For its size, the Steam Deck is a remarkably powerful machine. It comes at the cost of being quite large compared to other handhelds, has a loud fan, and, oh, how that battery just evaporates! But reception has been positive and no one denies the promise of a portable computer with full access to Steam, powered by a remarkable Linux compatibility layer that doesn’t require devs to make a penguin-native version of their game. Valve’s even been able to improve the performance of individual games through open-source magic. But despite the magic of playing modern PC games on such a small device, the quality of the screen has been the most disappointing, particularly in how it impacts the reading experience of the device. And while we all want prettier graphics, I’m going to make the case that the reading experience ought to be considered just as much.
The quality of the screen has been a common complaint since launch, and it isn’t one that’s easy to get around. Battery life can be influenced by changing your framerate or sticking close to an outlet, and Valve has already made efforts to reduce the fan noise through a firmware update. The screen, however? Unless you’re of a particular brand of brave, replacing these as a DIY effort is likely to be out of the question, at least until availability or price is way more comfortable for those who’d be ok taking apart what is now a $US400+ ($555)+ device.
While 1200×800 is a perfectly suitable resolution for a portable device (it does give the APU a bit of a break), I’ve noticed the overall colour of the screen has been under the most scrutiny. In my experience, however, I’ve found the colours to be perfectly acceptable. I can play Cyberpunk in my hands for crying out loud, so I’m not splitting hairs over the colour not being as amazing as the Switch’s OLED. But there’s another issue with the screen that I think could be a lot better.
It’s the Steam Deck’s reading experience that I think stands to benefit the most from an improved screen. Not for the native UI elements, which are plenty legible, but instead, I think the Steam Deck has remarkable potential to become an essential device for narrative, text-based games and in-world fictional documents.
Despite being a recovering literature major, reading in video games is usually an exhausting experience for me. On a big television it always feels too far away, no matter how legible it is. On a computer…it just feels like work. Also, a controller in hand and a screen far away just puts my brain in a different kind of entertainment mood. My hope for the Steam Deck was that by having something in my hands, closer to my face, perhaps similar to a book, tablet, or phone, my brain would respond in a different way. I’d hoped that this would re-establish my relationship with narrative, text-based games on PC while also allowing me to better appreciate in-world text documents of the kind we see in Control or Cyberpunk 2077.
Fictional books, diaries, emails, terminals, and so on, all have the capacity to make a world feel much more lived in, demonstrating the ways that its fictional people document their own world around them. Picking up a random datapad in a sci-fi game shouldn’t just be filler, but rather an opportunity to tell us something about how these people live. Reading these documents with an actual handheld device like the Steam Deck, I believe, can create a really strong parity between the character and player experience.
This has me thinking about the potential for the Steam Deck to not merely be an impressive and hyper-powerful mini machine with the might of Steam behind it, but as the perfect interactive fiction device. While the Switch does have a number of these kinds of games, I find the Nintendo console’s flat shape to be worse for my hands than the Steam Deck’s weight. I’m also way more sceptical of the longevity of the Switch eShop, for good reason. Steam games, however, I expect to be accessible for way longer, not to mention the ability to get games through GOG on the Deck with a simple third-party utility like the Heroic Games Launcher through “Desktop Mode” (which can connect back to Steam with a simple shell script from GitHub).
Being able to experience what we get on high-powered gaming machines while on the move almost seems expected now. It’s something that will continue to improve and wow us as the years go on. What’s interesting about the Steam Deck to me, much like the recent Play Date, is its potential to prompt us to reconsider how the form of a device informs the way we experience and play a game. So, as someone who has always loved the idea of lots of text in a game to provide extra context and world-building, but has struggled in practice to enjoy it, how has the Deck experience been so far with text-based and text-heavy games?
My first candidate was 2020’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest. This text-based game, set in one of my favourite fictional worlds, is an excellent adaptation of the tabletop roleplaying game and, though I’d owned it on Steam since release, it was always exhausting for me to go through on the computer. On Steam Deck, however? The experience both confirmed my hopes and revealed my biggest issue with the hardware.
The art, vivid writing, and the gorgeous soundscapes of Heart of the Forest are a joy in the hands. But, without a clear ability to scale up the text, I had to resort to switching the in-game font to OpenDyslexic to improve the readability as the text was almost too small to enjoy the game. Thankfully the developers included options for a more readable typeface in the options, but I know it could be better in a way that isn’t necessarily on the devs to improve.
Here’s the thing: I regularly read text this small on another device with rarely any issue, and I have the lost hours of sleep spent staring at it to back that up. My own smartphone, a Google Pixel 6, provides a really excellent reading experience on a variety of apps, including the Kindle app which gets the most use. So, I know a screen this size or smaller is capable of better performance.
So far, Heart of the Forest, despite the text being a touch too small, has been far more engaging on this device than it ever was on a big screen. My reading comprehension improved by being able to chill out on the couch with it. The beats of the story are sticking far better and I’m finding the characters and environments to be much easier to picture. The same is true for other text-heavy games, like Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Divinity: Original Sin II. In Divinity, I’ve even gone and muted nearly all the voices since I can read much faster than listen to the narration. The gap between “playing” and “reading” has been reduced by such a margin via the Steam Deck that I find I’m tempted to lose myself in these worlds far more than I was at a distance.
I was also curious how a device in my hands would influence my interaction with games such as Cyberpunk 2077, 2017’s Prey, Control, and Fallout 4, games with a lot of in-world documents to sift through. Previously in Fallout, I would always sigh a bit when I’d encountered a terminal. I wanted to appreciate the writing and world-building in these instances, but slowing down the pace of exploration wasn’t something I was as willing to do. On the Deck, sitting down with these terminals now feels much more native to the experience in a way that I think has to be felt to be really understood. Reading no longer feels like a break from the flow of the game.
The same is true of 2017’s Prey, where I’m now much more interested to check out the various books, documents, and emails you can peruse; in fact, the subtle foreshadowing of aliens and mind tricks in the game’s opening with books on the Fermi paradox, and one on being turned “into a mathematician” in mere minutes through the game’s neuromods, adds more weight and dimension to its winding plot. Cyberpunk and Control also surprised me by how I was more inspired to take a break from the action to pick up in-world documents, as well as observe the text of the world around me. Though I’ve played Cyberpunk plenty of times, I never really stopped to observe writing on vending machines, newsstands, or the list of chakra harmonization prices in Misty’s shop. This is a level of immersion one doesn’t need ray tracing for. Be it the proximity of my eyes to the screen, or the fact that I was holding the game like a book or comic, I just had more of a willingness and compulsion to read the world around me. Documents in Control now pull me more into the environment than they did on my first playthrough on a PlayStation 4.
Yet this new-found love of in-game text is still a bittersweet experience. The lower resolution certainly allows the device to play graphically impressive games, yet it comes at the cost of poor readability. I’ve yet to find anything that’s completely illegible, though some games have UI elements that really push the limits. Most of these are completely fixable via an update to each game, and while I think that’s a necessary thing for all games from an accessibility perspective, I think the Deck would greatly benefit from having a better screen for readability. I’m not sure if that answer is in resolution alone, but I think this is an opportunity for us to consider a screen that delivers more than just refresh rates, colour accuracy, and resolution for the sake of textures. I’m hoping that future iterations of this device will consider text as important as high frame rates.
Pixel density and resolution are likely the key areas where the Steam Deck can improve for readability. With a pixel density less than half that found in your average smartphone, the result is a blurriness to smaller text. There aren’t enough pixels to render the image with a sharpness that allows small text to be clean and legible. While there may be other factors to consider from a hardware perspective here, an improvement in resolution would likely go a long way — though it would come at the cost of demanding more from the hardware for rendering games above the 1200×800 screen that the device currently has.
In theory, I believe the Steam Deck should be able to meet games where they’re at. That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind the Proton layer that drives these games on a non-Windows OS in the first place. It’s just a computer, but smaller. So while text size options will definitely improve the experience on this machine, future versions of the Deck will hopefully be guided by a wisdom that considers the reading experience to not only improve games with a lot of text, but perhaps encourage us to consider the literature of a world as being of equal importance to the visual fidelity of its graphics.