another since the 16-bit days. I learned my lesson when I finally got a SNES after years of proselytizing for the Genesis and discovered, to my shame, that it ruled. Since then, I've been omnivorous. So, when I say that I'm going to have to think long and hard about which next-gen console to buy, it's not about brand loyalty. It's about whether I need to buy any of them at all. It's about whether I want the effort of owning them.
Based on what I know right now, I don't want what Sony and Microsoft are selling to me. I don't want to buy a game system and then have to pay a fee to use it. I don't want to spend several hundred dollars on a piece of hardware that can do everything but stay up and running for more than three years. I want something that runs video games. If it can do other things as well, fine -- I'm happy to stream Netflix through wherever. But if it isn't fucking great for playing games, then I am not interested.
So far, I'm not convinced that I must have either the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Not with cheaper alternatives for their non-gaming functions, and especially not with a backlog of great games I've missed that I can still play today. I haven't played much new recently, but in the past couple of months I've made my way through Metro 2033 and Super Metroid, and right now I'm waist-deep in System Shock 2. None of this has made me feel as though I need a new console, that's for sure.
I recognize that I'm an old man having his get-off-my-lawn moment. But I'm not trying to argue that games today are crap and that everything was ideal back in my day. My concern is that the barriers are getting ever higher. If you can't borrow a game from a friend, if you can't play a single-player game without an internet connection, if you can't trust your expensive hardware to last its intended lifespan, then where does all this lead?
Maybe it leads to the end of consoles.