Grand Theft Auto fan Lukasz Pilch owns a shitty laptop. It shouldn't have been capable of running Grand Theft Auto V, a huge and sprawling technical marvel. And yet, thanks to a series of tweaks that purposely make GTA V look like garbage, Pilch managed to beat it.
"I literally closed my eyes and launched the game while praying for it to work," he told me, recalling the moment he decided to download a copy of GTA V and load it up on his machine.
As he booted it up, menu after menu proclaimed his laptop could not pull this off. But Pilch was not deterred. Miraculously, the game launched, and Pilch almost jumped out of his seat. Then, reality set in: Even with everything brought down to the lowest possible settings, it wasn't playable. At times, the game was crawling forward at a ridiculous eight frames per second. On PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, GTA V runs at 30 frames per second. Eight is not very good.
"I live in Poland. Laptops and PC hardware aren't really cheap here," said Pilch. "Building a decent PC costs way more than in the US or other countries in Western Europe."
Pilch scoured the internet for tools that could help him to... well, make the game look worse! By using hacks to turn off the fancy effects that make modern games so pretty, it stands a chance on old hardware. The images in this article are taken from Pilch's playthrough of GTA V, but it's not how the developers pitched their game. Though the creators of GTA V may be happy to take Pilch's money, they may be less happy to see the game looking like ass. But hey, now he can play it.
Eventually, Pilch got the frame rate to hover between 13 and 27 frames per second. Good? No. Acceptable for someone who's used to playing games this way? Yes. There were tons of unexpected glitches—cutscenes would get wildly out of sync, some roads simply disappeared, the game would appear to freeze for nearly a minute, before sputtering back to life—but it ran.
"I did actually enjoy the game," he said. "It was an ugly mess with horrible input delay, but the story, the characters, the soundtrack, and fun physics were still there. Maybe someday I will revisit this game in all of it's glory."
"I was immensely frustrated by the existing and currently very strong narrative online of PC gamers being the 'master race.' That didn't really represent my experience."—LowSpecGamer
Pilch thanked one person in particular for making his GTA V experience possible: the YouTube channel LowSpecGamer, which focuses on helping games run on old computing hardware.
LowSpecGamer, a.k.a. Alex, runs the channel from an apartment in Spain. (He requested his last name be left out of this story.) Originally born in Venezuela, Alex discovered that living in a developing country and loving games proved a challenge; getting access to the latest releases or hardware at affordable prices was largely out of the question. When Alex went to college for engineering, his parents gave him a laptop, but he quickly found out it wasn't equipped for games.
Undeterred, Alex dug around the internet for solutions to his problem. Surely, there had to be people who'd found clever ways to make games run better. But what he found wasn't useful.
He said, "I was immensely frustrated by the existing and currently very strong narrative online of PC gamers being the 'master race.' That didn't really represent my experience."
One day, Alex spotted someone on campus playing a first-person shooter on a laptop. It ran like crap, but Alex looked at his face and noticed that "he didn't seem super bothered." The same week, a cousin shared how much work he'd done to hack into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in order to make it run on his computer. This seemed like a sign that he was onto something.
"I'm not the only one who's willing to go as low as possible just to get these experiences," he said.
Alex had recently installed Batman: Arkham Origins on his computer, but surprise: It didn't run well. After he started tinkering around with settings buried deep within the game, stuff the developers don't intend for you to play around with, he managed to make the game playable. The process is a game of trial and error, with Alex needing to tinker with a game's resolution, texture quality, shadows, and countless other settings—including those hidden in .ini files and other less accessible places—just to make incremental improvements. Even with a ton of experience, it's not always clear what will make a meaningful difference.
It doesn't look pretty, but that's besides the point. You can play! "I have discovered that when you play a game that looks like complete shit," he said, "you pay attention to other things."
Some games are easier than others, as not every game will let you tinker with settings. Others, like Mad Max, are programmed in a way that such changes make them unplayable. Alex often waits until modders crack a game, revealing new ways to change how it looks. Some games, like Batman: Arkham Knight, have proven a lost cause. Arkham Knight infamously launched on PC in a botched state, unable to run on even the most capable of computers.
"I consider it my white whale," he said. "I still haven't given up on it. Even all this time after launch, I'm still working. I'm very close to figuring some stuff out that other people haven't... I need to do it just to sleep at night."
His hard work has been rewarded with nearly 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, enough that he's considering making videos full-time. At the Gamescom convention in Germany earlier this month, a fan walked up to Alex and gave him a bunch of old computer parts to test out.
Another encounter at Gamescom gave him pause, though. While playing a game, a designer and artist who worked on it approached him. (He declined to reveal what game.) As Alex began to explain what his YouTube channel was about, the designer playfully nodded along.
The artist, however, was not amused.
"The main artist stares at me and goes, 'Why would you even do that?'" he said. "Because I was asking him, 'Is there any way I can disable the lighting system?' He just stares at me with horror... That dichotomy inside of a team is interesting to confront because some people see some of the things in their game as carefully crafted art pieces and seeing someone do something unintended [is a problem]."
Others have been more helpful. When a fan asked Alex to look at Oddworld: New 'n Tasty, a remake of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, the developers not only reached out and provided him with a copy of the game, but pointed out the kinds of hidden tweaks he's always looking for.
Alex argues more developers should pay attention to this; his videos suggest there are tons of people who want to play games but cannot. Overwatch, for example, is a game specifically engineered to run on as many machines as possible. When a new game comes out, Alex studies what it takes to run it. He was shocked at how little was required to play Overwatch.
"No one talks about this, which is amazing," he said. "I think it's a big part of its success."
Even now, Alex still doesn't own a very powerful PC. He recently borrowed a more capable laptop from a friend, but only so he could edit videos faster. It doesn't have a high-end GPU. It's not VR-ready. He practices what he preaches and wants to shift people's expectations.
"I can't remember who told me," he said, "but there was some creator who once said that they created stuff because that's what they wanted to see out there for themselves... I just didn't know if anyone would care about it."
With nearly 100,000 YouTube subscribers, it's clear that Alex is onto something. Though PC gaming may be marketed as a high-class alternative to consoles, the customization of PC hardware is, by definition, what a person makes of it. Sometimes that means running a game at 4K resolutions at 120 frames per second. Sometimes it means making games look like crap simply because you want to do the most important thing: Play the damn game.