Valve's Steam Deck brought PC gaming back into my life after fatherhood

I thought I'd never have time for games again. The Steam Deck proved me wrong.

Sean Buckley/Engadget

Valve's Steam Deck is a great way to get PC games out of your office and on to your couch, back patio, or anywhere. As we said in our review, it's worth having around even if you just play it a few times a month for a couple hours at a time. But I wound up using mine a little differently: I play the Steam Deck several times a day for just a few minutes per session.

And it's almost the only reason I play video games at all anymore.

I'm no less interested in games than I used to be, but since becoming a father, I've found I have a lot less time. For the first year of my daughter's life, setting aside an hour to play a game felt impossible. Then, Metroid Dread came out, and I found myself using the Nintendo Switch's sleep mode in short bursts. 5 minutes while the baby played with a new toy. 10 minutes as I waited for her to fall asleep.

Valve Steam Deck on a stand
Sean Buckley/Engadget

As I chipped away at Metroid Dread’s short 10-hour story, I found myself thinking about the Steam Deck. Not only was Valve’s gaming handheld a portable gaming system like the Switch, but it promised to give my Steam library something I had never experienced from PC gaming before: the ability to quickly suspend and resume a game. It’s a standard quality of life feature on home consoles, but trying to resume a game after putting a PC to sleep is hit or miss.

When my Steam Deck arrived four months later and the feature actually worked, it changed everything. I spent my first day with the handheld slowly playing through the Deck’s showcase demo: Valve’s Desk Job, casually picking the handheld up for just 5 minutes every few hours. When that worked, I got more ambitious — finishing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order over the course of two weeks.

I started using the Steam Deck to play games in the margins of my day. Picking it up for a few random battles in Final Fantasy IV after the baby fell asleep on my chest, doing a deep space cargo run in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw as I watched her nap on the baby monitor, or sneaking in a few puzzles in Baba is You before turning in for the night. Suddenly I was finishing games I never thought I would have time for.

The suspend trick even works with non-Steam games and older titles: I spent hours experimenting in Lutris, an alternative Linux game launcher, getting the year 2000’s Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force to run smoothly on Steam Deck. A week or two later, I finally finished a game I abandoned when I was 16 years old.

Valve Steam Deck

That isn't to say I haven't had longer play sessions on Steam Deck. Online-only games like Final Fantasy XIV or Knockout City tend to disconnect the player when thrown into suspend mode — but I often still prefer playing them on Valve's portable than on my big gaming desktop. Yes, an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X with 64GB of RAM and a GTX 980 GPU can soundly outperform the Deck’s custom AMD APU. It runs games at higher resolution with better graphic settings, but it’s wasted power.

I've grown to love having my library of PC games detached from the writing and video editing workstation that lives at my desk. You might say that’s what more powerful traditional game consoles are for, but the Deck’s Switch-like portability makes all the difference. Playing games on the couch, in bed, or while rocking the baby to sleep beats out having maxed out graphics settings every time. I’m not even sure if I’m going to upgrade that aging graphics card anymore. The Steam Deck may be less powerful, but at today’s GPU prices, it’s a far better value.

Not all of my games work smoothly on Steam Deck, but it turns out that's a plus for me as well. I love tinkering with gadgets and fiddling around with power user settings. So when I’m forced to drop into the Deck’s desktop mode to manually install a non-Steam game, which inevitably involves configuring alternative Wine compatibility layers, I enjoy the challenge almost as much as the game I’ll eventually play. And when I do get those games running, they almost always work with Steam OS' suspend and resume feature.

It feels a little silly to laud the Steam Deck for what’s an otherwise standard feature on most modern gaming devices, but I can’t help it. Sometimes one good feature can change everything. Before the Steam Deck, playing a game from my PC library was a chore that required sitting at a desk, booting up Windows, launching Steam and, finally, loading up a game. When you might only have minutes of free time during an entire day, that simply doesn’t work. Add in the possibility that a crying baby might call you away from that hard-earned game session at a moment’s notice, and you can start to see the appeal of a gaming device you can take anywhere, one that lets you instantly stop and start a high-end PC game with the touch of a single button.

Valve Steam Deck

Suspend and resume had a rough start on the Xbox One and PS4, but eventually they became kind of an expected fare. Even so, it’s a killer feature that PC gamers have largely been missing out on. I never really appreciated how much of a game changer it could be until I really needed it. The Steam Deck brings that feature to the PC crowd in a natural, user-friendly package that we’ve never had before. And being a portable system is just the icing on the cake. The Steam Deck is certainly pricey, but being able to catch up on PC games with a baby in my arms is priceless.