At my reading the other night at Powell's, the question I had been anticipating during my promotional efforts on behalf of Extra Lives was finally asked. It happened not during the formal Q&A but while I was signing books, and the young man who put the question to me was obviously slightly embarrassed to be asking it. But he wanted to know. The question was this: "What system do you like better? The Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3?"
This feature, at Gamespot, which offered a game-by-game graphical comparison of several non-exclusive marquee titles, managed to rack up close to 5,000 comments. To read through them all is to risk losing one's sanity. As far as I can tell, the debate breaks down as follows: "The plastic box I spent $300 on is better than the plastic box you spent $300 on OMG ROLFLMAO." Why only technological products — and Appalachian culture — seem able to generate such uniquely intractable debates is beyond my meager powers of reckoning. Coke v. Pepsi, Dave v. Jay, Jif v. Skippy, Beatles v. Stones, Ginger v. Mary-Ann: these debates, while not known for the quality of their reasoning, rarely descend into the mucky, infantile name-calling that marks the 360 v. PS3 contretemps. I suspect it's largely a matter of personal microeconomics. These systems are expensive, and if you don't have enough money to buy both, you want to be sure you made the right decision. Okay. I get that. But when that desire for surety becomes this, you've lost me.The ongoing debate among the systems' partisan fanboys is fascinating, fiercely argued, and profoundly stupid. Everyone concedes that it's a pointless debate, and yet everyone has an opinion.
Happily, I'm liquid enough to have purchased both systems. Because I'm sane, I don't really think too much about which one is "better." But even among my more thoughtful game-playing friends, the question still comes up. Meekly, quietly, ashamedly, but it comes up. And I always answer. My answer is this: I want to like the PlayStation 3 more, but I don't. It's indisputably a more powerful system (this amazing sequence, from Uncharted 2, would not have been possible on the 360, and in fact nearly derailed the processing power of the PS3 itself), and though the PS3's exclusive titles are frequently better looking than the 360's exclusives, closely comparing the graphical quality of titles available on both platforms does not settle much. Indeed, the 360 versions usually look a little better. (The big unspoken assumption here is that superior graphics and processing candlepower make for better games. Obviously, they don't.)
The reason why 360 titles look better, I'm told by people who know, is that the PS3 is much, much harder to program for than the 360. Thus, most big games are developed on the 360 and then ported over to the PS3. I understand roughly nothing of that process, or why it should result that the more powerful system winds up with slightly muddier-looking visuals, though I admit to finding the paradoxical quality of this conundrum rather striking. But provided a game runs the way it's supposed to run, in ways that don't noticeably degrade one's enjoyment of what's running, the question of which system is more powerful is a non-starter. The 360 is a powerful system by any metric. Championing the PS3 for being slightly more powerful is kind of like imagining whether a Mark 12 or Mark 14 nuclear weapon would hurt more.
So let's get down to what really matters. Visually and aesthetically, I prefer the PlayStation 3 by a country mile. It's prettier, sleeker, and most important, runs quietly. When my 360 has been left on for a while, its internal cooling fan often sounds as though a hydrofoil running at full blast has run aground in the middle of my living room. The PS3, by contrast, is as quiet as a baked cake. The PS3's deck — which is to say, the pre-game menu — is more pleasant than the 360's, and I much prefer the noiseless way it lets me know that a friend is online or that I have received a message. The PS3 feels as though it were designed by some arty, edgy scientist. The 360 feels as though it were designed by General Motors. The one design area in which the PS3 most miserably fails, though, is its controllers. This is a fail of epically Homeric proportions. In a word, its controllers are terrible. They feel flimsy and insubstantial, and the downward slope of the right and left triggers, which frequently results in your fingers slipping off the two most prime pieces of controller real estate, might well be the single most mystifying corporate decision since this one. The 360's controllers feel great. Honestly. Simply holding one puts me in a good mood. They have just the right amount of bulk and the triggers are perfectly placed, with just the right amount of give.
What the Xbox 360 really understands and rewards, however, is the phenomenology of player-to-player interaction. I can spy on my Xbox friends, see what they're watching or playing, note how far along they are in certain games, and with the push of a button compare their in-game achievements to mine. The only thing the PS3 tells you about your friends is what game they're playing, not how far along in it they are, and trying to compare my trophies to those of my PS3 friends results in a bizarre trophy synchronization load screen that, far too often, crashes my system. (Okay, this has happened to me only four times, but that is four times too many.) Lastly, you talk online to your 360 friends with a cheap-and-ridiculous-looking-but-fuck-it-because-it-does-the-job headset, while the PS3 demands you purchase an insanely expensive Bluetooth earpiece that spends more of its time sliding out of my cochlear cavity than staying embedded in it. Everything about the PS3's attempt to accommodate people who want nothing more than to quickly jump into a game with their friends is a trainwreck filled with orphans. All of that — and I'm not even going to get into PlayStation Home, an in-system virtual "hang-out" hub area, which is possibly the most gratuitous exercise in futility in the rich history of video-game over-thinking — is what makes me reluctantly come down in favor of the Xbox 360.
So, when the young man asked me which system I preferred, I told him the PlayStation 3, because, for some reason, rooting for the Xbox 360 feels, at this point, a little bit like rooting for this guy when you know you should be rooting for these guys.
Thus concludes my week of blogging for the greatest bookstore in the known world. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read and not comment. Game on — and read on.
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Tom Bissell (Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell) is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things. A recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, he teaches fiction writing at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter