Counting the cost

13th June 2005

It’s all green. Like the traffic light it’s a sign that it’s good to go. Confident of a smooth ride ahead I up the settings and…damn! It’s yellow… and now red! Let’s ease up a little. Everything’s fine. It’s all green…

Confused? Right, let’s jump back a few months and I’ll explain what my colour-coded conundrum is all about.

It’s New Year’s Eve 2004 and the cusp of a brand new year. Having survived the first round of Christmas temp culls I still have a job. It barely rates a bullet point on my CV but there’s numbers on a wage slip each month. I also have the day off, but it’s not going to be spent celebrating the 11th anniversary of passing my driving test. No, the day heralds something much more significant: my return as a PC gamer.

It’s not as if I fell out of love with the PC, it’s just that I eventually ignored my machine’s whining (though that might have been a dust-clogged fan) and stopped upgrading. It had been spoiled enough.

In the beginning I made do with what I had and that meant wading through DOS, tweaking config.sys and autoexec.bat files and even creating boot disks. But the lure of upgrading is more potent than crack cocaine or even Pokémon. Soon I was seeking faster processors, flatter-screened monitors, meatier sound cards and monster hard disks. My downfall came with that most desirable, most self-indulgent upgrade: the latest, fresh from nVidia, graphics card.

There’s an air of the forbidden just unwrapping that shiny anti-static bag. Then it hits you – the aroma of blistering hardware. You inhale with a smoker’s pleasure. You ease, tease, and touch with your fingertips and…it’s almost pornographic. It was certainly obscene. It swallowed all my cash.

But I survived. Sure, eventually some games passed me by completely; others chugged along at lower resolutions. I still called myself a PC gamer though. Admittedly, console games soon became more attractive as 800x600 became more ugly; my PC was nothing more than an expensive internet browser.

Then came the announcement: Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2! It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise but…Half-Life 2! I had to upgrade. I had to get a job.

I did upgrade. I did get a job.

Then I made the same mistake.

What do you expect? My first wage packet since AMD and Intel hit 3GHz and a fool and his money are soon parted. Nothing’s easier than putting together a two-piece jigsaw so once more I have a graphics card that puts my system to shame. But I do have Half-Life 2.

I tweak, turn and experiment. The game looks stunning. I have a little frames-per-second counter in the top right corner of the screen to help my adjustments. It’s colour-coded too and works like a traffic light. Green is good. This is the game.

I tweak, turn and experiment.

The numbers on the counter go lower. Everything looks slightly better and it plays the same. But the colour is yellow. Yellow isn’t so good. I should slow down and drop a setting or two. Red is worse. Red is bad. Red tells me I have to stop.

But I want more. Why shouldn’t I? I want to go faster. Higher. Better.

The numbers flicker upwards. Green is good. I should turn the counter off, but I can’t. Green is good.

I tweak, turn and experiment.

Green is…yellow…no, green…red.

My right eye twitches.

I have to upgrade.