Mod of the Week: Meltdown Edition

Christopher Livingston

One of the greatest advantages of PC gaming over console gaming is the ability to install mods. From tiny tweaks to complete overhauls, mods can do a lot to extend the life of your games by adding content, removing bugs, and making a familiar experience into something new and different. That said, I have no column for you to read this week, due to one of the greatest disadvantages of PC gaming: computers can crash. Specifically, my computer did crash. This week, my computer crashed a lot .

So, rather than review a mod like I'd planned, I engaged in a ritual as old as PC gaming itself and took a journey we've all taken: trying to figure out exactly what the hell was wrong with my PC, and how to fix it.

A few weeks ago my PC developed a problem. Every few hours, while gaming, my PC would crash. I thought it might have been a problem with the game I was playing at the time, Far Cry 3, but when I moved onto Fallout 3, Portal 2, and Skyrim, it continued to happen, and more frequently. This wasn't a simple crash to desktop, either. My screen would go black, there'd be a buzzing sound from my speakers, and then my computer would crash. Entirely. There was no chance to alt-tab out or summon the fabled Task Manager: the only way to recover was a hard reboot.

This past week, the crashing got so bad I couldn't play any game for more than a few minutes without it happening. And so, the journey began, with the first of many familiar steps.

1) Type the Correct Sequence of Words into Google That Will Lead to a Solution

Somewhere out there, I knew someone was having the exact same problem I was having, and had already asked the question in some sort of tech forum. I just needed to find their forum post, and hope they had received a solution from someone else. I considered typing "Every game crashes to black screen," and then thought about "Game crash black screen hard reboot," and finally settled on something like "PC game crash black screen buzzing noise hard reboot solution" Bingo! My Google gibberish immediately led me to some forum posts with similar sounding problems. Roughly two million of them.

2) Read Roughly Two Million Similar Sounding Problems

There are endless tech troubleshooting forums. We've all scrolled through them while searching for help. Sometimes we'll find someone else asking the same question and feel a brief surge of hope, only to see that three of the four responses are the original poster saying "bump?" and the fourth is someone saying "sux 2 be u." Other times, we'll find the result leads to a 21 page forum thread, and feel another burst of optimism-- so much discussion, there must be an answer!-- only to discover that the question was asked on page 14 of 21 and the thread is about an entirely different problem. The person with the similar problem was simply trying to hijack the thread, and failed.

Eventually, though, you will find someone asking the right question, and others responding with actual advice, and you will read that advice, and it will make you want to punch someone.

3) Find A Bunch Of "Advice" That Makes You Want to Punch Someone

Look, the internet is great. If you have a question about anything, someone out there will try to give you an answer. It's really quite magical, this enormous community of volunteers who are all eager to try to help out. It's just that, quite often, they are not trying particularly hard and their answers are stupid pointless garbage words that will slowly turn you into a bitter ball of seething rage.

"huh thats weird maybe its ur motherboard? or something else?"

"mine used to do that but it stopped dunno why lol"

"you could try this utility. google search for KomputarFixar I think thats wat its called. i never tried it but it sounds good"

"i don't know whats causing that"

"what are ur specs, here is a six-page list of mine, and after you post yours I will never respond"

"i have that same problem only it doesn't freeze or buzz it just stutters and flickers and its not while gaming but happens when I use my microwave while I'm on facebook"

"buy a new PC lol"

4) Try Things You Know Won't Work

So, now you're downloading KomputarFixar (which is free provided you don't mind it turning your browser into a giant advertisement for Bing) despite the fact that you know it's not going to work. You KNOW it won't but you just can't take that chance because it MIGHT. You install utilities, uninstall programs, disable screensavers, monkey with your registry, turn off your antivirus (and forget to turn it back on until a distressing amount of time has passed), read through error reports you have no hope of understanding, and, of course, consider the terrifying idea of reinstalling your OS.

These have all worked for someone. They might work for you. But you know they won't.

Have you updated your drivers recently? This is a common question posed when having difficulty with a game, and I always like to answer it with my own question: Has a software engineer broken into my house in the dead of night and updated my drivers for me recently? No? Then, no, I have not updated my drivers recently. There's no doubt I should do this regularly, and it's much easier than it used to be, but I know it won't work in this particular case. I did it, of course, and it didn't work. Of course.

You know I was truly desperate when I opened up Disk Defragmenter, otherwise known as That Thing Your Middle-Aged Boss Uses On His Computer Because It Looks Like It's Doing Something. But in my experience, it's never made a noticeable difference in performance, ever, let alone for gaming. At any rate, I learned my PC does it on a schedule automatically and my disk is 0% fragmented. Yay.

5) Open Up The PC And Peer Inside As If You Will Be Able To Visually Spot The Problem

This is something I also do with my car when it starts making funny noises. I open the hood and sort of squint at whatever is in there. "Yes," I say to myself, frowning thoughtfully, "I have spotted the problem. There is a funny noise coming from the engine." Then I close the hood, get back in the car, and turn up the radio loud enough that it drowns out the funny noise.

In this case, I'd taken some actual good advice and installed several tools to tell me how hot my GPU and CPU were running, and saw while running a game, my graphics card quickly reached over 100 degrees Celsius. By quickly, I mean in less than a minute. I was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to be that hot. I undid the screws on the PC's housing, placed them on top of my desk and turned my back so one of them would feel free to immediately vanish into another dimension, opened my computer, and peered inside. After a careful examination, I spotted a possible problem: there was a cat inside my PC.

Not an actual cat, with bones and internal organs and whatever cats have instead of a working brain, but an enormous wad of cat hair that one could easily mold into something the size and shape of a cat. My wife and I have two cats, see, and they're fairly big, and they do shed quite a bit. Lest you get the impression that my house is buried under a several feet of cat hair, it's not. There are really only three places cat hair accumulates: the folded blanket on a recliner where our cats sit, sleep, and fight to the death every night at 3:00 a.m., any pair of black dress pants I own no matter how carefully I store them, and, apparently, inside my computer.

So, I lugged my PC outside and blasted compressed air into it until the can got so cold I could no longer hold it. Clearly, this is something I need to be doing on a regular basis along with updating my drivers and searching for whatever malware KomputarFixar smuggled onto my machine while my antivirus was off. Then, I brought the PC back inside and hooked everything back up, loaded a game, and found the GPU was still overheating.

I unplugged everything again, and this time pulled the graphics card itself out, and blasted that with air as well. Some more dust was expelled, but nothing extraordinary. I spent the requisite twenty minutes trying to get the graphics card back into the slot (they're so easy to take out, and so hard to put back in), but still, it continued to overheat, same as before. It seemed I was ready for the next step: spend money, but spend as little money as possible. Hence:

6) Talk to That One Guy We All Know Who Always Tells Us He Can Get Us Good PC Parts For Cheap But Never Actually Does

You have one of these guys, right? He probably works in the I.T. department for some company, he builds his own computers, when you buy a new PC he loves telling you he could have built you the same thing for $600 less, and yet when you actually want him to build a PC for you he suddenly stops responding to your emails. I asked That Guy if he had a comparable graphics card I could use for a test, to see if the issue really was my card or something else. He said he did, and that he could mail it to me, and days later he's stopped responding to my emails and I've gotten nothing from him in the mail.

7) Try That Thing You Already Tried Four Times

Regardless of what Vaas said, the definition of insanity is NOT doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to change. If it were, we would ALL be insane BECAUSE WE ALL DO THAT. And we do that because IT WORKS OFTEN ENOUGH TO KEEP DOING IT. So, while I waited for the replacement card I was pretty sure would never arrive, I decided to have one final crack at fixing my overheating card by shooting compressed air into it again. Why not? There was a little left in the can, and maybe somehow it would work this time.

When you hear about an inventor or engineer or mechanical genius, there's always a common story about their childhood. "When he was six, he took apart a radio and then put it back together," is how it usually goes. That's half-true about me. As a kid, I was great at taking things apart, and even better at getting yelled at because I could never put them back together properly. So, it was with great dread that I decided to actually take my graphics card apart with the goal of... I don't know, spraying more air deeper into it, I suppose. As I said, I was desperate.

I unscrewed the tiny screws holding the metal plate over the fan, being extremely careful to only lose half of them. With the plate off, I hit the card a toot of air, and a final, tiny tuft of cat hair about half the size of a pinky nail poofed out. Well, that probably hadn't been worth it. I cobbled the card back together, stuck it back into the PC, and booted up a game.

Everything is running fine again. The GPU temperature is completely normal, framerates have improved, and hours of testing with various games haven't resulted in a single crash or a temperature spike. So, that was it. A tiny tuft of cat hair and a week's worth of frustration. That's why I have no column for you to read.

Next week: Chris Livingston will return in MOD OF THE WEEK: THE MODDENING. Unless his cat sets up house in his PC again, of course.

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