Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jason Todd's Meta-War on Crime (Specifically, His Murder)

The other day, I re-read the Red Hood arc of Grant Morrison's "Batman and Robin." In the past, I had dismissed it as an interesting but inessential bit of storytelling, but on this latest readthrough, I noticed a lot of things that made the story start to fit much more snugly into the stories Morrison has been telling of late.

The story is about Jason Todd, the second Robin, now using the name the Red Hood, challenging Dick Grayson (the first Robin) for the position of Gotham City's top crime fighter in the wake of Bruce Wayne's disappearance from the city. Todd's been used for this kind of story a lot of times since his resurrection, as a physical embodiment of Batman's failure in his war on crime, but Morrison presents him here as a new kind of crime fighter, one operating as much on the meta, storytelling level as on the physical one.

Jason is shown reading manuals on branding, using social media and catchphrases to usurp Batman's role in the "Hero" slot of Gotham's mindset. He praises his sidekick, a young woman disfigured by one of the city's many psychopaths, for tapping into the city's (and the Batman books, in general) love of freaks whose deformities physically express their inner traumas. And, most tellingly, Todd's ultimate plan for taking down Dick Grayson is to show him, unmasked and discredited - once enough people in Gothan have declared that they WANT to see him that way. To decide his fate, Jason sets up a phone poll and asks people to call in.

Some background: Jason Todd was, as I said, the second Robin. He started out a similar character to Dick Grayson, taking his place after Grayson graduated into his own books, but the continuity-shifting DC Comics event Crisis on Infinite Earth changed his backstory, making him a "rebel" Robin, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The character wasn't popular, apparently, so DC pulled a stunt. They decided to put Todd's live in danger, and then let readers decide whether he lived or died. To decide his fate, they set up a phone poll and asked people to call in.

Since his creation, Jason's been in a desperate struggle for space within the reader's mind - first to distinguish himself from the character he was intentionally designed to copy, and then simply to continue existing. And in the end he was, like a spandex-wearing Howard Beale, the first superhero ever killed by low ratings.

Grant Morrison is fond of pages where his characters reach out of the panel, trying to touch the reader on the other side. In the case of Jason Todd, the readers did their own reaching - to destroy him. And I do mean "destroy," not "kill." When the character was resurrected 20 years later, he was a fundamentally different being. If a character's DNA is what dictates where they fit into a story, then Todd wasn't even the same species when he came back. He was mutated by reader intent like we would be mutated by high-level exposure to cosmic radiation, from troubled kid sidekick to morally bankrupt dark shadow.

But Jason isn't taking his mutation lying down. If "popularity" is what keeps you alive (and for a fictional character, it very much is), then he'll be the most popular. He'll tweet his crime fighting, kill his villains with grim irony like a '90s antihero. If the man who embodies the Batman idea is dead, why not replace him in the reader's mind? Make his interpretation of the Batman idea the dominant one, and render Dick Grayson's take on the character obsolete. (Of course, 70 years of tradition and continual storytelling tie Bruce Wayne so closely to the Batman idea that no reader, when shown Bruce's death in Final Crisis, ever believed it would "stick," meaning Jason is almost certainly doomed in his attempts). And in the ultimate symbol of fighting back against the reader, he co-opts their murder weapon - the phone poll - in his war against Dick Grayson.

By having the people of Gotham (motivated at least partially by prurient interest, in a reflection of the sort of people who voted for Jason's death just to see if DC would really do it) declare Batman obsolete by the same method that was used to kill him, he's making his big play to hi-jack the Batman story to serve his own ends.

Morrison's entire run on Batman (not to mention his other DC work of late) has been about characters fighting back against the stories they find themselves trapped in. Final Crisis was about an attempt by characters within the story to reverse the "Heroes always win" dynamic of the universe in which they live. Dr. Hurt, the major villain of Morrison's Batman, is a direct attack on Batman's origin. He presents himself as Dr. Thomas Wayne, not murdered trying to protect his family in Crime Alley, but the engineer behind their deaths. He is, like The Enemy in Lawrence Miles' excellent "The Book of the War," a kind of hostile alternate history. Batman as he currently exists is functionally invincible within his stories. The only way to beat him is to attack him on the meta level, and so Hurt strikes not at the man, but at the iconic origin story.

And Jason Todd, killed by readers and resurrected by shifts in continuity (he was, really, brought back to life by an evil Superboy punching the walls of the universe) is trying to impose his story onto the Batman narrative. In Jason's story, he's the charismatic dark hero, using intense violence to put criminals down forever. "Heroes" like Batman are ineffectual jokes that exist to make him look stronger. In Jason's story, Jason wins.

Of course, inevitably, he fails. Batman and Robin escape from the phone poll trap, just in time to save the Red Hood from the consequences of his actions. Because, by turning the story into one of grit and violence, he has summoned a corresponding villain - the inarticulate, insane, brutal Flamingo. By breaking loose "Batman and Robin" the book from its central ideas (Batman fights crime through fear but does not kill, Batman always wins, the villains are dangerous but not so dangerous that they cannot be defeated), he has allowed Flamingo to bring his heightened, gruesome violence to Gotham. It is only through the actions of Dick Grayson and his sidekick Damien that the natural order is re-asserted, with Batman and Robin triumphant and the villain defeated.

And in the wake of Batman's story taking back over the book's narrative, The Red Hood is no longer a subversive anti-hero, but a murderer. Just one more Gotham supervillain with a tragic past. In the end, Jason bemoans the way the world (that is, the narrative universe created by writer intent and reader reaction) has forced him into his role as the inevitable black sheep of the Batman family. His only solace is that he "Did something even Batman couldn't do... I beat my Arch-Enemy." He says this in a panel where the panel border that had been penning him is suddenly gone, as though no longer separating Jason Todd from his nemesis, the entity that killed him and has forced him into humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat.


(Last note: It's interesting, in light of all this to compare Jason to the version of Damien that we see in the future of Batman #666. The Damien-Batman seen in this future is violent, often murderous, anti-heroic. In the safety of a "future" story, divorced by time from having to be the "main" Batman story, he has reformed Gotham in his image, to the point where the entire city is booby-trapped to protect him. By waiting until a time when the Bruce Wayne is truly dead, he has hi-jacked the Batman story and bent it to his own purposes far more successfully than Todd or Hurt ever could).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Technique as Storytelling (Or, 650 words on why Jet Li is a bad actor and an amazing storyteller)

(Contains extensive spoilers for a ten-year-old movie)

There's a moment at the end of the Jet Li alternate universe/kung-fu/stupid* movie The One that I've always loved.

*(Many other people have pointed this out, but the film's central conceit - that no person must ever be the last instance of themselves in the multiverse, because that singular nature will give them god-like powers - is INCREDIBLY dumb, given that such a situation must happen to every single person, ever, at some point, leading to armies of super-powered geriatrics who managed to outlast their counterparts).


Good guy Gabriel Law (Jet Li) has tracked his evil, murderous other-universe counterpart Yulaw (Jet Li, scowling) to an industrial site, ostensibly because it's where the next rift to another universe will open but actually because you can't have a special effects-heavy martial arts movie without setting at least one scene in an abandoned factory full of pipes to swing and chains to go Tarzan on and giant blasts of steam to not actually get scalded by.

Jet Li is not an actor known for the diversity of his performances, so casting him as two extremely different versions of the same man was a challenge he wasn't really up for. As Yulaw, he's great, playing a character built around the icy-cold, murderously focused persona Li's most famous for. Gabriel, on the other hand, calls on him to seem less like a robot designed by a mad scientist looking to have his enemies be kicked into submission (Dr. Kick-Your-Face), and more like a person. It's... less convincing.

To add even more pressure onto his performance, consider that, at this point in the movie, Gabriel is dealing with a) the existence of multiple universes, and the threat that, even if he stops Yulaw, he's going to be sent to a prison world to protect the rest of the Multiverse from HIM becoming The One, b) the fact that Yulaw looks exactly like him and has been killing cops, making him a wanted man, and c) that Yulaw, to provoke a confrontation, has killed Gabriel's wife. That's a lot of baggage for any actor to convey through his performance, and Li's limited acting skills aren't up to the task.

His martial arts skills, on the other hand, express it beautifully.

(Disclaimer: Despite having a first-degree black belt from Terre Haute, Indiana's third-best Taekwondo dojo, I am not an expert in martial arts, and may be categorizing these styles completely incorrectly.)

Throughout the movie, Yulaw has fought with a closed fist style, punching and smashing through everything that gets in his way. By contrast, Gabriel fights with open palms, defensively redirecting attacks. However, at the start of this fight, Gabriel switches styles, driven by his rage to mimic his doppleganger's style, striking with direct, brutal punches. Li's dialogue doesn't convey his rage and grief even a fraction as effectively as the viciousness he begins to fight with in this final battle. And, correspondingly, you can see Yulaw relishing the battle in the way he moves to respond, matching violent force with violent force.

If the scene has dialogue, I don't remember it. Gabriel batters at Yulaw, trying to break through his defenses, and at every turn he gets beaten back, beaten down, by the superior aggressive force. Until he is finally forced, by this physical battle of philosophies, into epiphany. A realization that force must be answered, not with violence, but with misdirection, acceptance, balance. It shows on his face, yes, but more than that, it shows in his body. His stance opens up, he becomes looser, more limber. The rage drains from him, and he opens his palms...

In that moment, The One, and Li, surprised and delighted me. It recognized that traditional storytelling wasn't going to work. Instead, it used its biggest asset - Jet Li's incredible martial art prowess - to tell the story instead, expressing the story beats through his physical talents instead of through dialogue or "acting." I'm always fascinated by alternate ways of telling a story - whether through puzzles, or music, or, in this case, through the way a man holds his hands.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Shooter-RPG Hybrids Where You Play an Insane Undead Person Dressed Like a Stripper (Or, Why You Should Play Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines)

The Golden Age

Once upon a time, there was a game development studio called Black Isle. They were a division of a company called Interplay, and they worked almost exclusively on RPGs. From 1997 to 1999, the various members of Black Isle produced Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment. Which is to say, that they made, consecutively, three of the greatest PC RPGs of all time.

Then, for whatever reason, they broke up. I like to imagine epic fights over bizarre gameplay ideas, people brandishing fake power gauntlets at each other, elaborate gambits being played out to manipulate each others minds... But it was probably just the usual conflicts with "The Suits" at Interplay.

Anyway, the Black Isle members, once the dust had settled, ended up at two companies. One of them is still alive today, the other....isn't.

But before it died, Troika Games put out a few amazing games. This piece is about their last published work, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (V:TMB).

If I wrote a Deus Ex game about witches, I'd call it Deus Hex

I got the idea to write this while browsing on PC Gamer today. Richard Corbett (whose Crap Shoot articles are a great read, both for nostalgia, and for his wit in ripping apart some truly bizarre design decisions) had a piece posted about great PC Games downloadable on the cheap. V:TMB was highlighted in the article (along with both the Fallouts and Planescape), and Richard caught my attention by calling it one of the only games that's earned the right to be called a successor to Deus Ex.

I'd never made the comparison before, but it's apt. Like Deus Ex, V:TMB is a first-person game that hybridizes RPG and shooter elements. Also like Deus Ex, it's a game that's fundamentally about how the player approaches a hostile situation. You can infiltrate, you can seduce, you can blast your way through. When the game fails (and, as much as I love it, it does fail in places), it is because the player has had their options stripped from them - usually in the form of unavoidable enemies or a direct boss fight. But in the missions where it gets this balance right, it feels like a supernatural take on the Deus Ex design.

The games also have similar RPG elements which affect infiltration possibilities, with V:TMB's stat points filling in for the skill experience system in Deus Ex, and clan Disciplines taking the (slightly more limited) place of Aug Canisters. These elements of choice, of making trade-offs in character build, are more pronounced in V:TMB, though - whereas in Deus Ex a character built for a certain infiltration style could usually muddle through a different method with the help of equipment, a Vampire built for silent melee kills is going to be in trouble when it's time to pull guns or talk his way through a situation.

But at its best, V:TMB actually surpasses Deus Ex by doing something its "predecessor" doesn't: building a fun, interesting world to spend time in between missions. Deus Ex is great, but it's sometimes weakened by the linearity of its levels. Sure, you can do a few little odd jobs around New York or Paris, but the game is mostly built around the big setpiece infiltration missions.

While V:TMB has setpiece missions too (including one of the best haunted houses ever presented in gaming - a long sequence in which there are no monsters or enemies, only the house itself trying to alternately scare and kill you as you unravel the mystery of its haunting), but it also has large open "hub" maps full of strange, interesting characters with sidequests to offer you.

And that speaks to the the key difference between the two, I think - Deus Ex feels like a shooter that uses RPG elements to enhance possibilities and force choices on the player. V:TMB, on the other hand, is an RPG that also happens to be a shooter. It has an RPG or adventure game's focus on plot and writing. For all of its amazing successes, Deux Ex is not a memorably well-written game. The characters are there to spout their philosophies and give you someone to shoot or save. V:TMB, on the other hand.... Well, V:TMB has the Malkavian path.

I LOVE the Malkavian path.

Bloodlines - like Character Classes, but way more gothic

For non-nerds: The Vampire: The Masquerade bit of V:TMB's title is the licensed property the game is based on. Vampire was a tabletop role-playing game published by White Wolf Publishing (the game has since been replaced with a new series, Vampire: The Requiem). In Vampire, the players play newly awakened undead coming to grips with the horror of unlife and the moral quandaries of being a predator and all sorts of other melodrama. Each Kindred (as Vampire: The Masquerade characters are called), comes from a particular vampire clan, each with their own special powers and weaknesses.

All of these clans are available to players in V:TMB - they're the titular Bloodlines. Clan choice, done at character creation, affects your base stats, which vampire powers you get, and what your weakness is. For some, this is fairly minor - an increase in social skills or a special set of magical powers. For others, it's a huge change to gameplay - the Nosferatu clan is hideously ugly and trigger potentially game-ending consequences when seen by humans, so playing as them makes the game a significantly more stealthy (and less fun) affair.

And then there are the Malkavians.

Depth means being able to play as a cognitively disabled person

One of the little things I always loved about Fallout was that it allowed you, on character creation, to make yourself really, really weak in certain areas in order to buff others. You could dial down your strength, or your speed, or your luck, and you'd spend the rest of the game dealing with those consequences. And if the stat you chose to lower was your Intelligence... Well, that made for a very different game. Because low-INT characters, to reflect this weakness, couldn't really communicate in English. They could mumble and mutter, but, if you built a character with an INT stat below 4, he or she would have a functional IQ of around 60. People you talked to would give up in frustration, or take advantage of you, or even give you a little charity sometimes. You could still muddle through the game, but it was a strange experience.

It wasn't in any way, shape or form a sensitive or accurate portrayal of cognitive impairment, but it was an interesting alternative to the normal way of playing. I was always impressed with all the extra work that went into the low-INT path. Sure, it was usually just a few lines of mumbling, and the NPC telling you to go away in nicer or ruder ways, but it was still a lot of extra content placed in the game to simulate this weakness.

Behold, the heading of the section, all clothed in black and white. I hope it will be my friend!

Which brings us back to the Malkavians. Because the weakness of the Malkavian bloodline is that they are, to a Kindred, insane. It can take a wide variety of forms and disorders, but every one of them is significantly deranged in some way. And so, to reflect that, Malkavian players in V:TMB have an entirely separate set of dialogue options. For every single conversation. In a game that has hours of dialogue. Hundreds of new lines written into the game. Amazing.

Most of the dialogue is re-wording of the stuff a sane character would say in the situation - "Who are you?" becomes "Who is this dark demon I see before me?" - but some of it is completely unique - playing in to the Malkavian strength, supernatural insight.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Mental illness is not fun or funny. People with mental illnesses are not mystic sages or psychics. They are people suffering from diseases and disorders. While it is possible that such serious hindrances may lead, as a side effect, to an altered perspective giving you some kind of special insight, mostly having a mental illness is about constantly having to fight to live a normal, happy life. End note, back to the magic vampires).

The Insight comes in two forms: Whispers that play distractingly in the background, and the altered dialogue. Sometimes that means simply having extra things to ask, but the game's writers also delight in hiding information in the changed choices themselves. The Malkavian dialogue almost never refers to characters by their given name, instead using nicknames, often related to some hidden aspect of the character. A Malkavian, in asking a character of someone with a secretly duplicitous nature, might refer to them as the child of Janus - the two-faced god.
Or they might ramble incoherently without any real insight being shown... All part of the fun.

If there's one thing that makes V:TMB a GREAT game, it's this. A willingness to put in a significant amount of extra work to give the player a new way to play through the game - a macro example of the multi-path design of the individual missions. (It doesn't hurt that most of the Malkavian dialogue is wonderfully strange - conversations with stop signs, convincing a nosy questioner that you're not the person she thought you were, you're her long lost turtle.... All sorts of weirdness abounds).

It's this attention to detail that makes the game not only a worthy successor to Deus Ex, but also to the Black Isle games that preceded it. Which is to say, it's a game that blends some of the best aspects of Fallout and Deus Ex. So why aren't you playing it right now?

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is available on Steam for $20. The game has been EXTENSIVELY patched by fans since its release - get patches that restore a ton of cut or buggy content at

Richard Corbett's round-up of cheap downloadable games is here. It's a great sampler of a lot of amazing games.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"I finally got around to reading the dictionary. Turns out the zebra did it." (Or, Every Story is a Mystery When You're a Detective)

One of my favorite pleasures in life, as I've mentioned before, is what I call "The Rush." The jump of realization and epiphany that comes when you suddenly understand something that was previously kept hidden from you. When I experience it, I tend to give off a little laugh at the sheer, wonderful cleverness of it all.

(The Rush is what Q is talking about, I think, as the reason he spares humanity in the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale, "All Good Things...", the moment when Picard saves humanity, not through technology or bravery or even the power of friendship and loyalty (although his plan does require all those things), but in the moment at which his mind expanded to understand the bizarre nature of the problem. It's that quality, Q says, that marks a species for greatness, and I've always had a soft spot for that idea.)

There are plenty of opportunities to find the Rush, at varying degrees of difficulty. Whole genres of video gaming are built around encouraging players to epiphany. But prior to the invention of gaming, people looking to simulate the feeling (that is, those who don't get it naturally in jobs that rely on problem solving capabilities) were probably best served by reading mystery stories.

"Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?"

-Oath of the Detection Club

If you've read mystery stories with any regularity, you've encountered one that relies on at least one of the things damned in that lovely oath. Is there anything more upsetting than to have a never-mentioned clue appear out of nowhere to let the quirky detective suddenly lay a solution in front of the readers?

For me, and, I imagine, many others, the mystery story is a kind of game (ignoring the books, usually written for children, which make this explicit by presenting each chapter as a case and asking the reader to try to solve it), a race between the reader and the fictional detective to see who can solve the murder or robbery or what have you first. The detective has the advantage that, being a fictional creation, sprung from the forehead of the author, his eventual victory is inevitable. Barring some twist or narrative trick, the mystery WILL be solved by book's end.

The reader, on the other hand, has the advantage of being directly exposed to the text (or camera, in a filmed mystery). This limits the number of things the reader has to focus on to the bare minimum of what the author is willing to describe (or the director willing to show). At the same time, the reader/watcher also has the knowledge of all the literary conventions or editing tricks that a given genre has given rise to - foreshadowing, long lingering shots of significant objects or characters, all the tricks writers and directors use to imply significance that are invisible to the characters within the story.

(An example of an inversion here - I recently saw the excellent Source Code, and infuriated my mother by calmly pointing out the film's mystery villain within minutes of the film's start. I was able to identify him not because he was focused on, but because he seemed, very intentionally, to be OUT of focus... An act of misdirection that primed me to suspect him, and which I was only able to recognize through knowledge of the meta-information of editing/shot composition.)

Authors/directors can, of course, use those same tricks to mislead, subvert, confuse, or outright lie to the viewer - but that's all part of the fun. One of the joys of Andrew Hussie's amazing Homestuck (available at is the way it uses foreshadowing, established narrative structures, and pacing to play elaborate games with reader expectations.

Part of the fun of a story is its unpredictability, and this one has had plenty of it so far I think. Unpredictability is a significant basis for suspense, and I'm sure has other benefits we could examine. But I think there is also enjoyment value in occasional predictability, or rather, guessability. Setting up some obvious clues, and running with them to their logical conclusion. It's like throwing the reader a bone, particularly those who may be prone to feeling a little overwhelmed by getting perpetually outfoxed by the narrative.
-Andrew Hussie
There are pages and pages of speculation on Hussie's stories on his forums, and while some of it is asinine stuff and mindless guesses, a vast amount of it is strongly informed by the reader's understanding of how stories work generally, and how Homestuck - which is based on multiple viewpoints, subversions of dramatic moments, sudden bursts of epic action that significantly alter not only the content but also the tone and genre of the story, and a thousand other strange and wonderful elements - works in the specific. Weight in these arguments (which have a pretty good batting average of coming out true) is often given to considerations like the amount of time the text has spent with a given character, obscure bits of foreshadowing spread over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages of story, and the nature of reader expectation itself. Each of the speculators is a detective, sifting through the text of the comic to solve the mystery: What happens next?

Of course, Homestuck isn't really a mystery story at all. But that's kind of the point: Every story is a mystery story, if you're willing to think about it. Every story can be a race between the reader and the director to work out how it's all going to end, what the next pages hold. The Rush from working out where a plot is heading, through clues both textual and subtextual, is as strong as the one produced by any product of LucasArts or Sierra.

Plus, the level of thought required to accurately predict what happens next forces the reader/watcher to actively engage with the work. Anything worth reading, I think, is worth thinking about. Obviously, there are shows or books that we treat as popcorn, that allow the reader/watcher to "shut their brain off" and just experience. But really appreciating something for the merits its creator was trying to express, to give it the full benefit of the doubt and assume that it was made by people who were thinking and caring about what they were producing (dangerous, because when you're wrong, a work can be ruined for you - see my entire relationship with the TV show Heroes) requires having your brain on - a process I've always found exhilarating.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Beauty of Limitations (or, Just Because a Thing Sounds Stupid Doesn't Mean It Isn't Awesome)

Nintendo is a weird company, and they make weird decisions. Cartridges instead of discs for the N64. A motion-controlled non-HD console. Friend Codes. The Virtual Boy. And every time Nintendo announces another weird decision, my first instinct is to scoff, to say they've lost their touch for good this time. But I don't. For one simple reason.

Because that same Nintendo, following their weird instincts, made the DS, which is a) about as weird a collection of design choices as you could cram into a portable console, and b) one of the greatest consoles of all time.

Gimmicks (or, Comparisons Between Two Different Games About Teenagers Trapped in Shibuya for a Week)

The DS, when looked at as a list of features, is a gimmicky mess. A Wi-Fi-connected dual screen clamshell with built-in microphone and touch screen? It sounds like a platform designed to support about five first-party titles that exploit all of its mechanics and a billion pieces of shovelware where you touch the screen to throw a snowball at a monkey (I'm looking at you, Wii).

There is a belief that, when a piece of gaming hardware includes some innovative or strange feature, every game released for that system needs to use it. The big example here is the Wii - the system is a one-trick pony (albeit a pony that's very big, and very multi-faceted, like some sort of giant spider pony). Without motion controls, the only reason to play a game on the Wii is if it's an exclusive - Mario Galaxy would still be great without motion controls, but you wouldn't bother playing Madden on the Wii without them.

The beauty of the DS is that, except for the dual screens, all of its features are ignorable. Relatively few games use the Wi-Fi connectivity (which is good, given how useless the DS is with common security protocols) or the microphone. Most DO use the touch screen, but more often than not as an enhancement to the other controls (which is ALSO good, because the DS touch screen really isn't sensitive enough for fine controls - 5th Cell made Super Scribblenauts 1000% better than Scribblenauts just by letting you control Maxwell without having to use imprecise stylus controls).

What this translates to is an avoidance (for the most part) from weary, obligatory uses of those features. The system has a D-Pad and 8 buttons, so designers don't HAVE to use the touchscreen if they don't want to. And at the same time, it's there when they have a really good idea for it.

Square Enix's The World Ends With You is the best example that comes to mind of the DS features being used right. TWEWY uses everything on offer - combat occurs on both screens at the same time, with the upper screen being controlled with the traditional face buttons and the bottom screen's battle commands using every possible implementation of the stylus AND the microphone. A person playing the game looks like a total spaz, desperately scratching and blowing at their screen while furiously typing commands in on the D-Pad. Players can use Wi-Fi and passive contact with other DS owners to get bonuses. Hell, the game even uses the system's clamshell-closing Sleep Mode to kill a bonus enemy. The game was designed to use every feature of the system to the fullest, and it works on every possible level.

Contrast with Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. SMT:DS (And as much as I love the system, I will NEVER be able to defend the rampant tendency of developers to give their titles for it those particular cutesy initials) is a turn-based strategy game that incorporates traditional JRPG fights into its combat system. It doesn't use the microphone. If it has Wi-Fi, I honestly don't remember it, and the touch-screen is used only for menu commands. The only DS feature the game really uses is its inherent portability - it turns out turn-based strategy games work great on a system you can pick up and put down at a moment's notice. Past that, it's a game that could be on any system - and it's still great, one of the system's best titles. Because it wasn't on every platform... it was on the DS.

Why was that?

The Strength of Limitations (or, In Which a Controversial Argument Is Made Against the Noble Console Port)

The DS is not a powerful system. I'm not tech-minded enough to know all the details, but everything I've read says that it's roughly equivalent to a Playstation One. Its major competitor (in the pre-smartphone game world, anyway) is the Sony PSP, a system that absolutely crushes Nintendo's handheld in terms of graphic.

And that, I think, explains a lot of why I've spent roughly 10 times as much time with my DS than with my poor, neglected PSP.

The PSP , you see, is powerful enough that designers can, with a little work, make reasonably faithful portable versions of home console games. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. These are all good games that take the console experience and make it portable.

And that's why, on a fundamental level, they're boring. I have a home console, I've played those games already. Being able to play them on the bus doesn't make them anything new or exciting for me. It doesn't push designers to do anything except get existing games and mechanics to work on a smaller screen and a weaker processor.

But the DS can't do that. It's just not feasible to try to force a current-gen game onto the system (the sole exception I can think of being Disgaea, never the most technologically-demanding series in the first place). So even when the DS does get a console port, it's something fundamentally different. Weird strategy games, chibi-fied platformers... They can't just recreate, so they have to innovate. Have to step out of the current juggernaut genre (the first-person shooter) and try something else.

Genre (or, (or, How the DS Woke the Sleeping Princess Called "Adventure Games" With a Kiss, And It Was Totally Hot)

There are genres that have been left behind by the mainstream because they don't fit the image or the requirements a studio wants for their home console releases. Niche ideas whose small audiences don't support the cost of developing for a current-gen console. Adventure games, visual novels, first-person dungeon crawlers... All rare or extinct in the current generation. But they've found new life on the DS, because none of them demand powerful hardware - only good design.

(It doesn't hurt that the DS's mouse-like stylus design makes it great for adapting genres that have typically been most successful on the PC - the adventure genre, relying as it so often does on clicking hotspots and choosing dialogue options, is an especially good fit).

At the same time, relatively low development costs and unique features like the stylus mean that developers could delve into their experimental side. Surgery simulators, mini-game collections premised as historical recreations of fictional NES games, rhythm-based cheerleading games where you play as tiny men encouraging a white blood cell depicted as a hot nurse to eradicate a virus... All games that wouldn't have fit on a home console, but which work perfectly on the DS. Whole genres either created or pulled from the dust-heap and given new life.

A Justifiable Bout of Cranky Nostalgia (or, The Good Old Days Are Called That For a Reason)

I'm a little hesitant to write out this last point, both because it seems highly objective and because it makes me sound like an old fart, but here goes: The Super Nintendo era was a golden age of gaming. It existed at a point where technology was developed enough to make interesting experiments possible, without demanding huge investments of time and money to make a visually competitive title. After this comes the Playstation era, where games begin to bloat, with huge amounts of time and money being put into things like CG movies, where play times ballooned into the 80 or 90 hour ranges. We learned a lot in that era, but we also lost a simplicity, a fun that's vital to keeping a gamer interested in the hobby.

I see the DS as the answer to a question: What if the SNES-era never ended? What if developers were allowed to experiment, because the games they were developing weren't so expensive that an interesting failure would cripple the company? You might get a catalog of quirky platformers, deep RPGs, well-written adventures, brain-bending puzzles... And all of them available on-the-go, and at a lower price point, to boot.

So here's to you, DS. Resurrector of the Golden Age, Last Bastion of the Light. Your 3D cousin may eclipse you in the market, but never in my heart.