There’s a game in my Steam library called Ryse: Son of Rome and I’m not sure how it got there. It’s been lurking for years, building itself a nest in the pile of discarded indie games. I never played it. I don’t think I even bought it. Not on purpose. It probably hitched a ride with a charity package, but I like to think it snuck in on its own. I bring this up because I just saw a forum post from someone who got to their Steam Deck one day and, completely out of the blue, played Ryse from start to finish. They were having fun, but sounded confused, as if they had woken up after a heavy night out and were trying to calculate some questionable choices. I couldn’t understand it either. Our little lives are rounded out by sleep, and there are certainly too few precious hours for an average 2013 hack-n-slash. But, having had my own Steam Deck for over a week now, I think I get it.
The Steam Deck is Valve’s most recent – and most competent – foray into PC hardware. It’s a big, rugged, Switch-looking handheld that promises PC gaming on the go. It delivers in a pinch. Since it started shipping earlier this year, people have been going through it, feeding it Cyberpunks and Flight Simulators and watching the custom AMD processor work its magic.
And it really is magic. Although the software has a few quirks, placing the Steam Deck in your lap and firing up an Elden Ring feels like a childhood dream come true. What surprised me the most, though, is that raw horsepower is only part of the magic. The Steam Deck has redefined my relationship with my Steam library. let me tell you
Obviously, there’s the portability. Like the Switch before it, the Steam Deck cuts some of the shackles that tie you to your chair. Suddenly you can be playing computer games in bed or lounging on the sofa. You can play Vampire Survivors at the breakfast table, or Phantom Pain at the toilet. If you’re so inclined, you can even venture outside the house. It is liberating. And, even though the Deck is 50 percent heavier than the Nintendo Switch, it doesn’t feel like it. By some ergonomic wizardry it seems to float as you lift it from room to room.
But that’s not all, I think. I found playing on the Deck more focused than at the desk.
If you’re anything like me, you do a lot of your gaming while sitting at a computer. After a long day at work or school you wedge yourself into the chair and light up whatever you have on your way. But sometimes you sit down and realize two hours later that you did nothing but scroll reddit. Or, worse, you open a game but feel the gravitational pull of Twitter tugging at your forebrain. Rather than fully engage, you fight the urge to check your notifications, or the news, or Eurogamer. With games that grab all your attention – Soulslikes, Roguelikes and the like – this isn’t a great problem. But for less intense genres like, oh, let’s say walking simulators, it’s anathema.
Okay, buying a new console just so you can’t Alt-Tab on Twitter might be overkill. But the difference is profound. Revived that childhood feeling of just sitting and playing. The almost nirvana flow state where worldly cares recede and you are fixed in the moment.
More than that, though, some games just hit different on handhelds. Take Death Stranding. It’s a strong flavor: cool, rainy mood, steep mountain views, interspersed with viscerally watered-down sci-fi body horror. I didn’t love it on desktop, but it’s strangely well-suited to handheld gaming. I’m not talking about the mossy Icelandic landscapes. They deserve as many pixels as you can throw at them. I mean the gameplay itself. The little mountain tours are short and self-contained. They are perfect for a quick play session. And when you’ve had your fill of Kojima nonsense — too many close-ups of Norman Reedus’ nostrils or something — the “system suspend” button is mercifully within finger reach.
There are some other highlights. Once you escape the 2K game launcher, Civ 6 is great on the go and, unlike the Switch version, doesn’t freeze for minutes between turns. Puzzlers like Patrick’s Parabox are great in short bursts. Hitman’s sandboxes are great for messing around with a TV in the background. And Forza 5’s short road runs work great on the bus.
Forza 4 would be great too only, despite using the same game engine, it is now unsupported. But I guess the ultimate thrill of the Steam Deck is figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Currently, more than half of the games in the Steam catalog are untested. They might work through Steam’s Proton compatibility layer, they might not, and no one has had time to formally check yet. This brings an element of surprise. Alongside the new user interface, it shines a light into the dustier corners of your Steam Library. You go treasure diving, swimming past the decaying remains of long-forgotten games, hooking them to the surface and seeing if you can lead them. And often they spring to life. I dragged Marvel vs Capcom 3 – works a charm, still a classic. I finally started Supergiant’s Pyre – just as lush and colorful on the Deck’s small screen as it is on desktop. If I can find time, I’ll play Trials of Cold Steel, a port of a niche PS3 JRPG that, against all odds, works flawlessly.
Of course there are frictions. Valve has created a machine to play nearly two decades of games built for multiple platforms and multiple input methods. Some just don’t work. The clunky touchpads are no substitute for a proper mouse, and there are a lot of glitches and crashes and games with tiny, tiny text. Also the fan whines like a jet engine. But, for all these faults, the Steam Deck redefined my relationship with PC gaming. Provided you can get your hands on one – waiting lists are months long and they’re not yet available outside of Europe and North America – you’ll see your computer library in a new light. Even if you have a decent desktop, this alone might be worth the price of admission. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing Ryse: Son of Rome.