The Steam Deck
"The power of the sun ... in the palm of my hand."
After preordering Valve's Steam Deck in February I'm happy to finally have one in my hands. A week+ of use has me feeling confident in saying the dream of the device — to create an entry point into PC gaming that rivals the ease of console gaming — has been mostly achieved through a combination of great hardware and software tricks that boggle the mind. There's great writing out there about where the Deck succeeds in this quest, where it fails, and where it manages to exceed expectations, and despite being pretty high on this thing overall I can't help but nod along with some of the more critical takes. If you want to hear a few first-blush thoughts, Stephen and I have a new (maybe unsurprisingly huge) episode of Into the Aether focused on our feelings about the Steam Deck — from how it handles the basics like playing smaller and older indie or AAA titles to some of the newer and beefier titles like Elden Ring. You can listen to it here:
PC Gaming for the Console Crowd
Before recording the episode I set some ground rules for myself, specifically that I could only play things I downloaded from the onboard Steam store in an effort to get a feel for the device as someone who is buying a Deck to experience a taste of what PC gaming has to offer. In that regard, results are mixed but mostly positive. Some handy UI elements indicate what games play seamlessly out of the box, but older or more obscure titles may lack identification entirely. The games you'd expect to work well — those that feel like they were built with consoles in mind and have full native controller support — work well. Games built with PC in mind and require a mouse and keyboard... well that's where things can go off the rails. Titles like the Civilization series use a combination of the touchpads and trigger buttons to simulate pointing and clicking in ways that feel immediately natural and allows for a perfectly playable experience. Others come burdened with small text made for larger hi-res displays and keyboard commands that quickly become tiresome when trying to use the provided on-screen keyboard in the absence of actual hardware.
This valley between what is considered by Valve to be "Verified" and "Playable" is wide, but made manageable by the more genius aspects of Steam's community-focused features. Any game in the library has a handy button with a gamepad icon that will allow users to peruse community-submitted control layouts and sort them by either the amount of upvotes they've received from the rest of the Steam userbase or by the total cumulative hours users have played with each enabled. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (my muse) was released for PC in 2007 without gamepad support despite simultaneously launching on the Xbox 360, and yet because of the breadth of control inputs available on the Deck and the Community Layouts function, the game can be played without the need to download mods or alter the game files in any way. It's rad.
But even this process raises the biggest question regarding the Steam Deck as a product: Who is this thing for? For those seeking a console-like experience with the benefits of a PC library, the simple act of tinkering with settings to find the right gamepad layout might already be a step too far. And that's before the game has even booted up — there's the entire realm of tweaking graphics settings in-game and enabling the Steam Deck's frame and refresh rate limiters to find the right balance between performance, visuals, and battery life. Even for games like Elden Ring which have been marked as "Verified" by Valve, there's an aspect of getting your hands dirty in menus that might make less technically-minded players uncomfortable and hitting Google more often than they'd like.
The truth is that although I love the Steam Deck so far, I can't recommend it to everybody. I can't yet place it alongside the Nintendo Switch and the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series as though the biggest and best games will run smoothly out-of-the-box on release. I am hopeful that we'll see a "Community Settings" option appear alongside the "Community Gamepad Layouts" one day, or a way for "Verified" games to come downloaded with the best possible Deck-compatible graphics settings and gamepad layouts pre-installed. I'm thankful to sites like ProtonDB and the many many YouTubers endlessly cataloguing which games run well, and how to fix titles should they fall short — but for some consumers, the need to find and peruse those resources at all will be friction enough to bail. As it stands, I can't blanket-recommend a device that comes with a "you're going to need to do a lot of Googling" asterisk.
The Everything Machine
Once we finished recording, my self-imposed rule fell to the wayside. Although I still have a hard time nailing down who the Steam Deck is for, I know without a doubt that it's for me. Here's what I mean:
- Although I'm excited about the prospect of playing games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Death Stranding on the go, current AAA releases were never the reason I wanted to get one of these bad boys for myself. Hypothetically if God of War Ragnarök launched on PlayStation and Steam simultaneously, I would not choose to play it on the Deck. Some games deserve the pomp and circumstance of the big screen, of good speakers, and of fidelity without caveats. I'm not about to close my heart to the possibility that some games bridge the gap and become even better when made portable (the Yakuza games come to mind here), but I consider Elden Ring and its ilk to be a nice bonus instead of The Number One Reason to purchase a Deck.
- There's a whole world of independent or PC-focused games that exist on storefronts like Steam, Itch.io, GOG and nowhere else that I have dearly missed over the past few years, specifically since switching to MacOS full-time. Sometimes these games come to console, sometimes they don't, but in both cases I consistently feel like I'm missing out on some of the most interesting work being created in the space. For every odd Mac-supported game (which to be fair seems to happen more frequently these days), there are ten others I miss out on until they appear on another platform. Rogue Legacy 2, which entered Early Access in 2020, is the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time and remained PC-only for two years until releasing on Xbox consoles. I spent a majority of those two years kicking myself for not having a way to play it, not being able to watch the progression of development over time during its testing period. I wanted dearly to be an early member of the community, and the Steam Deck will ensure that doesn't happen again.
- I've spoken often on and off the show about my love of the emulation handheld market. These tiny devices enable us to revisit games that have been left behind by their developers in a form factor that feels modern and with functionality to match, like the ability to save and load a game wherever and whenever. As time marches on the games being left behind require more power and better hardware to run, and while that means trade-offs like the devices themselves becoming large enough to exceed pocketability, the caveats are worth it for those whose favorite games launched in the PlayStation 2 era and beyond. Besides being great for PC gaming, the Steam Deck is also run via the Linux operating system and is compatible with a plethora of emulators. Not only do I have a deep admiration for the previous generations of consoles gone by and frequently challenge myself to explore more of gaming's history, but I absolutely love tinkering with emulators. What the Deck is already capable of running needs to be seen to be believed.
With these three tenants in mind I've found the Steam Deck to be a resounding success by Valve in terms of providing what I expected and hoped was possible. The more time I've spent playing games and messing around with the many many options available to me, the more I feel like this is close to becoming An Everything Machine. That's not to say it's going to replace anything I currently use, but the flexibility offered branches into spaces I couldn't quite wrap my head around until using it for myself. The more I reach out into what I expect to be the Deck's limitations, I'm surprised at its ability to surprise. One shining feature offered by the Steam Deck is the ability to hold the power button down and shift the device into "desktop mode" — a fully featured PC based on the Linux operating system that makes use of the on-screen keyboard and trackpads to provide a surprising amount of mobility and customization. Taking it a step further, plugging any USB-C dongle with and HDMI port into the Deck allows users to make any external monitor an extra (or the primary) display. Add Bluetooth support to the mix with a wireless mouse and keyboard, and you've turned the Steam Deck from a device running a "desktop mode" into what is just simply a desktop computer. In my testing I've already gotten a ton of mileage out of the mouse and keyboard I have paired to my Mac Mini (the Logitech MX Master and the Keychron K3, both of which support multiple connections simultaneously) alongside a cheap $30 USB-C dongle I bought years ago from VAVA¹. You could, hypothetically, just purchase and use one of these things as your main computer. I absolutely will not do that. But you could, dear reader, and that's wild.
Moving the Steam Deck into desktop mode with this setup also wipes away my concerns about games that don't play well with the hardware's more obvious control schemes. The beauty of the options Valve has provided means UI-intensive strategy games with small text and a bevy of keyboard commands can be played exactly as they were intended. Sure it would be nice to find a community gamepad layout and make these games portable, but in the same way the spectacle of AAA sometimes demands a big screen, some strategy games demand sitting in your desk chair like a troubled lord in a ponderous rabbit hole waiting twenty real minutes before finally reaching towards the mouse to make your next move. Games can be both! And the Steam Deck can do both easily!
And then there's the emulation, which absolutely blows away the many devices I already own specifically for emulation purposes. I won't go too into specifics, but I will add my voice to the choir of people singing the praises of how impressive the Deck handles games from even the more recent generations of consoles. However, I do think it's worth noting that my experience getting to the point where I felt like retro games were working as expected took arguably more effort than many online would have you believe — there's more elbow grease required in almost all of the steps involved than you'll expect from the outset. We are, of course, early in the lifecycle of this product and all of the hiccups I ran into will smooth out over time between simpler custom-built software by community members and forum post after forum post of fixes and solves for those with the search-box acumen required. But as it stands right now, I found a lot of road blocks in my path to what I'd expected... and I consider myself to be pretty good at this stuff. There's bliss on the other end of that journey though. I'm playing games I missed dearly and completely lost access to, I'm playing games I've always been meaning to try, and all of them run about as well or even better than they did on original hardware somehow. And they can be taken on the go!
Playing Wind Waker – the original GameCube one – upscaled with HD textures truly is an amazing experience. The game is so beautiful and, 20 years later, I still love the sailing and soundtrack. And I get to play this on a Steam Deck. Without an official remaster, this will do 😍 pic.twitter.com/PPDkqRmB1V— Federico Viticci (@viticci) September 19, 2022
So far, for my needs, the Steam Deck is all it's cracked up to be and then some. I appreciate that Valve has been shifting all of their production power towards getting consoles in the hands of players quickly because it means more and more people will have the same transformative experiences I've been having for the past week. And again, I'm only scratching the surface here. The extensibility of this product and the software it's built upon is going to continue to reveal new and exciting use cases over time and I'm deeply excited about the growing possibility-space. Valve themselves have stated they're hard at work on a second generation of this hardware, and while this might launch prospective buyers into the "should I wait for the Steam Deck 2" gravity well, as a current owner it only speaks to the success of what's been accomplished here and a commitment to further updates and development.
I'm amped about the future.
¹Using a standard USB-C dongle and a Bluetooth controller like something from 8BitDo you can even come close to something resembling the Nintendo Switch's titular magic trick of easily flipping between handheld and docked modes. I'm currently eyeing this surprisingly affordable dock from JSAUX as Valve's official dock is delayed indefinitely as a way to test this out for myself on the big screen, or possibly even for a dedicated streaming setup.