'But can it run Crysis?'—10 years of a PC gaming meme

At a time when few games required throwing out your aging PC and starting anew, Crysis ignored the development plateau introduced by consoles and forced everyone to save up for pricey hardware for the first time in a long time. 2007 also gave us Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, BioShock, Portal, and the original Witcher—all great games, but none were really melting computers at the time. Unreal and Source Engine games ran like butter on most PCs, but only because they hadn't changed much since the Xbox 360 and PS3 releases around 2005.  

Crysis asked so much of us that over the years it imprinted on the minds of a generation and ascended into a higher form of collective thought. 

'But can it run Crysis?'

A meme was born, a slimy, bawling thing that dominated message board conversations and comments sections. But does it still live 10 years on? 

2007 

The AGP era of graphics cards was giving way to the new PCI Express, and Nvidia's GeForce 8800 GTX was the reigning King of Graphics, thanks to a staggering 768MB of RAM and 128 stream processors clocked at over 1GHz. A new generation of cards were just a few months away, and when Crysis arrived in November, its graphical potential represented a desire to move on. 

We sure don't miss the era of GPU decals. 

With the Xbox 360 released in 2005 and PS3 shortly after in 2006, videogame graphics were stuck in the mud while PC hardware kept improving rapidly. Games made exclusively for the PC were a huge risk in a console-focused market, let alone any that required $2000 PCs to play. 

But then Crysis came out looking like it did, and famished as they were, PC players flocked to it like ragdoll moths to a flame with advanced post-processing effects. It was a glimpse of the future of guns and jungulature as interpreted by screen space ambient occlusion, a common lighting shader that debuted in Crysis before anywhere else. And adding to the mystique (and the difficulty of running it), the highest settings were locked away behind the brand new DirectX 10 and Windows Vista, released that year.

Meme culture was blowing up at the same time. 2007 was one of the most prolific years for viral internet jokes, delivering Chocolate Rain, Rick-rolling, turtles, and fellow videogame catchphrase, "The cake is a lie." 

Borne from a genuine question, bolstered by the absurd requirements to answer it, and fueled by the excitement over a new PC game that finally summoned the skills of hardware enthusiasts, "But can it run Crysis" started gathering momentum and wouldn't stop rolling anytime soon.

2009 

These were the golden days. The meme business was booming under the umbrella of classics like 'David after dentist' and the three-wolf moon t-shirt. In the videogame sector, 'But can it run Crysis' was on top of the world. Only the most expensive machines could run the damn thing. Everyone knew someone who played on max settings, even if their PC could only run Crysis at 12 frames per second. We were all miserable, and we loved it. 

The release of series spinoff Crysis Warhead did little to improve performance, sustaining the myth of unattainable framerates. Only those with high-end GPUs like the GeForce 9800 and Radeon HD 5850 were privy to the volumetric lighting and physics at 60-plus fps. 

2011 

We were still trying to run the original Crysis, with hardware from a few years prior becoming affordable for the first time. And yet, I remember being drunk on the potential of a Crysis 2. Everyone was. Based on search traffic, this is when the meme peaked for the second time, and so too did our dreams.

'But can it run Crysis' was still riding high alongside popular memes from the time like Scumbag Steve and Rebecca Black's Friday. The reality was that Crysis wasn't the runaway success Crytek had hoped for. Sacrifices needed to be made to make Crysis 2 work on consoles, which meant cutting off a few unnecessary limbs. Graphics that dissolve your eyes were no longer exclusively synonymous with the Crysis name, and the meme lost its power.

2013 

Hope came and went again with the trilogy closer. Marketing around the PC version of Crysis 3 suggested that the priority was on looking pretty and pushing systems again, but the obligation to keep the series on consoles guaranteed this wouldn't be another unicorn. The series that had once flaunted console's tech limitations had fallen into line with them.

Even with a high res texture pack and far too many lens flare effects, The more powerful GPUs at the time, Nvidia's GeForce GTX 700 series and AMD's RX 200, could run Crysis 3 just fine. I even played it on a five-year-old PC without problems. The release of the PS4 and Xbox One in 2013 didn't do too much to raise the graphics ceiling either, stalling hopes for another Big One that'd require a round of renewed PCs.

2015 

With enough distance between the first appearance of the meme and with Crysis 3 a few years old, its original meaning was lost to newer PC gamers. To compensate, it was adapted for other games, 'Crysis' becoming an interchangeable slot to fit whatever memes necessary. Some were used ironically, and others with a yearning sincerity.

2017 

Today, games aren't measured by Crysis. Any modern recitation of the meme is a byproduct of old, automatic habits, like reaching down from an armrest to scratch a dog that has long since passed. Our loyal companion is gone, but we still say the words.

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Hunt: Showdown
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Star Citizen

Some people are still looking for the next Crysis anyway. Attempts to ask, 'But can it run Star Citizen?' are quickly supplanted by, 'But will Star Citizen ever come out?' Hunt: Showdown, the latest game from Crytek continues the looking-very-nice tradition, but it's not a comparable leap into the future—though it might be responsible for a recent surge in search traffic around the phrase. Fact is, most games look pretty good now, powerful hardware is more affordable than ever, and enthusiasm has shifted from broken games that push graphics to more refined, scalable experiences any modern PC can play.

PC gaming has simply become too complex to treat realistic graphics as the only logical endpoint. Some players want bigger worlds, some want more responsive netcode, others want more believable AI. The simulated physics and texture resolution of a fern have taken a back seat, and for the better. We've had a lot of fun wondering, but we may never sincerely ask 'But can it run Crysis' again. I'll miss it, but the death of a meme that was born out of a desperate need for PC gaming to receive the attention it deserves is probably a good sign. You were there for us when we needed you, but now you can rest in peace, Crysis meme.