One gamer's quest to achieve the lowest graphics settings

Lowspec Horse

This story was originally published in March of 2016. The LowSpecGamer is still making videos today.

When Skyrim came out I played it on a pretty sweet rig, running it on its highest settings and eventually adding high-res mods so I could see every twist in every peasant’s rope belt. Now I’m going back to it on a laptop with an Intel HD 4000 graphics card that struggles to run it on ‘low,’ dropping below 30 fps whenever a fight breaks out or I absorb a dragon soul in that swooshy display of lights and effects. Fortunately, there are mods for this situation too.

The Shadow Remover mod takes the blocky shadows that distractingly flicker over everyone’s faces on low settings and gets rid of them entirely, which gives an immediate performance boost. We can do better though, and with the Ultra Low Graphics mod suddenly I’m getting between 50 and 60 fps, even if the world now looks like abstract art and some of the faces are a bit freaky. Everything’s smooth and plastic, like action figure accessories. It’s fascinating to see a familiar setting warped like this though, and I’m enjoying seeing twisted versions of sights that had become commonplace.

It’s all thanks to Alex, aka The LowSpecGamer, a YouTuber who makes video tutorials to help people get high-end (ish) games running on low-end PCs. I remember struggling to get games running as a kid on the cheap computer my working class parents could afford, but LowSpecGamer goes above and beyond, demonstrating how to edit .ini files and mess around with mods as well as showing which in-game settings give the biggest boost.

Though he lives in Barcelona now, The LowSpecGamer (as he likes to be called) was born in Venezuela and grew up unable to afford the newest hardware. For him, learning to push games below their minimum settings was the only way to play them. “There’s always this narrative about PC gaming being about trying to get the best out of the game, trying to get the best graphics and so on,” he says. “That’s the main narrative in gaming culture. That didn’t really fit with what I was doing or how I felt and I thought I was the only one.”

Obviously he isn’t, as the thousands of views on his videos show. In those videos he passes on some of the expertise he’s picked up from several years of modifying files and changing priority settings to lowspec games as diverse as BioShock Infinite, Life Is Strange, and Goat Simulator. Even if you’re not interested in following his advice, it’s fascinating to see him surgically alter the guts of games.

lowspec Witcher 3

It takes a lot of effort to make these videos, with plenty of time consumed in testing tweaks for games made using the same engine to see if they carry across and trawling forums to check out what enterprising players have already done. “I have to try everything because it’s very often that I will find a Steam discussion where someone will tell me some magical procedure to increase performance of a game and then I will try it and it will actually make it worse,” he explains. “I do have to extensively test everything.”

Some games are more resistant to this process than others. For the three videos he’s made about Metal Gear Solid 5 he did a lot of research in the mod community, eventually hitting gold in a thread on NeoGAF where modders were trying to decrypt its configuration files. “I don’t know, 40, 50 pages into it some guy started figuring out how to do an ultra high graphics mod and he explained his steps for his research. I saw the files he was tweaking and I thought to myself, ‘Wait, I could use this exact procedure but instead of making things higher I could make them lower.’ Which is exactly what I did.”

One of his most popular videos is about The Witcher 3, with over 500,000 views. Following its advice I installed the Hunter’s Config mod and disabled various options, then went into the game’s user.settings file and edited it to remove even more effects and drop the resolution below the minimum available in the options menu, all the way down to 800x600.

My PC with an i7 processor and 8GB of RAM but a not-so-hot Radeon 7600 graphics card can normally only run The Witcher 3 at about 15 fps. Now it’s jumped up to the high 20s, sometimes nosing up to 32, though it looks like it was released around the same time as Oblivion. Foliage springs into existence as I ride past it, Geralt’s shadow is only visible at certain angles and only from the knees up, and most of the surfaces look like they’ve been coated in milk.

Some of the commenters on LowSpecGamer videos are strangely angered by the idea people are happy to play games this way.

I don’t mind because I remember playing games on my parents’ old 486 in a tiny window in the corner of the screen, but some of the commenters on LowSpecGamer videos are strangely angered by the idea people are happy to play games this way. They say things like “don’t buy the game at all if you can’t run it” and claim that it “totally ruins the experience”. There’s an odd defensiveness, as if they’re seeing a mural of Jesus permanently muddled by inept restoration rather than someone turning down textures because they can only afford a mediocre laptop.

“I remember one guy commenting, ‘I don’t see the point of this, you can get a good computer for X amount of dollars at your local store and put it together so I don’t see the point of your channel.’ I was about to answer him when one person responded, ‘The world doesn’t end at your doorstep.’” It’s a good point. What the LowSpecGamer demonstrates is ingenuity that comes from necessity, and it should inspire our respect rather than contempt. “It’s easy to think that it’s easy to get a good computer when you live in a developed country. As I know because of the country I was born in, that is not the case for a lot of people, and judging by the analytics of the channel a lot of people from many countries around the world enjoy or feel represented by this.”

lowspec Geralt

Not every game has cracked open and revealed its secrets under his pressure, however. He maintains a list of what he calls the “doomed games," and they include a couple of obvious suspects. Batman: Arkham Knight seems to particularly frustrate him. “To this day I keep regularly re-downloading the game and trying stuff. I haven’t given up yet but it’s amazing how it ignores the configuration files for so many things. Even the way the configuration files are set up is messy. The problems with Arkham Knight aren’t only superficial, they are very evident everywhere. Then you have games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which is one I particularly dislike because even when getting into the configuration screen of the game, trying to switch things into low, when you check back into the configuration file it will barely change.”

There are a couple of games on that list for better reasons though, ones that don’t obfuscate their configuration and instead make it so easy to alter them that there’s nothing left for him to do. Games like Saints Row IV and Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor are good examples, as both can be changed so dramatically in their own options menu there’s no need to push them any further.

And while some players aren’t impressed by what he does to their favorite games, the developers don’t seem nearly as precious. The team behind Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!, the remake of Abe’s Oddysee, even reached out to him personally to offer some advice on how to lowspec their game. “To have a developer—especially of that game, I really loved the original Abe’s Odyssee—to have the developer help me tweak around the remake to make the video, it makes me extremely happy.”

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.