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PC gaming leaps to TV

Steam's game library can be seen in this screen grab of Big Picture, a new function that defaults the popular PC gaming network to act like a console.

The seed was planted with “Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition.”

After loading up a courtesy PC copy of FromSoftware’s ruinously difficult, alt+F4-inducing action role-playing game, I was dumbfounded. Sitting at my computer with a keyboard in front of me and a mouse in one hand, the game’s tutorial told me to press “A.” Not the key just below Q and W on the keyboard, “A” as in that little green bubble on an Xbox 360 controller.

Whiskey, tango, foxtrot! A PC version of a game that demands a console controller? Outrageous! Blasphemous!

For requiring a controller (and due to the fact that this PC die-hard doesn’t own a gamepad), “Dark Souls” was quickly added it to the “I’ll get to them someday” pile, a heap that’s grown ever larger with Steam’s fire sales over the years. Still, this highly-regarded game kept nagging at me. Should I really pass it over just because I choose to rely only on keyboard and mouse? Are games on a PC, Xbox or PlayStation really that different?

I bit the bullet, swallowed my prideful PC gamer cred, and got a gamepad. As it turns out, the wizards behind the digital distribution service Steam were way ahead of me.

With PC gamers like myself in mind — and an eye on converting more — Valve this month released “Big Picture,” a user interface update that re-imagines the sit-at-desk/PC experience as a sit-on-couch experience.

In the simplest sense, Big Picture is a pad-centric user interface. On a more complex level, it’s an attempt to move PC gaming from a hardware-focused, somewhat-elitist pastime with a not-so-user-friendly learning curve into a new era.

An inviting, slick new UI, automated controller support and seamless integration with its network of 40 million users awaits anyone who now uses the service. In one swoop, Steam has become just as refined and inviting as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. And it has the added advantage of being hosted on a completely open platform — your PC.

When activated, this redesign drops Steam’s familiar windowed black panes and endless scrolling text. Replacing them are three full-screen, quickly accessed tabs in what’s best described as a tablet appearance. One tab holds a list of games, each with a large, colorful game icon and a notification for how well it supports a gamepad natively. Another provides a quick glance at your choice of social media or favorite platforms.

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The third is a full-screen treatment of your buddy list, complete with a fantastic controller-based typing system on top of the cross-game invite support, and voice/group chatting capabilities. The whole experience is optimized purely for a modern gaming controller — keyboard and mouse nearly don’t work here.

Big Picture is built on the idea that whatever hardware you’re using, gaming should essentially be a seamless experience. That copy of “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” for PC might already be well-worn across your keyboard, but what about a platformer such as “Trine?” There’s no more need for debates about whether console players of “CounterStrike: GO” could hold their own against their keyboard and mouse-wielding brethren — “CS:GO” fully supports controllers in Big Picture, along with nearly every other major first-person shooter of the last five years.

Similarly, those indie titles that might be collecting digital dust in your collection, like “Torchlight,” “Chivalry” or “Limbo” titles, or racing games like “Grid,” can finally come to life in a big way on your PC.

The brilliance of Big Picture is it takes all the advantages of a console — simplicity, plug and play support, and combines it with the best aspects of Steam titles. Now content, more so than platform, can be king in every environment. Your living room now has access to a huge selection of titles at all manner of gamer-friendly prices (or even free). Best of all, the hardware you use to play those games isn’t reliant on console life cycles, so your game can be blasted across a 60 inch HD-TV in the highest resolution it can support, connected to your surround sound system, in the middle of your living room, with friends all around.

It’s a new world for PC gaming, and all you need is a gamepad to jump into the Big Picture.

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